Last week, I had a few interactions that reminded me how much our attachment to our beliefs can keep us from truth, growth, and freedom. I was surprised at how often we choose comfort over truth, even when it means restriction and repression. And how terrifying it can be to seek truth at all costs.
The path to truth isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s frightening, painful, and unsettling. Likewise, a life of comfort is often riddled with self-deceit, stagnation, and limitations.
If I want truth, then I must be willing to question everything. I must be willing to let go of the way I think the world is or how I think it should be. Otherwise, my resistance will limit my vision and I will never get to truth, or the real peace that lies beyond resisting. I’ll also never grow outside of the comfort zone I imprison myself in.
On the other hand, if I desire comfort over truth, then I must ignore the questions in my mind, do what has brought me comfort in the past, and believe whatever I think will make me happiest, whether it’s true or not. Then, I must refuse to consider anything that challenges that view. Many people live seemingly happy lives this way, ignoring the deeper questions that lie beneath the often subconscious repression of the inconsistencies their mind discovers. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
Is one choice better than the other? Is it worth seeking the truth if it may lead to an uncomfortable reality? Or can you tolerate a sense of comfort when you know you may be deceiving yourself? With so many unknowns in our world, don’t we all choose comfort to some degree anyway?
I think it’s not so black and white. Most of us have beliefs we’re willing to question, and those we hold sacred or refuse to consider challenging, at least until we’re ready. Several years ago, I challenged my beliefs about money, education, and religion. This completely changed my life! Yet I still struggle with questioning things like the value of certain relationships, my views of right and wrong, and what it means to be human. But unless I question these things, how will I know if these beliefs are limiting me?
It can be scary to challenge core beliefs! For example, having grown up Mormon, it was terrifying for me to question the source of my spiritual feelings, and the existence and nature of God. I had to be willing to give up my world as I knew it in my attempt to find the truth. And while I still can’t state for certain what God might be like, I feel much closer to the truth now, than when I claimed to “know” the answer with absolute certainty when in fact I had simply been too afraid to lose my comfort by fully challenging these beliefs.
I’ve also noticed that the more beliefs I question, the more beliefs I discover under the surface that are waiting to be challenged. Usually, these are beliefs I didn’t even know I had but are affecting my life profoundly. New worlds continue to open up as I go deeper into challenging and letting go of my attachment to these beliefs.
Perhaps the questioning process will never end. Maybe it ends only with omniscience. Or maybe it stops when I finally realize that I know absolutely nothing, and hold attachment to no belief at all. How else can we get to the truth except by questioning what we think we already know, and being willing to drop all beliefs in order to see what lies beyond them?
But it can be a tiresome process. Not everyone wants to take this journey, and there is nothing wrong with resting in the comfort of potentially false belief when we choose to, even indefinitely. We all do it to some degree, usually unconsciously. But by becoming aware that this is what were doing, we enable ourselves to make a conscious decision about it. We increase our ability to choose, which means we increase our freedom.
How to Challenge Beliefs
We tend to start questioning our beliefs when we tire of stagnating in comfort, or when we see that the answers we’ve been given don’t add up, or when we just feel like there is something more that we’re not seeing in our life experience. Every person will do this in their own way when they are ready, but here are a few methods I’ve found helpful in opening my mind to new possibilities:
- Read or listen to opposing views. But not from the perspective of how to prove them wrong or fit them into your current framework of reality. Instead, see them without any judgment. Identify their value and maybe even try them on for size to see what the world looks like through that lens. This can be terrifying, difficult, and very uncomfortable. It is common to take a glimpse into an opposing view, not know how to deal with the questions or emotions it brings up (especially when existing beliefs creep in), and give up before fully exploring the view. Instead, welcome the discomfort. Stay with the belief for a while. Yes, it may completely change your view of reality, and that can be scary. But if you give up too early because of fear or discomfort, then you’re selling yourself short of reaching deeper levels of understanding and truth.
- Gain perspective. Spend some time with people who have completely different worldviews than you. Travel to foreign countries where the language, religion, and culture is different. Talk to the impoverished and the wealthy, the activists and the pacifists, the traditional and the unique. Try to see the world how they do, and see what it teaches you. Notice how some of your beliefs are not part of their framework at all, and how that affects them or not.
- Study the mind. Learn about how our beliefs are formed and how we tend to hold onto false beliefs, even when it doesn’t make sense. Read a book like Don’t Believe Everything You Think or some of these thought-provoking books.
- Identify hidden beliefs. When we make a statement or ask a question, there is often a hidden limiting belief lying beneath our words. These can be tricky to identify, but they permeate how we talk and think, and can limit our view. Here are some examples of possible hidden beliefs in statements and questions. “Why did God let my son die?” (Possible hidden beliefs: Your son died. God is responsible for that. God cares about your son. God exists.”) “I wish I had more money.” (Possible hidden beliefs: More money will make you happy. It is too difficult to get more money. Rich people are greedy and are the reason I have so little.”)
- Watch your emotions. If you find yourself feeling angry or defensive when an idea is presented to you, or when one of your beliefs is challenged, this can be an indicator of a belief you may identifying with or holding onto for comfort. Whether you decide to question these beliefs or not, being aware of the beliefs you’re most attached to can help you see what’s driving your behavior and allow you to question them when you’re ready.
These methods are rarely comfortable. But in order for growth to happen, in order for us to know the truth, and in order to increase our freedom, we must be willing to get out of our comfort zone and sincerely question our beliefs.
I recently watched a moving and funny documentary called Kumaré about a man from New Jersey who pretended to be an Indian guru, went to Arizona, and gained a following of real people. He taught them fake yoga moves and made up chants. Yet, some of his followers were profoundly touched by these practices, and went on to make positive changes in their lives. They found comfort in these empty rituals and made up teachings. He also taught that they didn’t need a guru and could become their ideal selves on their own, a lesson he was experimenting with as he taught it.
The most interesting part for me was seeing the internal struggle this man had with revealing his true self to his followers, and how they reacted to the news. I won’t spoil it for you, but the choice between comfort and truth is apparent here as well. You can watch the movie at http://kumaremovie.com.
While comfort can be nice, I invite you to ask yourself if you have a belief that it might be time to question. Is there something you’ve been believing that doesn’t resonate with you anymore? Is there a hidden assumption that’s holding you back from reaching your potential? Is there something you have doubts about but are afraid to look at completely?
If so, I invite you to jump into the fire, embrace the discomfort, and see what lies on the other side for you. I can’t make any promises about what you will experience, but every time I have done this, an unexpected new world of deeper understanding has opened up to me and changed my life in profound and positive ways. It can be like waking up from a dream or hatching out of an egg.
If you have the desire, I hope you will take the chance to break through the barriers of your limiting beliefs when you feel ready to do so; and that the world you discover beyond them will bring more comfort and truth than you’ve ever known.
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I occasionally still find myself struggling to give up my ideas of how I think things “should” be. I know my resistance to accepting reality as it is, keeps me from experiencing greater peace in my life. So in my case, I would say many of the expectations I hold are in fact limiting beliefs, because they hold me back from being fully present to experiencing, understanding, and appreciating reality as it actually is. I may think things “should” be different than they are, but that is a limiting belief. Things are exactly as they are, and that is the truth it would be helpful for me to accept and stop resisting.
Interesting perspective. I for one feel like my beliefs give me purpose and direction in life. Not once have I felt limited by them. I don’t relish the thought of wandering about the world the rest of my life feeling the need to question everything I see and do. That sounds sad and lonely. Beliefs are what makes us who we are and the moral compass that drives our actions. I also don’t believe in making people feel inferior because they have a belief system. I think people who stick to their roots and briefs are grounded and happy, not nieve and oblivious to actual life. There a strong difference between accepting other people regardless of different beliefs and having to completely agree with them and follow their path in order to coexist. You can be accepting and tolerant without having to change what you believe in.
Yes, of course your beliefs give you purpose and direction. They create a worldview that helps you feel happy and secure. But our beliefs do not make us who we are. Yes, we can become so attached to our beliefs that we identify with them, and are afraid to question them for fear of losing our identity/ego, but this only keeps us from seeing who we really are underneath our beliefs.
What if your beliefs are not true? Would you want to know it? If not, or if your mind jumps immediately to “but it is true”, or if you are afraid or unwilling to consider this idea, then you are choosing comfort over truth. There is nothing wrong with this. It is human nature to do this to one degree or another. But by doing so, we limit ourselves from an understanding and acceptance of what is. Again, if that is what you want, there is nothing wrong with it.
Alternately, if you don’t become anxious at the idea of your beliefs being untrue, don’t feel negatively toward those who present alternate ideas, and if you don’t feel the need to be defensive or attack, then you are not in resistance to truth, and you can enjoy your truth with much more ease. This isn’t about emotional control or suppression, nor is it about changing what we believe or following others’ paths “in order to coexist”. It’s about dropping our attachment to our beliefs, so that we no longer need to “accept” and “tolerate” those who are different, but can actually love and understand them for who they are, underneath what they believe. I’m not claiming to be there myself. Just sharing what I’m discovering about the process along the way. And it is a process. We only see what we are ready to see.
RT @brandags: Read my thoughts on how our beliefs limit us and what we can do about it. http://t.co/ddjh2JqZCJ
Thank you so much for this post. It is very timely in my life right now – and I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has struggled with the ‘shoulds’ and ‘whatifs’ when taking a leap into the unknown.
@Disagreeswithyouropinions, who said:
‘I for one feel like my beliefs give me purpose and direction in life.
Beliefs are what makes us who we are and the moral compass that drives our actions.’
The question is, are they in fact, and/or to what extent, are they truly YOUR beliefs?
In fact they ARE a moral compass for many people, and DO drive their actions. But unfortunately most of the beliefs that most of the people hold so dearly are not their own original ideas and beliefs! They’re instilled and brainwashed into the people from birth. I’m fairly sure that’s at least partially what Brandon is talking about here. If they are completely unexamined throughout your life, then really what’s the point in that? Examining them by no means means you have to throw them away. Just take time in your life to examine honestly faithfully truly realistically.
“Or maybe it stops when I finally realize that I know absolutely nothing, and hold attachment to no belief at all. ” this seems to be the case, at least in my experience… or maybe I just believe it to be the case? Regardless, it helps to just let go, as you have done with so many other aspects of your life, and accept truth as you receive it.
Whenever I contemplate beliefs, particularly spiritual beliefs, I am reminded of what Buddha said: “Our theories of the eternal are as valuable as are those that a chick which has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.”
Of course, upon receiving “truth” you should also consider these words of wisdom from the Buddha:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe simply because it has been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in Holy Scriptures. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of teachers, elders, or wise men. Believe only after careful observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all. Then accept it and live up to it.”
THAT’S why they call him Buddha!
Brandon & Jennifer,
I am 25, live in Tennessee, and happened upon your blog via Tim Ferriss’ blog. I don’t yet have children, but love to travel and have thought through raising children while traveling.
Anyway, I appreciate your writings and how open you both are with yourselves and your spiritual/emotional journey.
Breaking the Barriers of Belief – http://t.co/6LTctnQwQk via @brandags Beautiful post!
Thank you Brandon! This is a beautiful post. In particular your examination of hidden beliefs really hit me hard. While I believe that I’m open minded and willing to examine my own beliefs I know there are hidden assumptions that hold me back. I like the way you break down what beliefs might be hiding under the surface and how to expose them. As I become more mindful of my beliefs (both hidden and explicit) I’m often left wondering who it is that is doing the believing. Am I my beliefs?
Hi Brandon. A friend posted a link to this article on facebook. You look quite young. I am quite old, and just in the past year have discovered for myself the deep truths you communicate here. You questioned your Mormon faith, I questioned my Catholic faith, and we both discovered Buddha! Congratulations for being light-years ahead of me!
Thanks for this wonderful piece, this is what I constantly encourage my students to do as they search for their path in life.
I find that getting someone you trust to listen to you as you discuss your beliefs with them is very very helpful. It’s easy to feel for that point of pain or discomfort when they challenge you, and less easy to rationalize your way out of it.
For example, I was talking to my partner about our health and the things we should be doing to improve. When he suggested that I “create a workout plan, and stick to it, even if you have to get up at 5am to fit it around your job” I was very acutely aware of discomfort in my chest. I wanted to lash out, get defensive on him but the fact that I was feeling this discomfort meant there was something to what he was saying, only I had an underlying belief (or fear) that made me want to ignore it.
I now keep an eye out for “pain points”, that feeling in my chest that tells my something is wrong, and it has lead to many great improvements!
Yeah, good point. Definitely comfort plays a big role. The other one is fear, which might even speak louder than comfort. But also, strong believers often have very deep experiences behind their beliefs, often trance experiences. Growing up in a devoted religious home, I’ve had many of such experiences, really strong things that give you a very deep peace. But after realising such experiences were not unique at all but manifest in every other religion, I became skeptic of them.
Thinking deeply about belief for years, I came up with a few phrases, not original of course:
– If you are too certain of something, whatever it is, you are certainly deluded.
– If you can’t prove your religious truths to me, how can you prove it to yourself?
– Most people believe they are in a special group that have a superior perspective on the universe
What is truth? Here’s my definition: actual truth is something ALL HUMAN BEINGS know or can know regardless of background. If it gets to that stage, I believe it. Examples are:
2) the laws of physics
3) atoms hold protons, neutrons, electrons
Such things are universal truths, because we can demonstrate them. These things bring the whole world together! Who will argue about them?? They have no owners, the belong to all of us.
Any “truth” outside of the scope I just defined that is accepted with too much certainty is a disease that sets people apart of each other, create intolerance and confusion, and destroy us. And most of these truths that claim themselves universal have survived throughout history with the dirty move of provoking guilt and fear in their believers, aided by some deep inner experiences and complex ideologies and narratives that give cheap answers for literally every big question you always had: you don’t need to think anymore, you need to just believe them.