Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge, exploring the theme of Chapter Eight: Investigating Core Beliefs.
At the beginning of the chapter, a quotation by Mohandas Gandhi indicates how our beliefs contribute to our legacy:
Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your character
Your character becomes your destiny.
One of my music therapy colleagues, Stephanie Merritt, has been concerned about the ongoing devastating effects of the Holocaust, which have been subconsciously transmitted to second generation Jews and Germans through the unexpressed grief and guilt of their parents. She led Guided Imagery and Music workshops to heal mutual mistrust between adult children of survivors from concentration camps and adult children of Nazi soldiers. The music evoked surprisingly similar imagery in all the participants, who started off in two polarized groups. Everyone experienced their dark side (their capacity to oppress others) and their luminous side (their capacity to serve and help others). They all recognized that both victim and perpetrator live within themselves. After facing their inner truth, the participants could look with compassion into the eyes of people they had believed were enemies, seeing their shared humanity.
The Buddha taught that ignorance—ignoring or misunderstanding reality—is the root of all suffering. Beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others and the world around us represent a distorted and limited view of reality. As Tara says, “Suffering is our call to attention, our call to investigate the truth of our beliefs.” Under careful examination, the fear-based belief that we are separate, vulnerable and alone proves to be an illusion. Often our actual living experience of reality is different than what we believe it will be.
One of the Buddha’s teachings was, “With our thoughts we make the world.” When we pay careful attention, we see that beliefs about ourselves and the world elicit the very behaviors and events that confirm those beliefs. If you believe that nobody will like you, you’ll behave in insecure ways that cause people to withdraw. If you believe that others will criticize you, you’ll tend to act defensively, which may provoke the very criticism you fear. Only by bringing full presence to painful feelings of fear, shame or grief that fuel our limiting beliefs can we let go of those beliefs.
Byron Katie teaches a method of self-inquiry that helps those who are suffering emotionally to release attachment to beliefs and assumptions about reality. The next time you’re feeling sad, angry or fearful, you might ask the emotion directly, “Sadness, what are you believing?” or, “Fear, what are you believing?” I’ll give an example from my own experience: When I’m listening to a lecture or a Dharma talk, I’m afraid that I’ll forget the content if I don’t write careful notes.
Questioning our beliefs opens up room for new information, possibilities and perspectives. If I inquire, “Is this really true?” I realize that I seldom read the notes I’ve taken, and that I observe more nuances in facial expression and tone of voice when I’m not writing. Without pen and paper, I may not recall every detail of what I hear, but I tend to remember the main ideas more vividly.
Every belief is associated with a felt sense in the body. You can pay attention to how your body feels when you’re caught in a limiting belief. Another step in the inquiry process is to ask, “What’s it like to live with this belief?” As I prepare to take notes, I notice that my shoulders rise and tighten and my dominant arm tenses. Sometimes my right hand cramps while I’m writing. My body absorbs tension, which lasts after I’ve taken notes.
Even after I’ve faced the pain of holding onto a particular belief, I can still be sucked in and fooled by its message. Then it’s helpful for me to ask, “What stops me from letting go of this belief?” I’m holding onto childhood memories. When I was in primary school, my father would compare report cards that my sister and I brought home. He’d say, “She’s the smart one, and you’re the friendly one.” Even after I graduated magna cum laude from college, part of me still doubted that my intellectual abilities were good enough to meet with my father’s approval.
When I reflect on my fear-based belief that I have to work extra hard to earn approval, I can inquire, “What would my life be like without this belief?” When I trust that I am naturally curious and intelligent, my body relaxes, and I feel more open to what I’m learning. I naturally absorb more information, discerning with wisdom what is most essential to recall.
The final question in the inquiry process is, “Who would I be if I no longer lived with this belief?” I envision that after a period of disorientation, I’ll be freer and more spontaneous about learning, and I’ll enjoy the process more fully. My body and mind will let go of tension accumulated over decades, trusting the mysterious unfolding of life.
The more we are mindful of our negative beliefs, the less power they have to affect the psyche. Instead of being blinded by our preconceived ideas, we can take refuge in the living truth of our actual experiences.
Urgent situations can jolt us out of habitual patterns and social constraints to connect with our intuitive wisdom. Last week, when I returned home from leading the grupo de meditación for Spanish speakers, Mark told me that dear friends, Rabbi Jim and his wife Elana had called from New Haven with tragic news about neighbors whom they’ve known for decades. Anna, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter, adopted as a baby from Colombia, had a sudden fatal cardiac arrest while playing a game of basketball. Her parents were devastated by the loss of their cherished child and asked Jim to conduct her funeral service the following day.
My heart felt deep compassion for our friends and for Anna’s parents. My head responded by reviewing old beliefs about proper social behavior: “It’s too late at night to phone. You’ll wake up your friends. They need their rest.” And my heart knew what was right to do. I let go of pre-conceived ideas and called Elana right away to give her loving support. Unable to sleep, she was relieved to hear my voice and poured out grief about the death of such a young, vibrant and generous person. Elana needed to sense a supportive circle of caring friends to hold the unspeakable sadness of Anna’s death. By the time I hung up the phone, I was affirmed about the wisdom of following my heart’s intuition.
Probably you have all had similar moments of transcending outdated opinions and beliefs and responding to the call of your wise heart. Chapter Eight concludes with a pertinent quotation by Rumi:
I’ve gotten free of that ignorant fist
that was pinching and twisting my secret self.
The universe and the light of the stars come through me.