Jennifer and I sometimes get asked what we believe about life’s “big questions”, like our views on death, God, and the purpose of life. Are there “core truths” we believe in, that provide us comfort or guidance on these issues? Or do we reject all belief and wander through life aimlessly? These questions usually come from people who not only believe their own answers to these questions, but who “know” them to be true in a universal and absolute sense, and see a life without this assurance as rather sad. We love thinking about these questions, and enjoy sharing our beliefs about them.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that there isn’t anything that I know to be absolutely true, but there are things that I believe to be true with different degrees of certainty. Granted, I do see logical statements such as “my father’s brother is my uncle” or “1+1=2” as true because of how I understand the definition of those terms. But once these statements are brought into the physical world, it becomes much more complicated. Absolute truth seems to exist in theory, but I’m not sure if it can be known in this physical reality, unless the knower is omniscient, as there are always other variables that can come into play. Epistemology, or the study of how we know things, is a subject that fascinates me, and explains more on this topic.
What I Believe
Putting logic and grammar and omniscience aside, let me get back to the question of what I do believe. Here are some of my strongest beliefs:
- I am (in other words, I exist)
- Change is constant
- Acceptance brings peace
Each of these beliefs is based on the external (physical, material) and internal (emotional, spiritual) evidence I have experienced up to this point in my life, and my personal interpretation of this evidence. Again, I make no claims as to their absolute truth. To some, it may seem delusional to question one’s own existence. But isn’t it possible that we might be brains in a vat, binary (or quantum) bits in an alien computer simulation, or only hallucinating or dreaming life? If so, maybe it wouldn’t change the fact that we exist, but it might give a very different meaning to the words “I” and “exist”.
Putting these beliefs together, I do believe I exist, and I believe that will one day change (or at least the way in which I exist will change). Accepting this, rather than resisting it, leads to peace. This also leads into the topic of death.
My Beliefs about Death
I see death as a change, like birth, or the opening of a flower, or even a passing thought. I’m open to the possibility that we continue on after we die, possibly with some remnant of thought or personality. But I’m also open to the possibility of it being the end of the individual’s conscious existence. I’m open to the idea that we live again and again in different bodies. And I’m open to the possibility that upon death, our bodies decompose (this seems obvious) and our consciousness gets absorbed by (or becomes one with) the universe. If I had to pick which version I lean toward, it would probably be the last one, but only slightly, as I don’t have enough information or experience to hold a strong belief toward any of these ideas. I’m fascinated by those who have reported near death experiences, although they are also subjective, often contradictory, and do not prove an objective after-death reality.
Fortunately, I find the mystery of death and the after-life largely irrelevant with regard to how I choose to live my life now. I am uncertain what will happen after I die. But I do believe that I exist here and now, and I want to make the most of this time while I have it. (More on that later.)
It’s natural to mourn the loss of a loved one, and I think allowing these emotions is healthy. But if the sadness persists or increases, it is probably because we’re holding onto an expectation that things need to stay the same in order for us to be happy. When we let go of what we wish were happening, and accept what is happening, we experience peace. And when we gratefully embrace, love, and celebrate what is happening, we experience joy. At least, this is my experience. Death can be beautiful. Change is part of life and death, and it can be appreciated for what it is in each and every moment. Learning how to embrace change, I believe, is one of the keys to lasting happiness.
My Beliefs about God
The word “god” has come to mean so many different things to so many different people, that it is difficult to speak clearly about this subject and have the words understood in the way they’re intended. So let me start with a blank slate. What if we woke up into existence one day and didn’t have any answers given to us about how we got here, or anything else? From looking at the world around and within us, there would be a lot of things we couldn’t explain — things that seem mysterious, complicated, or even magical. In our desire for answers, it makes sense to me how a supernatural creator would enter our heads as a solution to this mystery, and I do see it as a valid possibility. But it is only one possible explanation. Others include random chance, consciousness creating itself in different forms, or we could bring in the aliens again (but then how did they get here?). :)
If a god does exist, what form does it take, if any? Does it exist outside of time and space? Why did it create us? Further, why and how does this god exist? (i.e. Who created God and why?) Humans have come up with vastly varying answers to these questions over the millennia, many claiming to be direct revelation from God himself. If any of these sources is correct, how do we know? Some say to ask God himself, and many do, but they get different answers. How can we know that our answer is the correct one, and that we are interpreting the message as God intends?
In my search for answers to these questions, I must admit I simply do not know how we got here, or why. Coming from a strong religious background myself where I “knew” these answers, it was at first difficult to accept this uncertainty. But peace has come with learning to accept and even appreciate the magical mystery of life. I’m still curious about how things work, and welcome new ways of understanding these questions, but along the way, I marvel at what appears in my experience, and try to appreciate it just as it is.
If I had to choose a belief about a creator, my experience up to this point leads to me believe that the universe itself is a creative force of which we are all a part, down to subatomic levels. I don’t know how it works or why, but I do feel creative energy within me. I can reproduce. I can envision something that has never existed before, and make it real, just as hydrogen and oxygen molecules bond to make water, and as plants and animals grow and evolve. Isn’t it magical that all of this works as it does? I also get to choose how I view the world around me, and to a degree, how I interact with it. In a way, you could say that I am the god of my own reality. To me, this is empowering and exciting.
My beliefs about the Purpose of Life
Because I don’t claim to know any truth for certain, I don’t claim that there is any one purpose to life that everyone must live. From my observations, it appears that life can take on any meaning that we want to give it. If there is something we want out of life, we can focus on it, and move toward it. If we want happiness, for example, we can determine for ourselves what brings us happiness, and live our lives accordingly. What people want, and how they go about getting it, may be different for everyone. And every choice is okay.
My purpose in life regularly changes, but at the moment, I feel a strong desire to connect better with my authentic self, at the level below thought and belief, and then live from that place. I want to connect with others at this same level, enjoying the deep heart-enlarging sensations I feel in the process. I want to increase my ability to feel, and increase my awareness of the thoughts and sensations that arise in my experience, and their source. I want to be more conscious of the choices I’m making, why I’m making them, and the impact they’re having.
I want to live my life doing what I love, what I’m good at, giving from my core, and appreciating each moment as it arises. I want to continue expanding in abundance, success, and love every day, while inspiring those around me to do the same. I enjoy writing and sharing my perspectives on life. I enjoy working on the creative aspects of my businesses, seeing my ideas come to life, and seeing others enjoying my creations. I enjoy playing the piano and singing, learning challenging new pieces and techniques, creating my own, and performing them for others. In short, my purpose of life is to enjoy being alive!
Knowledge and Change
Well, that’s a little bit about what I believe based on my life experience so far. If you believe different things based on your experience, that’s great. If you think you “know” something to be absolutely true, that’s fine, too, although I feel like the words “know” and “true” are often thrown around so casually, without thought given to what those words can imply (I’ve seen dictionaries with up to twelve definitions of the word “know”). So I try to remember that these words mean different things to different people, and I’m more curious about how and in what way a person knows what they say they know, and how confident they really are in their assertion. (Epistemology again…)
I expect that my beliefs will continue changing as I gain more life experience. Or at least, I’ll have the opportunity to change them as more evidence presents itself one way or another, and as I see new perspectives from which to interpret that evidence. It’s up to me to be open to the change, and not cling too tightly to any belief, or I run the risk of deceiving myself. I try to be aware of my desire to be “right” and my ego’s natural resistance to anything that challenges this. It’s difficult to admit that “I might be wrong”, but I’ve seen how this view of clinging to being “right” divides rather than connects, as it often subconsciously paints another person or group as “wrong”, further separating both parties. Just as acceptance brings peace, resistance brings war. And it takes practice to be aware of everything I’m resisting.
Thanks for taking the time to read. I welcome any comments you want to share about what thoughts or feelings this post brought up for you, and what your beliefs are on these subjects, either in the comments below or through email.
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So fun to read your thoughts on those types of questions. :) I enjoy thinking about my own answers to those questions also, and discussing them with you, especially in light of how much they’ve changed over the course of only a few short years. I like your thoughts about gaining peace through acceptance of what is, and joy through loving what is. I value remaining open to the mystery of life as well, and especially as I’m increasing in my ability to enjoy being alive. :) I must also say here that I’m grateful for having the really wonderful added benefit of an excellent traveling companion…thank you!
Thanks Jen. I enjoy hearing your insights as well. You regularly inspire me with the way you express yourself, and the ways you remind me to look at myself and my thoughts more clearly. Glad to be enjoying the journey with you. :)
One word… enlightening.
And thank you for your comment Steve. :)
Brandon – Came across your blog as my family (wife + four year old daughter) are about to head abroad in September, having just rented our home in the states for the school year. Are you still in Bali? I enjoyed reading your post here, as it’s quite close to the wisdom I’ve gained in my time as a meditator in the vipassana tradition. It seems that you’ve come to these realizations more through your day-to-day life experiences of being on the loose with your family abroad than by any particular meditation or spiritual/devotional practice, which must mean you’ve chosen an amazing life to live. In my own experience, I have to go away on retreat to feel these things deeply and truly; it’d be nice to be living a life that supported that sort of awareness on a more organic level. Anyway – we’re looking to go to Spain, but it’s really up in the air. Mostly concerned for our daughter’s happiness wherever we land; to make sure we’re in a place where there’s enough for her to do in a new place as an only child. I’ll be working for part of the trip but then we’re free to travel and explore. Wondering about feeling aimless in the long haul, though certainly learning Spanish should keep me busy enough! Anyway – thanks for the blog!
Hi Aaron. Congratulations on moving forward with your dreams! I hope you find a great place for you and your family. Yes, we’re still in Bali, and plan to say here a few months per year, but are looking for a second home base in a more developed country. We’re interested in Spain, too, and may visit there next year. This year, it will be Vancouver Canada, Ireland, and the UK.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how these realizations have come — it’s been gradual over the past few years. Meditation has definitely helped me be more aware of my thoughts and feelings, as have retreats. And books like the ones I wrote about in my last post — they’ve been good reminders. It’s still a challenge for me to be aware in every moment, but I enjoy the practice. :)
As for aimlessness, I’ve been through some aimless periods, but eventually something arises that I feel good about putting my energy into. Good luck and keep in touch.
Great post Brandon. I love how you phrased “If I had to choose a belief about a creator”. Beliefs are indeed a choice. Change you belief, change your reality…
Thanks Tal. Yes, I’m amazed at how much my changing beliefs have changed my reality and how I live it. It’s like a completely different life. :)
The older I get, and the more I learn, the more I realize the less I know. And the more I am ok with that. I choose to believe those things which make sense and bring joy. There are times I discover myself stuck in a belief that I didn’t choose – something that was thrust upon me as a child, or adopted through experience. It takes effort to shift to something more positive and life affirming, but that is my intention.
I continue to be in awe of how quickly you have learned lessons that take many people a lifetime (or more)…
Great stuff, Mom. I also continue to find myself stuck in beliefs I didn’t know I had picked up along the way. The great thing is being aware of it and able to choose to change them. Thanks for the comment!
I really resonate a lot with what you’ve written. A lot of it could have been written by me! :-)
I am more of a “Questioner” than a “Knower”. Like you, there are very few things that I can say that I “know”… and I also am very careful with the word “Truth” (which seems to be something that SO many people believe that they somehow possess).
Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with the Questions. I don’t even need “Answers” anymore. These days, it’s more of a journey… a journey of discovery. Not discovery of “The Truth”, mind you… but rather an ongoing discovery of how ignorant I am and how little I actually know and understand.
My acceptance of this journey has also brought a lot of peace. I don’t *need* to know any more. I don’t *need* to have “The Answers” or to know “The Truth”. I am content just to treasure my life and to make the very best of it – every single day.
Another thought is… that a journey is all about growth, discovery, change and evolution. To me – Questioning is – in a sense – an on-going journey.
Knowing… on the other hand… is almost like saying that you’ve “arrived” at a Destination of sorts. Because once one “knows” *The Truth*…. and once one has “The Answers”… then where is there left to go? What is left to explore? How can the journey continue when you’ve decided that you’ve already *arrived*….?
Sounds like a bit of a stagnant – and not very appealing place to me.
(Which is always why I was never comfortable with Christianity’s “Perfect” final-destination called Heaven. Perfection is static. Perfection doesn’t need to change. But for me – change and growth is one of the most exciting and exhilarating parts of being human!)
Thanks for sharing these very honest, thought-provoking posts. :-)
I like your description of “knowing” as being the stagnant end of a journey, with no where else to explore. This describes quite a bit how I felt before we went traveling, when I thought I had all the answers. :) Thanks for sharing.
Out was really interesting to read this, Brandon. I came to a lot of the same realizations, at about the same age.
Several years ago I was part of a discussion about God where a friend of mine (oddly, also a pianist and music teacher) shared some views. The discussion began as being about belief in God, but soon became an argument about the validity of Christianity. At one point my friend, who spent more than a decade studying ancient Judaism (first as his post graduate major, and later as his job) posted this:
” Ancient Judaism saw God and Nature as the same thing, only “Nature” going much deeper than what we sense with our 5 senses. No personification, other than metaphors to teach a very scientific and complex perception of the universe. It lines up more with Quantum Physics than religion. That’s before it became a religion in the 1st century.”
It was part of a longer post, but this was the part that your blog post brought to mind for me. Your statement about resistance bringing war, just as acceptance brings peace, I fell is profoundly accurate. And, just to be clear, I am not using accuracy as another weird for truth. I think perfection and absolute truths are the biggest fallacies mankind ever invented.
Yes, if we could peel back all the dogma and truth declarations behind modern religions and see what their essence is pointing to, perhaps it would be something similar to “Nature” as you described it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ken.
Great post, I hold most of the same positions, and I come also from a strong religious background (evangelical). Whenever I think about existence or death, it only brings me anxiety and a slight of depression. Also, I’ve never seen anyone say anything about it that seemed both truthful and comforting. I’m different than you Brandon because I can never be fine with an end, and I’m skeptical that anyone actually are, when people say they are, I think they have no idea of what they are saying. We can’t never understand an “end” of everything, it is beyond our comprehension. So I prefer to try my best not to think about death (although I’m not very successful at it). But what gives me hope that life is not just dust in the wind are things like a child’s face (I have a 1 month niece) and listening to Bill Evans or João Gilberto. Also just meditating and trying to dive within gives me a sense of beyond. Anyway…. haha. Thanks for the post and sharing your ideas, Brandon, I’m so glad I found you and this blog today.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Juan. I also never feel more alive than when I’m present to things like a child’s face, or the sensations going on in my body. As for death, I can’t say that there is an “end”, but I do see a pattern in nature where one death feeds life in different forms (animals die to feed other animals, thoughts die to make way for other thoughts) – perhaps we can find a kind of honor in being a part of the cycle. Best wishes to you.
Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing :)
Very enlightening thoughts! Thanks for sharing Brandon. I am looking forward to share and discuss your “options” about the existential questions with my kids and some of my friends who are open to belief challenges and paradigm changes. I can relate to your journey as I (and my wife) went through that life shaking discovery about that life under false pretense in our former church (23 years of faithful service in various positions including bishop twice, stake prsidency,high council…). Today, I celebrate life and try to find meaning in every day’s gifts and challenges, knowing my own responsibility in every aspect of it and without the need to feel always safe by holding to things that facts have proven to be illusion. I have learned to embrace change, taking it as the only thing I “know” to be permanent. Again, thanks for your blog and for sharing your thoughts and your way of life which, I hope, will inspire many. Au revoir de la France :-)