What We Believe We Become

Are you living or are you being lived?  Which is it? The fact that you are breathing right now demonstrates that you are living. At the same time, the cultural settings that we each inhabit, tend to live us, insofar as they influence and shape our beliefs and behaviors. For example, if you happen to live in a city, your surroundings will affect your behaviors and beliefs in ways distinct from if you happened to live in a suburban or rural setting. The same is true for the school, workplace and other settings that you might frequent. In short, each cultural setting has characteristics, standards and expectations that condition and shape our ways of being.  At the same time, on a broader scale, our beliefs and behaviors are shaped/conditioned by our nationality allegiances, ethic allegiances, racial allegiances, gender allegiances and more.   Upshot: While we are each living, we are also, to a certain extent, being lived.  

"We are what we believe we are."

-C.S. Lewis

An Experiment to Illustrate Cultural Conditioning

We tend to think that we have beliefs but it might be as true or truer to say that our beliefs have us. Another way of saying this is that our beliefs are not so much “ours” as they are byproducts of our conditioning.  To explore this idea, we challenge you to try the following experiment.  Sit down at a table and place a clean glass in front of you. Then, move your tongue over the surfaces of your teeth and around your palate and the sides of your mouth. As you do this, saliva will be accumulating in your mouth. After a minute or so, spit the accumulated saliva into the clean glass on the table. Then, swirl your saliva and when you are ready, bring the glass up to your mouth and drink your “spit”.

If you are like most people, you will find this to be revolting. But why? After all, your saliva, which is 99.5% water was, just seconds earlier, in your mouth! Why would it be revolting to reintroduce this same liquid right back to where it was? Our revulsion is linked to the word, “spit”. Growing up we absorbed the culturally transmitted belief that spit was gross; and it is this conditioned “belief” that creates our revulsion. But what if we had been conditioned to see saliva as the wondrous and essential substance that it is?  For example, did you know that saliva plays a key role in initiating the process of food digestion and that it contains proteins and minerals that reduce the incidence of cavities by protecting the enamel of our teeth?  And how about this: The exchange of saliva while kissing promotes the release of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin—hormones that promote feelings of wellbeing and happiness. How might your relationship with your saliva change if it were informed by these facts?

Depersonalizing Our Beliefs

We have been conditioned to believe that our beliefs define who we are, but our beliefs come and go. They are flexible, malleable, and changeable. To confirm this, you need only call to mind, something that you believed years ago that you no longer hold as true today. After all, many of us, at one time, believed that the Easter bunny hid eggs for us or that the tooth-fairy exchanged baby teeth for coins. Then, new information came in and our beliefs changed. The process really isn’t so different for us today. However, the questions to really consider are: How open are you to receiving new information; and how open are you to letting it change the way you believe?

Exercise: Breaking Free from Rigid Beliefs and Opinions

Buddhist philosophy teaches that living in a state of not-knowing, rather than living with rigid beliefs and opinions, leads to personal growth and freedom.  We invite you, now, to explore this proposition by engaging in the following exercise.  Imagine that you are in a conversation with a friend who is expressing a strong belief/opinion that you disagree with. You are on the verge of arguing but, at the last minute, you pause, take a deep breath and realize that it’s possible that your friend could be right.  So, rather than bickering, you respond to his opinions with the words, “Could be”. In so doing, you are letting go of your attachment to your particular viewpoint while, also, creating space for connection with your friend; and, in so doing, you just might discover something new.

There is a wonderful lightness being that arises as we learn to release our tightly held positions. To explore what this could feel like, find a sturdy chair and take a seat. Then, grab onto the seat of the chair with both hands, clutching with all your might… Imagining that a fierce wind is blowing… a wind so strong that it could dislodge you. As you desperately cling to the chair, consider that this is how we often latch onto our beliefs and opinions—i.e., as if our very lives depend on them.

Take note of how exhausting and stressful this clinging is; and when you can’t stand it any longer, gradually release your grip, noticing the lightness and ease that begins to permeate your body as you set yourself free. This is, in effect, what happens when we awaken enough to let go of ego-laden beliefs and opinions that undermine our life force.

"Man’s last freedom is his freedom to choose how he will react in any given situation."
- Viktor Frankl

"As I began to paint for the first time in many years, I experienced a powerful surge of aliveness coursing through my entire body."

- Curran Hunter, Steppingstone # 2 Guide

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