C.S. Lewis purportedly wrote these words, though for the life of me I cannot find the text from whence they come. Please update me if you know! Regardless of the source, these words ring true. And, I would suggest, they ring far truer than most of us could ever realize.
In 2006 a book titled The Secret was released, along with a movie, by author Rhonda Byrne. Due, in part, to a glowing review by Oprah Winfrey, the book had sold 300 million copies by 2009. The gist of the book is an idea that goes back much farther; that if one focuses on and thinks about a goal, then that goal will manifest in one’s life. Also called the “Law of Attraction”, the concept has been lauded and vilified by pundits for decades — as well as being used by hucksters to promote a health and wealth gospel in many parts of the world. Byrne’s 3-step process is pretty darn straightforward: ask, believe, and receive.
I’m not here promoting this solution as any kind of credible — but what I’d like us to notice is that this phenomenon, and those who tout it’s success — do illustrate a pretty strong psychological phenomenon. I have experienced it myself, as have many others. It is the power of belief.
Why bother with Belief?
I am a spiritual and religious person. I admit that happily. But what I will be speaking of here is not (necessarily) about the supernatural or the metaphysical. Rather, my goal is to get you to start thinking about what it is you actually believe. Not intellectually, not theoretically, but in practice and at the core of your being. Learning how to grasp and wrestle with our true beliefs is the first step to personal freedom.
Everything that you do, every action you take or word you speak, is grounded in a belief. That belief may be accurate to truth, or not, but that does not matter. Your entire person will only act in accordance with what you have latched onto as a true belief.
What many of us do not realize is that the beliefs we want are very rarely the beliefs we hold. We accept, intellectually, a great many beliefs about ourselves and the world which are never actually manifested in our own lives; we do not live them out. This creates internal conflict, guilt, and shame. It creates an eternal wrestling match in our own minds, as we constantly seek to justify and excuse our own behaviours. Since we rarely, if ever, take the time to question or understand our own beliefs, we do not even understand why we feel this way — and we most definitely do not understand how to address the problem.
In the end, this route is painful. It leads to anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. It leads to judgement and bitterness, to a closing off of ourselves and the relentless pursuit of something that always seems so far beyond our reach.
It is absolutely critical for every individual to stop, and reflect, and question their beliefs. To assess their own actions with the proper lens, and to do the simple, yet incredibly difficult, work of reframing the way that they see the world, others, and themselves, in order to find harmony, contentment, and freedom.
What do we mean by ‘Belief’?
Forget whatever esoteric and silly image you have when you hear the word ‘belief.’ Forget about angels and unicorns, about magic and mysticism. We are here to deal in the real and the concrete. And while I place great import on the metaphysical, we do not need to start there. Belief, for our purposes, is an individual’s understanding of what is True. Capital-T True. True for ALL practical purposes. It is what drives action.
A beautiful picture of this occurs in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Faced with a chasm to cross, under threat of death, Indy has only his father’s notes to guide him. These notes say to make a ‘leap’ to prove his worth. From Indy’s perspective, a step out into the chasm is suicide; there is nothing there. He is faced with a crisis of belief — either to believe in his father’s notebook, or in what his eyes tell him. It matters not what he says in that moment, or what he thinks. He may, indeed, be thinking to himself “this is so stupid”, while he places his hand on his heart and steps forward. But whatever he is thinking, his real belief is the one that guides his action; he chooses to believe in the notebook. (And — spoiler alert — there is indeed a bridge beneath his feet, painted to look like the chasm below).
If you believe that your parachute will open, then you will jump out of a plane. If you do not, then you will not (unless you wish to die). If you believe that your neighbour is a liar, then you will not lend him your tools (if you expect to get them back). If you believe that keeping the earth clean is your personal responsibility, then you will not litter.
Every one of our actions is driven by a belief. Regardless of the intellectual or verbal assent that we give, our true beliefs are shown through our actions. As Ghandi said, in referencing Lao Tzu:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
It all starts with our beliefs — but in order to know what it is that we truly believe, we must look at our actions with clarity and honesty. No excuses, no justifications; they serve only to distract.
Start with the basics
How many beliefs do you have? A thousand? A million? There is no real way to know, or to measure. But in order to make an impact on our own lives, we’ve got to start at the bottom. We need to follow beliefs back until we get down to bedrock. If we can correct the foundation stones, then all the work above will, by necessity, become stronger and more sound.
As an example: Mark is a 40-year-old man who wishes to improve his health. He wants to lose weight and generally feel better. What beliefs should he address? There are a myriad surface-level beliefs he could tackle: does he believe that diet is the main factor, or exercise? Should he avoid carbs or fats? Should he drink the same amount of alcohol, or some, or none? Should he lift weights or do more cardio?
But the reality is that none of these beliefs will help Mark get healthier. None of them provide any incentive for him to stick with actions that are difficult or painful. None of them will provide any kind of motivation or rationale. If his underlying beliefs remain the same (I’m not that overweight/I deserve to have some treats and down time/I’m not important enough for anyone to bother about/Health is genetic and can’t be changed) then his actions will not change in the long run.
So, what are the core, fundamental beliefs we have? Well, to start it helps to break down the human experience into some manageable categories. Zig Zigler used these 7 categories, so they will work for us:
The categories don’t really matter — what matters is that you focus on one thing at a time, because grappling with these truths in your life is difficult. More than difficult; if you do this correctly, it will be the hardest thing you ever do.
The one thing that I will say is this: if you do not tackle the first category first — Spirituality — then you run the risk of the whole project falling apart. I did not come here to preach, but our Spirituality is the foundational set of propositions upon which all else is built. This does not mean you must believe in my religion (though, of course, I think that it offers the best and truest and most stable understanding), but it does mean that you must have a cohesive and meaningful way to make sense of the world and your place in it.
I’ll give a concrete example. For many people, the category of Family is the most difficult to wrestle with. This is where our true natures are put to the test, and often come up lacking. Our spouses and children test us in ways that we never could have imagined, and certainly do not enjoy. But your response to these trials and tribulations will differ greatly, depending on your spiritual beliefs.
If you believe, at your core, that you are simply an evolutionary animal, and that family is simply a mutually-beneficial contract which is in place for child-rearing, then when marriage becomes difficult, you will have no problem walking away. After all, if the relationship is no longer beneficial to you, then it serves no purpose.
If, however, you believe that there is a spiritual component to marriage, or if you believe honour and duty are virtues to be pursued as a spiritual good, then your willingness to endure a difficult marriage will change. You will see enduring the challenge itself as a good, and as a chance to put your beliefs into action.
Even moreso, if you believe that the ultimate test of love is self-sacrifice, and that you are to treat your spouse with unconditional love, and grace, and faith, then your actions will not simply reflect a sense of duty or obligation, but your actions will reflect the pursuit of a deeper relationship with constant forgiveness.
Or, if you are like I used to be, you will intellectually believe in the latter example, all the while acting in a way which shows your true belief that your actions ‘deserve’ a specific response. You will pretend to trust your spouse, all the while acting as though he or she would never actually do what was right and so constantly protecting yourself. You will ignore the words that she speaks, believing in your heart that you actually know better and can fix things your way, then blaming her for not valuing your heroic efforts.
In order for me to begin to repair my marriage, I had to come to grips with some very, very hard truths about myself and what I believed. Because I didn’t think I believed those things. I kept telling myself that what I did was out of love and kindness. All the while, my actions hurt her, and drove a wedge between us, because all the while my actions were really about self-protection, bitterness, and self-doubt.
So going back to the basics means understanding, fundamentally, what we believe and, even more critically, what we want to believe. The good news is that there IS a was to change our beliefs. There is a way to transform our minds by the renewing of our spirit, so to speak. It’s not difficult, but it’s there for anyone willing to put in the work.
How to get started
Like I said — we must begin with the basics. The absolute best place to start is to come to grips with who we are as individuals, our place in this world, and our values. I do not want to preach but, personally, this means biblical truths and values. Looking at those ideas and deciding that “yes, that is what I want my life to look like, to be centred around.”
If, within my heart of hearts, I treat myself as a lost cause due to my track record, then I will never bother putting in any effort to change (why bother?). If, on the other hand, I act like I am already perfect and need nothing, then I also will not change (there’s no need). So the only possible route forward is, in fact, the Christian perspective:
I am broken, and weak, and imperfect, and constantly failing, and that is okay. I am also valuable, and important, and capable of more that I will ever know.
This is a belief that I must hold — it is imperative. Without it, I cannot show the myself mercy and forgiveness I will need when I fall. Without it, I cannot push myself and make demands and grow and improve. Many of us do not have this belief; we are afraid to take risks, or we hate ourselves for our weakness. We justify our failings rather than acknowledge them, and minimize our potential because we fear what may be required of us. In our daily actions, we hide from this belief and act like it is not true.
But it is. This is the proper approach to have when dealing with a child. We do not see a toddler as perfect, but as a work in progress. We do not judge her for her stumblings, nor accept her first clumsy letters as good enough. We demand more, yet we forgive much. We must see ourselves in this same light. We must believe this — not just in our heads, but in our hearts.
Practice makes perfect.
One absolutely amazing facet of the human brain is that it is plastic. It is constantly able to change and reprogram itself. This plasticity is much more prevalent at young ages, but it still exists into adulthood. And with a little bit of work, you can see this for yourself.
Picture your brain like a jungle. It is a tangled nest of connecting roots and vines, weaving their way here and there. Your childhood consists of years — 2 decades! — of work with a machete, cutting your way through this tangle and creating paths. One of these paths, once established, enables you to walk. Every time you walk, you are taking this same path learned so long ago. One of these paths was cut when you learned to play the piano. One of these paths is your response to mushrooms.
I grew up hating mushrooms. My dad never liked them, so we rarely had them in food, and anytime they were on pizza or in a sauce I would pick them out religiously. I carried this distaste into adulthood, though I would often choke down some mushrooms — along with my revulsion — as an act of discipline, because picking at your food seems childish. I always mentally gagged, sometimes physically, as the slimy chunks popped between my teeth. Repulsive!
In recent years, however, I have had a different approach. I started eating mushrooms intentionally with a goal to removing my dislike. I intentionally held back the feelings and images of disgust that always went with masticating fungi. Through an effort of will I would chew and swallow them more like a robot — without thinking or feeling anything at all, fighting to keep my mind blank. Within a year or so, I discovered that it had worked — the mental and physical reaction that always went with eating mushrooms had, effectively, dissipated. I can now eat them without disgust and, while I still don’t enjoy them, they are a benign food to me that simply has a mild earthy flavour and a texture like most cooked vegetables.
My brain, when encountering mushrooms, always went down the same “mushroom” path that had been carved out in childhood. Why? Because it was there. It was established. It was easy. And our brains and bodies love what is easy. Cutting a new path through the jungle was tedious and difficult work. It took effort and time but, now that it’s done, the work is over and my wife doesn’t need to hear me complain about mushrooms anymore!
This same process can be used to instill beliefs about anything. Just like the trick in The Secret, the process is simple: ask, believe, and receive.
The first thing to do is to be clear about what you want. In this case, let’s say you want to change what you believe about yourself. Let’s say you like my little description and want to believe it about yourself:
I am broken, and weak, and imperfect, and constantly failing, and that is okay. I am also valuable, and important, and capable of more that I will ever know.
You need to hack your way through the jungle, and carve a new path for your mind to take when you think about yourself. It is, quite literally, as simple as practicing it, over and over, until that new path is in place and the old one has grown over. In the bible we are told to “meditate on these things day and night.” A method a bit more concrete might be: write this down and stick it in your bathroom, and your car, and at your desk. Read it aloud to yourself every morning, and on the way to work, and at lunch.
It will feel ridiculous. It will feel cheesy. It will feel forced. It is all of these things but, like Indiana taking his step, you simply need to do it. You need to act it out.
Like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s high heels, we must pretend. We must act the part, over and over, until it becomes a part of us, until our brains are rewired and we believe it to our core. It is only then that we will start acting as though it is true — that we will start allowing ourselves the grace to fail, and believing in ourselves enough to succeed.
So that’s it. Simple, right? Simple, but difficult. Learning to actually see your actions in an honest way is hard. Learning to be open to change is hard. Having the discipline to change our beliefs is hard. It’s all simple, but it’s also so very hard. Many will shy away and take their usual pre-crafted paths, repeating the same mistakes and coming up with the same excuses.
Once you start down this path, you begin to see its power. It is relentless, and unforgiving, but it is also incredibly freeing. You begin to have control over your thoughts and actions in a way you never did before. You start to see changes in your personality — the smoothing over of ugly scars and jagged edges — in a way that you never imagined. Your new beliefs (in practice for perhaps the first time, rather than just in theory) allow you to laugh more, and take in more, and listen more. You become less defensive, you find joy in other people, and your relationships get better.
None of this will start unless you do. Pick something you want to believe, but know in your hear that you don’t put into action. Write it down. Say it, read it, breathe it, act it out. Over and over, until it becomes your reality… then watch it play out in your life. It’s pretty cool to see.
Let me know how it goes.