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What is a Belief

Annabella Wood's picture

What is a belief, and why bother having any? After all, if nothing can be proven as true, why would we believe in anything anyway? But certainly, we believe things, even against all sensory input.


For instance, if you stand in the middle of train tracks and look at them going off in the distance, your sensory input tells you that they meet up yonder a ways. And yet, you don’t believe that. Why would you go against your perceptory input on this? Probably it is because you have prior experience with tracks, watching them while on a train or walking, and have had the experience of seeing them open up before you as you move. Or do they open up before you? Though your senses tell you they do, you don’t believe that either. You believe they are stationary, not moving. But if that is true, how come they come together at the horizon, but never where you are?


Most of us understand perspective, and we know that our place in something will determine how it appears to us. If we measured the distance between two rails where we are standing, we would find they are a certain distance apart. If, without leaving our vantage point we measured the distance between the rails 10 feet away with the same meter stick, we would measure them at some smaller distance apart. But if a friend of ours was standing on the track at that point, they would come up with the same distance between the rails as we did where we were standing. Who would be right?


In this simple example, we would agree that the tracks are actually the same distance apart no matter where we stood. That is because we believe this to be so. It does not come from our direct observations of the tracks. Our conclusion comes from our prior experience, or put another way, from observations we have made throughout our life with regards to train tracks. We believe they are a consistently the same distance apart from each other, and don’t move.

 By definition, belief is: Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something. (1) 

In our example of the rails, we must gain mental acceptance that the tracks remain the same distance apart despite what our eyes are telling us about them.


The ramifications of not believing the tracks remain apart and stationary are many. For one thing, you couldn’t take the train. You would know that the train would come off the track, or get stuck when the rails got too close together. Also, you would look very foolish to everyone who knew you had this lack of acceptance. Everyone would laugh at you. Your friends would think you were stupid, and closed minded, unwilling to learn.


So the benefits of holding the belief that they never meet far outweigh the small amount of direct evidence that you have, and you believe the tracks are not as you see them. In fact you accept it as true that they never meet in the distance, and you live your life as if they don’t. And it works. You get to ride the train, you get to be accepted by your friends and included in their conversations, and you get to marvel over this whole thing about perspective and belief. Your life is made much easier and smoother because you hold this belief.


So it is with any/every belief you hold. It affects your life and how you move in the world. What you do and don’t believe dictates how you set up your life, your moods and everything you experience.


Your beliefs are fabricated by you as a result of inputs you have had throughout your life. They are a result of a combination of teaching by others, experiences you have had and the process of figuring out what works for you, both as an element in society and as an individual.


When you were born, you had no beliefs. As you grew, you learned things, and formed beliefs. These beliefs mold into a system of a wide variety of things you believe are true. For a while you took everything your parents said as true, and for most of us, they were usually very helpful. They taught us things such as what a cup is for. It is for holding liquid. This is very helpful. You can use a cup to hold milk or coffee and transporting it to you lips so you can drink it. Without the belief that this is what a cup is for, it would be very difficult to drink.


But have you ever poured a liquid into a cup with a crack or hole in it? Do you still believe that cup is for holding liquid? Probably not. That cup is now for throwing away or for filling with dirt and putting a little plant in it or holding spare change, or something else. As a result of this experience, your belief about cups expands to include the eventuality that they can be for other things than just holding liquids. This is what learning is. It is when our beliefs no longer hold true that we learn.


These are all very simple beliefs. Let’s take this idea to something more complex.


Have you ever noticed that some people are usually very happy, and others are usually unhappy? Have you ever thought to yourself that you would like to be more like the happy person? That thought can be trampled by the idea that they are happy because they haven’t suffered the hardships you have had. This idea could stop you from getting to know the happy person and learning how they do that. It could keep you in your own little space of wishing you were happier without doing anything to change it, feeling like you are a victim of the events of your childhood, or life itself.


But that entire last paragraph is nothing but a belief system at work. The happy person is operating with their belief system. The unhappy person is operating with a different one, and you are operating with another one. Everyone’s combination of beliefs is different. There are as many different belief systems as there are people. That’s good news. That means that we each build our own system of belief. For the most part we do this unconsciously throughout childhood and beyond. But if we become conscious of our beliefs and the ramifications they have on our lives, we can intentionally change them so that our lives work better.


Many people who once were sad most of the time have learned how to be happy most of the time. If you study these people and watch them, they are very consistently happy. This is because they have entered into the activity of consciously building their belief system in such a way that it brings them the most happiness. Another way of saying this is that it works for them. Some of these people have since become teachers and are happy to help others learn how to do this.


One such person is Byron Katie. Here’s what she has to say about happiness and its connection with belief. “She realized that what had been causing her depression was not the world around her, but the beliefs she had about the world around her.” (2)


Funny thing about beliefs. They are mostly habitual. That is part of the reason why some people are happy people and others are sad people. This is not to say happy people don’t experience sadness and visa versa. But when a habitually happy person becomes sad, it is temporary, and when a habitually sad person experiences happiness, it is temporary. To move from being a sad person to a happy person boils down to breaking old belief habits and replacing them with new ones. Byron Katie’s book, “Loving What Is” is a wonderful how-to book for working with beliefs.


There is also a biological aspect to this phenomena of happiness begets happiness, sadness begets sadness. Our brain contains a wide variety of chemicals which give us the experience of emotion. When we are happy, our brains secrete neuropeptides that make us feel the emotion of happiness. This can start a chain reaction in our brains such that as we feel happy, we secrete happy chemicals and we continue to feel happy and we secrete more happy chemicals. This continues until we believe a thought that makes us sad. Then our brain will respond with the secretion of chemicals that will give us that experience.


Have you ever had the experience of really enjoying something and then you have the thought that you wish your friend or ex-love could be there with you? All of a sudden you are missing them, and wishing they were with you or that it had turned out differently. Now you are sad, and even though you are still in the same environment that a moment ago had given you joy, you are sad. This is an example of your thoughts determining your experience of your environment.


It has been found that these chemicals secreted as a result of thoughts also profoundly affect our bodies, and as the happy chemicals are floating around in our brains, we are healthier than when the sad ones are there. So happy lives are strongly linked with healthy bodies, and lives lived in sadness, anger or such are linked with ill bodies. Candace Pert, a Bryn Mawr alumna, was a pioneering researcher in scientifically establishing this connection. Her book “Molecules of Emotion” is a great resource in learning the scientific aspects of the “happy/healthy, sad/sick” connection.

“Candace Pert,…an expert on neuropeptides, … describes how the immune and neurological systems communicate with each other through these biochemical messengers, thus demonstrating the mind-body connection, or "bodymind" as Pert terms it.” (3)


Not only does the secretion of natural opiates, the happy chemicals, beget more happiness and thus more opiates from the brain, but they can actually determine which aspects of our genes we activate. When we experience an emotion, we draw off those parts of our genes that will generate more of the same. So while we are habitually happy, we virtually become genetically more prone to happiness. Same with sadness. When we are habitually sad, we become genetically more prone to sadness. “Leading edge research in cell biology reveals that “environmental signals” are primarily responsible for selecting the genes expressed by an organism.” (4) In this sentence, “environmental signals” refers to both the inner environment of the brain, such as the chemicals it is excreting, and our outer environment.

 This is very good news. It puts each of us back into the driver’s seat as to the quality of our lives. Stuff happens to all of us. We all have fortuitous events and devastating events that come at us from all sides. But the events themselves don’t determine whether we are happy and healthy or sad and sick. “Cellular biologists now recognize that the environment (external universe and internal-physiology), and more importantly, our perception of the environment, directly controls the activity of our genes.” (4) 

In other words, it is how we deal with these events, mentally, that makes all the difference in the world. Our mental state determines what we do physically about them as well, so it is the only determinant of our quality of life. And we have the ability to choose our mental reaction to anything that takes place. We can do this by choosing the perspective we wish to take regarding any event.


Which takes me back to the railroad tracks. We have the option to stand between the rails and argue until we are blue in the face and have no friends left in the world, that the tracks meet in the distance. We can choose to take our own observations as fact and believe that they are the true perspective. We can say, “I see it, so I believe it.” But we would do this to our own detriment, so why not change our perspective and stop with the argument? Why not believe that there could be another way to see the tracks? Perhaps we are experiencing an optical illusion, and the input we are experiencing is not the only possible truth about the tracks. In fact, perhaps it is not true at all.


If we could take this lesson from the tracks and apply it to other aspects of our lives, we might find that we have experienced something like “emotional illusions.” What if when your parents did that terrible thing to you, they actually were doing their best to help you? How would your life be different if you gave them the benefit of the doubt? What if you didn’t believe they were awful because they did that? Would your relationship with them improve? Would you feel better to think that your parents did everything they could for you instead of thinking they were bad to you?


Anytime you are suffering under the weight of something that has happened to you, remember the railroad tracks. If you could improve your life right now by changing your perspective of the input you have received…would you do it? Will you do it? If so, this would equate to learning what works for you, as you did with the cup. When your belief about something no longer benefits you, change it.


So, what is a belief? It is the building block we use to create our experience of life itself. It is changeable through intention, and it is the key to what kind of life you will live.

   1.    Also check out Byron Katie’s book, “Loving What Is”3.    Also check out Candace Pert’s book, “Molecules of Emotion”4.    Also check out Bruce Lipton’s book, “Biology of Belief”



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