Belief Traps

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The Diamond Sutra professes that we mistakenly believe in ourselves as persons that are persistent and real entities. We make it up. We want to believe we are this and that and more.

The Lankavatara sutra discusses how we approach reality blinded by  our perceptions and projections, creating rabbits with horns.

A Zen Master said, name the color, classifying it and believing thereby that you know what it “is” in some concrete and enduring manner, and you blind the eye.

As the Enlightenment polymath and genius Laplace is supposed to have said on his death bed, we chase phantoms.

Beliefs.

We want to grasp intellectually, to touch, smell, taste, see, and hear it all. And when we can’t, we fill in the blanks with what we believe should be there, projecting our beliefs, like the way our brains fill in the physiologic/anatomic blind spots in our vision or the details in our peripheral vision that we don’t really see.

We are trapped by our beliefs, and they don’t have to be the clearly wrongheaded absurd beliefs those other people believe that lead to such disasters all of the time, as we can plainly see. Seemingly benign and elegant beliefs can still trap us and become a filter, a distortion, an unconscious bias that keeps us in a fog of delusion, keeping us in a stupor of ignorance.

On top of that, when we have sufficient insight to discover a belief we might be trapped by, a cobbled together way to pretend to ourselves that we know what we are talking about, to explain ourselves and to make our selves more comfortable, allowing us to at least have the illusion that we have some control over things we don’t really understand or have the big picture for, we often simply replace that exposed belief with a more subtle or palatable belief.

We use beliefs as shortcuts, to make our lives easier. That may be a necessary temporizing measure, but it doesn’t work for long. Our beliefs often confer a false security. We are like the turkey that thinks seeing the farmer means feeding time, until of course he is carrying an axe one morning in late November.

This is because beliefs, to the extent that they are beliefs, reflect our state of ignorance, which means our degree of entropy and disorganization, the energy not available for us to use consciously and conscientiously (more on entropy, ignorance and information later), and are at best simply a set of working hypotheses to guide us until we evolve and mature in our actual experience of reality.

Both Buddhism and science (though not all Buddhists or scientists, of course) stress experience (the word “experiment” was derived from the word “experience”), not authority or beliefs. But lacking the requisite experience and maturity, driven by fear and grasping for reassurance, we can’t abide empty files, incomplete knowledge or unclassified experience. They taunt us and remind us of our ignorance, our tentative situation. Of impermanence. Of our limitations in the world of the senses.

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Of course, that is in part why I have thought quantum mechanics might be worth looking at at all for a student of Zen. Whatever interpretation of what quantum mechanics is “really” about that you favor, quantum phenomenon minimally demonstrate that we have to resist trying to jam reality, even experimental reality, into the “how it really is” mentality of the beliefs we hold, the classifications we walk around with in our heads based on our day-to-day experience in the 4-d world of the senses at the level we experience energy transformations.

It won’t fit.

You can jam your experiences into your beliefs and your beliefs into reality, then close the lid, like pushing a spring loaded clown into a Jack in the Box, but eventually the music will stop and pop goes the weasel.

This includes beliefs in materialism (science), Platonism (math), philosophy, post-modernist relativity, religion, political or social ideals, or artistic/poetic ideals like beauty or romantic love, and yes, even Buddhism! To the extent that they are indeed beliefs that are treated as more than mere provisional models to orient you (or say Buddhism as template, as Nyogen likes to say), to the extent that they are concepts, files you need to fit your experiences into, rigid structures that can not expand as you grow and evolve, I suspect that they will sometime or another fail. And then they will cause pain and suffering for yourself and others. Or at least disappointment and disorientation!

I bring this up today because I came across this sentence that I wanted to share in a book called “My Big TOE” by Thomas Campbell:

“Jeez those belief traps are amazing – they can transmute simple ignorance and incompetence into blind stupidity in a flash.”

Been there, done that!

Beliefs: a very, very subtle practice.

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photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

2 thoughts on “Belief Traps

  1. Yesterday at breakfast, the boys came up with a bunch of questions regarding different religions and why we didn’t have one. (Quite the topic for a Sunday morning!) Over and over we kept answering it was all about believing. And honestly added that we believe that being non religious is the ultimate way of life. There we said it: we believe. Oops…
    Beliefs as working hypotheses – love that one. This is a great post!

    • Thanks Ben Ming

      Maybe not ALL about believing.

      As we peel back the layers of the onion of belief and conditioning…

      What’s left?

      Is it onion all the way down?

      That is the role of practice, meditation, I think (err, I believe?). That is a question I ask, not because I have an answer but because it seems germane to practice, to life..

      But in the mean time, it seems valid to explore. I think it is part of what Nyogen likes so much about Tom Campbell’s book.

      They say even in Zen a bit of “faith” in the process is needed to get started.. belief in practice as working hypothesis!

      But as a trap, it relates to the limits we place on ourselves. To the inner dialogue.

      Back on the hippie commune we had a phrase: “don’t limit the Universe” meaning don’t box in your view of Reality with small minded concepts and conditioned limitations. Don’t define yourself by your fears or throw yourself off the path by self-aggrandizement, thinking you know what you only believe.

      Hence belief traps.

      Much love to you and your family, see you here in a few days if you are still upright (well semi upright OK; I’ll drive!) after the long flight!

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