How well can our views and convictions withstand the spotlight of awareness? Dhammavijaya show us how we can scrutinize our beliefs, and outlines the benefits of increased clarity.
What is a belief? Where do our beliefs come from? Are beliefs important and if so, why? Are all beliefs of equal value? If not, why not? How can we tell if our beliefs reflect the way things really are?
When I have put these questions to people in Buddhist centers recently the discussion they have provoked has been remarkably lively. Perhaps it is refreshing to be asked about our beliefs because so often we are simply told what to believe. This started early in life when, in order to survive, we needed to be accepted by those who were telling us how the world was. But we may have had to win that acceptance at the expense of a deeper sense of the truth. A further threat to the survival of our individuality comes as we begin to drive a wedge between the head and the heart.
Often we profess to believe one thing while placing our real trust in something else. Telling ourselves we hold a certain belief while deep down believing another creates a split within us. We open up a distance between the act of trusting – which is what believing is all about and our thoughts about what we trust.
What we believe determines the way our life turns out. If our beliefs are contradictory, unthought-out and untrue then our lives will be full of contradictions, directionless and hollow. Becoming clearer about what we really believe can pave the way to turning our lives around. I have found the following exercises useful in uncovering what we truly believe and fostering a greater authenticity.
List as many topics that you can think of about which you hold beliefs. It is good to include here all the big life and death questions. A typical such list could include: the Meaning of Life, Death, Sex, Money, Friendship, Myself, Other People, Morality, the Emotions, Intuition, Love, Thinking, the Family, Spiritual Community …
Select from this list a smaller selection of beliefs you would like to understand better. Your list now, for example, might be reduced to: Money, Death, Friendship, Morality, Sex, Intuition, Emotions.
Take some time to think of and to write out all the beliefs you have under each of these headings. Be governed by honesty and a reluctance to censor yourself. It doesn’t matter here if your beliefs seem daft or contradictory. We are only trying to uncover what we really do believe. Here are some examples of beliefs uncovered in this way:
Actions have consequences. Everyone wants to be happy and to avoid suffering. In this they are just like us. Basic principles are more important than the gray areas. You can’t legislate for the gray areas — it’s a matter of conscience. You have to take responsibility for your actions. Morality often amounts to a choice of evils.
You should be careful of expressing emotions as they might hurt people. It is scary to express emotions. You should always have your emotions out in the open. If you ‘wear your heart on your sleeve for the daws to peck at’, they will. You should express the positive emotions. You should not give vent to the negative emotions. These should be confessed and left behind.
Under each heading assess whether your beliefs represent a clear and consistent set or whether they are confused and contradictory. Write down your thoughts and conclusions.
Ask yourself where each belief comes from. Try to remember from whom you first heard it. If you thought of it yourself, note this also. Next to each belief write down the names of the people you got your beliefs from. Note any patterns you see emerging as to where your beliefs come from. What do you make of this? Consider afresh your response to each belief. Is it really true? Note comprehensively any reflections to emerge from this process.
In meditation, arriving at an experience of as much calm and absorption as you can, bring one of your beliefs to mind. Drop it in lightly, in the manner of a leaf falling upon a still pool of water. Consider your intuitive response to this belief. Does it give rise to a sense of freedom and expansiveness? Or do you feel stifled, constricted and held back by this belief? Make a note of your responses.
Repeat the exercise with other beliefs.
How do you know if your responses to Exercise Six provide reliable information as to the validity of your beliefs? Write down your thoughts about this question.
Think about each belief. Does it make logical sense? Is it borne out in your actual experience? What are the consequences of your holding it? What happens in the lives of other people who believe it?
Assess your discoveries from the above exercises. Derive from your assessment beliefs that you feel are more appropriate to your new understanding.
Endeavor to live your life on the basis of these beliefs. Consider the consequences.
Repeat the process indefinitely.
In doing these exercises myself I made a number of discoveries. Firstly it was evident that the topics about which my beliefs were most confused and contradictory tied in with those areas of my life that can be messy. I found that my beliefs about more philosophical topics, say morality and intuition, tended to be quite clear and consistent. By contrast, more ‘homely’ topics concerning emotional and physical matters tended to evince beliefs that were more contradictory. This pointed to the desirability of clarifying my beliefs about those more intimate matters that are for me closer to the bone.
Deriving the sources of my beliefs was valuable in that it brought to mind the people whose beliefs have influenced my own. I could see that I had inherited a cluster of beliefs which, while le consistent, presented a somewhat dismal outlook on life that was neither accurate nor helpful. One such cluster, for example, under the heading of ‘self-esteem’ seemed to hold that this was a quality almost impossible to develop. Seeing these beliefs before me on the page made it seem easier to tear them up.
Assessing my intuitive response to beliefs yielded the most interesting results. While I might assent intellectually to a belief, sometimes I discovered that my heart wanted nothing to do with it. Did this mean that my heart was wiser than my head or vice-versa? The gulf between the different levels of belief was most apparent here. I found I couldn’t bridge the gulf by negating either the rational or the intuitive response; however, wrestling with the discrepancy could, I realized, give rise to a subtler and stronger belief that could gain the confidence of both head and heart.
The belief that ‘practicing within a single tradition promotes spiritual depth’ may, for example. meet with intellectual assent, yet the intuition may feel confined and hindered by it. The ensuing struggle could produce the more refined and stronger belief that, say: ‘Allegiance to one tradition promotes depth, but a fear of learning anything new from others may hinder it.’
It may appear threatening to examine what we truly believe, but I have found it has made me stronger, clearer and more confident. Only when we have made our beliefs conscious can we consider whether they are true. When we have seen for ourselves their truth or falsity we can base our lives on those that convince us in our depths.
Dhammavijaya discovered the Dharma in 1987 and has been inspired by it ever since.
Dhammavijaya was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1989. He formerly worked in a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Croydon, and as a teacher of meditation and Buddhism at both the Croydon Buddhist Centre and in Mexico City.
He now teaches at the Croydon Buddhist Centre, to the south of London.