Belief Systems vs. Knowing

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There’s a lot of pressure to believe.

Social pressure makes a strong case to believe this way or that way or the other way.

Why is it so important to so many people that you believe exactly like they do?

“They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.” – Louise Erdrich

Perhaps that particular trait of humanity is based on insecurity. Without a strong personal sense of knowing, some people need belief to fill the gap. For many, belief is a place-holder until personal knowing can take over. Some people never know and are content to forever believe instead. Others lean on blind faith, a kind of desperate hopefulness, to fill the empty space inside when knowing remains elusive.

“Men are four:
He who knows not and knows not he knows not, he is a fool — shun him;
He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is simple — teach him;
He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep – wake him;
He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise – follow him!”
- Arabic Apothegm

This article will explore these two fundamental ideas of the human psyche – belief and knowing – and compare their influence in our lives.

Personal Experience

The key ingredient of knowing comes directly from personal experience. Here’s an example:

Let’s look at the universal experience of falling in love. Under certain conditions, your family approves of it. Your friends recommend it. Your religion expects it. Your government sanctifies it. Your species depends upon it.

You can read countless books on all aspects of falling in love. You can learn about the feeling of lightness and joy when you are with your beloved. You can hear about the intensely wonderful physical sensations that accompany being in love and the deep, satisfying sense of fulfillment that comes with finding your perfect life companion. A panel of experts could be assembled to pontificate on all the aspects of falling in love to convince you that it’s a good thing.

After all of this persuasive outside influence, you would eventually believe that falling in love would be a good experience for you. But, you still wouldn’t know.

There is only one way to know for sure, and that is to experience it yourself.

A hundred thousand words and a gallery full of pictures may be able to strengthen your belief in the desirability of love, but you’ll still never be sure unless you have the direct personal experience. Only then will you know.

“Do not believe what you have heard.
Do not believe in tradition because it is handed down many generations.
Do not believe in anything that has been spoken of many times.
Do not believe because the written statements come from some old sage.
Do not believe in conjecture.
Do not believe in authority or teachers or elders.
But after careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.” — Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (563 B.C. — 483 B.C.)

I haven’t met many people who even come close to living their lives this way. The social pressures are so all-pervading, most people take the path of least resistance and adopt the beliefs of the people around them.

“In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.” – Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

“With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799)

Beliefs Handed Down

For most of us, family is the most influential factor when it comes to passing on beliefs. Especially when we are very young, it’s easy to believe like our parents believe, because we assume they know. As we get older and begin having our own personal experiences, we begin to recognize the difference between what they know and what they believe.

Then, we imagine our parents believe as they do because their parents believed that way, and surely, they must have known. This trail of belief can be traced back through your family tree for as many generations as you choose. Who based their beliefs on their own personal experiences and who merely believed? Who knows?

“Never utter these words: ‘I do not know this, therefore it is false.’ One must study to know; know to understand; understand to judge.” – Apothegm of Narda

A Thanksgiving Tale

At thanksgiving, my family usually enjoys a traditional turkey dinner. My sister was preparing the turkey and I found it curious that she cut off both drumsticks before placing the bird in the oven. When I asked why she did that, she replied, “That’s the way Mom always did it.”

So I asked Mom why she cut off the drumsticks before baking the turkey and she said, “Because that’s the way Grandma always did it.”

So I asked Grandma why she did that and she said, “I had to cut the legs off because I had a very small oven and the turkey wouldn’t fit otherwise.”

My sister and my Mom believed this was the best way to bake a bird without knowing why. They based their beliefs on what they’d learned from Grandma’s experience. Grandma, on the other hand, knew this was the best way for her to roast a turkey, based on her own personal experience with her narrow oven.

Only one person in this story, Grandma, based her actions on what she had learned from her own personal experiences. My sister and mom, on the other hand, based their beliefs on hearsay. They held the belief that they already knew the best way to bake a turkey. It worked for Grandma so it was good enough for them. They chose to adopt our ancestor’s way . . . for all the wrong reasons.

“Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth — don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.” – Aesop (620-560 BC)

Some people think for themselves and know what’s best for them, based on their own personal experiences. Others don’t ask questions and do things as they have always been done, no questions asked.

“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.” – Gerry Spence

(Although the turkey story is NOT based on my actual family — they’re much smarter than this — the story does a good job shedding some light on the difference between belief and knowing.)

Habitual Thought Equals Belief

What is belief but a habit of thought? If we are in the habit of thinking a particular thought over and over through the years . . . through the centuries . . . through the millennia, it becomes very familiar to us. Even if the thought would appear outrageous to a third-party, non-partial viewpoint, its familiarity makes it seem normal. The thought is comfortable and seems to fit well, if only because we have heard it since our earliest memories.

“Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” – Bhagavad Gita (c. BC 400)

Does this familiarity make it a fact? Does the fact that millions of other people subscribe to a particular thought make it infallible? Does the thought’s subscriber base prove that it is true for all people at all times?

No. It simply means it is a popular, familiar belief . . . a thought that many people have habitually thought for a period of time.

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

“The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.” – Edith Sitwell (1887 – 1964)

How many of those people have experienced the prime source, the primordial essence, the first-cause reason for the thought in the first place? How many know it to be absolutely true because they have experienced it in the depths of their being?

“All men by nature desire to know.” – Aristotle (384-322 BC)

“It is wisdom to believe the heart.” – George Santayana (1863-1952)

And how many are simply taking the easy way and adopting the beliefs of another . . . who are also taking the easy way and adopting the beliefs of another . . . and back through the generations.

“A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.” – Robert Oxton Bolt (b. 1924)

“Knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge – broad, deep knowledge – is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low.” – Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Thought or Belief — How Do You Know?

How do you discern between something known and a habitual thought — a belief? The words of the Buddha, quoted earlier from two and a half millennia ago, offer a good clue:

“But after careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.” — Buddha (563 B.C — 483 B.C.)

This is a clear description of how to take thought beyond belief and make it your own.

The first step is to recognize that the vast majority of our beliefs are based not upon our own personal experiences and revelations but upon anecdotal evidence and the recommendations of other people, past and present.

Sometimes these “recommendations” can feel more like coercion and are inflicted upon you “for your own good” by the people who love you most.

“No human being is constituted to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and even the best of men must be content with fragment, with partial glimpses, never the full fruition.” – Alan Marshall Beck (b, 1942)

They mean well, but they may have never asked themselves “why” and then pulled out a tape measure to compare the length of the bird at hand with the width of their own stove.

Belief Systems Wearing Blinders

There have always been people whose narrow viewpoint convinced them that their particular belief system is the only “right” one and everyone not subscribing to the same belief system is wrong. World traveling has convinced me that there are many paths to peace and a life of personal fulfillment.

In my personal experience, those with a narrow concept of belief have a limited understanding of the diversity of human experience. In other words, they don’t get around much and mistake their own limitations for life in general.

“The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.” – Max Born (1882-1970)

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” – Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)

Know By Personal Experience

You may believe you can ride a bicycle. You can hear all about it from other people. You can read about it in books and study diagrams explaining momentum and balance. But, there’s a big difference between knowing about something and knowing it. You will never truly know how to ride a bicycle until you do it yourself.

“We only know insofar as we do.” – Novalis ((1772-1801)

Even if you do it badly at first, you are gaining important personal experience that will make bicycling real to you. With practice comes proficiency, and eventually you will know how to ride a bicycle.

“Only what we partly know already inspires us with a desire to know more.” – William James (1842-1910)

Let’s look at your bicycling experience through the filter of Buddha’s recommendation: You have given careful observation and analysis to bicycle riding by watching other people do it and imagined how you could do it too. Therefore, it is a reasonable thing for you to attempt. It can benefit you by helping you get from point A to point B in a fun and healthy manner. It can benefit others in the reduction of fossil fuel consumed. Once you have personally done it, you can now accept it as something beyond belief — it is now known, something to call your own, and you can live by what you’ve learned.

(Of course you may choose NOT to believe any of the ideas in this article, simply because some of them are based upon written statements from some old sage — namely, Buddha – an authority on such matters – a teacher and elder. If you choose instead to prove it to your own satisfaction in your own life, you may be able to hear him smile upon you, across the centuries.)

Allow Beliefs to Morph

Some beliefs serve you for a time and then you outgrow them. As your experience and understanding grow, it is only natural that your beliefs grow also. Old beliefs that served you well as children just get in the way of your unfolding personal development. These limiting beliefs begin to feel like excess baggage. When you have outgrown old beliefs and they are finally released, a new feeling of freedom and adventure dawns on your understanding. Now you are free to discover new horizons. Out with the old and in with the new.

Beliefs should support you rather than making you feel like it’s necessary for you to support your beliefs.

Stepping Stones from the Past

Often, beliefs handed down through the generations are helpful. They serve as a good departure point for our own explorations and personal experiences. It’s natural for people to pass on their experiences and what we’ve learned to the next generation. This ability allows each subsequent generation to see a little further, by standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. This is one of the main benefits of being a member of the human family.

“Our knowledge is the amassed thought and experience of innumerable minds.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Momentum of Progress

Imagine how difficult it would be to make advances in any field of endeavor if each of us first had to discover, on our own, how to rub two sticks together to make fire . . . and how to grow cotton and sheer sheep and spin and weave our clothing . . . and how to build a structure to keep the rain off our heads. If each of us had to repeatedly re-invent the wheel before we could turn our attention toward other things, progress would come to a grinding halt.

“Strange how much you’ve got to know before you know how little you know.” — Anonymous

Don’t adopt beliefs blindly just because everyone else seems to be doing that. Instead, learn whatever you can from whomever you can, and then prove its appropriateness for you, in your own personal experience. Then you will know it is true . . . true for you at this particular time. Allow your beliefs to change as your understanding matures.

Then, and only then, will you have something worthwhile to offer others.

“Knowledge exists to be imparted.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Hopefully, they will take your truths with a grain of salt and prove it in their own personal experience, rather than swallowing it on blind faith alone.

There’s a way to benefit from all that has come before and remain on the leading edge of thought. We can evaluate the thoughts and beliefs of all the cultures of man through the ages, but still depend upon our own personal experience and judgment. We can stand on the shoulders of our ancestors in order to help us see further, which helps us avoid jumping over the cliff with all the lemmings.

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This is the end of the article entitled Belief Systems vs. Knowing published by Tupelo Kenyon on June 8, 2007 at 6:00 am | In Awareness, Belief Systems - Copyright 2007 - All rights reserved worldwide.

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  1. [...] Kenyon presents Belief Systems vs. Knowing posted at Tupelo Kenyon, saying, “Celebrate life through the exploration of believing vs. [...]

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  2. » Belief Systems vs. Knowing

    How do you discern between something known and a habitual thought – a belief?

    “But after careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.” – Buddha (563 B.C – 483 B….

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  3. [...] Belief Systems vs. Knowing How do you discern between something known and a habitual thought – a belief? The first step is to recognize that the vast majority of our beliefs are based not upon our own personal experiences and revelations but upon anecdotal evidence and the recommendations of other people, past and present. [...]

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  4. [...] Belief Systems vs. Knowing How do you discern between something known and a habitual thought – a belief? The first step is to recognize that the vast majority of our beliefs are based not upon our own personal experiences and revelations but upon anecdotal evidence and the recommendations of other people, past and present. [...]

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  5. [...] Belief Systems vs. Knowing How do you discern between something known and a habitual thought – a belief? The first step is to recognize that the vast majority of our beliefs are based not upon our own personal experiences and revelations but upon anecdotal evidence and the recommendations of other people, past and present. [...]

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