Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More
Contemplate this: there is no such thing as a true belief.
—Adyashanti, Emptiness Dancing
You can have your beliefs. Just don’t believe in them.
The truth is beyond belief.
If belief is having the conviction that something is true with near certainty, then faith goes a step further by holding the confidence and trust that something unverifiable and uncertain is indeed true. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the widely accepted standard for the English language, “belief” in everyday usage means “mental acceptance of a statement, fact, doctrine, thing, etc., as true or existing” or “an opinion or persuasion.” At the same time, how “true” can an “opinion” be, particularly when you see for yourself that it is based on a cognitive appraisal rather than here-and-now reality?
Russian writer Anton Chekhov mused, “Man is what he believes.” While this statement rings true, is it so? Whatever one identifies with in the world and believes with certainty characterizes the “self.” Such “knowing about” draws upon past memory or future expectation. Just how accurate are our memories of the past? Do you know anything about the future? If neither experience is in the now, how could either be true?
Belief is an impediment to reality, and that is a very difficult pill to swallow for most of us. We are not seeking reality; we want gratification, and belief gives us gratification, it pacifies us.
The wily imaginary ego, typically filled with pride based on opinions, making up interpretations and taking opposing sides “for and against” to garner agreement from others, morphs these thoughts into beliefs that it turns into convictions it knows. The belief-maker holds assumptions and expectations that result in a patina of security. Beliefs forge the cognitive backbone ego uses to control and dominate others, while simultaneously finding a brief illusion of safety, all with your tacit, unaware agreement.
Thoughts, beliefs and identities are the brick and mortar of the perceptual jail the ego builds around the Self. This complete fabrication, in effect, imprisons one in the trance of a separate self. Beliefs, largely unconscious, live us! One surely bears complicity as a co-conspirator with the fictive ego in this ongoing charade. Spiritual teachers speak of the belief in a separate self as the root cause of all problems and suffering in the world.
A belief is nothing other than a thought we have been taught, or stumbled across in what we have read or heard, in which the ego has a vested interest, to which it has given time, energy and importance, consequently thinking, quite erroneously, that this thought must be true. As a psychologist change agent, I would never ask anyone to think. As Kenneth Patchen noted, “Think enough and you won’t know anything.” Rather, I would ask one to look and see. We have no direct experience in life of beliefs being true.
Many sages advise not to allow thoughts to carry us away, only to take slight notice of them with little energy while redirecting our attention elsewhere. We can all take thoughts less seriously, lighter and with non-attachment to them. The more tightly and rigidly thoughts are held, the more difficult they are to release. People with strong beliefs can be utterly impervious to reality, facts, and experience. Quite often a “believer” is incapable of questioning, doubting or discussing these matters or bring a willingness to engage in a direct experience with an open mind, thus remaining impenetrably right. The ego-mind is nothing more than our belief system we identify with. The core challenge in therapy and change processes is the rigidity of belief system, while healthy development turns on an adaptive flexibility and letting go of ego-invested beliefs and false identities.
Marshall McLuhan notes, “Don’t believe everything you think!” What if you don’t believe anything you think? How free! When an unhappy audience member in the United Kingdom yelled “Judas” in 1966, convinced of musician Bob Dylan’s betrayal of folk music by going electric, Dylan sanely replied, “I don’t believe you!…You’re a liar.”
Social psychology researcher Robert B. Zajonc found support for his “mere exposure” hypothesis: repeated exposure to the same stimulus object leads to a greater attraction to that object. Thus, the repetition of seen stimuli increases the likelihood of their being favorably evaluated. 1 When this empirical finding is applied to the mind, the implication goes further still: the mere repetition of a thought tends to build credibility of that thought, which, in turn, leads to a belief, without any consideration of its truth value.
Thoughts, beliefs and judgments are considered to be real and reality to our ego-minds! It is astounding that people die for their beliefs every day. Are beliefs worth dying for? Many who advocate for war and capital punishment think so. While one may say, “I won’t betray my beliefs”, the contrary “Will beliefs betray me?” remains unasked and is worth honest consideration. Ask yourself, “What do these beliefs do for me?” Did a belief ever pay for the clothes on your back, a roof over your head, food on your plate or love in your heart? A prejudice is just another form of belief. Albert Einstein said, “It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” Among the beliefs people regularly kill, lie and die for are the ego-driven desires to perform one’s duty, demand respect, have pride and show honor. Who holds these beliefs? Whom do they benefit? Where do they lead?
Invest in a thought and it becomes a belief; invest in a belief and it becomes what you “know.” Buddha was adamant in recommending not to believe anything until you had established the truth of it for yourself. Need we believe anything? Jack Rosenberg, a.k.a. Werner Erhard, once brilliantly declared, “The truth believed is a lie.” The ego act of believing is inevitably distorted by attachment and identification with form. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick offers a wonderful litmus paper test for what is reality and, by inference, what is merely a belief:
Reality is that which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.
—Philip K. Dick
When you suspend believing in something, does it remain? If so, that is reality. If it fades into oblivion, then it is a belief. Beliefs are not real, only beliefs. What a gift and contribution to gladly, willingly and gratefully surrender what never was! Once a thought is believed, it becomes objectified as the truth, and takes on a life of its own. Is a belief in anything different than a belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, or men from Mars? Attachment to beliefs perpetuates the unexamined, unconscious, asleep life.
One day Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance, was traveling through a village with his attendants. He noticed a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. While walking, the man had just discovered something on the ground. The attendants asked what it was and Mara replied, “A piece of truth.”
“Doesn’t this bother you, when someone finds a piece of truth?” an attendant asked.
“No,” Mara replied. “Right after this they usually make a belief out of it.”
A “true belief” is an oxymoron since true beliefs do not exist. Similarly, there are no true thoughts, concepts, images or experiences either, since these are purely subjective and fleeting. What is “true” simply cannot be equated with what comes and goes in life.
Look out the window. Do you believe it is daylight or nighttime? Or do you perceive and know it to be day or night? Does your experience and perception need to be believed, or can it simply stand on its own? There is no need to “believe” what you can plainly perceive and know. Would even the belief in God block directly experiencing and knowing God? Beliefs are added to, or overlaid on top of, reality courtesy of the ego.
A disciple complained about the Master’s habit of knocking down all the disciple’s beliefs.
Said the Master, ‘I set fire to the temple of your beliefs, for when it is destroyed, you will have an unimpeded view of the vast, unbounded sky.'”
—Anthony de Mello
Does a translation of beliefs into a more functional pattern enhance the seeing of a broader picture? Will it create new options or offer a more flexible, generous understanding? Possibly. To reframe the ego’s story is akin to superimposing a new story upon the original one, just as visualizations, trances and affirmations can be superimposed over old unworkable patterns, or medications can artificially suppress symptoms that are actually messages from the body desperately screaming for help.
Reframing the ego’s story into a new, improved story still keeps one tethered to a dualistic world of subjects and objects. Destroying one belief to then cleave unto another, don’t you just trade one Holy Grail, addiction or symptom for another, replacing an unworkable pattern for one that appears slightly “better.” As the saying goes, “The ‘better’ is the enemy of the ‘good.'” This swapping of beliefs is reminiscent of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer” who tends to trade one doctrine or ideology for another.
If a person would experience their beliefs and say, ‘Is it true? Who would I be without the belief’?-then we would surely see the end of suffering. No suffering can hold in Truth.
In the field of psychology, most practitioners learn myriad ways to build up a person’s sense of self or ego, with little, if any, appreciation for outgrowing ego as a mistaken self once it’s established as a developmental stage and useful tool to survive and also thrive. All techniques for life transformation inherently become unsatisfying and unsustainable in the long run unless they open up and sustain one’s Awareness.
The deconstruction of one’s beliefs opens up the possibility of Presence by an acknowledgment of what is in the way. Author Byron Katie deconstructs the ego’s cherished beliefs by repeating, “Is it true?,” “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”, “How do you react when you think that?”, and “Who would you be without it?” 2 In this vein, one can continue, “What is ‘This’?”, “Is that so?”, “Is that useful?”, and “Does that work?” One can further inquire, “Is it possible to disagree with this belief?” “Is it possible to release this belief?”, “Is quality of life enhanced by letting go of it?”, and “What would it take to surrender this belief?” When going to the root, one can ask, “Who created this belief in the first place?”, “What and how are “you” without this belief?”, and “Given all that’s been accomplished in life, is it “because of” or “in spite of” this belief?”
Beliefs naturally dissolve in the act of releasing the belief and its polar opposite as equally untrue, creating an opening to accept that “it is what it is.” Psychoanalyst C. G. Jung called this transcending of polarities in a union of opposites “the transcendent function.” Faithing as an active verb-what Samuel Coleridge might call a “willing suspension of disbelief”-naturally leads to the recognition of the illusory ego as a mistaken identity. Willingly suspending belief and disbelief invites Presence, Sanity and Original Nature. As beliefs are surrendered, what remains feels like Love, Grace, Oneness and Family. Roles, stories, attachments, aversions, being right or wrong, hopes, fears, fixations, expectations and syndromes are all available for healthy deconstruction.
No matter how simple something is, the ego seemingly brings an uncanny knack to not only complicate matters, but make the complicated even more complex. Look and see.
1. Robert B. Zajonc, Social facilitation. Science, 149, 1968, pages 269-274; Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Monograph Supplement 9 (No. 2), pages 1-29.
2. Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four Questions that can Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.