The First Door: Beliefs Are Tools




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I have always had an active imagination. As a child, I read science fiction and fantasy voraciously. I created my own stories, too, and created whole worlds for my stories to take place in. There was, I am sure, an element of escapism in this. The imaginary worlds had vividness and meaning lacking in my own life, and I had a sense of control over what those worlds contained and what happened within them.

But these imaginary excursions were also educational. It is remarkable what one can learn about geography while mapping an imaginary world, or what can be learned about language by inventing the names of alien characters. I pursued a career in astronomy, motivated at least partly by a fascination with worlds orbiting distant stars.

Like many scientists, I believed that the methods of science were the only reliable way of securing knowledge about the world. Nonscientific belief systems were not something I could seriously entertain. Nevertheless, I loved to study the nonscientific beliefs, rituals, and practices of other cultures. These things inspired my imagination, and I would willingly suspend my disbelief for awhile, to read and learn.

Gradually, I began to appreciate that belief systems other than my own can have value, by serving some purpose other than that of obtaining scientific knowledge. Some beliefs can support compassion and community, can stir artistic or creative feelings, or can confer a different kind of richness and depth to the events of one's life.

I was gradually coming to understand that thinking of my own beliefs as correct and others as incorrect was too simplistic to capture the way beliefs actually function in the lives of individual people and the cultures in which they are embedded.

This understanding was just a mental thing for some time, a philosophical abstraction I could play with and trot out occasionally for the sake of conversation. Then, one day, I decided to do something new. I decided to actually try believing something I didn't believe.

I had read some about divination using tarot cards, rune stones, and the like. Although I believed with great clarity that casting rune stones could not in anyway reveal new information about one's future or personal situation, I could understand that the act of sitting quietly and thinking about one's life could be beneficial. By creating such an opportunity, I reasoned, belief in divination could be helpful for some people.

I might have left it at that - indeed I had left it at that for some time. But then, one day, I felt moved to actually do divination. Naturally, I invented my own method, something I had dreamed up for use by people in one of my imaginary worlds. It involved casting colored stones on a mandala I had drawn. When I sat down to do this, my expectation was that nothing very interesting would happen. The stones would land in random places, I would interpret them according to the rules I had invented, and they would not convey much about my life or future, except perhaps by way of some obvious accidental coincidence. In a minute or so, I would have taken it all in and that would be the end of it.

Nevertheless, I made a choice to approach this activity as though the stones held a true and important message for me.

The experience was quite different from my expectation. The placement of every single stone was meaningful. Some were strikingly consistent with my own self-understanding. Others were not so obvious, but were even stronger - like a good friend telling you a truth about yourself that you don't want to hear. I finally turned away from the stones and mandala 40 minutes later, weary but much wiser, and profoundly changed.

I understood, of course, that one could construct a psychological, "scientific" explanation of my divination experience. It was not that the experience was somehow inexplicable or impossible to reconcile with my scientific beliefs. However, my beliefs had set me up with expectations that did not match the experience, and had I not chosen to set those expectation aside, I would not have had the experience at all. I would have dismissed this as something I did not need to try, because I had figured out ahead of time that it would not do much of value.

Sometimes we have experiences that our belief systems do not anticipate or accommodate. Often, they are not premeditated and arranged the way mine was. They just happen, and our cherished beliefs totter precariously in their wake.

One way to react is by shoring up our familiar beliefs, and re-creating the experience in our minds so that it fits better. My favorite example of this is in Dickens' Christmas Carol, when Scrooge reinterprets his vision of Marley as a consequence of bad digestion.

Another reaction is to jettison one's old belief system wholesale, and adopt a new belief system in which the experience fits more comfortably. This is basically a conversion experience: something so profound and undeniable it turns our whole world around.

There is, however, a third way that lies between these two extremes. We can let go of the need to have a single belief system that answers all our questions. After I had my first divination experience, I realized that if I believed I could receive important messages in this way, my life would be richer and I would learn more about myself. The scientific belief system I had embraced most of my life was not helpful in this area; it encouraged me to shut down and not receive knowledge this way. That doesn't make it wrong, it just makes it unhelpful in this situation.

I decided that I should give myself permission to use different beliefs in different situations. Think of the old cliché "If your only tool is hammer, every problem looks like a nail." When we insist on maintaining a single belief at any cost, we either limit our experience to situations where that belief is useful, or we overextend and misapply it, setting ourselves up for conflict and disappointment.

Beliefs are tools. You can get a lot more done if you have an assortment of them. As tools, beliefs can be amazing things. They solve problems, open up opportunities, and teach us wisdom.

By casting pebbles on a mandala that day years ago, I learned many deep things about my situation at that time. I don't recall any of it. Life has moved on. I'm now a different person, living a different life. But one thing did stay with me from that experience: I learned to use my beliefs in the service of my own life, instead of being used by them.

Page Two: Stepping through the Door

Seven Doors is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters