A few years ago, during the bedraggled final tatters of our relationship, my ex-partner and I were out walking our dog when we got into yet another heated argument.
I can’t even remember now what we were disagreeing about, but as he asserted his view I asked, “But how do you know that’s actually the case?” (Even then, I knew how to ask questions that would piss people off.)
He replied, angrily and brim-full of conviction: “I know that’s how it is, because I am right!”
Previously upset, I was suddenly struck by the absolute absurdity of his belief, made some quip about papal infallibility, and started laughing. He strode off in the direction of home, leaving the dog and me to set about the serious business of stick-chasing.
(It wasn’t like I hadn’t done the same thing a million times. As we all have, of course. By definition, everyone agrees with their own opinions.)
Around this time, a sudden and profound insight came to me one day as I was shopping in the local supermarket. In an instant, I saw that there is no right or wrong. I wandered the aisles in an ecstatic haze, holding back the tears of love and relief until I’d got through the checkout and walked the short distance home. I shared this incident with very few people at the time, for several reasons. One, it sounds nuts. Two, I was wary of making a belief out of an insight. Three, ‘there is no right and wrong’ is not the whole story.
It’s not really possible to convey the whole story in words, but here’s the thing: wisdom is beyond belief. When wisdom arises in those brilliant, translucent, precious moments of insight, it is tempting to do two things: firstly, to claim it as our own; and secondly, to codify it in some way, to make a belief or an aphorism out of it. Extracted from the context in which it arose, a living insight then becomes a fixed belief (and that’s not what it was ever meant to be).
It makes sense that we look to beliefs for certainty and security of some kind. Life is full of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and it’s natural that we look for solace or salvation where we can. Whether we make beliefs out of our own insights or co-opt the beliefs of others, we tend to cling to them, especially in hard times. When we’re drowning in our very own sea of troubles, we’re particularly prone to frantically grabbing hold of whatever passing lifebelt of belief we can find.
Whatever our beliefs are, however, there comes a time when we need to look carefully to see if they’re really serving us. However benign, profound or correct they seem to be, what is actually going on?
When I’m working with people, I often see how spiritual beliefs in themselves can be a significant source of suffering. If we believe, for example, that we should be letting it go or accepting and we’re not, we end up thinking we’re getting it wrong. If we’ve taken on the belief that there is no separate self and we’re experiencing ourselves as an individual, we (again) think we’re getting it wrong. We take on the belief that we’re supposed to be in the now or resting or breathing or meditating or feeling it all…and when we can’t or won’t or don’t, we make ourselves wrong (yet again).
Frankly, when we believe the trite one-liners so prevalent in these days of sound-byte spirituality, we can end up tying ourselves in knots and losing our connection to basic common sense.
If we believe that we’re responsible for creating our own reality, or that any conflict we experience is only an inside job, or that everything is perfect exactly as it is, we can find ourselves over-riding our own perfectly sound instincts. I’ve seen people blame themselves for things that couldn’t possibly be their fault; I’ve known people who stayed in harmful relationships because they thought they should be forgiving or accepting; I’ve heard people use their spiritual beliefs to manipulate others. I’ve done all of those myself, as well as using saccharine spiritual clichés to stick a band-aid on searing pain or totally justifiable anger, grief or fear.
Life, of course, is infinitely complex and paradoxical. Any time we attempt to define or codify it, we’re going to run aground. We have the insight that there’s no right or wrong, and right and wrong become even more clearly delineated. We see that there’s no separate self, and we come to fully experience our individuality in a way we could never have anticipated. We taste the inherent perfection of existence, and we find it easier to make changes in our lives for the better.
Whenever we think that we can put our beliefs in a comforting nutshell, life will demonstrate otherwise.
So, friends, let’s make a fearless inventory (to paraphrase AA’s fourth step) of our beliefs. Let’s scrutinise what we share on social media or espouse or spout to our friends and acquaintances.
When we get gut-level honest about it, how much of what we believe is about feeling right, or feeling better or avoiding having to feel at all?
Are we holding onto or defending our beliefs because they give us the cosy buzz of belonging, a subtle superiority fix, or a way to avoid our actual experience?
And are our beliefs keeping us clinging to the lifebelts on the surface rather than risking a dive into the unknown ocean depths?
Whatever you believe to be true, take a look. The more fiercely you believe it, the more stridently you defend it, take a look. The more sacred or profound or “right,” take a look. Whoever or wherever you heard it from, take a look. Let’s not settle for feel-good or righteousness. Let’s lay down our childish fantasies of the Neverland of enlightenment. Let’s turn every spiritual stone we possess between us and see what lies beneath. Let’s move through the veil of belief, leave the comfort of the half-truth behind and dare to taste the wisdom beyond.
Author: Fiona Robertson
Editor: Caroline Beaton
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