The System of Belief


There is a hope that we all carry around with us, a hope that we never quite give up on, and that is the hope that – one day – we will actually ‘get things to work out the way we want them to’. Admittedly, this doesn’t seem to want to happen for us, but nevertheless we remain convinced that it will happen one day! Or that could happen. And even if I have grown cynical, and have now believe that ‘things will never work out’, I hold on all the more to the belief that the universe ought to play ball with me, that it is sheer perversity that it doesn’t. As a result of this, I get stuck in ‘angry mode’ or ‘frustrated mode’ or ‘complaining mode’, or ‘feeling sorry for myself mode,’ or some other variation on this theme.



What is basically happening in all these cases is that I am taking it completely for granted that the universe ought to conform to my beliefs about it. In other words, I have certain unexamined (or unconscious) assumptions about ‘the way things should be’ and every time life fails to happen the way I think it should happen (every time it refuses to play ball with me) then I go into some well-rehearsed variant of ‘non-acceptance’. Now it is a well-known fact that the universe doesn’t really care if I accept it or not – it just carries on as usual, regardless of my hurt feelings. As a result I end up spending an awful lot of my time getting upset and unhappy on behalf of these ill thought-out beliefs and assumptions. More often than not, I have a terrible time because of them.



I tend to see the fault for all this in the wrong place. Either I see the fault in other people or in life in general for letting me down (for being so rude as to not fit in with my expectations), or I see the fault in myself, for not being able win out over difficult circumstances. In the first case I project the blame outwards and I get angry because life doesn’t play ball with me, and in the second case I project the blame inwards and despise myself for being a loser because I am not able to force life to play ball with me. Either way it all comes down to blame – either I blame the world or I blame myself.



Both of these two reactions are equally absurd. The idea that the universe ought to fit in with my expectations of it is completely without foundation, and the idea that it ought to be possible for me to force the universe to do what I want it to do is also completely without foundation. Both of these two assumptions are laughably absurd, and yet I end up giving myself (and maybe other people as well) pure hell on their behalf. What is needed to cure this ridiculous situation is insight into the impossible nature of what I am trying so hard to achieve. Insight into reality is the infallible cure – in the absence of insight I will keep on struggling forever, oblivious to the absurdity of my efforts.




Another possibility that we have not so far looked at is the possibility that I will simply worry about things not going the way I think they ought to. I may sometimes get angry or frustrated, and I may develop low self-esteem, but primarily I am caught up in the particular type of mental agony that we know as anxiety. Anxiety is no different from any other variant of ‘blind non-acceptance’ – it is every bit as useless and every bit as absurd, and we spend an awful lot of time caught up in it, just as with all the other types of non-acceptance.



What is happening in anxiety is that I have certain unexamined beliefs concerning what I think is a ‘good’ outcome and what I think is a ‘bad’ outcome, and I end up going through hell on behalf of these beliefs. However, if you actually tell me that my beliefs are not worth feeling bad over then I tend to get rather insulted. Either that or I start to think that you are simply talking nonsense. This reaction of ‘feeling insulted’ or of being ‘automatically dismissive’ deserves our attention because it shows us something that we don’t usually realize – it shows us that we are for some reason identified with our beliefs, our assumptions. If I am identified with my beliefs then this simply means that they are important to me for some reason that I do not allow myself to know about – it means that I will protect them no matter what, for ‘no good reason’. I will go through torment on their behalf, and I certainly won’t want to question them and ask myself just how valid they really are, in any objective sense.




This uncritical attachment to our beliefs is no small matter – on the contrary, it lies right at the root of all our sorrows, and so it is seriously worth focussing on. The question is – What do we get out of our beliefs? Why are they so important to us? There are a number of ways in which we could try to answer this question. One way is to say that our beliefs are what hold our world together, and we instinctively know that if we start questioning our beliefs, then the whole thing is likely to unravel. We automatically assume (without ever thinking it through) that this would be an awful catastrophe – a disaster of the worst possible kind.



Normally, we naively think that we believe things because they are true, but if we stopped to consider the matter then we would of course start to smell a rat. After all – the whole thing about having a belief is that I want for it to be true and if I want so badly for it to be true, then how can I be sure that there is not some sort of self-deception going on? How can I trust myself, given the fact that – when it comes right down to it – I am not exactly an impartial judge in this matter?




Actually, the only way that I can ever be able to see the truth is when I do not come to the scene ‘already prejudiced’. I can only see the truth when I don’t care what that truth is – when I am impartial. The ‘believing’ frame of mind however is partial; it is partial because I secretly want to believe whatever it is that I do believe. The whole business of ‘believing stuff’ relies entirely on the fact that I am not willing to question myself – if I have a belief then this automatically means that I am not open to the possibility that the belief may not be true. In other words, a belief is a closed frame of mind. Needless to say, when I am possessed by some sort of belief or conviction about something I don’t go around thinking to myself “I have a closed mind.” If I acknowledged that I am only able to be convinced about something because I am in a closed frame of mind, then this would immediately throw a very large amount of doubt on the value or trustworthiness of the particular belief or conviction.




A belief only gets to have credibility because of the fact that we assume that we do not in fact have a closed mind. This is like a judge who comes to a trial having already made up his mind that the defendant is as guilty as hell, but who pretends both to himself and everyone else that he is willing to be open-minded about things. To be a judge, he has to appear to others to be fair-minded and impartial even if he has already made up his mind. He also has to appear fair-minded to himself – otherwise he is not going to feel very good about himself. In exactly the same way when I have a belief I have to entertain the comforting illusion that the belief is not just some arbitrary or prejudicial conviction, but a fair and even-minded assessment of the truth. I have to do this in order to benefit from the nice cozy reassuring and secure feeling that the belief gives me.



In conclusion, we can say that the reason that my beliefs and assumptions are so important to me that I would rather go through hell than examine or question them, is because they provide me with a very special sort of security that I seriously do not want to give up. This is the crucial point – the fixed pattern of my thinking is important to me in an unacknowledged way. It is important to me not because it is objectively useful, or objectively correct, but because it fulfils my unacknowledged need for psychological security.




We can also explain the feeling of security that I get in terms of personal validation – I get to feel good about myself, I get to be convinced that I am right, that I don’t have to question myself. This business goes a lot deeper than it might sound because the ‘freedom not to question myself’ really comes down to the ‘freedom to believe whatever the hell I want to believe’, and this in turn comes down to the ‘freedom to escape reality’.



Why would we want to escape reality? One answer is to say that the universal reason for wanting to escape reality is FEAR, which therefore means that our very serious desire for the security of our beliefs is the same thing as our very serious desire to escape our fear – whatever that fear might be about. The desire to hold on is the same thing as the ‘fear of letting go’, and what we hold on to is our belief system. Basically, our beliefs are our comfort blankets – they are what we rely on to make us feel safe.



This means that our system of belief and the purposeful activity that arises out of it, both have their root in fear. Beliefs are ‘the known’, and purposeful activity (which includes rational or directed thought) is the validation of the known. Our ‘purposes’ – which is to say our goals – become all-important to us and this has the automatic effect of reinforcing the invisible assumptions that they are based upon. This means that our goals aren’t important to us for the sake that we say they are important, but rather they are important because they reinforce our underlying system of belief. To put this another way, our goals are important to us because they give us a sense of meaning about what we are doing, and when we are ‘busy’ we feel automatically validated – we don’t have to question ourselves. This is ‘the comfort zone of goal-orientated behaviour’.



The validation of the known means that we are able to convince ourselves that ‘what we take to be true’ is the same thing as ‘the truth as it is in itself’, but this is never the case. The truth as it is in itself is always bigger and more expansive than myself, whereas the truth as I see it is the same size as myself – in fact it is the exact same thing as ‘myself’. The ‘known’ is no more than a projection of my own unexamined or unquestioned prejudices, and this bundle of accidentally acquired and unquestioned prejudices is what I call ‘me’.




This sounds like a strange thing to say, but when we reflect on the matter we can see that inasmuch as my thoughts and my beliefs and my conditioned perceptions represent ‘the known’, and inasmuch as I know myself through my thoughts and beliefs and conditioned perceptions, then it is splitting hairs to say that there is any difference between ‘the truth as I see it’ and the self which sees this truth. The self which sees the truth in the way that it unconsciously wants to see the truth is the self which sees its own beliefs as being true, and this self is necessarily part of its own belief system.



The conditioned truth and the conditioned self which sees this conditioned truth as being genuinely (i.e. unconditionally) true are one and the same thing. It couldn’t really be otherwise since the conditioned truth of ‘who I am’ has to be compatible the conditioned world which that conditioned self exists in. It is all ‘cut from the same cloth’ and there is no discontinuity anywhere within that cloth – there is no discontinuity between my ideas and the self that has the ideas.




All this is simply another way of saying that my underlying belief-system produces my idea of ‘who I am’. This means that my idea of who I am and my belief system are one and the same thing. I am my beliefs, or – rather, my beliefs are me. The whole thing is all one seamless unit, and that seamless unit is both the creation of my thinking, and the thinking itself. Furthermore, the whole kit and caboodle is only real (or valid) with respect to itself, which means that – ultimately – it is not real at all. After all, if a belief is merely an arbitrary description of reality that I have decided to go along with because it (secretly) suits me to go along with it, then where is the ‘reality’ in this?



Beliefs are like labels: I can easily label you as a criminal and then proceed to act as if my label actually means something (as if it reflects reality and not my hidden bias) but the very ease with which I can slap a label you on means the label tells me nothing. Beliefs, opinions and labels in general are ten a penny – I can easily come up with one to suit my own unacknowledged needs, and this means that they contain no genuine information at all – they are my own mental projections, and that is all. In other words –


If I can see things any way I want, then what I end up seeing (or believing) as a result of this wanting means nothing at all.




If anything can be true (when it suits me for it to be true), then the word ‘true’ loses its meaning. Yet despite the fact that our beliefs about the world and ourselves are ‘facile’ (i.e. to easily obtained to mean anything), the fact remains that it matters very much that they should appear meaningful and valid. This is the reason that we are all so touchy and defensive about our core beliefs, particularly those beliefs that have a direct bearing on the most central and all-important belief of all, which is the belief-structure that Krishnamurti calls ‘the self-image’. The reason an insult (any insult) stings us so deeply is because it touches upon our innermost insecurity – the insecurity we have about ourselves. There are many buried questions such as “Who am I really?”, “Am I all that I say I am?”, “What does my life actually amount to?” And so on.



The way we cover up or compensate for this insecurity is by the self-image, which has the overt function of providing definite positive picture of my identity. Of course, as we have said earlier, any definite positive statement always involves a tacit recognition of the contrary state of affairs, which is to say, when I say loudly that I am a worthy person, this message contains the implication that I am in fact completely worthless. I try to send out the message that “I am a winner” but – inadvertently – I send out the message of my hidden insecurity, my unacknowledged suspicion that I am a ‘loser’.




As Professor Carse has said, the motivation which we have to be successful in life is a direct measure of how little we already believe this to be true. If I am putting myself out to ‘be someone’ then this is because I secretly know that actually I am not what I want to prove myself to be. I suspect myself to be ‘nobody’. If I did not secretly suspect myself to be a loser, then I wouldn’t be trying so hard to be a winner.


In relation to beliefs, we can reformulate the above to say that if I cling to a positive belief about myself (in order to offset my feeling of insecurity), then what I am inadvertently doing is sending a negative message to myself. I am casting doubt upon myself by the very act of proclaiming myself. It is for this reason that the self-image is as often negative as it is positive – actually positive and negative are inextricable, and if we buy into the former we make ourselves the legitimate prey of the latter. This being the case, it is no wonder that the self-image is as vulnerable to insults as it is. The self-image is always vulnerable to insults, just as a belief is always vulnerable to the equal and opposite ‘counter-belief’.


The belief system (and the self-image) can therefore be seen as an attempt to cure a problem – the only thing is, it actually creates the problem that it sets out to cure. As we have suggested, the function of my system belief is purely to provide security. The perceived problem has to do with my feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, and the solution that I come up with is the definite viewpoint of my belief structure, which automatically provides me with the possibility of controlling in accordance with ‘how I think things should be’. The definite view of the world is how I fight against the feeling of uncertainty, and the feeling of being in control is how I fight against the feeling of being vulnerable. My fixed understanding of the world along with my attempt to control what is happening on the basis of this fixed understanding are the two prongs of my defence system.




Once I start down the road of ‘fighting against existential insecurity’ I am committed to the struggle, and this means being to committed to maintaining and defending my system of belief (and my self-image) no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the thing I am defending is actually worth defending or not – that is not the issue. In any case, I cannot ever allow myself to question that because ‘not questioning’ is where I get my sense of existential security from. I can’t question whether what I am defending is worth defending and so I am locked into defending it right to the bitter end…


The tragic aspect of this struggle is twofold –


[1] It is a struggle which I can never ever win.


[2] I can never allow myself to question what I am actually doing (which means that I cannot allow myself to see that my struggle is doomed to failure right from the start).


The combination of these two aspects is what creates the basic human situation of suffering and frustration. Aspect 1 is not something that we can do anything about – ultimately, we can never succeed in the struggle to defend our belief system because it is our attempt to defend it that creates the very problem that it is trying to defend against. We can succeed temporarily, but only at the price of an inevitable future setback. Winning creates losing – losing is the other side of the coin to winning, and once we set the coin spinning we get caught into the endless cycle of ‘up and down’.




We have said that the system of belief is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist until we start attempting to solve it. We can also look at this in terms of ‘identification’ (or ‘attachment’) – when I get caught up in a system of belief (i.e. a fixed or unquestionable way of looking at things) then I automatically identify with what that system of belief says I am. I identify with the conditioned self, in other words. From this point on it is inevitable that I will be 100% committed to promoting and defending this sense of ‘me’ – I will be fighting the corner of the conditioned self.


This really means that I am fighting on behalf of the belief system, since it is the belief system which has creating the conditioned self. The belief system is the conditioning which informs (or determines) the conditioned self and when we fight on behalf of this ‘false’ self we are really –without knowing it – fighting on belief of some arbitrary belief system which we have accidentally acquired along the way.




There is no limit to the sort of things we are prepared to do on behalf of our beliefs. We will hurt others, hurt ourselves, commit murders, torture people, start wars, all for the sake of some meaningless belief. As psychotherapist Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, what we are really doing all this for is so that we don’t have to extend ourselves, and by this he means question our beliefs.



Rather than question what we fundamentally believe in we would do the most terrible things – although we will of course rationalize what we are doing, so it seems justified to us. It goes without saying that we are all very good at justifying ourselves! If I am a religious ‘fundamentalist’, then I might be prepared to kill others or sacrifice myself for the sake of my belief, but really I am only doing what I am doing for the sake of not questioning my belief. I am driven by the need not to question my beliefs and this is fear, but I have turned it all around in my head so I get to feel like a hero. Basically, as Scott Peck says, this comes down to the motivation of laziness. My true motivation might be laziness, but I will not of course admit this to myself because facing up to my own laziness involves a tremendous amount of work, and work is the one thing I do not want to do. For this reason, I ‘dress up’ my actions so that they appear presentable, respectable, altruistic, honourable, and so on. Basically, I behave appallingly, but ascribe to myself the pure and selfless motivation of a saint or hero, and this is the wretched state of affairs which is sometimes known as ‘psychological unconsciousness’.



The idea that most of what we do, most of what we feel strongly about, is only (really) as important as it is to us because we cannot bear to challenge ourselves – because we are too afraid of change – is very hard to take seriously. If we did take it seriously then we would have to change and this is reason enough for us to consistently refuse to see our own true motivation. Becoming conscious (or becoming aware) is painful, and it is because of our automatic refusal to feel pain that we stay in the unhappy and ignominious state of unconsciousness.




We said right back at the beginning of this discussion that the one hope that we never give up on is the hope that one day things will work out the way we want to. Of course, often enough we slide into despair – we despair that things will ever work out for us. But despair still contains as a key ingredient the stubborn belief that things ought to work out for us, that life ought to follow our plans for it. If this stubborn belief were to finally evaporate, then there would be no more despair because despair is all about ‘me’ and ‘my plans’. ‘Me’ and ‘my plans’ are the very same thing (as we have already said) and it is the stubborn yet futile obsession that creates so much trouble for us.



It has been said that our situation is like a man who is forever rowing a boat, forever trying to reach a place where he doesn’t have to row any more. Such a place doesn’t exist, but the man keeps hoping, and keeps deluding himself that he will soon find that place where no more effort, no more work, is needed. Because of the futile nature of his struggle, the man is subject to an endlessly alternating repetition of hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair…



Another way of putting this is to say that we keep on striving time after time to find a place where there is no more insecurity, not realizing that such a place does not exist, and never could exist. The reason this place could not ever exist is simple – what we mean by ‘security’ is a place where the construct which is our ‘system of belief’ can rest contentedly in itself without having to fight to prove itself, defend itself, and validate itself. This for us is the ‘ultimate goal’ – it represents for us the ‘ultimate solution’ to all of our problems. The desire to reach this place is therefore the desire that we all have to ‘bring all of our troubles to an end’.



We are yearning for closure, yearning for an end to the discomfort, yearning for a final resting place, and we will do anything in the service of this goal. We are always finding ourselves in the situation where it appears that only one last, tremendous effort is needed to bring this about, and so we give it everything we’ve got, only to find ourselves right back at square one again. “This time it’ll be different,” I think, but it never is.



But what’s wrong with wanting all our troubles to be over? This seems reasonable enough, surely? The crux of the problem is that we want peace and happiness, but we want it on the terms of our belief system! We want our belief system to be intact and unchallenged, and for us to be at peace at the same time. The reason this can’t happen is of course because the system of belief is always at odds with reality – it isn’t actually true after all, and so can I find final happiness if I insist on hanging on to all my contradictory and divisive prejudices?



Basically, the goal of getting everything to work out the way I think it should is an impossible goal because ‘the way I think things should be’ is a foolish illusion. And even if things could be the way we want them to be all that we would happen is that we would find ourselves delivered into a nightmare. Every time our wishes come true it is a disaster because we aren’t wise enough to make good wishes – we leave out the most important thing, we miscalculate, we have an erroneous picture of life, we don’t think things out properly in our greedy hurry to make the wish. The wisest wish would be for things to work out the way they are supposed to work out, not the way I want them to work out, on the basis of my absurd and foolish preconceptions. When we think about the metaphor of the man rowing the boat, who always thinks that he is in with a chance of never having to row again, and who is always hankering after this goal, we tend to think “Yes, but how is your man any better off when he realizes that he just has to keep rowing forever? How does that help?”



Well, on the one hand it is obvious that at least he is spared the anxiety and stress of worrying about whether he will be able to ‘win’ in the game that he is playing. All anxiety has to do with the need to win (which is the same thing as the need not to lose), and so anxiety is no longer a feature. In addition, our man’s situation is such that he always has to be in denial of the truth – he has to insist on believing that his goals are meaningful, that his game-plan is meaningful. What this means is that he has to repress all the feelings of meaningless and futility that he is getting (that he is bound to get) and repressed feelings of meaningless and futility inevitably turn into depression. Thus, believing that the game is real creates anxiety and depression. We’re ‘investing in the unreal’ and the unreal isn’t a good investment!



“Even so,” (we might think) “isn’t it awful hard to have to keep on rowing the whole time?” But here too our assumption turns out to be wrong. Rowing seems like an unbearable chore to me when my heart is set on finding a way out, finding a way not to row. When this is the case (which it usually is) then my heart is not in the job, so I am ‘working but wishing I was not working’. I am working, but at the same time always scheming for a way out of working. I am ‘working’ in order that I might find a way not to work, and this is not work at all. All I am doing is waiting, like a man in the waiting room in the GP’s surgery is waiting. Somehow I have the idea that “this isn’t life, this is just a painful and thoroughly undesirable interlude that I have to put up with until the good bit that I’ve been looking forward to comes along later”. But actually I am 100% wrong, because it is life and if I just try to ‘wait it out’ then I am turning my back on life. I am hiding in a hole. And if I think that I will suddenly be able to come into life when the easy bit comes along, then I am sadly mistaken because I’ll still be in my miserable hole. I’ll still be stuck in my narrow beliefs about the world, in other words, and so I will still be incapable of being truly happy.



The advantage of rowing (which is to say, ‘being in a difficult place’) is that by looking at our beliefs in this way we become free from those beliefs. In order to look at our beliefs we have to become bigger than they are and this is what frees us from them. When we want to avoid difficulty that really means that we want to avoid giving up our beliefs – the over-all belief being “I should never be challenged” or “I should never have a hard time”. But how is this helping us? This rejection of difficulty puts us in the position of the man rowing the boat, hoping to reach the place where he doesn’t have to row anymore. The tragedy is that he never learns the ‘secret’, which is that when we give ourselves wholly to the rowing we discover that the rowing isn’t actually a problem.  The rowing’ is life, and life isn’t a problem. It’s only a problem when we decide that it is and refuse to use it as an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to learn that we are actually bigger than our limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world….