In times of trauma or loss or fear, we look to a world not defined by our pain in order to heal; we try to find a context of still-existing goodness. We turn to nature or relationships or a belief in God, seeking strength in our connection to what is unbroken. We look for affirmation that growth and restoration are possible.
Faith is the quality of the heart that impels us to seek what is constant and whole. The sense of connection can be found in vastly different ways: in classically religious pursuits or ones that are completely secular; in music or art, meditation or service to others; with groups in city rooms or in the forest on one's own.
We need faith because despite our desire for the center of our lives to hold firm, we see that it never does. We're planning a career move, when suddenly illness threatens everything. We've settled comfortably into being alone, when we meet someone and fall in love. In life there is always change, and change can be uncomfortable, even terrifying.
We may try to deny the dynamic nature of change, telling ourselves, “I know it will all work out exactly the way I want it to.” We may call this faith, but in fact it is no more than hope—a hope that is no longer energized and alive but has become fixed and brittle. And in reality, this hope is a subtle form of fear.
To be open to life, we need to first acknowledge what we cannot control. We can then begin to value—and trust in—our own inner strength and wisdom, which can remain unbroken no matter our circumstances. We can develop faith in a bigger picture of life, one that recognizes that whatever we face, we are held in a web of interconnection—we're not cut off and alone.
Conventional wisdom says the opposite of faith is doubt. But doubt, applied in the right way—as curiosity and a willingness to question—can enrich and enliven our faith. I believe the true opposite of faith is the sundering of connection, the desolate certainty that the cherry trees will never bloom again. It is the experience of utter isolation, or despair.
In contrast, faith helps us approach life with a sense of possibility rather than foreboding or helplessness. It dares us to imagine what we might be capable of. It enables us to reach for what we don't yet know with a measure of courage. It gives us resilience in times of difficulty, and the ability to respond to challenges without feeling trapped. My own faith has taught me that whatever disappointments I might meet, I can try again, trust again, and love again.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (Riverhead).