What is belief?
. . . the human necessity to have a working framework of beliefs to help us get through each day, and so on till the end of our lifespan . . .I dashed off these ideas in comments on my last post, and thought they could be developed further, but I wonder. Is it possible to understand human belief? Aren’t we prevented from being objective by what we already believe? Let us investigate.
. . .
Most human beings most of the time are uncomfortable with doubt. We crave certainty, but there isn’t enough available. [by means of belief] we satisfy ourselves with a manufactured certainty. . . .
Since we must start somewhere, let us consider a belief widely held in the Western world today: that individual possibilities are open, and the proper way to live is to pursue a personal dream of happiness and fulfilment. We have invested much in this: notions of freedom, government, economics, education, commerce, advertising, science and technology. It is costly to have beliefs and support them. Belief is proved by the evidence of what we invest in it.
Is this Western belief well-founded? It is easy to comfort ourselves by looking at other beliefs and their adherents, and see ours as far better; or by taking time and effort to try and demolish theirs. They are poor; they live under an authoritarian regime; they live in fear; they labour till they drop; they cannot discover who they are and realize their full potential. All very fine, but it doesn’t answer the question. Is the Western belief that I have described well-founded?
What I have to say is simple, and not an especially personal viewpoint. In fact I shall call witnesses to say it on my behalf. You can find critiques of this belief that “everything is possible—go for it” in many places. That’s not the problem. The difficulty is in being able to reject our own beliefs. I nearly said “cherished beliefs” but the adjective is redundant. The kind of belief I’m talking about is cherished by definition. What happens when you sit in a tree and saw off the branch you are sitting on? You realize that you have to be supported by something. You can only shed one belief by adopting another. How easy is it to change horses midstream? Following these lines of thought, we begin to understand how the world is the way it is. We begin to wonder what anyone thinks they can achieve by attacking the beliefs of others.
As my first witness, I call Australian comedian Jim Jefferies. Shall I warn you about him first? No, listen at your own risk, but I’ll point you to two passages only, first Why I get depressed, from 27 mins 42 seconds for about two minutes; and then “You can do anything”, from 33 mins 9 seconds, about teachers setting expectations. It’s satire, not philosophy, and he doesn’t offer answers. On a higher intellectual plane, here’s a passage from La Doctrine Suprême, published in 1960, & which I’ve mentioned several times. The official English translation is literal and frankly useless—but here it is, for comparison against an idiomatic approximation which you’ll find more readable, below. The ideas are simple enough, but it’s not easy to change our viewpoint, as I’ve said already.
Pursuing one’s dream vs taking the leap
It’s basic to my humanity that I see myself as a separate being. This is my sense of “I”. Once this is developed in me it shapes my desires, which in turn dictate my hopes and fears. This “I”, which sees everything from a unique personal viewpoint, carries its own intent and expectation; makes me feel a lack. My life is spent waiting for this lack to be filled.
This ambition or expectation takes the form of waiting till my real life begins, that time when my existence will be wholly affirmed in the world as it should, not just patchily as now. Aware of it or not, we all live in hopeful anticipation of this “real life”, a place where the negatives have disappeared.
What constitutes this real life, of course, differs for each of us, both in overall pattern and moment-to-moment detail. We each have our own image of what this new era would be, free from the drawbacks of today. An inner voice whispers how nice it would be to have this, be like that, enjoy such-and-such event. Sometimes I see very clearly what this real living will be. Sometimes it stays vague: I await the coming of that which will set everything to rights. This sense of a flawed present and better future isn’t always at the forefront; but it always comes back. Paradise is somewhere to be had, I know that. All it needs is some change to the world, or to myself. This is the key that will open the door and let me back in to my lost Paradise. So my whole life is a quest for that key.
Meanwhile, I kill time as best I may. I invest effort in getting ready for the key, seeking my chosen forms of success, material or otherwise.
. . .
My understanding has not yet been awakened by right teaching, so all I can do is let myself be drawn to aspects of what I know or am able to imagine as slightly beyond what I know. The clay with which I work is the “dualistic world of phenomena”.
. . .
In part, my aspirations are worthwhile, but the way I pursue them is self-defeating. While my mind is on something other than this moment, I let go my hold on the real life that’s right in front of me, the forms of the here and now which I already possess. Instead of being swallowed up in the forms actually before me, my intent is waylaid by images of the desirable. My dream of paradise holds firm. Meanwhile, the present slips from my grasp.
Thus I create an illusion of time, with the painful feeling that it’s leaking away from me. On the one hand is what I know, solidly contained in space and time. On the other is my perfect satisfaction, somewhere in the future. Time is the thing that separates one from the other, origin from destination.
I’m in two minds about time. Looking back, I bitterly regret its passing. Ideally, I want it back; at the very least I want to stop it retreating even further. But when I look forward, I’m impatient for it to pass, fed up with waiting. Looking back to a particular epoch of my life, I feel quite different now from what I felt at the time. Then, I was obsessed by dissatisfaction and images of a better future, just as I am now. Hindsight blinds me to that, but fills me with regret for all those things, all those times, which I hardly tasted while they flowed away.
As my understanding awakens by grace of right teaching, a change takes place in me. I see that I’ve had instinctive and unlimited yearnings. Nothing in this phenomenal world itself, however gross or subtle, could satisfy them. I see that what I’ve always wanted, while dreaming it into existence in this or that, is realization [“ce que le Zen appelle satori”]. I understand that this realization is not to be considered as an improvement, however you imagine it, on what I know now. It’s not a release from the play of dualistic forces, or the purging of all “evil” leaving only “good”. It is an access, beyond dualism, into something beyond dualism, a reconciliation of opposites. I don’t know how to depict this “something” to myself. I can only see it as something beyond representation, unimaginable, entirely different by its own nature, from anything I know today.
Overall, I like the way it reflects the reality I know. I’ve felt all those things. The only parts I cannot swallow are the two references to “right teaching”, but that’s due to personal history.
What he says about looking forward eagerly to a better future, or regretfully to a lost past, reflects my own experience; as does his reference to “something beyond representation, unimaginable”. I’m inclined to agree that “I create an illusion of time”. I discover, taught by life rather than a particular teacher, that my dreams of the future—going back to Cowes, where I lived age 12 and 13—and of the past—reliving each moment with an intensity never realized at the time—are just additional ways to enjoy this moment. Time is an illusion and there is nothing I have to do. And yes, this is simply a belief, like anyone else’s; though I don’t attempt to defend it.