July 3, 2023

Faith: Reaching for What Is Beneficial

Shelly Graf has been practicing insight meditation since 2003. They are a graduate of IMS’s four-year Teacher Training Program and lead residential retreats at IMS and other retreat centers nationally. Shelly currently serves as a Guiding Teacher for Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They have an interest in integrating the teachings of the Buddha as deeply as possible into the fabric of our lives and as such, have a special interest in waking up to whiteness as part of a complete path of awakening. Whatever Shelly’s role may be, they will always be a grateful student of Buddhist practice first.

This is a shortened version of Shelly’s dharma talk, Faith: Reaching for What Is Beneficial, given as part of IMS’s Return to Wholeness: Opening to Wisdom and Love retreat.


In a world of contradictions, I grew up with a complicated relationship to religion and to what I understood as faith. It has been a process to be able to embrace the word, faith. Maybe this is true for you too. If the word doesn’t work for you, it’s okay to set it aside. You might consider replacing it with confidence, conviction, trust, or a phrase of your own because faith in the Buddhist sense of things welcomes our questions too.

My grandparents were poor cotton farmers, and like many others, life for them was full of challenges. My grandfather was also a Southern Baptist preacher. For him, spiritual practice and in particular, faith in God, was an act of survival. A quiet, contemplative man, I have memories of my grandfather carving out space in the living room of a very small house, right in the middle of chaos to read the Bible or sit in prayer. His simple way left a lasting impression on me, that spiritual practice doesn’t require perfect conditions. This moment will do. For me, that’s what faith calls us to explore: how to find refuge in a world that seems unmanageable.

Faith is perhaps far better explored than defined as exploration calls us to get real. Faith calls us to explore how we find refuge in a world that seems unmanageable, a world of chaos and contradictions. Faith moves with our questions and our doubts and deepens right in the middle of it all. When we finally start to reach for something meaningful that will help us through, we come in contact with faith. Often spiritual practice deepens and develops as we sincerely reckon with the truth of our lived experiences and how we’re relating to them. When we explore faith fully, we get curious about what faith feels like, how it moves, and how faith expresses itself. In this way, faith is not only a good idea but a movement of energy through us and a force that both helps us begin, and also guides us through. We can think of faith as a renewing energy that inspires our actions rather than a place we arrive at or something immoveable.

Faith doesn’t deny any experience or challenge. Faith doesn’t deny suffering. In fact, sometimes faith deepens at the most painful moments of our lives because it’s here that we see the failing of our persistent habits of denial. In these moments, we reach. We reach for something more sustainable, like the Buddha’s teachings. Faith is included in the reach.

In her book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Sharon Salzberg describes faith as “The willing suspension of disbelief.” Rather than thinking of faith as taking up a belief, we can consider faith as a willingness to be open, to explore, and to investigate. Faith is learning to trust our own experience as our most important teacher. Before we can trust it though we have to admit it, to sincerely reckon with it. Life gives us a lot to reckon with, doesn’t it? So, it’s a noble thing to wonder, “How can I relate to this skillfully, in the best possible way for my own and for our collective well-being?” When we can admit to ourselves that it’s really like this, we can learn how to take care of ourselves, our tender hearts, and the tender hearts and beings around us.

On one of my early retreats, I remember sitting at the back of the room by the door so if it became too hard, I could leave. At that time, I was identified with being an anxious person and with little faith that another way was possible for me. And then, surprisingly there was this elongated experience of “no anxiety” that seemed to magically arise though I didn’t even know how to describe it. I met with the teacher, hoping he would tell me what to call this magical moment, however, his first question was, “Did you have confidence?” I thought to myself, “What kind of a question is that?” I don’t even understand what he was asking me. Confidence in what?  With a bit of a pause, it became clear. Yes, there was confidence in my subjective and verifiable experience. Right then and there, trusting myself became a possibility, and so did loosening the grip on this firmly held belief that I was always going to be an anxious person.

In time we can realize how deeply our stories shape our relationship to life. Faith is the initiating energy behind our willingness to acknowledge the beliefs and views we hold. Once we see them, we can explore their utility in our lives and in the world. We can start to see how the ideas and stories we carry shape our relationship to all the mysteries of living and dying. We learn to loosen the grip on those that get in the way of our own and our collective freedom and linger in the felt sense of those that are onward leading.

It can be useful to have teachers and guides who help illustrate the most skillful way forward as human beings, but they shouldn’t replace how it is for us. We retain a sense of agency to be guided by life as it moves through us. Our lived experience—what’s moving in our own hearts, what we feel, what we sense, how life is expressing itself to us—that is the way it is. That’s the stuff that we get to work with.

Faith isn’t naive. It arises from our deepest instincts to acknowledge the way it is, and faith develops into a willingness to see more clearly how things come to be. Our minds can be a mess! There’s some spaciousness, some wholesome qualities, and there’s also a lot of defiled energies, things we don’t want to admit: ill will, self-condemnation, doubt, fear, anger, rage, judgment, irritation, and so much more. We can start to see the world as an expression of all that we reckon with individually. Our communities and our wider social world are an expression of all of that. This experience is a human one, manifest all around.

Thankfully, we have had the good fortune or opportunity to come across the Buddha’s teachings that help us not only learn to acknowledge our unskillful habits but also welcome and strengthen the wholesome. When we learn to linger in what’s useful and set down what isn’t, our actions align with our own and our collective well-being. There’s a capacity here and now to reckon with the wider truth of experience without pretending that it’s not this way and without some naive view that everything’s going to get better overnight, or in the next seven years, three decades, four generations, or whatever we think. The only thing we have is an opportunity right now to participate with the way it is as skillfully as possible.

We’re actually always participating anyway, so why not be aware of how we’re participating? Every intentional moment leaves a residue. So, all these moments that we engage with our own experience leaves a residue that’s felt by us, that supports the next arising and all that moves in our collective experience.  We can see this if we broaden our view and notice.

Starting to see something about the interconnectedness of reality can be deeply grounding. What if I don’t have to solve the problem of this mind, or this relationship, or this world, but instead learn to participate with steady wholehearted effort? I can learn to have some say over how I participate for the long haul, not with any grand goals in mind necessarily, but because I have an opportunity for my life to be a contribution of what’s good and skillful if I’m mindful. Faith and wisdom support the energy that we need to be present, and to continue doing the things we want and need to do.

Faith calls us to look at life from a different perspective and to recognize that there’s no way of getting out of participating. So, we might want to think about how we’re doing that, or we might want to cultivate habits of presence and care that support us in participating the way that we want. It’s wisdom that will be able to find the most skillful participation after we’ve said “yes” to this. Think about that for a second. Have you ever been able to participate skillfully with anything by denying it? Probably not. So that contact with experience is so important. And that’s where confidence is deeply grounding.

On my living room table sits a statue of Kuan Yin, the embodiment of compassion, gifted to me by a dear friend. Kuan Yin is an expression of how we meet life’s joys and sorrows, this time, with her head down in prayer position, arms crossed. She reminds me to move towards the deepest thing—wisdom, love, or compassion—whatever we can call on to help us right now—that movement towards something beneficial. Don’t stop reaching—no matter how it seems right now.

Faith is an internal orientation, not an arrival. It’s that reaching. “How am I gonna get through this? What do I need to remember right now? Can I remember that things are always changing? Some causes and conditions we can predict, others are mysterious. Is that supportive right now?”

It’s not a mountain that we need to climb or a goal that we need to reach. It’s realizing that this renewing quality of faith can be cultivated in every moment of our lives. And we don’t have to wait till we get to the end of something to find the kind of confidence that’s supportive. When the heart is reaching, there’s a wholesome desire that we don’t want to be afraid to see.

To hear the complete talk, visit.