How Do You Believe In You?

There are times when everyone wants to stop their mind. That’s why I got into meditation in the first place, and it’s what everyone always tells me when they come to learn mindfulness. They say, “I feel like my mind has a mind of its own!”

There’s definitely something about being human that makes us yearn for control. When it comes to dealing with anxiety, we all want to be able to hold up a hand like a traffic cop and stop the flow of thoughts.

Unfortunately, mind is not a device that you can switch on and off. It’s a process—the entire package of you holding yourself together—bodily perceptions, emotional feelings and mental thoughts. You are a whole person, changing constantly.

In mindfulness we don’t try to stop the mind. Instead, we learn to accept it. We look closely at ourselves and how we’ve turned out. We watch out for patterns like stress, anxiety, and guilt to see how they emerge from mind processes. And, as you begin to understand these patterns more intimately, something natural happens—you fine tune them. The end result is less struggle, greater joy and personal growth.

When it comes to struggling with your story and how you fit in, thoughts and beliefs are a big part of the package. In fact, what contributes more than anything else to your mental balance or imbalance is your story.

This story doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be complete in ways that you can accept and defend. Without work it tends to be soft, mushy and confused. With effort, it becomes wise and kind.

Ordinarily, your story consists of memories, opinions and expectations. It describes who you should be (according to yourself and/or others), and in that way can be quite a burden. In either case, the way you deal with it makes you you. It also makes you vulnerable.

Into this very personal story we fit our beliefs. There’s what we believe in, like god or science. There are conclusions we came to a long time ago and have never reexamined, such as “I am open-minded.” There are logical beliefs in ultimate truth or ultimate relativity, and emotional beliefs such as, “I’m not worthy.”

Somehow, this story must hold everything you think you are—all your thoughts and all your beliefs. Your very self seems to depend on it. Too little and you have no direction. Too much and it weighs you down. How do you sustain your integrity while not taking yourself too seriously? With mindfulness of your story, of your beliefs and of your thoughts you become naturally less defensive and less judgmental. You become more accepting of yourself and others.

These are not trivial matters. Nothing’s more important to each of us than ourselves. Without that, we have no life, no relationships, no significance.

Why Do You Believe?

At the end of my last mindfulness workshop I announced that the subject of the next one would be ‘Beliefs.’ Around the room heads nodded slowly as people thought about what that could mean.

I was encouraged, but wasn’t entirely sure myself. After all, it’s a big topic. Was I opening a can of worms? Beliefs are necessary, right? I mean, at the very least you need to believe in right and wrong.

There are more complicated beliefs. I don’t understand particle physics but I believe particle physicists—as much as I understand them. Students believe that what’s being taught makes sense, until the point where they make sense of it for themselves. Now it’s no longer belief but understanding. So some beliefs are provisional, a stepping stone to knowledge.

Beliefs get really personal too. I know that to do well in life I need to believe in myself, but what sort of belief is that? I also have subconscious voices telling me to sit down and shut up because I’m stupid. I don’t really believe them but that memory can upset me. Somehow, for a while, I believe it viscerally. Can I undo that deep layer of self-limiting belief?

And there’s belief in systems. Raised as a Catholic, I was handed all the answers to life’s quandaries. Then I became a Buddhist and learned a whole other set of answers. When I abandoned that too I went into crisis. With nothing to believe in I foundered, afraid of drowning.

But the water was barely ankle deep. The clouds didn’t open and the earth didn’t swallow me up. I got to my feet.

Apparently, there are some beliefs you can do without.

It’s up to you to accept the beliefs of your tribe or to believe whatever you choose. Beliefs sometimes lead to good behavior, sometimes to bad. The notion that there is one right belief is no longer credible.

Beliefs, however, have power. To have a say in that power you must understand why you believe. So—what is your motive?