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The need to believe

Humans need to believe in something. Why else would people all over the world, more or less independently, organize themselves in churches and invent angels, demons and gods? This need to believe is probably a try to tell oneself, that there’s more to life than what obviuosly happens between birth and death. That when you die, you won’t just decompose and disappear, but get the chance to move on into a different reality (heaven, nirvana, valhalla, …). Isn’t this what religions and the search for the meaning of life are all about? But so far, these are only hopes and fears, no solid proofs exist that death isn’t just when you body stops to function and the lights go out. The catch is, of course, that there’s also no proof for the opposite. And so we choose the possibility that gods exist, and follow their teachings, just in case.

Another possible reason why we tend to need to believe in supernatural beings is that if there are no angels to watch over us and no gods who listen to our prayers, then we have to care for everything ourselves. No help from above. If you want to achieve a goal, your only choice is hard work and trust in your own abilities. Doesn’t sound very reassuring, right? Better hope that the god you’ve been told about by the grown-ups as a child exists and lends a helping hand, and all you have to do is submit a prayer. Why are we so unsure of ourselves? What’s the benefit of giving away the power of determination and fulfilling our dreams with our own hands? The only answer I can think of is that then we’d realize, that we alone are responsible for our lives, no destiny and noone else is to blame for our faults, and this is a truth too bitter to accept.

The path to enlightenment, step 3

Becoming aware of your senses seems to be crucial if you want to learn to stop your inner dialog. As long as it’s active, you are not only speaking, but also listening to yourself, losing awareness of what reaches you through your ears. This provides a good opportunity to do something against the dialog, but in an indirect way. Instead of trying to stop talking, you should try to stop listening.

Listen to your thoughts being narrated inside yourself. Then realize that you don’t want to listen to them, don’t want to be constantly distracted by this voice inside your head, and imagine that it’s turned down. And to fill the silence that takes its place, turn your attention to what you really percieve with your ears. When you succeed, try to keep this state, but don’t hold on too tight to it, just remind yourself every once in a while to listen to yourself, (willingly) notice that there’s nothing to hear inside and instead turn to the sounds coming from the outside.

The same is, of course, true for the sense of vision. Close your eyes and take a conscious look at the picture “before” or “inside” your eyes. Make sure that it is real, the normal colorful noise you see when you close your eyes, and not pictures or day-dreams (there’s nothing “evil” about days-dreams in general, just do this as an exercise). Get used to this feeling of the vision flowing to the inside in a calm, relaxed stream, then open your eyes and try the same while looking around.

A pair of relaxed eyes should have a field of view of about 180 degrees from side to side, and everything inside this angle is actually making its way through the lenses onto the retina. But tension and distraction allow only a part of this information to reach the consciousness. Try to relax your eyes, let them open (in particular up- and downward, also become aware of things in the periphery, e.g. your nose) and “suck in” whatever it is you’re looking at. But relaxed eyes can only go together with the relaxation of the facial musculature, so let it hang loose, especially the muscles below the eyes and around the outer corners. Find a neutral expression, don’t smile or scowl. The interesting thing is, that once it works, there’s a slight pull from the eyes down to the chest and maybe even further, that also brings a change of attitude to one that i’d call more humble. It’s as if you’d lower a shield that you’re holding in front of you, though i don’t know if it works for anybody else as it does for me.

So the basic idea of this step is to replace the synthetic perceptions of hearing and vision, which are the inner dialog and day-dreaming respectively, by what is actually coming in from your ears and eyes. My explaination of that’s going on is that you only have a limited ammount of attention, and whatever part of it you focus on the inside, is missing for the perception of reality around you. To be fully aware of your environment may at first feel strange and alien in its full intensity, but don’t let it scare you, there is no danger in it. The sense of hearing, in my opinion, takes a special place, because in any normal situation you’ll always hear something, and paying attention to the sounds around you keeps you in touch with reality in realtime. Vision is different here, what you’re looking at can stay the same for a long time and therefore doesn’t give you the sensation of the passage of time. And opening your ears also reduces the tendency to fall into tunnel-vision if you mainly use your eyes as the interface with the world and fill your ears with thoughts.

Another “attention hog” is the drive to make a good impression on, well, everybody, including youself. Of course it’s easily understood that we all want to appear in a favourable light, feel strong and be the best. But by trying to be all of this at once, all we achieve is tension, because we, of course, realize, that we’re not living up to our own fantasy of the superior human being. And we never will, so why not just relax, accept you as you are, and make yourself clear, that everybody else is feeling just the same. We don’t need to isolate ourselves from the people around us, they are not our enemies, but have their own problems to cope with, that are similar to ours. If you get a nervous look or a rude remark from somebody, don’t strike back, he/she is feeling as uncomfortable about the situation as you do. The only way to deal with these daily hostilities is to show compassion. And relax.

The path to enlightenment, step 2

There is a state of mind called “flow”. This is the psycologists’ term for being occupied by something and concetrating on it to such extent that you forget about everything else around you (or so i understand it). A couple of days ago i’ve seen a BBC documentary on TV about children, and they talked about happiness and how those kids (and people in general) that are more happy with their daily lives are at the same time those able to easier put themselves into “flow”, and do things as if nothing else existed.

Now what if the activity you’d concentrate on to such level that you’d get into flow would be being aware of the reality, of your surroundings and the passage of time? Once you’re there, you’d forget about everything else, i.e. the things that distract you from feeling the moment. And the nature of flow is that it makes you satisfied, or happy, so to say.

And in the end, happiness is the ultimate goal, don’t you think? Since there’s no answer to the question about what the meaning of life is, your best choice is to live the way that keeps you happy. And it seems, that you can achieve this by trying to get into flow whenever it’s possible. If you have something to do, then direct all of your attention to it. And if there’s nothing to do, then pay attention to the moment as much as you can. This sounds very much like what Castañeda wrote about being a warrior: “Do everything is if your life depended on it”. And if you do, you get the feeling of happiness as reward. Not a bad deal, heh?

The other things that make me feel more comfotable with myself right now are:

  • To walk with a feeling of lightness. It’s so easy, just tell yourself that you don’t want to feel heavy and relax (okay, relaxation is not always easy, but it seemed to work quite well this time), and you’re done. No heaviness, no tension. Feels good.
  • When interacting with other people, try not to allow your ego to take control. It’s not necessary to do everything and talk to others in a way that makes you feel superior to them. Feeling small and open, like being a child among its playmates, with no animosity, is so much more pleasant, and makes things easier for both you and the people around you. We are all friends, even if we forget about it most of the time. 🙂

On a sort of unrelated note, today i was in the park, practicing tuishu with three very nice folks, and then, after what must have been weeks of heat, it finally looked like it was going to start raining. And when the thunderstorm came, we first tried to find a dry place to wait it out, but after a while our dry place started leaking too, and we just went on pushing hands. It was nice. Once you’ve accepted that you’re getting wet, the rain becomes a freind, and doesn’t annoy you anymore. You stop being a member of the Human Civilization Project™, trying to prevent your clothes and other valueable belongings from getting wet, and instead become a part of nature. And it does feel good.

The path to enlightenment, step 1

Yesterday I decided to try and stop the inner dialog for as long as possible. It seems as if the dialog keeps one thinking about things unrelated to the current moment, comparing oneself with others, waiting for things to happen the way you expect them to and so on. But all of this is actually meaningless.

Thinking about random stuff is something that can go on doing forever, in circles, and has not logical finish. Whenever you sink in into thinking about something that is not a current problem you really need to solve, you disconnect from reality, usually without any benefit. It may be pleasant to imagine situations that you’d like to be in, but in the end, this kind of day-dreaming doesn’t bring you further, it lowers your ability to concentrate on the moment once you really need to and for this reason it should better be avoided.

But waiting for things to happen, creating your own version of the possible future and living through it in your head, is probably the worst manifestation of the inner dialog. What you think will happen is almost never what really happens, so why waste time and energy playing around with these illusions? Maybe they’re too much fun not to, but they lead you to shift your focus away from reality and give nothing in return. So the best way to deal with them is not to give in and come back to reality as soon as you can.

Now let’s see if stopping the inner dialog really helps, and what other pros/cons it has.