We as human beings run on beliefs. We believe in our future, our families, our country, in science, religion, political beliefs, and economic theories. We believe in our plans, our dreams, and our ideals. What could be wrong with that? Don’t we need to believe in something?
Sure, beliefs are fine, but when we are addicted to our beliefs, when we trust our beliefs more than our own nature, we can become delusional or downright evil. Our beliefs exist to serve us, not the other way around. When we “lose ourselves” in some higher cause, what’s really happening is that we’re turning our backs on our own innate wisdom and goodness.
Giving up your freedom in order to serve a belief is the origin of all slavery. If you are willing to forfeit your independence to a belief or ideal, forfeiting it to a person or organization follows very easily.
If giving up our intellectual freedom is such a bad thing to do, why do we do it? Buddhism tells us that we become addicted to our ideas. Clinging to them, identifying with them, gives us a sense of relief from the fundamental pain and dissatisfaction that we feel. It doesn’t last though, the pain always comes back. Then we either give up that belief and look for a “better” one or else cling more and more tightly to our cherished ideal in an attempt to recapture that original good feeling. It’s a cruel trap to which we fall prey because we are ignorant.
How do we avoid it? Buddhism tells us that the solution to ignorance is knowledge. We have to see and understand the traps we’ve fallen into. Once we understand what’s happened to us and clearly see the harmful effects of our clinging, we will naturally be able to let go. Knowledge is freedom.
So what is that knowledge? What is it that we cling to? Buddhism teaches that there are four types of upadana, four types of clinging:
The first set of things that we cling to are what we’ve already been discussing — views, ideals, and intellectual beliefs. These can include political and economic ideologies, religions, philosophies, and many other systems of thought. This category also includes the belief in the value of science that so many of us share. When we think that there is some idea that will solve our problems by believing in it, and that the world’s problems could be solved if everyone believed it, we are clinging to views.
When we carry our ideas into the the world they become standards of right and wrong behavior. This type of clinging includes the rules of our political and economic systems, social conventions, religious rituals, and any sort of method or technique. When we think that there is some set of actions or behaviors that will always make situations work out for us, we are clinging to behaviors. When we think that the world’s problems would be solved if everyone followed some fixed set of rules, we are clinging to behaviors. What is happening here is that we’re creating rituals out of our beliefs, it’s magical thinking.
As animals, we have biological drives to satisfy our wants. Food, comfortable surroundings, social contact, sex, these can affect our thinking and behavior to the point that we ignore the obvious consequences of our actions. Other’s suffering can become almost invisible in the haze of our preoccupation with our own comfort and stability.
The previous three types of clinging come together in what Buddhism considers the most fundamental type, clinging to our sense of self, or self-view. We want to be right, we want to be respected, to be desired, to be important, to be safe, to be smart, to be beautiful, to see ourselves the way we “should” be. We take our bodies, our feelings, our understanding of the world, our plans and desires, and our stories and assumptions (the skandhas) to be the essence of ourselves and we defend them at all costs. We can convince ourselves that it’s not just OK but that it’s even morally commendable for us to harm others and spoil our environment, all to preserve our sense of self. No end of pernicious evil comes from this.
Letting go of clinging is not easy. In Buddhist practice we develop a mindful, spacious awareness so that we can look at our thoughts without judgement and see them more objectively. We also don’t have to let go cold turkey, we can replace harmful types of clinging with more skillful ones. We fill ourselves with goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, the four immeasurables. Because these four qualities have no particular object, they help us to be more skillful about our attachments. We have to decide in each situation how to show loving-kindness, how to practice compassion, how to share joy, and how to abide in spacious equanimity. There are no cookie-cutter rules in Buddhism that you can unthinkingly apply. There is no mindless technique you can do by rote. Mindfulness and clear comprehension are required to walk every step of the path.
With this understanding, we can come back to our systems, our religions, and our philosophies with a more skillful approach. We can use our beliefs to guide us without becoming blind adherents to some creed. We can use the benefits of rational thought and science to make the world a better place while recognizing that ideologies can spawn fanatics and scientific knowledge can be used for great harm.
We can use the insights of some ancient iron-age system of thought like Buddhism (or some upstart modern creed like Christianity or Islam) to learn to be better people, recognizing that some will misuse it to block out reality and create divisions between us.
There are still things worth believing in, but you have to believe in them lightly. They must be used in service to your humanity, they must support your natural human compassion, and perhaps most importantly, they must not be allowed to stifle your sense of humor.
If you can’t laugh at your own beliefs, your sacred cows, then you’re taking them too seriously. You’ve identified yourself with them and have lost your footing in your real home, which is the unspoken, intuitive understanding that you have of your life. You’re smothering your natural sense of grace.
One of the profound teachings of Buddhism is the simile of the raft. In this teaching Buddhism is compared to a raft used to cross a river. Once you’re on the other side you don’t carry it around with you, you leave it behind, it’s done its job. Buddhism isn’t some absolute truth to be clung to, it is a set of methods to be used appropriately.
Would that all ideologies and systems of thought contain such a teaching, a door that lets the practitioner avoid becoming trapped inside! Systems that do not understand themselves in this way are more likely to create the sorts of mindless puppets we all know, people who are True Believers in some ideology. We pity them, even more because their beliefs are are usually being used by unscrupulous people to take advantage of them.
The obvious example these days is the large number of people in thrall to the free-market snake oil that the 0.1% pays corrupt journalists and fake think tanks millions to produce. These con artists convince people to vote for those who will crush their hard-won workers’ rights, slash their social safety net, and destroy their communities and their environment. Our citizens are being criminally taken advantage of by the robber-barons of our day and they’ve been carefully taught not to realize it.
Yes, this is a view, but I try my best to hold it lightly. I do however consider it to be a skillful view for dealing with our current situation.
When we don’t question our views, we become slaves. Don’t believe anything because it’s comfortable to do so or so that you can be part of some group.
Think For Yourself!