Did you remember to take a breath in just a second or so ago? Or perhaps exhale the previous breath? Did you remember to make your heart take another beat or to push some more blood around your body? Or recirculate the blood that was coming back in to your heart? No you didn’t did you? Well, yes you probably did but not consciously.
All these essential functions that our body needs to perform to keep us alive are handled for us by what my wife informs me is the autonomic nervous system. We don’t even have to think about them, they just occur. And probably just as well because I would be in real trouble if they relied on my remembering to do them. What an amazing piece of work are we, us humans. As are most of the living beings on this planet. The critical functions are built in to be handled automatically without conscious intervention on our part.
We also have layers if you like in our conscious actions as well as we soon discover in regular meditation practice. There is the thinking, active part of the brain that is sometimes called in meditation circles as the “monkey mind” because it is like a monkey jumping from one branch to another rarely settling for long on a single subject. These are the myriad of thoughts that go through our mind continually as we sit quietly in meditation trying to just focus on our breath. We come to realise that we can push the monkey mind to the background as it were and focus on our senses as we try to appreciate being part of all that surrounds us, be as one with the universe as many are fond of calling it. Smell the air, hear the noises or the stillness, feel the heat or cold of the air, the relaxation or tenseness of our muscles, the coldness of the breath as it enters our nasal passages, anything and everything to quieten the monkey mind. We bring all of these things into our foreground instead. We may then realise that these are happening all the time around us and we cruise through with our mind full of our own created mental chatter and filter the rest of the happenings around us out of our consciousness.
If there is one thing we are good at it is filtering. It is almost as if we are on a time-clock all the time and we have to take shortcuts to get things done in time. We therefore filter out everything else that might interrupt what we are thinking about, and we are always thinking about something. We facilitate this with what I call the autonomic mindless system. It is also where we store our beliefs, our opinions, our prejudices, all those things we have given some thought to, have looked at all the facts as we know them and arrived at a position which we can then use as required without any further thinking. Thinking that might interrupt the important stuff that we are really thinking about at any point in time. We then pull our beliefs from the autonomic mindless system and use them as a shortcut to express an opinion or make a decision based upon this belief.
We are born without beliefs, they are not an inherent part of our natural state. Our conditioning starts very early by hearing opinions expressed by those close to us like our parents and relatives. Race, sex and class prejudices are a good example of this conditioning, we usually just accept these without question from our peers in a desire to fit in with the tribe. We then usually form many of our stronger beliefs in our teenage years from these prejudices and opinions and they become part of our autonomic mindless system. For many of us though our beliefs at twenty are not the same beliefs we have at sixty. Sadly however, in my opinion, some of us never re-evaluate our beliefs throughout our life and cling to the same positions and beliefs in old age as we did in our youth.
“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.”
Of course some beliefs serve us extremely well such as “I believe it could be dangerous to my health if I step out onto this busy road without first considering the traffic”. The important thing though, is that, contrary to the popular view, many of our beliefs should NOT be set in stone. Personal and common knowledge expands all the time as new experiences are had and new discoveries are made and we should re-evaluate and adjust our beliefs and our autonomic mindless system as these things come to light. Strongly held beliefs often expressed with much anger and passion should certainly be looked at with a discerning eye to discover the hurt or trauma that may lay beneath the basis of these beliefs. I learnt this to my benefit on a personal development course. Not everyone agrees on what we think of as facts of course and that leads to some wonderment by me about how some people can still believe the earth is flat for instance. Perhaps some facts are like beauty, only true in the eye of the beholder.
Of course some beliefs appear to be imbued with mystical powers regardless of their origin, our own imagination. These beliefs are never challenged by the people who hold them and drive actions with little logic to recommend them.
“Those who cling to perceptions and views wander the world offending people.”
This quote has also been translated as “People with opinions just go around bothering each other” but I think the bothering is a little milder than the original.
We all like to think we are “right”, by whatever judgement that might be, and that desire drives us to cling to our beliefs regardless of the facts placed in front of us. Sometimes it would suit us better to let go of the belief and the need to be right, the autonomic mindless system, and just reassess the situation on its merits. And at other times it might suit us better to not “know” at all.
“I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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