The beliefs I hold underlie everything I do and say and how I perceive the world around us. My beliefs form a complex web of interconnected concepts that form my model of the world, and is one of the things that makes me unique. I have “concepts about the world and a concept is merely a belief and a belief is merely an opinion I have a particular loyalty to.*
I have beliefs about everything. I have beliefs about who I am, my place in the world, my job, about my children, the elderly, or politicians. When I meet someone for the first time, my beliefs fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about them. My beliefs create assumptions based on what I know or assume about people who resemble them. This is where it gets tricky. If I don’t want to be imprisoned by my beliefs, it’s critical to be aware of the difference between what I really know about someone and what I’m assuming about them.
So what is the point of having beliefs? They give us a way of understanding the world (our model of the world, remember). Some of them are based on hard evidence, our experiences in the world and many of them are received from our parents, our culture and our peers. Beliefs do a number of other jobs. Some are designed to keep us safe, others to make us comfortable and even some to keep us from worrying too much.
Even my most positive and noble beliefs can imprison me. The way elephants are trained illustrates that having beliefs that imprison us isn’t peculiarly a human trait. When an elephant is being broken in, the trainers take a huge chain and attach it to the elephant’s leg. They attach the other end to a spike that’s driven deep into the ground. No matter how much the elephant strains against the chain, it learns that resistance is futile.
As the elephant becomes more docile, the chain is replaced with smaller and smaller chains. The elephant comes to believe there is no point in trying to escape and never tries again. You might laugh at the elephant, and you might even think that it’s being irrational to imprison itself. This is exactly how beliefs work in humans. Everyone I’ve ever met, including you, has irrational beliefs. We are particularly good at building prisons for ourselves.
In 1955, Dr. Albert Ellis identified 12 common irrational beliefs. Most of us hold some or all of these beliefs. For example: I think I am most happy when I am inert or inactive when I am in fact happiest when I am engaged. Elephants are in very good company.
I notice that my world view is also responsible for how I get stuck. When my world-view doesn’t match reality, I stop dead in my tracks. If I stop long enough and don’t change my beliefs to align with reality, I’ll get stuck. For instance if my creative abilities are called into question, challenging many beliefs I have about myself, I might slip into inaction and self doubt. Rather than questioning the person who challenged me, I might undermine my own creativity. If I’m not aware of my beliefs, it’s difficult to change them.
Pain is what happens when your model of the world doesn’t match reality. Imagine you are in love with someone and have all kinds of belief about loyalty, love, and about that person in particular. What happens if they leave you? Pain! Where do you start to rearrange your beliefs about yourself and your concepts? These are pretty fundamental beliefs and it’s painful when you realize that they might be wrong. Suffering is what happens when you are in pain, but feel powerless to change anything.
In both cases you have a set of beliefs about how the world works. What would you do if you realized the stake binding you to your world-view became untethered? I think most of us would undergo a bit of a crisis and I’m sure it would be no different for the elephant.
It’s my belief that humans are creatures that have beliefs and always will have them but they aren’t set in stone. So how can you make the most of your beliefs, make them work for you, and not be limited by them? Rick Carson,* the author of Taming Your Gremlin has a paraphrase of the Zen Theory of Change that works for me. His version goes,
I free myself not by trying to free myself, but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment I am imprisoning myself.
In other words, simply notice my beliefs and how you construct little worlds with them that often imprison you.
Consider whether your beliefs guide you toward problems or toward new solutions? Do your beliefs focus on your powerlessness or on your power of choice? If you want to feel directed, you want to choose your beliefs carefully. When you focus on solutions, your ability to make choices and the things that will take you forward, you will not only be happier but more able to help others. In order to take control of your beliefs, you must be aware of them when they pop up and be open to making new choices for yourself.
An elephant never forgets, but humans have the capacity to consider choices they are making and be aware of the consequences. By simply noticing my beliefs, I can begin to make small adjustments to my model of the world that might fit with the reality I encounter.
• I owe Rick Carson a debt of gratitude for imagining this line in his Taming Your Gremlin book.