Truth vs. Belief

Truth and facts used to be objective, hard, immutable things to me. There just had to be a right or wrong, a good or bad, that could be backed and proven by some scientific means. I was passionate about uncovering Truth at all costs. I devoted myself to the pursuit of these concrete certainties, feeling as if everything could ultimately be solved or resolved through them. Feelings did not matter. Emotion or personal beliefs did not matter. Only cold, hard facts were permitted into my consideration on any issue.

One of my favorite parts about Hard Times, a book I’ve been reading by Charles Dickens, is the mockery of this type of outlook. The book begins with several main characters that only concern themselves with Facts, to the exclusion of everything else. They abhor “fancy” and “imagination” of any kind, and see no need to indulge these things even in their young children. Yet as the book continues, we are shown just how damaging this perspective can be and how valuable our whims, beliefs, and opinions actually are.

It was very disheartening for me to discover that even “scientific” studies can be manipulated and skewed to favor a certain perspective. In fact, it seems almost unavoidable as no person, scientist or otherwise, is free from personal bias. Upon the light of this realization, I felt set adrift in a sea of permanent uncertainty. If I can’t trust in objective facts to guide me, how can we ever really know anything? It all seemed so pointless and relative.

All of the things I had rolled by eyes at such as faith, belief, gut feelings, etc. now seemed to be on equal footing with the laws I had been allowing to govern my life. For a long time I really despaired at this. Now I’m beginning to think it is a blessing, not a blow. We really do get to choose our own reality. What we believe about something really is just as important, if not more important, than the facts we may collect about it.

If you find yourself rejecting this idea, take a moment to consider the baffling reality of placebos. I have always been amazed at these fascinating findings. No one seems to be able to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon, but placebos really can work in even the most unlikely scenarios. If you believe a sugar pill is a cancer cure, your body will begin to win the fight. If you know your entire church congregation is making appeals to God for you through prayer, your condition can actually improve. It really does call into question what might be possible if we truly believe.

Knowing that belief can even effect terminal illnesses, it’s no surprise how great an influence it has on more subjective matters. If you believe that you are a depressed, broken, unlovable person, that is what the world will reflect back to you. You will begin to acknowledge only what reinforces this deeply held belief about yourself and disregard anything that contradicts it. If you believe you are ugly and unattractive, your mind will seek out things that confirm this idea. But the reverse is also true of course. If you think of yourself as a happy, upbeat person, no matter what you face in life, you will absorb it through this positive filter.

The good and the bad news is, changing your external circumstances isn’t likely to change your beliefs. The question then becomes, how can we let go of trying to achieve what we think will make us happy and instead shift our mindset so that we are happy exactly as we are? This is the true challenge we are tasked with overcoming, not the world outside, but our own inner world.

I think most of us seek internal cues to motivate us to do something. We are unlikely to be outgoing and friendly if we don’t feel like it. However, if we want to feel that way, the best method is acting as though we already do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. But it is effective. If you identify as a pessimist, but would rather be an optimist, just act how you imagine an optimist would act. Even if it feels phony at first, with practice your behavior will inevitably begin to change your beliefs.

I used to really believe that the way I felt was the inevitable result of the hard facts about my life and the world. If I found myself in a “bad” situation, I felt helpless. I told myself, “Under these conditions, it is impossible for me to be happy.” I reserved my happiness for moments I felt it was justified. Now I realize that my happiness is just that, mine. I can enjoy it whenever I see fit. It’s certainly harder to connect with some days than others, but just knowing that there is always a possibility for it is a great gift. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Don’t feel the need to withhold your happiness by believing it does not suit the circumstance. The only thing determining that is you. Even when it seems impossible, remember that you really do have the power to choose. The more you remind yourself of this, the more you work to behave the way you want to feel rather than feel confined and oppressed by the way you do feel, the easier it will become. No facts, no circumstances, can stand in the way of your happiness and success in this life. Only you can. And while that can seem scary and like a huge responsibility to take on, it is also quite beautiful.

Belief Systems | What Is Your Belief System? | Pathway to Happiness

Exploring the Mind

Still immersed in How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I have been unable to prevent the psychedelic perspective from penetrating my every thought. I am desperate to find some free time in which I can start experimenting with my own spiritually centered trips. One of the things I find most interesting about psychedelics is the revelations people often experience while taking them. It’s not as if these insights are new. They are usually a reflection of things that have become platitudes: We are all one, love conquers all, we have the ability to choose our own reality, make our own happiness, etc. This is one of the reasons I find it so difficult to express the psychedelic experience to those who haven’t taken these drugs for themselves. It’s almost too hard to put into words and make sense of in my own head, let alone translate it to others. It’s similar to the way we can pass along knowledge, but not wisdom. There is something ineffable about the experience that solidifies the truth of the realizations that come with it.

Pollan’s book talks a lot about the seemingly limitless potential of these drugs to treat mental illness, comfort the dying, and even improve the quality of life for average, healthy people. What it hasn’t seemed to touch on yet though is the implications these psychedelic experiences have in regard to our minds in general. Sure we are introducing a foreign substance to our brains, but the pathways it activates are already inside of us, just waiting to be utilized. People have already found ways to access these mental pathways through breathwork alone, without the use of any substances. What does all this mean when it comes to our limited perspectives and perception of ourselves, others, and the world around us?

As a child, unburdened by biases or expectations, the world seems like quite a fantastical place. We’re present, we’re in the moment, we’re open to new experiences and ways of thinking. Understandably, that changes as we age. The more time we spend looking at the world through a certain lens, the more it begins to feel like that’s the only lens there is. We forget that we haven’t always thought or felt the way we currently do, and that others don’t think, feel, or react in the same ways that we do. Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a peak into the mind of someone else for just a few moments? Or better yet, to truly know the full capabilities of our own brains?

It’s frustrating and fascinating to realize that no one will ever truly know what it feels like to be anyone else. We take for granted that as human beings we are pretty much the same, but how alike are we really? So much of our experience of life is private and uniquely personal. The way our minds work are too complex for us to fully grasp, despite how far science has come. One of the issues psychedelic researchers have is how to quantify and categorize such personal, subjective experiences into usable data. Science has been relegated to the very limited realm of objective facts and observable behaviors/phenomenon. It seems we haven’t quite figured out a way to explore and understand subjective experiences, despite what a huge impact these things have in the world.

I suppose subjective subjects are better left to philosophers than scientists. However, one thing that is mentioned in Pollan’s book is the suggestible nature of a psychedelic experience. Whatever you are primed to experience is most likely what you will experience during your trip. Just like in a lot of other ways, in this way psychedelics seem like a hyper-intense reflection of reality in general. Our perceptions of everyday life are also highly suggestible, especially in childhood when the rigid patterns in our minds that psychedelics break down, haven’t yet been formed. If you wake up each morning and tell yourself you’re going to have a bad day full of tedious, tiresome activities, you probably will. On the other hand, if you can make yourself believe you’re going to have an amazing day filled with smiles and laughter and new adventures, you probably will! The external circumstances can be exactly the same.

It is impossible to imagine just how many different ways of thinking exist in the world. I believe we are each capable of experiencing all of these perspectives. More than any physical barrier, what holds us back most in life are our own limiting beliefs. Changing them can seem impossible at times. We don’t usually choose to believe what we believe. It’s an amalgamation of so many different factors that manifest as a belief system. Challenging those deep-seated ideas is no small task, nor is there a clear place to start. Part of the issue comes from realizing how much these beliefs limit our ability to even imagine alternative ways of thinking.

Looking at it that way really underscores the importance of finding time for focused creativity as an adult. Creativity isn’t about what you produce. It’s about expanding the limits of our own minds so that we are better able to come up with creative solutions to our problems and allow ourselves access to more options in our inner lives. Creativity is a muscle that is not exercised nearly enough. It is completely undervalued in our schools, offices, and communities. Studies have shown that adults are drastically less creative than children. Longitudinal studies that follow the same participants over decades reveal that despite being very creative at one point, they lose the vast majority of that creativity as they grow older.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, like the world has lost it’s luster, you’re not alone. The panoramic view of existence we all enjoy in childhood becomes narrower each year. For me, it’s extremely comforting and reassuring to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know. There is so much I am incapable of even imagining. So when I begin to apathetically ask myself, “Is this all there is?” I know the answer is a resounding, “No.” There is so much more waiting to be discovered.

Some St. Louisans Find Therapy, Meaning In Psychedelics As Researchers  Study Benefits | St. Louis Public Radio