It’s A Choice
Many people believe that what happens in the “outside” world determines how we feel and react. For many people this is indeed the case. However, we have a great deal more control over our thoughts and feelings than our culture acknowledges.
Over the decades I’ve had to deal with a lot of challenges. I started out in adolescence with deep depression and ideation of suicide. After I had pretty much conquered that area of my life my body started falling apart. Diagnosed with diabetes at age eleven I developed a mystery illness at 28 characterized by severe fatigue, muscle pain, loss of appetite, and brain fog. I was never able to get a diagnosis because as a diabetic physicians thought it was a complication and never even tried to make a diagnosis. They would just sit there not even looking at me and never make any response at all. Later developments were uncontrolled blood sugars that only after 3 years of extreme variability was diagnosed and treated. The damage from this period was retinopathy with the loss of one eye, damage to the other, renal failure and transplant. The transplant made the mystery illness (probably lupus) twice as bad. The irony is that the original blood sugar problem was easily treatable and the subsequent complications avoidable.
Needless to say I’ve had abundant opportunity to reframe my experiences. The anger from that kind of incompetence and fraud would have been as damaging to me as my physical problems. During the 30 years I was very sick I did a lot of meditation, dream work, and reading of spiritual material. I’ve taken that experience and developed a strategy that I only later realized resembles cognitive therapy. It is heavily influenced by my inner search, and for me, proved highly effective. Hopefully it will be as valuable to others as well.
Starting Beliefs
There are many beliefs that form the framework before you can start this process. Even defining what “beliefs” mean is necessary. With that in mind let’s start with what I mean when I say “belief”.
Webster says of belief, “the acceptance of a fact, opinion, or assertion as real or true, without immediate personal knowledge.” Faith, a word often used interchangeably with belief is, “belief; the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another, resting solely. . . on his authority.”
Both these definitions define faith and belief as a cognitive process. A shorter definition of these two words would be, “what one thinks is true.” Within the metaphysical and religious communities belief and thought are held to contain much power. Our thoughts form our reality in the former belief system and our beliefs having the power to deliver us in that latter belief system. I maintain both positions are nonsense.
A good example of the powerlessness this kind of belief is the example of those who believe that there is a heaven and they are going there after the death of their body. Many people will swear they believe they will “go to heaven”. Yet when faced with a terminal illness or a gun pointed at them become afraid. Why would you be afraid of something that will provide you with everlasting peace and love? The answer is you wouldn’t. Nor would you express sorrow when a child dies and say, “Their life was cut so short.” Not if they went to heaven. It’s the folks left behind who have it rough.
I could give many other examples where people say they believe in one thing yet act as if they don’t. So are we merely parroting what we are “supposed” to believe or is something else at work?
There are people who accept death with equanimity. They go calmly to their grave. They don’t feel sorry for those who die. What’s different? They would tell you the same thing as those who fear death. They appear to believe the same thing. Or do they?
The key here is between thinking something is true, and feeling something is true. We respond to the world and events, both inner and outer, based on what we feel are true. In many cases I can tell what a person’s feeling beliefs are better than they themselves can. How? Because we act on what we feel to be true and such feeling beliefs are largely invisible to those who hold them. Yet they are the programming that determines how we respond, act, and react in life. The sample of reactions to death and the thoughts/feelings that give rise to them is a good example.
Nowhere have I found a word that means, “what one feels to be true.” I find it amazing how something so fundamental to understanding yourself and navigating through life doesn’t even have a word that describes it. This is an example of another profession, psychology, which is dysfunctional. For if you don’t understand and address what you feel to be true no fundamental changes in your psychology can be made.
Of course, in talking about this we need a word to describe it. We can either make up one or appropriate one already in use. Within my writings I will refer to belief as something one feels is true. Faith is meant to be something one thinks is true. Thus the admonishment to “live your faith” makes sense. We say one thing but live something else. However, you always live your beliefs. This distinction is important and one that will be exploited in helping you determine what you feel to be true now. Ultimately the goal is to change those beliefs that give rise to fear and replace them with ones that are empowering.
So What is True?
No discussion of beliefs can occur without the question arising of how do you determine what is really true. The answer to how do you know what is really true is: you don’t. There are many beliefs out there and most of them are mutually exclusive. In other words, they can’t all be true. So how do you choose?
Obviously if humans could determine what is true and what is not we would have only one religion (or none) or one political party (or none). There would be no conservatives or liberals. But there is. And with it a good deal of acrimony. Not only is it enough to believe something but we have to make different beliefs “good” or “evil”. Of course, there is the belief that you have to believe what is really true. Or else. A particularly noxious belief that leads to a lot of violence.
So if you can’t know what is really TRUE what can you do? Humans will always believe something. Unlike a computer that will not process data it doesn’t have, humans will make something up. And realistically, you have to stand for something. Beliefs form the basis of who we are and how we identify ourselves. The problem is not having beliefs, it is our conviction that whatever we believe is absolute truth.
Some beliefs are non consequential. I believe that atoms exist. However my life doesn’t depend on this being true. If I was a physicist it would. But I’m not a physicist. I don’t spend much time fretting over the validity of the belief. Other beliefs do have consequences. Is this a dog eat dog world? Does God exist? Is love all there is? Does the universe provide us with the perfect experiences we need to become a whole person? Or is life just random? Good questions that have a large impact on our lives depending how we answer them.
So what do we do if we can’t answer the big questions based on any objective data? The fall back to this dilemma is to pick something someone else espouses and run with it. If you do this and your life is going great then read no further. If you are happy why mess with it? However this method doesn’t work very well for the majority of people. A look at our culture is proof of that.
So what is the alternative? While you can’t determine whether a belief is true or not you certainly can determine the effect that a belief has on your life. Does a belief cause you to be more loving, inclusive, happier and better able to cope? Or does your belief cause you to be more judgmental, hateful, miserable and helpless? The same is true for belief systems. Some hold beliefs within the Christian faith that cause them to be loving individuals. Other Christians have completely abandoned Jesus’ teachings and are judgmental and hateful. Who is right? What matters? The real question is, “Who do you want to be?” or “How do you want to feel?” If the answer to that is something radically different than where you are now, then a profound change in beliefs is necessary.
Step 1 – determining your own beliefs
Determining where you want to go with your inner life is similar to determining where you want to go within the physical landscape. If you want to go to Chicago, Illinois you have to know where you are now (North Carolina?, North Dakota?) and where Chicago is in relation to that. Just striking out in a random direction will not likely get you to Chicago. Similarly just making spot changes here and there in your psyche is not likely to get you where you want to go.
The first step is determining what you believe right now. Many believe that what they believe is who they are. Such is not the case. Granted, those beliefs determine how we relate to the world and we do indeed identify with them. Yet they are not inherently who we are. Our beliefs are like clothes. We may see ourselves as a “type” of person who wears certain kinds of clothes but we can wear whatever we want. We can also change our beliefs as well.
If emotions are where beliefs are actually held and have the most effect on our lives, then emotions are what need scrutiny. A purely cognitive approach is of little value. Notice I said “purely cognitive”. We still need to engage analytical skills and deductive reasoning. We are thinking and feeling creatures. This process needs both an awareness of what our emotions are and an ability to objectively evaluate what they mean. So let’s get started.
Emotions leave a trail back to the beliefs that spawn them. True, we seem to react to our environment with emotions, yet it is actually our beliefs that interpret those events that produce those emotions, not the events themselves.
For example, let’s say you feel depressed every time you come back from a party or social gathering. If you follow that emotion back you may find that you feel you cannot pick up a date/partner. It is that belief that causes the depression. Following back further you may also discover that you feel you can’t attract a romantic relationship because you are “not good enough”. Attempting to find someone through dating services, social gatherings, etc. will only deepen your sense of depression. Each time you make an effort on the outside to rectify your problem you only trigger your own sense of worthlessness. Creating for yourself a feedback loop where your failed activities reinforce a belief.
Facing a chronic illness is another example. Here the beliefs that give rise to depression and anger may be more available to scrutiny. The obvious beliefs are those of dealing with the pain or disability. You can’t do what you could do before. Whatever plans you had for your life are seriously challenged or now impossible. Furthermore your chances of living what you think of as a fulfilling life is limited or ended. Once again it is these beliefs that give rise to your anger (this shouldn’t be happening to me) and depression, not the illness itself. Since you may not be able to earn money or take care of a family or fully participate in a romantic relationship other beliefs about self worth and your value to others may also come into play.
In this case we have not one or two beliefs that contribute to how you feel but a whole constellation of beliefs that feed into each other. Worse yet is that some of those beliefs are true and it is not just a matter of misperceiving. You actually may not ever be able to work productively again or participate in relationship dynamics as a “normal” person would. But you still have to start by labeling all the various beliefs that are coming into play in this situation. From there questions can be entertained that may bear on the beliefs. Is your value really determined by how much money you make? Is a “normal” relationship dynamic the only way a loving, meaningful relationship can exist? Are the things you thought were meaningful and now out of reach, really meaningful? Are the lives of others who have those things really all that great? And the ultimate question, “Can I create meaning and purpose within the present chaos?”
No discussion on coping skills would be complete without examining the concept of suffering. Again, let us look at the dictionary definition:
Suffer –
to undergo or feel pain or distress
to sustain injury, disadvantage, or loss
to undergo a penalty, as of death
to endure pain, disability, death, etc., patiently or willingly
Under these definitions we all suffer. The definition is too broad to have any real meaning. And like the definition for belief it fails to adequately convey a deeper understanding that is necessary for dealing with it.
I offer you a more specific definition to consider: suffer – to undergo distress. If that becomes our only definition then possibilities open up that could not be considered with the standard view of suffering. Pain, disability, death, injury, loss, and disadvantage are now separate from suffering. One does not define the other. Difficult situations do not have to cause distress.
I once knew a cat that had cancer of her jaw. This caused some deformity such that when she ate food would spill out of her mouth. Most people with this affliction would be “distressed” and thus suffer with cancer. The cat, however, was quite content and purred while eating her meal. The cat obviously knew something the rest of us didn’t. That something led her to be happier and more content under circumstances the rest of us would suffer with. Why the difference? The cat did not judge her situation. (well, I don’t think she did) On the other hand we evaluate, categorize, and judge. For those who have some knowledge of Buddhism this line of thinking should be familiar.
This all brings us back to emotions again. Judging is an emotional response. Judging is not a thought process. One can say, “Lucinda is a compulsive liar.” The statement itself does not indicate the emotional or cognitive processes used to make it. One person making that comment may simply be making an observation. Another may have a judgment about it. So what is the difference? One is a thought process. A statement about what is thought to be true is made. In the other, judgment squeezes the heart and twists. Hate, anger, and superiority rise up like bile. So what do you want, a bad taste in your mouth or a minty fresh breath? In this case as with dealing with your own suffering, you are making a choice on how to feel.
There is a lot of "information" here to consider and grapple with. Even though I have only started this section of the website there is a lot to absorb. If you need clarification please leave a comment. If you have a question I'm sure others do as well,