Beliefs are just a type of story. They are an attempt by me to assert some control over something that is beyond my comprehension. Without these beliefs I would struggle to negotiate life, but this does not mean that all beliefs are good or useful. I’ve come to realize that most of the bad things that have happened to me are due to believing the wrong type of stories. I once felt sure that alcohol could allow me to pass through life in a pleasant fog of numbness, but it actually turned my existence into a living hell. I then developed new stories to justify remaining in that hell. Luckily I was later able to find new ways of thinking that allowed me to break free of this mess.
Beliefs seem to provide a number of functions:
• Life can be confusing but beliefs can act like filters so that things are less of a jumble. If I have too many filters, or my filters are the wrong type, I can completely lose touch with reality – and that is bad for me.
• Beliefs act as tools. They allow me to negotiate life, and it is hard to imagine how I would cope without them.
• Beliefs can give me a sense of security in an otherwise uncertain world.
Beliefs can be terribly tricky, but I’ve found that the key to gaining mastery over them is to realize that they are just stories. It may sound arrogant, or even disrespectful, for me to be so dismissive of beliefs, but this is a key premise in my worldview. It could be that there are people out there that do have access to truth with a capital ‘T’, but even if they do how could I tell? I believe the Buddha (the awakened one) was a great teacher, and his ideas have certainly influenced my own thinking, but I don’t know if he actually saw the ultimate truth of life. I have not had his experience of being awakened, and I don’t want to build my worldview solely based on faith in what some historical figure had to say. The Buddha once described his teachings as a finger pointing at the moon, and he asked people not to mistake his finger for the moon – superb advice.
I will sometimes make the claim that nobody knows what is going on in life. I say this because it is my best guess about our situation – I’ve no evidence to convince me otherwise. I could be wrong, and maybe there are enlightened beings out there that have it all worked out. The problem is that, just like the claims for the Buddha, I have no way to tell for sure if these people are correct or not. It is safer for me to work on the assumption that nobody really knows the ultimate truth. I’d rather risk insulting these enlightened beings than putting my faith in them only to be harmed because they were deluded. This does not mean that I’m going to dismiss what the wise teachers have to say – it just means that I’m going to treat what they provide as useful stories, and if their stories can improve my life I’ll make use of them.