logo rocks

Beyond Belief

It’s so easy to grab onto beliefs and ideas that we hear from others and adopt them as the truth simply because they sound logical, or because we look up to the person who said them, or because we are desperate to find a solution to our discomfort and uncertainty. It’s also very easy to turn something that begins as a direct (genuine, immediate, firsthand, nonconceptual) experience into a belief.

For example, someone we look up to tells us that there is no self and no free will, and so we adopt this as a new belief, a new ideology. Or maybe we discover this absence of self and free will directly ourselves. We look (with awareness, not with analytical thought) for the chooser or the thinker or the doer, and we discover directly in that moment of looking that we cannot find anyone behind our thoughts and actions, that our actions have no single point of origination that we can locate or pin down, that no actual boundary can be found between subject and object. We see this very clearly. In that moment of not finding any source or any separation or anyone at the helm, this “no self, no free will” is not merely an idea or a philosophy that we’ve read about or come to through analytical reasoning, but rather, it is something we see as plainly as we see the coffee cup on our desk. It is an undeniable, direct, experiential insight, something we know in a way that is absolutely beyond doubt.

But what we know beyond doubt is not actually any kind of mental formulation such as “no self, no free will” – it is something much less tangible. That experiential absence of a chooser or a thinker, that undivided boundlessness that was revealed, that is not something that we can grasp in the same way that we can grasp our coffee cup. That boundlessness is not an object.

But because we habitually want to get hold of something, and because we have a natural urge to communicate our discoveries, the temptation to formulate and conceptualize this discovery and turn it into an idea is very strong (and perhaps largely unavoidable). And there is nothing inherently wrong with formulating ideas, especially if we’re aware that any conceptualization is only an abstract and symbolic representation. But very often, we lose sight of this. And then before long an idea becomes a belief. Pretty soon we’re going around asserting that there is no self and no free will. We may even find ourselves becoming identified with this idea, so that we actually feel angry, threatened, defensive or self-righteous when someone disagrees. If we pick up a book that suggests that there is some kind of independent self or some kind of freedom of choice, we immediately toss the book aside. We think we know better. And perhaps deep down, we fear that our beliefs may not be right, which makes us all the more anxious to convince others as a way of convincing ourselves.

Is it possible to be aware of all of this as it happens? 

We’re not trying to eliminate any of this, but simply to be aware of it, to see it clearly as it unfolds. In order to communicate, we need to formulate things into concepts and use words. This is functional. But can we engage in this activity and at the same time be aware of the dangers inherent in conceptualizing, formulating and verbalizing?  (Can it be seen right now, for example, that the “we” in these sentences is a grammatical convenience and not something that can actually be found in reality?) Can we use the map without mistaking it for the actual territory, and without assuming that it is the One True Map? 

If we happen to be someone who gives talks and writes books, it is especially easy to identify with the things we have said and to begin thinking that we must stick to our positions and defend our map. After all, we want to come across as having the kind of confidence and certainty that people look for in spiritual authority figures. We want to believe our map is accurate and reliable. We don't want to come across as uncertain or unsettled.

But what are we truly certain about? What does it mean to be settled? Does settling mean sticking to a belief system or does it mean waking up from moment to moment? What is real confidence actually based on?  Is it confidence in an ideology, or is it deep trust in the suchness of this moment and in life being just as it is? Is true spiritual authority based on having The Right Answer, or is it about trusting the open space of not knowing?  Does real certainty rely on an accumulation of information and knowledge or does it rely on the emptiness (and the aliveness) of being fully present and awake Here / Now?

What happens if someone says something that seems to contradict our ideas about life? Are we open to listening and looking anew, or have we already closed the door on that?

Right now, is there a self?  Is there free will?

Do thought and memory instantly supply “the correct answer” and then stand ready to defend that answer? Or do the questions open up a space of wondering, a space that undoes all the answers?  If – in this moment – all our answers, philosophies, ideologies and beliefs fall away, what remains?

Are we looking for an answer? Or is what remains altogether wordless and beyond beliefs and formulations?

Words can open the mind, but they can also shut it down. Can we become sensitive to when words and stories are waking us up and when they are lulling us into some kind of hypnotic entrancement?

What makes a text or the spoken word original and authentic and alive? Is it a matter of constantly finding new words and new formulations? Or is it about where the words are coming from in this moment and whether they come with an agenda (e.g., to be the one in the know, to be right, to convince someone else, to assuage our own doubt and uncertainty)? Is it possible to speak or write without an agenda? Can the same words be true in one context and false in another?

Nonduality isn't about believing in something. It's about seeing through all beliefs and realizing the inconceivable nature of reality, the emptiness (or formlessness, or ever-changing nature) of everything. Yes, there are pointers and concepts that are used, but what they're pointing out is not a concept or a formula. It is not something you need to believe in, nor is it something that can it be doubted. So if you're feeling doubtful, you're dealing with a concept, an idea. What happens if you let that idea go and simply be awake to this present moment, just exactly as it is? Woof-woof, caw-caw-caw, whooosh, whoosh.

Nonduality can't be figured out or explained. It can only be recognized and relaxed into (and that doesn't mean always feeling relaxed or never tensing up). It includes everything, even tension and contraction and delusion. We might even say, it is being at ease with being tense, or realizing the openness that has no problem with contraction. Nonduality is being just this moment, being this that you cannot not be. And it is the discovery that this is no-thing and everything. This is beyond belief.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2012 --

You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post the whole article or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

back to “outpourings“ menu