Some thoughts about beliefs
Our personal and cultural beliefs make up much of the fabric of our culture? I’d like to list some that I’ve observed. Remembering the distinction between belief and truth, I’m definitely not suggesting any of these as true, merely beliefs held by a majority of our American brothers and sisters. How do they feel to you?
Your family comes first, before anyone else.
The people in our country come first, before the people of any other country.
The life of any person is so important that no expense should be spared to prolong it.
A judgment awaits us at our death, followed by reward or punishment.
Money is the most important vehicle for happiness and security.
Life is a struggle.
People can’t really be trusted. You’ve got to take care of yourself.
If I’m hurt, somebody or some circumstance is to blame.
Being liked by others is more important than being authentic.
Loving another person is risky. I could be hurt.
A person shouldn’t really love himself.
Love and trust have to be earned. I can only love or trust those who deserve it, and I must deserve it to be loved or trusted.
There are also subtle beliefs that I suspect that most of us hold about ourselves. Are any of these true(?) for you?
If people knew what I was REALLY like, they wouldn’t like me.
I don’t have enough money.
I’m not as healthy (thin, attractive, friendly) as I should be.
I’m probably not lovable just the way I am. I have to do (be) _____ first.
My work is stressful. I guess that’s just the nature of work.
Being a good person is paramount so I TRY to be a good person.
How many of these beliefs do you hold today, and are they still “true” for you?
Can you feel the presence of these notions in the governments, religions, schools, TV shows, magazines and movies that attract our attention and encourage compliance? For those of us who grew up in this culture, these ideas have been around us since birth and to at least some extent have become soft-wired into our beings.
Our beliefs have CONSEQUENCES. Perhaps the most well known example of the result of a belief is the placebo effect. It’s so common that it’s taken its place in the jargon of the medical establishment. It turns out that not only does a drug result in a shift of physiology, but even the BELIEF that we’re getting the drug when in fact we’re getting an inert substance frequently results in the same shift. So, what’s really happening here? Is belief determining experience? Is belief actually determining biology?
In the past 20 years dozens of books have been written offering evidence of the power of our beliefs for healing. In fact, there’s a field of study now called PNI; psycho neuro immunology, which studies the biology of psychological states. And guess what: each thought we have, (and our beliefs are perhaps our most powerful thoughts,) has a biological consequence. If someone cuts you off in traffic or speaks crossly to you, stops to let you into traffic or speaks lovingly to you, your psychological response to that event triggers chemical and electrical processes which have an effect on every part of your body and result in body sensations or feelings that we call EXPERIENCE. So your Experience is a feeling. So how are you feeling about this? In the field of PNI the concern is with the effects of the chemicals and electric charge on the immune system. We now know what many of us probably suspected all along: our immune system is boosted by pleasant thoughts and feelings and depressed by negative ones. It’s HEALTHY to be happy and…of course it’s unhealthy to be unhappy. Sort of like getting it with both barrels. I’m sure for many of you this is not new stuff; much of the medical and psychological literature has been referring to us as “mindbody” beings as we come more and more to understand the interconnectedness of our physical and mental selves.
So, here’s the sequence: event, response (first mental and then physical) and then experience. For example: event: someone yells something negative at me; my thought: he doesn’t like me, I did something wrong, etc; my body: muscles tighten, breath shallows; my experience: discomfort, anxiety, etc.
Almost all of us look at this event (shouting) as something that HE did to ME that CAUSED my experience (in this case discomfort or anxiety). This is where the whole arena of beliefs gets really interesting for me. If it’s TRUE that he did that to me, then the consequences are that I’m going to be hurt, have a negative experience, and create distance between us. I will move away from him. I place the responsibility for my experience with him. He did that to me. Can you feel how in a sense this makes me his victim? And while the whole process could have been averted if he HADN’T done that (yelled at me) the fact is that he DID yell. That IS true. But the next step in the process, my thought (he doesn’t like me, I did something wrong, etc.) is NOT necessarily true. That is my BELIEF, and if I mistake my belief for the truth, I’m stuck. But…if I can recognize it as my belief, I can question its truth. And, the ultimate truth of this SITUATION is that I DON’T KNOW what his yelling means. Supposing…just supposing, that HE is going through some very painful places in his life, his day, or his moment. Suppose this is why he yelled. In other words he yelled not because I did something wrong but because he’s in pain. If I believed this, do you think I’d have a different EXPERIENCE? Let’s follow a possible scenario. Event: yelling; thought: he’s in pain; body: softening of muscles, deepening of breath; experience: body relaxes as heart opens with compassion. Can you feel this as at least a possibility? Now here’s where the freedom key lies; which belief would you LIKE TO HOLD? Which would you CHOOSE? Since each belief has a consequential experience associated with it, maybe it makes sense to ask: “Which experience would you like….anxiety or compassion?” Which feels better? Which is healthier? Do you really HAVE that choice? Can you feel the freedom inherent in having that choice?
Here’s a true story.
There was a 4-year old boy standing at the top of the stairs as his parents huddled furtively below, his father carrying a suitcase. He knew what was happening, and he was frightened. As his father turned to leave, he instinctively yelled, “Daddy!” The father started to turn back, and stopped. The boy yelled again, “Daddy!” After a short pause, the father turned and walked out. The boy never saw him again. This event informed the life of the boy…and the man he became. His story was, “My father didn’t even love me enough to say goodbye.” The sense of his being unlovable and therefore unworthy became what I call his ‘sponsoring belief,” the cornerstone upon which his life was constructed. As a result he experienced failure after failure; in school, in work and in relationships. He attracted jobs that were unfulfilling and women who left. Then, in his early thirties he sought help and found a good therapist. After some weeks, the informing story came out. The therapist then offered the following experiment: under light hypnosis, the man was asked to return to the boy at the head of the stairs. Then he was asked to change places with the father…to FEEL what the father might have been feeling. After a few moments he broke onto an intense sobbing which lasted several minutes. When it was done, the therapist asked what happened. He said, “I (my father) was dying in that marriage and had to leave. If I had turned around and seen my son I never could have left. I loved him too much.” With some more help and time to heal, his life began to change. As his sense of himself gradually shifted his life also began to take new shape. Today he has meaningful work and a loving relationship
What changed? What was it that literally transformed the man’s life? While it’s tempting to conclude that the story revealed in the therapist’s office is the TRUE account, I think it’s important to remember that we DON’T KNOW which story is TRUE. What changed in this person’s life was not the truth of what happened, but what the man BELIEVED happened. The changed belief produced the changed EXPERIENCE.
So here we are. Beliefs (which are thoughts) cause responses to the events of our lives and those responses cause our experience. Most of us (as part of our cultural conditioning or cultural belief) place the responsibility on the event or person. So we go about trying to change the people and organize the events of our lives so we can have a better experience. This is sort of like trying to cover the earth with leather or rubber to protect our feet from hurting. “If I could only cover up all those things which bruise my feet, I’d be safe.” When we learn to take responsibility for our responses to these people and events, we then start taking responsibility for our experience. This is sort of like wearing shoes to protect our feet…..”fixing” ME instead of “fixing” the world.
We all carry beliefs that, under close examination reveal themselves to be giving us the kind of experience we don’t want. Can they be changed? And if so, how?
Well, if they CAN’T be changed, this discussion is interesting but irrelevant. I believe they CAN. What do you believe…about your beliefs?
Perhaps the seed of this material started with me in the first year of my marriage. Actually the story starts before our marriage when I developed the habit of picking up a single rose for her on my way home from work. It cost a quarter back then, and it seemed to please her…which pleased me. One morning about six months into our marriage I left for work carrying anger and resentment from an unresolved argument the night before. All day long, driving to work and during much of the day, I composed and re-composed the words that (delivered properly) would reveal to her my rightness in this argument. I even imagined in my unbalanced brain that she was sitting home suffering as she awaited the delivery of my RIGHT take on the argument that would make the issue clear to her (MY clarity!) I had the masterpiece perfectly composed when I drove by the flower shop on my way home. Too bad, today just wasn’t the day for this…or was it? Since I had only stopped for a rose when feeling love for her, I had no idea what kind of experience I’d have if I stopped and bought a flower in THIS frame of mind. Out of curiosity I stopped and bought a single red rose. When I got home I carried the flower and my perfectly composed speech into the front door. My wife took one look at the flower and softly walked over and melted into my arms. A light went off! THIS is what I wanted. What I really wanted was love, but I actually BELIEVED that I wanted to be RIGHT. In that moment my belief was revealed to me for what it was; an ego need to WIN in a struggle with one I love. It wasn’t a false or wrong belief; it was just one which failed to give me the experience I wanted. In that moment was born the seed of one of my favorite sayings: “You can be RIGHT or you can be HAPPY….but you probably can’t be both.”
This story represents one of the methods for changing beliefs…sudden insight…a light coming on. Mostly, however, I think belief change comes from consciousness change. And consciousness changes in the openness to consider the lives and writings of wise people and wisdom traditions and in our own personal space of the stillness of contemplation about the nature of life and being human.
I’d like to share with you some of the beliefs that I have chosen along my path of discovery in my own life. I present this partial list neither as a finished product nor as in any way TRUE or RIGHT, just a picture of life as it has revealed itself to me so far. I notice that NONE of these beliefs are ones I grew up with.
1) I believe I have enough money
2) I believe I’m healthy
3) I believe I am capable of giving love and worthy of receiving love.
4) I believe I can only live life fully when I get comfortable with the fact of my death. Till then, I’m living afraid.
5) I believe that every event and person in my life contains the seed of a gift.
6) I believe that each of us is ALWAYS doing the best we can.
7) I believe that I and I alone am responsible for my happiness and you are responsible for yours.
8) I believe that everything in the universe is the manifestation of an ENERGY that gives form and substance to everything that is…every cloud and carrot, every tree and traffic jam, every planet and particle, and you and me. I feel a rhythm in the universe which seems to indicate that the energy has intelligence. The name I give to this intelligent energy is God. So God is both the form and the substance of all that is…of you…and of me.
9) I believe that loving another human is safe. I cannot be hurt as a result of loving, just the opposite. If I confuse ATTATCHMENT with love, however, then I almost insure my suffering.
10) I believe that loving another is nothing more complicated than open hearted acceptance of the person AS IS. The term “unconditional love” is redundant. Love is either unconditional or it is something else masquerading as love. When one person loves another it sets both free.
11) I believe my loving you is not a gift to you. You do not owe me anything in return. It does not diminish my “supply” of love nor does it diminish my love for anyone else. I offer love because it feels like the highest expression of me and because it presents me with the richest feeling I’ve yet experienced. In essence my love for you is a gift I give myself, second only to my gift of self-love.
These are some of the beliefs that I hold….for now.
Some are old.
Some are new.
Some are borrowed.
None are true!
When you tell me your thoughts I can know your mind.
When you hold me I can know your body.
When you share what moves you I can know your heart.
AWhen we sit together in stillness I can know your soul.