For some time now I’ve had a growing fascination with belief systems – why we believe what we do; but in particular, where our beliefs come from. As I look around the world (and Facebook), I see people who have extremely strong beliefs about a number of varied and hot-button topics: politics, religion, gun control, global warming, abortion, GMOs, evolutionary theory, violence, terrorism, and family values, to name a few. When you think about it though, we all have strong beliefs. It’s really a matter of how vocal we choose to be about them.

Personally, I think the regular experience of contemplative practice has helped me to have a witnessing curiosity when it comes to my beliefs. Thanks to the “space” created during meditation, I’ve often found myself stopping just short of engaging in a reactive/belief-based behavior. At that time I often see the patterned thought, speech, or action I was about to automatically jump into and ask myself, “Where did that come from?” Or, “How long have I held this belief or agreement?” When you think about it, these are some pretty profound questions. To ask where a belief comes from implies a level of awareness that allows you to witness your experience, rather than getting caught up in the whole opera. It also asks you to look deep into who you are and what drives you at that fundamental level.

What is a belief? The term belief is generally used to refer to the attitude we have whenever we accept something as being true. It’s a mental construct that defines something as accurate without having to actively reflect on it. So in this sense, a belief is a more or less an automatic program that the mind runs in regards to a given subject. Our beliefs are running all the time, some commonplace, such as grass is green, and it’s the 21st century; while others are profound, such as a belief in God or the meaning of life.

But where do our beliefs come from? You might not like this answer…

We all like to believe in the freedom of choice. We want to be free to speak our minds, to go where we please, to live our lives as we see fit. We also want the freedom to choose our own beliefs. When someone says “I don’t believe in that,” they are basically saying they don’t accept that given idea as valid or true and therefore have no desire to make it a part of their life. We subconsciously know that what we choose to believe will somehow influence our lives and we want to choose those beliefs that will lead us to health and happiness.

Unfortunately, we’re not anywhere near as free as we’d like to believe. In actuality, rather than being free and independent centers of awareness, we are much more like bundles of conditioned responses controlled by our beliefs. Beliefs that, in reality, we most likely never chose for ourselves.

In this regard, beliefs are very closely related to conditioning.   By conditioning I mean the training, programming or habituated activity that leads us to act or think in a certain manner. We are all conditioned by our past experience, especially our earliest childhood experiences.

In his groundbreaking book, The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton shares a profound insight into our beliefs and conditioning by noting that neurologists have discovered that during the first 6-7 years of a child’s life they lack both the neurological hardware (as the brain is still developing) and the intellectual software (reasoning skills, logical analysis) to clearly understand the world they perceive. In a nutshell, what this means is that from the time we are born until we are 6-7 years old, we are essentially downloading the raw data of our lives as filtered through our environment. So whatever we are exposed to at that age, whether it is a mundane belief or a profound revelatory insight is simply unquestionably absorbed and assimilated as valid. During that time we are ingesting a raw “data dump” from our environment, and in regards to our beliefs and conditioning, that environment consists of our caregivers, parents, teachers, older siblings, priests, ministers and…television.

Thus thousands of hours of conditioned beliefs are poured into our sponge-like minds. Our young brains are completely indifferent to the content being downloaded; we are simply unable to tell the difference between true insight and pure nonsense.

But as we grow older what begins to happen? Those beliefs instilled at a very early age begin to grow and take root in the fertile ground of a mind searching for identity. The beliefs absorbed in childhood now serve as a reference point to support the maturing personality. As we grow into our teens, our beliefs become increasingly firm as the neural pathways that support them are continually pruned and refined. This process continues through our mid-twenties until the brain has completed the bulk of its development. In effect, it’s as if our conditioned beliefs were poured into us like wet concrete that gradually hardens as we grow older. After reaching full mental and neurological maturity, our beliefs have become a hard wired, rock solid component of who we are.

This isn’t to say that the ‘wet concrete’ model for forming beliefs is the only possibility. We can certainly choose consciously to accept new beliefs as adults based upon experiential or anecdotal evidence. And further, through repeated affirmation a thought can eventually become a structured belief. As Dr. Christine Northrup puts it, “A thought held long enough and repeated often enough becomes a belief.”

On the whole however, I imagine it’s much more common for the majority of our beliefs to be formed without our conscious awareness in childhood.  And as such it opens up an entire can of intellectual worms when it comes to our dearly held beliefs. For example, knowing that many of your beliefs were not consciously chosen by you, but unconsciously downloaded, how many of your beliefs are truly your “own”…or are they simply a mirror image of your parent’s beliefs? Or, more controversially, had you been born in another country, with a different ideology and worldview, would you be the same person and follow the same religion or belief system as you do now? With this understanding, the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” If you had been raised somewhere else with different beliefs, you would most likely hold those opinions as strongly as your current views. Things that make you go “Hmmm….”

Once we have our inherited beliefs in place, then what? Well, at this point our beliefs are like computer programs running in the background of our subconscious minds. They subtly (or overtly) guide, direct, and inform our choices in ways that seem completely natural and normal to us. Typically, most of us don’t question our beliefs unless we have a really compelling reason to do so. To question our beliefs takes us outside of our comfort zone and invites the cognitive dissonance associated with questioning the very fabric of our personal reality.

This is not to say that beliefs can’t change. They can, and in my experience this happens in one of four ways: Insatiable curiosity – for some people they are deeply driven to understand what makes themselves tick. They want to see why they act the way they do and how they can change for the better. Emotional upheaval – others, caught up in an emotionally turbulent experience might have their worldview turned upside down. The trauma and ordeal of the situation effectively tears away what a person formerly believed to be true. Mindfulness /Contemplation – some individuals, following the urging of an inner call or spiritual practice choose to investigate the content of their thoughts and beliefs. Through awareness of the origin of their beliefs they are able to transcend those that are no longer supportive or nourishing. Overwhelming Evidence – finally, beliefs can collapse when faced with hard hitting evidence to the contrary. Even the staunchest believers are sometimes forced to rethink their worldviews when conflicting evidence comes to light.

Despite these possibilities for a change of belief, we can’t underestimate the strength of the solidified conditioning that holds a worldview in place. Even with one of the four opportunities for change above working in your favor, it can take an act of enormous courage to question dogma, doctrines, ideologies that have been held for decades or longer. Most individuals, in the absence of a strong support system really don’t stand a chance for breaking out of their limiting beliefs. The odds against them are simply stacked too high. Imagine a political progressive growing up in a family of ultra-conservatives; an organic vegan married to a GMO company executive; or a spiritually curious soul living in a fundamentalist community. Under such circumstances changing and uprooting your belief system is nothing short of a heroic quest. The fact that some brave individuals manage to break out of the conditioning of their past is nothing short of a miracle.

Furthermore, the thought of being able to forcibly change the beliefs of another, even with the best of intentions, is problematic at best. Once we grasp the manner in which the brain literally shapes itself around its beliefs, we can begin to see the process of changing another for the uphill battle/vertical climb it is. Think for example of some habit, some small behavioral pattern about yourself you would like to change. If you’ve ever tried to stick to a new workout or diet regiment, stop biting your nails, or quit smoking, you know how challenging it can be to change yourself. Do you not see how exponentially more difficult it would be to try to change another’s beliefs, especially when they aren’t interested in changing? I’m reminded of a poster that used to hang in my 11th grade chemistry teacher’s classroom with a picture of a pig in its pen and the caption which read –“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Not to compare those you might be trying to change to barnyard animals, the point here is that not only are many people uninterested in changing their views to align with yours, but in fact they may be at a level of consciousness that precludes the possibility altogether.  We can have mountains of evidence along with countless rational and rhetorical arguments to support our position, but without a receptive mind that is truly open and willing to change, you’re teaching singing lessons…

Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

To swing back to the reason I chose to write on this topic – beliefs can be tricky things and as a spiritual seeker who is compelled to explore the inner worlds of consciousness and awareness, I find the process of self-transformation to be powerful and inspirational. Becoming aware and eventually transcending limiting and outdated beliefs is a necessary step for awakening to our true nature. If we are unaware of our beliefs, we are very likely being controlled by those unconscious programs as they silently run the show behind the scenes. Tied in to our subconscious mind, they can influence every aspect of our lives.

Viewed through the wisdom tradition of Vedanta, we sometimes refer to this process as the “Software of the Soul.” This software exists in all of us at the deepest level of our being and operates the same way no matter who we are. It consists of 3 components – action, memory, and desire. Although the way these three components interact may seem simplistic, the implications of this understanding are profound. Essentially, every action we take creates an impression which forms a memory. This memory in turn influences our next desire or intention. The intention then becomes the choice that takes form in our subsequent action. The feedback loop recycles, perpetually repeating the same cause-effect pattern again and again.

In the context of our beliefs, the earliest seeds of belief planted into our fertile awareness as children form the memory that then influences our desires; desires which become actions; actions which continue to reinforce the original memory.   As the wheel turns over and over, the belief grows stronger and stronger, until it eventually runs independently of any conscious thought.

This understanding begs the perennial question: If this wheel of karma is endlessly running, do we actually have free will, or are we stuck looping through predetermined action, memory, and desire for all eternity?

If we are unaware of the choices we are making, flying with the autopilot turned on, there is no hope of conscious choice making. We end up doing the same things, saying the same things, and thinking the same thoughts we always have. Perhaps these thoughts aren’t even ours at all; perhaps they belong to our parents or caregivers and we’ve been unconsciously parroting them all along.

However, if we are awake; aware of our thoughts, speech, and actions we are able to be the conscious choice-maker. No longer imprisoned by the past, we can interrupt the software of the soul mid-cycle and choose differently. We can do things in a new way, speak in a novel manner, and think creative thoughts that have never been thought before. But it takes the essential ingredient of awareness. We must cultivate the witness, the observer of our behavior and in doing so we create the space, the momentary “pause” to recognize that we have an infinity of choices in any given moment.   Here, once again, comes the benefit of meditation. Through the regular practice of stillness, the witnessing awareness naturally blossoms allowing us to simply observe ourselves in each moment of the present. In that observation, we can come to make new choices and form our own beliefs.

Ultimately, we are not our beliefs. Our beliefs are the result of our conditioning and as such are an outcropping of the collective influences that have shaped our lives. But we don’t have to be controlled by them.   Ask yourself this question: Who am I without my beliefs? The answer, if you look deep enough, is that you are the choice-maker, the infinite spirit, the ground state of reality. You aren’t your beliefs, you are the one in which those beliefs reside. The real you is much vaster than could ever be contained by an ideology or worldview. Infinite eternity can’t be crammed into a tea cup; it can only hide there for a while, as long as it chooses to play that game. Likewise, your limiting beliefs are only the smallest shadow of your true self and will only confine you for as long as you allow them to.

Walk on…