The Circle of Existence: Chapter 6 – Defining Beliefs

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by DCH Park

candle-201623_1280“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
– Buddha

“True love doesn’t come to you, it has to be inside you.”
– Julia Roberts

“Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstances.”
– Bruce Barton

Some people speak of limiting beliefs. Beliefs that we carry can limit our senses of what we can do, who we can be, and what is possible. For example, how likely am I to be successful if I don’t believe that I can be? How likely am I to win the big race if I honestly believe that the other guy is faster or deserves to win more than I do?

However, beliefs and how they can affect us is subtler, more complex, and more powerful than the term limiting belief implies. In fact, these beliefs are defining. Defining beliefs are usually centered on ourselves, our families and friends, society, or the world and our relationships and interactions with them. As such, they can certainly be limiting. However, beyond embodying limits, defining beliefs shape the fundamental nature of the world and our roles in it, as we experience them.

There are at least two different types of defining beliefs. Let’s call them personal and existential. They are distinct but strongly interrelated. At times, the distinction may even seem arbitrary, especially for beliefs that lie on or near the border between them. Nevertheless, as will become clear, the differences are significant.

Personal defining beliefs are those that relate directly to the way of the world and how we have to be in the world to get along. They might take any of several different forms, such as: “The world is safe/unsafe;” “The world is unreliable or impermanent;” “The world is hard and unyielding;” “Life is struggle/joyful;” “Making money is hard or requires sacrifice or is easy;” or “Societal hierarchy is real and important.”

Often personal defining beliefs originate in the aftermath of a significant, surprising trauma. (Please note that I am using “trauma” in the theosophical sense – a change in a love relationship so that you can never experience that love in the same way again.) The natural response to such trauma is shock and pain (and possibly a sense of betrayal) over the loss coupled with bewilderment as to exactly what happened and why.

When this happens (especially when we are young) the emotional pain can be quite intense. As much as we might like to reverse events and unmake the trauma, we don’t know how to reverse it. Perhaps it’s impossible to reverse it. The only thing we can commonly do is try to understand why it happened so that we can protect ourselves from similar pain in the future.

Of course, these post facto decisions about what must have happened are usually flawed, but that doesn’t stop the process nor deter us from latching onto the decision and installing it as a rule. In this way, such decisions are used to define how the world works and how we must be in the world to be safe, effective, loved, etc. In addition, the emotional energy stirred up by the trauma is usually channeled into the decision and resulting rule(s), making them very strong and deeply rooted. Of course, the more potent the original trauma, the more significant we believe the decision to be and the more imperative the derived rule becomes. Some decisions like this can have effects that last an entire lifetime.

For example, a child who suddenly loses a cherished toy as it flies out the car window and then sees his father pull the car over and run out to retrieve the toy, dodging traffic the whole time, might be impressed and decide that there isn’t any loss that can’t be healed with love. He might alternatively focus on the whizzing cars and decide that the world is a hard and heartless place. If the father instead continues to drive on and yells at the child for being so careless, he might decide that the world is basically a cruel and unsafe place where even those he loves the most can turn on him at any time through no fault of his own.

The decisions that the child makes about the way of the world and the interpretations that he draws from those decisions can lead directly to beliefs about how the world operates and who he must be to be safe, loved, and happy. Thus, personal defining beliefs can be understood as beliefs about the rules of the game – how it is played, what the different pieces are, how game pieces are moved, what strategies are best, how to win, what constitutes winning, etc.

In contrast, existential defining beliefs are about the container that holds the game. Whereas personal beliefs focus on how to play a better game, conceptually, existential beliefs focus on which game is played. They are more philosophical in nature, but are of no less importance than personal defining beliefs. In fact, although they seem to be more abstract, in fact they deal with more fundamental questions about existence and experience.

Examples of existential beliefs include: “Evil exists;” “Good is eternally at war with evil;” “It is possible to be separate from someone and thus oppose that person,” “Cosmic laws/rules exist;” and “Cosmic laws are inviolable.” They define the boundaries that limit the scope of play. They are not unlike the mythical edge of the world that sailors used to fear. They are taken to be absolute and discontinuous. Humans (the belief goes) have no choice but to stay away from the limits, safely immersed in the game on the board. Any attempt to cross or even touch the limits of the board, we are told, result in annihilation or madness or both. However, these are only beliefs. They are taken to be more fundamental and thus are often harder to find, but their power, like that of all beliefs, comes from the fact that we accept them.

Interestingly, when we do come across a discontinuous limit, it is a signal that what we thought we knew is wrong. This has been shown over and over throughout history and invariably leads to great discoveries, new knowledge, and heroic achievements. Reaching and breaching limits that were thought to be impervious is a defining characteristic of a hero. Examples abound. In art, the development of Cubism, Impressionism, and other movements is one example. In pop art, there are the characters of Harry Potter and Truman in The Truman Show, among others.

In science, running into and transcending discontinuous limits often heralds paradigm shifts that allow for radically new and exciting possibilities. The notions of the double helix structure of DNA, the failure of Newtonian physics and the emergence of Quantum Theory, and the shift toward plate tectonics in geology are three examples.

In life, as in science and art, meeting and transcending defining beliefs of either type can precipitate huge spurts of growth and creativity. What beliefs do you have that define the world, who you must be, or what is possible and why and how?

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More of the book, The Circle of Existence can be found at www.smashwords.com.

© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.

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”The Circle of Existence: Chapter 6 – Defining Beliefs” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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