The Power of Belief
– By Way of Introduction –
Problems & Possibilities
It’s spring in Salt Lake City. I’ve been writing at my desk all day and my back’s painfully aware. I glance out the window and see that the morning’s storm has washed out the pollution and left a soft blue sky.
I figure it’s time to give my back a break and take a walk before day turns to night. So, I drop a couple beads of acid under my tongue to spark a playful curiosity and hit the streets with no destination in mind.
Before long, I find myself wandering up a steep hill in an unfamiliar neighborhood. At the top, I’m met by a beautiful view of the Salt Lake valley tucked up against the snow-capped mountains to the east.
I breathe in the fresh spring air with a subtle smile as I watch the setting sun drape the valley in an orange glow.
I sit down on a patch of grass to take in the moment. As I scan the valley, my eyes lock onto the pearl-white Mormon temple that sits at the heart of the city. It inspires in me the power of beliefs.
Beliefs not only build temples, mosques, and synagogues. They build smartphones, spaceships, and self-driving cars. They determine what clothes we wear, what company we keep, and what food we eat. They establish LLCs and run courts of law. They orchestrate symphonies, fuel economies, and spark revolutions. They push mountaineers to the highest peaks and launch astronauts into space. They shape our identities, mold our fears, and carve our dreams. Beliefs frame our experience. They propel our entire lives.
I’ve been fascinated with beliefs since I was a young teen. Growing up in a devout Mormon home and community, I watched the Mormon belief system propel my friends and family to do all kinds of things.
Their beliefs put them on their knees every day to pray, put scriptures in their hands, sent them to church every Sunday, encouraged them to perform wonderful charity work, and to abstain from drugs and alcohol, among many other things.
Why? Because they believed Joseph Smith was a true prophet who restored Christ’s Church here on earth.
When I was a kid, I guess none of this really mattered much. If my parents – whom I love beyond words – and the rest of my community said that’s the way things are, what choice did I really have?
One day, though, when I was a young teen, I struck gold during a Sunday school lesson — that is, I ran into a problem, the doorway to all new spaces of possibility.
Our lesson was on the War in Heaven — a conflict that took place in the pre-mortal existence among the spirit children of God. God, the Book of Mormon tells us, had planned to give everyone free will on earth, placing the burden on us to choose the right, to choose our own fate, to take responsibility.
As it turns out, though, a third of god’s spirit children – Satan and his crew – weren’t stoked about gambling away their eternal salvation, so they demanded that each soul who passes the veil of mortality be awarded eternal salvation. Not amused, god condemned Satan and the rest of his crew to eternal damnation.
Knowledge & Ignorance
‘Why?,’ I thought. ‘Why’d he do such a thing? Didn’t homies just wanna lock-down their eternal salvation? I mean…I wouldn’t wanna risk it either. Forever’s a long time.’
‘And hey, even if I put my heart aside here, where’s the logic in all this? Didn’t the spirits already have free-will? How else could they have chosen to reject god’s plan? And, wait a minute…if god gave us free-will, who gave it to him, and so on? Oh, and another thing…how could god or anyone else design free-will anyway? Don’t the concepts “design” and “free-will” seem to be at odds with each other? Doesn’t the design, by definition, limit what the product — in this case, a human or spirit — can do? Without vocal cords, would I not be denied the free-will to speak, eyes to see, or brain to think?’
In any case, once the floodgates opened, the rapids never let up. More and more questions kept compelling me to seek out answers. But every time I’d catch a glimmer, I’d just end up with more problems. Essentially, my initial problems grew deeper and deeper — I learned more about what I don’t know. But as I became better acquainted with my ignorance in this way, I was able to ask better questions and, in turn, create better answers or ideas.
The evolution of these problems has consumed me now for many years. It has led me to explore the world’s religions, past and present. It has given me a relentless appetite for philosophy, physics, and biology. It has sent me around the world to explore people and customs, to break bread with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and non-believers. It has led me to explore the nature of my own mind — to sit for week- and month-long meditations, to experiment with many psychedelics and entheogens, including participating in a traditional ayahuasca ceremony with the Shipibo tribe in Peru and inhaling vaporized Sapo Toad venom (5-MeO-DMT), otherwise known as the ‘God Molecule’.
And after all this — books, travel, meditation, experience — I am now confident about only one thing: that I know nothing; that whatever knowledge I have will always be engulfed by my infinite ignorance; that I’m just a kid playin’ in this Cosmic sandbox without a clue about much of anything.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
I do have a few ideas, though, new and old, which I’ve explored, criticized, and hopefully strengthened – a few ideas that act as a skillful means to bring more space, more peace, and more love to my experience.
Again, though, these are only ideas — bold and creative guesses about this awe-inspiring world and how to relate to it, how to position ourselves in it, and how to navigate through it.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to convert you to any belief system or tell you to live a certain way or anything like that. I just want you to be you. I want you to live from your own heart, to be happy, to be free from suffering. I want you to embody a lasting peace.
So, my intention here today is simply to awaken you to the power of beliefs. I want you to become keenly aware of and interested in whatever conceptual frameworks you have constructed over your bare, ever-changing flow of experience.
How do you engage with and relate to concepts? How do you view yourself, the world, and your place in it? How will you paint your life?
There’s no right way to build a belief system, no right way to live your life. It’s largely a poetic and artistic pursuit.
But just as an artist must keep an open and honest conversation with her art, so too must you remain open and honest about your creation – about your beliefs, about your life, about your experience. Only then can you hope to understand and, therefore, truly love and be at peace with your life, with yourself, and with the world.
So, as we go through these courses, I’ll encourage you to get out your paints and brushes, your bricks and mortar, to build the most important thing you can build – your understanding of all this, whatever It ineffably is.
But, before we do, let’s first learn to see again through the eyes of a child. Let’s learn to meet our bare experience, without concepts stenciled all over it, without judgments and biases clouding its raw data.
First, let’s practice vipassana – a 2500-year-old Buddhist meditation that seeks to cultivate the state of mind commonly known as mindfulness.
“Don’t be satisfied with stories about how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”