Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Clinging to Beliefs

In Taoism there's a famous saying that goes, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the ultimate Tao." Another way you could say that, although I've never seen it translated this way, is, "As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else." The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.

By the way that we think and by the way that we believe in things, in that way is our world created. In the Middle Ages, everyone accepted the idea, based on fear, that there was only one way to believe; if you didn't believe that way, you were the enemy. It was death to all forms of creative, fresh thinking. Many things that people had been able to see, people just couldn't see anymore because they didn't believe in them. Once they began to think and believe in a certain way, there were all kinds of things that they literally couldn't hear, see, smell, or touch, because those things were outside their belief system.

Holding on to beliefs limits our experience of life. That doesn't mean that beliefs or ideas or thinking is a problem; the stubborn attitude of having to have things be a particular way, grasping on to our beliefs and thoughts, all these cause the problems. To put it simply, using your belief system this way creates a situation in which you choose to be blind instead of being able to see, to be deaf instead of being able to hear, to be dead rather than alive, asleep rather than awake.

--Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape

It's easy for me to look at other people and see this type of behavior -- a truly closed-mindedness. It's especially easy to look at my government and see its focused commitment to seeing the world only within its limited ideology and acting accordingly as short-sided and dangerous.

However, the real challenge is examining my own thoughts for the ways in which I cling so strongly to my own stories of "how things are" that I exclude all evidence to the contrary, or any possibility of expanding those stories into larger, more expansive visions. Being somewhat intelligent, moderately well-informed, and decently educated, I tend to think I have it all figured out. I tend to live my life within my limited understanding of the world and how it operates. The more afraid or anxious I am -- as a result of personal turmoil, stupid political leaders, a faltering economy, and so on -- the more strongly I cling to my little picture of the world.

So what would happen if I stopped clinging? What would happen if I just lived my life without a plan, without a theory, or without and intellectual and emotional safety net?

Pema Chodron says, "People find it quite easy to have beliefs and to hold on to them and to let their world be a product of their belief system. They find it quite easy to attack those who disagree. The harder, more courageous thing, which the hero and the heroine, the warrior, and the mystic do, is continually to look one's beliefs straight in the face, honestly and clearly, and then step beyond them."

This is my practice for the coming weeks -- to step beyond my beliefs and try to see the world without the filter of my safe explanations of "what is true." I invite all of you to try to do the same thing.

Be mindful of when you are judging something or someone; this is a good indicator that you operating within your filter. Also try to be mindful of assumptions you hold about "how things are" or "what will happen if." These are also good indicators that a belief system is at work.

No one is asking you to give up your beliefs -- I'm only suggesting that we all are limited by our beliefs to some degree. It's easy to see in others; the hard part is seeing it in ourselves.


Anonymous said...

""The Tao that can be spoken is not the ultimate Tao." Another way you could say that, although I've never seen it translated this way, is, "As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else.""

I don't think that's quite right as a translation - too absolute. The Taoist saying means, IMO, something like "Whatever you think the Tao is, you're not quite right," or "If you try and pin the Tao down in words, you'll miss something crucial."

As for your endeavour, I hope it is enlightening for you - although I'm not sure that it is possible to discard totally all beliefs and retain any human function. In either case, though, the journey is the destination.

pax et bonum

william harryman said...

Hi John,

I think what Chodron is getting at with her different translation is that "a thing defined, whatever it may be, then excludes all other definitions." If you believe the Tao to be X, then you can longer see the Tao as Y or Z or anything else. I think your second variation on the meaning of the Taoist maxim is close to what she is getting at.

As for my practice -- I have no illusion of giving up or operating without my beliefs. My hope is that as I become more aware of them through mindfulness practice, that they will be less unconscious and more available to me to decide if I truly want to hold each belief or not.

Indeed, the journey is the whole point.