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
Reality is that which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.
Philip K. Dick
The truth believed is a lie.
Beliefs are neither bad nor good; beliefs are simply nonexistent. That which is nonexistent cannot take a truth-value, the root of all meaning in the empirical world. Therefore all beliefs, and all conceptualizations like identifications, roles and stories for that matter, cannot be true or real by definition. The two above quotes address this point: that which counts as reality doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it; and the very act of believing distorts “what is” and turns truth into a lie.
Having said this, it does not mean that in the empirical world beliefs may not be useful at times, just don’t take them to exist, or to be real or true. For instance, you can hold the uplifting belief that essentially you are a lucky person and just about everything works out well in your life. This may well be a very helpful belief to hold in the world, especially in regard to two cognitive biases-the confirmation bias and self-fulfilling expectancy. With these cognitive biases you would tend to see confirmation of your belief and tend to expect good lucky things to occur, both of which would reinforce the belief as operating well in the world to your benefit and possibly every one else’s.
On a purely practical basis, holding such a positive and affirmative belief can often be helpful in navigating your way in the empirical or relative world. Some former atheists and agnostics now believe in what is variously termed a Higher Power, Divinity or God because it works for them in living better, happier and more functional lives. In fact, holding such a functional beliefs lightly yet firmly in the world, without any “you” identifying with it, could be seen as authentic freedom. At root, you are free from the ego-mind’s fixation on being a doer that is enacting some role or playing out some story, which only results in pain, misery, self-sabotage and suffering. So long as you don’t identify “who you are” as a belief, such as being lucky, you remain free to be who you truly are-an authentic liberated True Self.
Several other useful beliefs come to mind, literally. See which you subscribe to. One is washing your hands periodically can help you prevent an infection or illness. A good number of medical doctors used to practice this, and I trust a fair number still do. Some physicians believe in the Hippocratic Oath and practice no harm in their practices. Or, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. How about, look both ways before crossing the street? Or when going through an intersection, cover your brakes. Carpenters practice the rule to measure twice and cut once. Mechanics practice turning off engines and letting them cool down before working on them. They also are quite methodical in laying out the parts in breaking down a car so they can put it back together in the same order they took it apart. Most pragmatically, some people believe in clearing a space before beginning their work. The list is endless. You might want to argue that almost all of these beliefs are nothing more than common sense and I wouldn’t disagree. Of course, as anyone can plainly and repeatedly see, common sense is anything but common in this world.
There may well be a whole slew of such useful or workable beliefs for living in the world that apply to certain fields of study, lines of work and personal life. For instance, the concepts of time, space and cause can be seen as implicit beliefs standing for something in the universe, and all are nonexistent since all concepts do not exist. At the same time, these particular concepts and the beliefs regarding them have been most useful in many fields, particularly physics, chemistry, biology and philosophy, in helping describe phenomena of all sorts. The research literature regarding what is called “positive psychology” that includes optimism, resiliency, flow, mindfulness and self-actualization, would appear to chronicle the useful benefits of holding workable beliefs, no matter how nonexistent they actually are.
Similarly, acting in the world in a way that encompasses specific roles can equally be helpful. Take the roles of mother and father, son and daughter, aunt or uncle. When you contribute to another and the world through actions in these roles, isn’t that love made manifest? Isn’t such behavior in these roles being of service to others we love and the world at large? When people are in the roles of owner, boss, supervisor, manager, employee and co-worker, isn’t there the opportunity to make a positive difference in boosted productivity, sharpening skill sets and affirmatively touching other people’s lives? The greatest danger of any conceptualization, including to act through roles, is becoming attached or identified with the role as being who you are. Exactly at this juncture any one can get unconsciously caught up in the role, believe he or she “is” the role and have the ego-mind get puffed up in actually knowing something within this role and promptly jam it down another’s throat! Not at all helpful.
Likewise, stories are a timeless mental form that can be inspirational, motivational and poignant. Theory and explanation only goes so far, even with those most predisposed to these pointers. An insightful and revealing story illustrating some point or moral can be far more impactful and clarifying than any description. News stories are notorious for portraying snippets of real-life with all its messiness, heartless cruelty and loving compassion. Who hasn’t been gripped by such stories? The childhood nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and fables from around the world teach the dangers, wise discernment and preventative care in effectively facing the challenges life presents. The timeless stories told in wisdom, religious and spiritual traditions impart practical moral lessons with each new generation.
The greatest hazards of stories is not only becoming so attached and identified with the story to believe you are the story itself or that the story is absolutely true in all circumstances, but more the misuse of developing a story to then follow the ego-mind in using it as a manipulative ploy to get something or somewhere. The media, advertisers, politicians, lawyers, collection workers and business people are leading candidates for misuse of stories to everyone’s detriment and their apparent gain.
Should we toss concepts, such as beliefs, roles and stories, simply because they are nonexistent? Of course not. Beliefs, roles, stories and other concepts can be most helpful and workable in many fields for the specific purposes of description, explanation and understanding of how things work as well as for the practical advantages they oftentimes offer. Obviously, these conceptualizations can also be so consciously or unconsciously invested in, identified with, attached to, and misused as to render them not only ineffectual, but outright defeating and destructive. An ax can function to cut wood and can also be used as a weapon. Similarly, like any tool, conceptualizations can be used for good or ill.
When William Shakespeare asked in his tragic play Hamlet, “To be or not to be? That is the question”, he could have just as well have written, “To identify or not identify? That is the question”, for “to be” as the mind conceives of it is equivalent to actually being some identify, role, set of beliefs or story. You could also say, “To believe or not to believe? That is the question.” With the sole exception of our true identify as Original Nature or True Self or Self, all the rest of these descriptors are mere conceptualizations that are being identified with, not only not true or existent, but very likely to be defeating, destructive and dangerous to a healthy vibrant life. When we follow the ego-mind acting as a false sense of self by identifying with any belief or set of beliefs, roles, stories or patterns of behavior, we usually get into trouble. The structure of this trouble is simple: there is some supposed “I” or “me,” “doer” or “seeker,” that thinks of itself as someone or something looking to get something or somewhere. Being preoccupied and attached to being this me feeding thoughts and chasing all forms of ego desires, particularly security, money, sex, power, fame, pride and pleasure, only results in suffering.
Is there any such I, me, doer or seeker in reality? Where is this self, mind or ego? Go ahead and let it show its face. Unless its reality in point of fact and “what is” can be firmly and decisively established, it is a hoax, ghost and phantom without existence. See for yourself if this is not the case after careful observation in your experience. No I, no stress. No I, live your own life.
This view of the causes of suffering is not new and has its roots in antiquity, particularly in the teachings of Buddha. He viewed the two general causes of suffering as unawareness or ignorance and all forms of resistance, which can accurately be called distress or simply stress. Further he saw there are only three specific causes of suffering: attachments or desires; animosity or hatreds; and closed-mindedness or self-righteousness. The super ordinate specific cause of suffering from which the other two develop out of is attachment or desires, with the lovely, ever-existent and ever-available dream of nirvana or the ceasing of desires. The point: attachment to anything, including false identities, beliefs, roles, stories or patterns of behavior, inevitably lead to suffering. In other words: to identify is to suffer; to not identify is to be free of suffering. A Zen aphorism says, “Pain is mandatory; suffering is optional.”
Certainly beliefs can be most useful in surviving and thriving in the world. At the same time, given the penchant for the ego-mind to become attached to them, it is equally vital to see them only as non-existing conceptualizations that serve certain helpful purposes at times. To consciously hold beliefs very lightly in a healthy detached sort of way is the height of protecting yourself from the dysfunction and excess of the mind, while being highly practical and adaptive in this world. In other words, keeping the ego-mind’s conceptual concoctions at arm’s length through presence and witnessing, they can be seen for just what they are and have less of an opportunity to cause trouble to everyone.
Just how can recognition, disillusionment, disidentification and surrender be Freedom Itself?
Freedom can be seen as freedom from our ego-minds. At moments of standing in awareness and stepping back to see the workings of the mind with its preoccupation with thinking and concepts, that is, witnessing, you recognize that this cannot be who you truly are. This recognition is an act of seeing through the illusions the mind conjures and immediately provides access to a healthy disillusionment or buying out of what cannot be real and is only an illusion. Once you see the apparent oasis as in fact a mirage, it can no longer remain an oasis. This moment of realization often is not pain free for our minds. Simultaneously it is a moment of inspiration and excitement for the Self in uncovering and remembering our original sanity and Original nature, what’s called our “original face” in Zen.
Once the ego-mind with all its conceptual structures is really seen and experienced for just what it is, none of which is real or true in the world, then there is a natural tendency to disidentify with them in various ways. One way is to name the ego-mind as my or your “crazy” and laugh at all its shenanigans. Another way is to speak of the mind in the third person, as in saying, “The mind got triggered and upset earlier today…” or “The ego became doubted and fearful over…” Each formulation offers a healthy distance to see the ego-mind in operation without identifying it as who you are. Still another useful strategy is to call the ego-mind out as not only not useful as a separate false sense of self, but further as what typically complicates, instigates, dramatizes and gets in the way of life flowing.
Each of these approaches among myriad others aids a remarkably healthy surrender of what does not even exist and simultaneously reveals what is already here-original sanity, nature, bliss. At this precise moment a natural relaxation usually ensues that reminds us of our earliest experiences on this planet in these bodies, when cares were essentially unknown and life was One, a mysterious miracle and an ineffable joy to experience. If this isn’t the freedom to be who you truly are and offer full creative self-expression, then what is it? What is already here hiding in plain sight?