Imagine you are living a thousand years ago, in a part of the world that completely believes that the world is flat. And imagine that you are a sailor, trying to get to a new part of the world. But you keep getting confounded by the stars, and you never get where you really want to go. What might you think is the problem?
It’s interesting to consider that you might not have even a clue to where to look. And I would suggest that this still holds true for us. There are aspects to your modern belief system that are just as flawed, just as problematic, and just as seemingly absolute, and just as hidden as this. What might they be?
My clients chuckle every time I bring out the ‘flat earth’ story in session. It seems to be a really good analogy of what gets in the way for us, and what we can do about it. There was a time and place in history where we all would have believed, without question, and with utter unconscious assumption, that the world is flat. We would have assumed this to the same absolute certainty that we currently assume other so-called ‘facts’, perhaps such as the solidity of the atom, or the steadfastness of gravity. It would have been a brave, strange, and highly curious soul who would have even considered questioning this. It still is. At least you won’t get burned at the stake for doing it nowadays. Well, not literally anyway.
We hold many so-called scientific facts as sacred and immutable, even when evidence shows up to the contrary. And while I could write at length about quantum physics and what we call hard science, this article is more about our own ideas of our self (which we ought to approach scientifically as well!). For we hold so many beliefs about ourselves, about life, that we do not even realize that they are merely beliefs (and not fact) – even when evidence continually shows up to the contrary. And this is our folly and our ruin. It will never get us where we want to go. We are like ancient mariners without a compass, without stars.
We think we are so smart, and in many ways that is true – we are smarter than we imagine. But we are also incredibly confused. We do not use our intelligence intelligently. We have this sense that we develop beliefs about our self and the world through logic – but really, most of the fundamental ideas that we hold about the world, and through which, subsequently, we view everything (including our own systems of logic) were formed by emotion, even pre-verbally, at very young ages, and are therefore too close, too fundamental for us to even see. It is not that we see the world through rose coloured glasses, but more through kaleidoscopic glasses, created by the inherited and instilled ideas about the world that created our whole way of seeing.
It is very difficult to see reality just as it is, without the prismatic splintering of beliefs. It is nothing short of a life’s work. In Buddhism it is quite clear that this is actually the whole point of life – to see reality – to see your self – merely and simply as it is. How beautiful, I must add, that the concept of enlightenment is just this – seeing things as they truly are!
However you might feel about that goal, it is also valid that every step in that direction, every clearing of a belief and alignment of your vision, is worth taking as it brings just a little more joy and peace in your life. This is healing in a nutshell. All of our emotional pain is confusion. And when I say that, I mean multiple layers of that word – which to me is also broken to ‘con’ (latin: with) and fusion (latin fundere: melting together). What we are melted with is simply wrong ideas, flawed and false beliefs about reality. And our work is just to untangle from that mess.
But it often takes more energy to pull apart two elements joined in a molecule than it does to put them together.
Part of the challenge is that we don’t even know what we believe. Meaning, our fundamental beliefs are as a rule, unconscious. This is self-evident because your beliefs are, by definition, the things that you take for granted in the world. Beliefs are very, very different from thoughts. I can think to myself, “I can teleport to Iceland” without believing it in the slightest. This is obvious but does need to be stated. If this was not accurate, we would not be able to imagine our fantasy novels, or lie.
You don’t go around reciting to yourself daily that the world is round, any more than a 12th century peasant might need to assert that the world is flat. You might not know consciously that you have racist beliefs, but studies suggest that they are almost certainly in there. To think about it, this applies to the peasant as well – for a European commoner to not consider a person of another skin colour to be unequal to them might possibly be unbelievable, even heretic. I could go on, I’m sure, but maybe you get the idea. Beliefs are almost too close to see – they are the stuff that make seeing itself.
My crucial point here is that this absolutely does not mean that it is impossible to become conscious of your innermost beliefs. It’s just that it takes deliberate looking. Part of my work as a therapist is to help people do just that, and it is not hard at all. We just have to start noticing where and how you are at odds with reality. Figuratively, we just have to notice the moments that you are trying to sail to another shore and not getting there. Which is a fancy way to say: anytime you are stressed, confused, or in emotional pain.
Modern psychology, particularly in the study of trauma, is revealing more and more convincingly that your beliefs are all stored in your body. Your body, we could say, is your subconscious mind. This might seem like a strange or flakey concept until I point out – where else would they be? To say it’s in your brain is limiting and not as useful. (especially when you learn how many neurons are in your gut!) Trauma shows us this in the loudest examples, because powerfully difficult memories are found and felt in specific locations of pain the in body that can be targeted and seen and worked with. If you are skeptical about this – fair enough – but I would refer you to study the research around Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and the work of writers like Peter Levine, Francine Shapiro and Bessel van der Kolk. Frankly, the simple fact that EMDR works the way it does is pretty solid evidence of this.
If you want to find out about this personally, you can do a mindfulness experiment that I do with many clients. Get quiet and still, and bring attention to a place of in your body, such as your stomach or heart or a place of tension in a shoulder. If you can stay with it, you may notice that your mind will naturally go to certain thoughts, images and ideas that are specific to that area. This might take practice – since we are habituated to ignore and resist looking at discomfort. This is especially obvious with pain that is residual from a known trauma. The body speaks to us if we listen, and it mostly certainly keeps the score.
There are many other ways to make conscious your unconscious beliefs. The easiest is simply to notice your criticisms and judgements of the world – to write them down or simply bring awareness to what you are thinking. Every thought can tell you about the lens through which it is seen. No thought exists in a vacuum, or without a context. Just get curious.
Without getting too much into the cognitive side of things, in this article I want to stay with my little analogy of the flat earth. Because the boat you are sailing is your physical body.
And not only are we confused about the correct way to navigate this vast planet, but most of the time our sails are not even unfurled. They are often, in fact, a knotted mess, and you are just bobbing out at sea, getting pushed this way and that according to the current. This is an unexamined life. Just at the mercy of cultural conventions. Contradictions and internal errors of fact and logic abound in such a life. And if it sounds like I am being harsh, then I would just ask you to be honest and curious with yourself. All of this is true for me just the same as it is true for you. It’s just part of the human condition.
In this example, the knotted sails are very much like the tensions in your body. Trauma research suggests that these tensions – which are often incredibly subtle and not obvious upon casual glance – are in the fascia of our muscles. It takes sustained, deliberate awareness to open up these tightly wound areas in us. Touch work can open this, but so can just your awareness, as openness to the knots in our body can release emotion, which is essentially a whole packet of information.
In my work as a therapist, I have frequently watched people bring attention to areas of their body, and as they meet the sensations and feelings there with non-resistance and open-mindedness, it is fascinating to see it bring up old memories, images, stories, and tying all of these together – ideas about the self and the world. Simply by seeing these ideas, we can start to see through them. As the knots of the sail open up, we don’t have to create the wind – the wind is already there and will move us naturally. But the more our sails are open, the more we can cooperate with the wind, harness it to take us where we want to go.
That’s the where I really like this analogy – because you can use sails on a boat to go many directions. The body becomes our friend, in cooperative service in our lives, and not a stubborn enemy. It is almost like people want to sail to the new world, but they think that if they just bump about on the water, it will come to meet them eventually. But the new world is on the other side of the horizon – it is past the place that you think the world will end. You cannot get there with your old false maps, the blind oarsmen, the navigator who knows that the world is flat.
The body is not something to transcend, to ascend from, to escape because it holds pain. It is the vessel and vehicle that will take us where we want to go – to freedom and ease and joy.
The 12th century self assumes that the world is flat, just in the same way that the 21st century self might assume that a relationship is the answer to all your problems, or that you are not really worth as much as other people, or that death is something to be feared. Take your pick. (never mind the fact there may still be some 21st century humans who still believe the world is flat. Case in point!) If it isn’t working, it can’t be right. To question your thoughts is like taking the peasant (or our confused mind) up in a rocket – at some point he will just see and experience for himself the fact that the planet is a sphere. One can only deny one’s experience for so long. Though we do! We certainly do…
But once you see and know the world to be a sphere, you no longer need to question the idea that the world is flat. You also no longer have to affirm or convince yourself it is a sphere. It is obvious; it becomes a new belief. Your kaleidoscopic glasses naturally rearrange the world accordingly, and your sails open up a bit more to the wind. You cannot change your beliefs with willpower or force – you cannot make yourself believe something that you don’t truly believe. That is why new agey affirmations are mostly empty placations. But honest, deep awareness can show you what is true, and as you listen to your own experience, you can test the old beliefs against reality, and in time they naturally will shift.
This is why I use mindfulness as a fundamental practice to almost every approach to therapy, and why inquiry practices such as The Work of Byron Katie are such essential tools for our growth and happiness – those are the things which take you up in the atmosphere and help you see more and more of the world. Without even knowing that you previously believed the world to be flat, awareness, inquiry, and bodily connection will show you what has been getting in the way. I have come to trust this.
It is absolutely delightful for me to facilitate people in this process, and to watch people gradually see that the world is round – which for them may be the realization that they are not to blame for their mother’s cruelty, that they are not actually worthless, or last week for someone, that their body truly is not actually ugly and awful. These beliefs, which reside in the pain in our body, and are revealed in the stress in our mind, can be re-understood, causing massive shifts in the direction of a life.
It’s like opening your sails, and finally catching the exhilaration of the open waters.
All it takes is awareness, curiosity, and courage.
The truth does set us free, but we are the ones that have to first set free the truth.