Star Gazing

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When I was a boy churches were full. Now they’re empty. For millennia, religious authorities were the arbiters of moral value and atheists kept a low profile. Today, everything’s changed. Churches are renovated into condominiums. The day of rest is no more. Even the word ‘religion’ sounds old-fashioned.

This is modernity. Science rules, and religious belief is unscientific. Hard scientists seem compelled to attack religion, even though social scientists find it sublime.

To preserve their faith, believers must either deny science or juggle two realities.

What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there’s more to religion than belief. It’s about experience, and the natural human longing to be awed. I call it a religious instinct. We can all imagine our ancestors staring into the night sky asking irresistible, unanswerable questions. Then—humans being what we are—someone invented answers.

Mindfulness bridges religion and science. Its focus is an objective, non-judgmental perspective. Its goal is to let go of reactivity, which means changing your behavior in ways that you choose. Mindful thinking trains you to choose well, so it’s also a moral practice.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10: Beliefs and The Power You Give Them

Mindfulness of Beliefs

“I like to believe,” says a character from the TV show The Village. If you google that phrase you’ll find all sorts of things that people like to believe. I once liked to believe in reincarnation, and then— even though I still would have liked to—I stopped. Reason got in the way.

two dead trees in water

Questioning beliefs is hard. The possibility that they’re wrong seems to threaten who you are. That’s why people sometimes defend incredible ideas. Flat-Earthers are still with us; anti-vaxers are ushering in a new age of childhood diseases. We integrate our beliefs into who we are, so that we don’t just vote for conservatives or progressives; we are conservative or progressive—even when we don’t even care enough to join the party!

This is reactive believing, and it’s all about defending our choices. There is another way to use the mental factor of belief—by applying mindful thinking. First, you temporarily suspend your decision about whether something’s true or not, so you can check it out. Then you decide whether it’s credible—and worth holding onto even if it’s true.

This is easier said than done, but not because evidence is hard to evaluate—that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies before that—simply allowing for the possibility you’re wrong. This is is not a rational decision; it’s deeply emotional. To question your beliefs is to question who you are. Once you open that door, who knows what’ll happen?

Although testing beliefs is central to the Buddha’s teaching, it’s one of the hardest principles for Buddhist communities to implement. Preserving the founder’s legacy is their mission, and to do that they insist that all he taught is beyond question. There is no place for the possibility that the man might have been ordinarily flawed, and sometimes wrong. As happens usually with religion, often with politics and not infrequently even in scientific communities, advocates feel compelled to establish ‘truth’ beyond question, and end up trapped in dogma.

You however, have no such monumental beliefs to defend. Your job is entirely different, and thankfully much simpler—simply to know what you believe and why. That’s what mindful thinking is for, and that’s what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming workshop.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10

The Cost of Silence

Zoe’s parents were very protective and shielded her from any danger and discomfort.

Her parents lavished all their love on her, and little on each other. They never held hands or kissed. They were often short with each other. They held opposite views on politics and religion. Neither would even consider the possibility that their marriage was in trouble. They agreed on one thing: to keep their conflict hidden from Zoe.

But Zoe lived there too. She didn’t ‘know’ what was going on (or not going on) with her parents, but she lived amid the tensions they were trying to suppress, and did what she could to ease them. It was a burden, but she accepted it with the same sense of responsibility.

Zoe’s mother was easy to get along with. Most of her anxiety came from her father. On the one hand he couldn’t handle conflict; on the other he’d sometimes fly into a rage. In either case, he went out of reach. When this happened, Zoe took responsibility for bringing him back.

If she didn’t, who else would? Keeping him happy became her raison d’être. She adopted subconscious behavior that in time became an automated role. Throughout her life Zoe felt competent in these sorts of conflict situations. She was drawn to them.

Sadly, her first marriage resembled her parents’ marriage.

At the time, Zoe’s parents claimed they were ‘protecting’ her. What they didn’t know was that they were setting her up in her role of peacekeeper. The peacekeeper’s dilemma is that she holds all her anxiety inside. She doesn’t talk about stressful situations, and believes that thinking about them makes them worse. She believes the solution to conflict is to avoid it, and that it’s a best to not challenge people.

Zoe’s role is inherently unstable because it’s based on these limiting beliefs: 1) talk threatens peace; 2) silence keeps the peace; 3) ignorance is safer than knowledge.

Who suffers from these beliefs? All three of them. When did they choose them? They didn’t, they simply adapted to their reality. So what can they do? They could examine their behavior and their motives. They could trust Zoe’s intelligence and speak to her (in age-appropriate language) enabling her to see how they handle conflict through healthy open dialogue.

These changes require nothing but natural skills that we all possess—courage, empathy and effort. They take practice, but that’s what mindfulness is for.


For an in-depth look at the limiting beliefs that burden us, and how to unload them, come to our Round Table event this Saturday afternoon March 9th in Pointe-Claire Village.

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?