The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Belief Systems

I came across this passage the other day and I thought it was a brilliant dissertation on the subject of belief systems. It not only applies to relationships, but in my humble opinion it applies to all of life and to all of our dealings with the universe...

It is sad, but not surprising, that Ted was unable to make the changes that would enable him to stay, and grow, in this relationship. His ideas about the roles that he and his fiancée should play were part of his belief system, a gospel about how the world is and how people should act, a catechism that had been drummed into him all his life.

In some ways, our belief systems perform a valuable service, for they temper our instinctual nature. Animals live pretty much in a stimulus/response environment, with fixed reactions and adaptations to life, doing the bidding of the old brain. Our clever cerebral cortex enables us to be more discriminating in our responses. And the way we temper the mindless reactions of the old brain is to develop a set of beliefs. Beliefs offer order and stability in a chaotic world. By conceptualizing our repeated experiences into a codified canon that is fixed and stable and logical, we can say, “This is the way my mother behaves when...,” “If I do this, then that will happen...,” “This is how a family acts when someone is sick...,” “Men don’t like it when....” Our pattern-forming brain enables us to digest blizzards of stimuli and to formulate what we feel are proper and effective responses, so that we are not at the mercy of our primitive instinct to fight or flee, and don’t have to start from square one to figure out how to react to every little byte of input.

But we get tripped up by our belief systems. They begin to function in us as instincts do in animals, becoming fixed and unyielding. We develop models about how to act, what to do, how people are – and the models, rather than each discrete experience, become the reality. Unfortunately, studies show that the more troubled and dysfunctional our family, the more we need belief systems to protect us from chaos, to assuage our fear, to cope. The daily stress and unpredictability of living with an absent or abusive father, an alcoholic or withdrawn mother, can be tolerated only by creating a system of beliefs within which to make some sense of their unloving behavior. The bottom line about the brain, says Robert Ornstein in The Healing Brain, is that it yearns for stability, especially if we are in a volatile, fragile environment. The brain needs to be able to make predictions, and fears the unknown – which is what unpredictable behavior is – so it codifies and ritualizes its experience in order to make sense.

But however useful beliefs are in a stressful environment, their rigidity has to be tempered if we are to be able to find, and function in, relationships. If, from your experience and what society tells you, it becomes part of your canon of belief that all a man cares about is sex, that all family members shout at one another, that the best response to criticism is to keep quiet, that women care most about how much money you make, or that you have bad luck with men, you will find it hard to distinguish on a case-by-case basis and will react according to what you believe rather than the actuality. Richard Pryor tells a story about his wife coming home and finding him in bed with another woman. “Who are you going to believe?” he challenges her. “Me, or your lyin’ eyes?” This is what belief systems do.

Every second of our lives, we create our reality with our thoughts and behaviors, but we cannot change our beliefs at will. We cannot think our way out of pain, cannot override our instinctual reactions. We must become aware of the price we pay for our rigid thinking, and we must experience the pain of holding on to our old beliefs. As a single, part of your preparation for the journey of relationship is to uncover the world you carry around in your head; if it is not the world you want, you have to take the responsibility for changing it. But to fully change your beliefs, you need new experience that contradicts the old, and changes those beliefs naturally over time. This experience is what a conscious relationship provides.

- Keeping the Love You Find