Questioning Your Beliefs

October 11th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

In this post I’ll share some of my personal experiences shifting through different belief systems.

At the age of 17, I first began to seriously question my beliefs about reality. In my case it had a lot to do with the religion and culture in which I was raised. I was Catholic at the time, about to begin my senior year in high school. My consciousness had finally reached the point where I was able to start asking some questions in search of what I felt was the truth. It began with sort of a nagging feeling that what I was being taught simply wasn’t true for me. It began to feel wrong. By “wrong” I mean that it didn’t feel quite real to me anymore.

The people around me seemed convinced of the veracity of this belief system, yet my education also taught me that most people in the world weren’t Catholic. As a teenager I found this puzzling. I considered that most of the people on earth must have beliefs that were very different from mine. Yet they still grew up and lived their lives just the same. My belief system didn’t seem to have a good way of addressing the existence of those billions of non-Catholics, at least not one that made sense to me. Were they simply ignorant? Evil? Mistaken? Doomed to go to hell? Ripe for conversion? In need of help? I started to wonder what it would be like to live as a non-Catholic.

I went around asking people these kinds of questions and many others. As you can probably imagine, most people didn’t take me seriously. I got the most open-minded responses from certain Jesuit teachers of mine. Ok, so one of those teachers later turned out to be a child molester (seriously, although I saw no evidence of it at the time)…. But for the most part, I got stonewalled and didn’t find any answers that seemed true for me.

As a side note, I’m glad I live in the place and time I do, since in other times or cultures, I’d have been stoned instead of stonewalled (just like the saint after which I was named).

From this point onward in my life, I became intensely curious about belief systems, mainly because I felt the one I was in didn’t seem to mesh too well with my actual experience of reality. I learned that there were a number of other contexts in which people lived. How did I know that mine was actually the best one for me? It just happened to be the one in which I was born. I found that other people who had different contexts weren’t automatically evil, deranged, or mistaken.

I met another boy my age who said he was an atheist. I thought that was rather interesting. His beliefs about the nature of reality were very different from mine, but rather than the evil outcast I’d expected to find, he seemed decent and intelligent to me — a rare enough quality to find in teenagers. ;)

As a Catholic I was taught by one of my teachers to look upon non-Catholics (especially atheists) with a feeling of pity and to say to myself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But after getting to know some non-Catholics and noticing that they seemed to enjoy their lives without fear of being smitten, I felt more pity for myself than I did for them. So it was only a matter of months before I dumped the whole baggage of my childhood belief system and became an atheist. As you can imagine, that wasn’t an easy situation for me, given that I still had a year left to go in Catholic school. But overall I found a lot of empowerment in this new context. For one I had shed a tremendous amount of fear, so new possibilities became available to me, and I felt far more clear-headed. I had my best year ever as a student. I really enjoyed working on my own goals for a change instead of working on God’s. I even joined American Atheists and read their magazine (at least when my family didn’t intercept it).

I noticed that in this new context, I saw everyone in a different light. Within this context it was the highly religious people who were the true wackos. I also found it hard to relate to people who assumed I was going to spend eternity in hell simply because of my context switch. I became far more aware of issues involving the separation of Church and State. I noticed things like the use of the word “God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. As an atheist I disliked that very much. Once it was something I accepted as perfectly fine, but in this context it became something I had to tolerate.

After atheism I drifted into agnosticism, but the experience of seeing atheism from a Catholic perspective and Catholicism from an atheist perspective had made me intensely curious. I felt that neither of these represented real truth to me. They were simply different perspectives, different ways of viewing reality, but neither could prove itself true. I also noticed that each belief system seemed to control to a certain degree the types of experiences I would attract into my life. Within each context I’d see ample proof that the context I was in was the correct one. Each context became its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

This made me even more curious, so in my early 20s I consciously embarked on a quest to explore different belief systems. For the first several years, I studied many new age beliefs (like connecting with angels and spirit guides and such) and Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddism. I was fascinated by just how different my experience of reality became when I changed my context. I was able to attract some amazing spiritual experiences, many of which spilled over into my physical experience of reality. I learned that certain seeds only grow in certain soil.

I even tried Scientology for a few months to see what that was like. I thought to myself, “Now here’s a context so many people view as completely wacko, but clearly that can’t be how the people on the inside view it.” I wanted to find out for myself, so I popped into one of their centers and basically said, “Assimilate me.” And they were more than happy to do so. :) I read Dianetics and took a couple courses on the basics of Scientology. Other members taught me how to do auditing (both giving and receiving), and I spent many hours at their center until I felt I had a good grasp of the basics and understood the context from the inside, including how Scientologists viewed non-Scientologists.

That was a fascinating experience. On the one hand, I definitely found some cult-like patterns there (most of which were shared with mainstream religions though). On the other hand, I found the Scientologists to be some of a nicest people I’d met, and the children seemed far beyond their years in terms of their level of awareness and consciousness. One thing I didn’t like about Scientology though was that it was nearly impossible to get off their mailing list — I received weekly mailings from them for about 5 years after quitting, even after moving several times. :)

I continued this sampling pattern for many more years. As you can imagine, this created some instability in the other areas of my life, but I really enjoyed the process and documented these experiences in my journal (which allows me to review previous contexts from the perspective of an insider). One of my strengths is that I’m a fast learner, so I was able to immerse myself in new belief systems very quickly.

Although I’ve been writing about spiritual/religious beliefs so far, my experiments have more to do with understanding the nature of reality. So it’s not just religious belief systems I test. For example, this month I decided to dive into the belief system of Feng Shui, simply because it’s one I’ve never tried before. From the outside looking in, worst case it seemed harmless, and best case it seemed like it might be fun to try. There are different “schools” of Feng Shui, but the basic idea is that it you have to adopt a belief in the flow of energy (called chi), and then you learn how to place objects to optimize that flow. I started by reading about a dozen Feng Shui articles online and watching an instructional video, and then just a few days ago, I started implementing some ideas. I cleaned up some of the landscaping around the house and rearranged the furniture in my home office. Now my desk is facing the door instead of the wall (aka, the “commanding position”), so supposedly I need no longer fear being stabbed in the back while I write blog entries. That’s right — I can see you coming now! :)

One of many Feng Shui ideas I implemented over the weekend was to put together a little wealth shrine with a fountain and some plants. The same day I put it together, I received an unexpected check for $75 (a tax rebate from the State of Nevada due to its $300 million surplus). Then two days later I found $40 cash I didn’t even know I had, cash that had been hiding for about a year in a place I just happened to clean out. Then today I received a contract worth $1000 (that one I was expecting though), and my wife just told me a few hours ago that her book printing (she’s self-publishing her second book) will cost a few hundred dollars less than she expected. So far I’m quite liking this belief system. :)

After experiencing so many different beliefs, I started thinking about how to design my own personal belief system. Many of the beliefs I experienced were in conflict, so I couldn’t keep them all, but many were congruent and could be combined in interesting ways. I found that every context had a unique perspective, but I also saw ways that perspective could be enhanced by pulling in elements from other contexts. Most of all, I wanted to put together something that felt truthful and empowering for me.

I asked myself, “Given the elements found in all these different belief systems, what’s the richest soil I could create?”

If the soil is very rich, to me this means you can grow a variety of crops, and they’ll grow very well. In other words if the background context is empowering enough, it will give rise to some of the best goals you could possibly set, and your context will also help you achieve those goals.

All the contexts I experienced have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the major strengths involved empowering beliefs — no matter what context I tried, there were always some beliefs that empowered me. But each one also had disempowering beliefs. Often the disempowering part was how the belief system viewed outsiders and the “divinely inspired” stories it told of why it was the one true context.

As an example I found the belief in some kind of universal force or God to be empowering. I’ve switched between living with this belief and living without it a few times (for years at a time), and I like having this belief in general. I find that some sort of belief in God serves as potent soil. This type of God isn’t a wise man or father figure. In Catholicism it would be similar to the Holy Spirit. It’s more of a presence that can be tapped into, almost like a background radiation of pure consciousness.

I found virtually all types of dogmatic beliefs or beliefs that suggest whether some particular group of human beings is right or wrong to be disempowering. I found the belief in heaven/hell disempowering. I found the belief in any kind of caste system disempowering. So I don’t choose to hold such beliefs.

I found nuggets of what I felt to be truth in every context I experienced, but I also found a lot of what I felt to be nonsense. So my long-term goal was to strip away the nonsense and to smoosh together all the nuggets and to make that my personal context for living. And of course this is a context that continues to evolve.

Although there were certainly some bumps along the way, I’ve been very pleased with the development and evolution of my own personal context. It has been a wonderful journey to consciously create my own context instead of blindly accepting what I’ve been taught.

It would probably take the length of a book to fully explain my personal context today, but I’ll be sharing various elements of it with you in the days ahead and explaining how and why I opted to integrate them into my own context.

The way I define it, we always have a context. Having no beliefs at all is still a belief system. So if you’re thinking you don’t want to have a context at all, then from my perspective I would simply say that you’ve just named a belief that is part of your context right there. If you have a belief or disbelief in anything, you’ve got a context. A belief in a purely objective reality that is separate from yourself is still a context. It’s still a choice.



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