The Believer’s Paradox

By Adam J. Pearson

Did you ever notice how holding a belief about the world seems to surprisingly narrow your perception? It’s as if the belief gives you tunnel vision; everything that agrees with it comes through the tunnel and everything that challenges the belief doesn’t it make it into your field of view. Or if it does, it doesn’t stay for long before it gets denied or explained away.

In the same way that putting blinders on a horse limits their peripheral vision and thus helps them to focus on the path ahead, buying into a belief puts blinders on our perception.

Why does holding a belief tend to limit rather than expand our perception? One reason seems to be that once we hold a belief, confirmation bias gets activated and the mind begins to seek out information that confirms what it already believes and miss, deny, or explain away evidence that contradicts the belief.

In this way, holding one belief to be true can blind us to other truths that lie outside or clash with that belief and, by placing a limit on perception, can narrow rather than expand the range of what we perceive.

I call this phenomenon the Believer’s Paradox; the more we believe, the less we perceive.

I named this phenomenon because it emerged out of my experience. It came up again and again. I’d hold a belief and find so much confirming evidence for it everywhere I looked, but miss out on so much at the same time. The more I believed, the more evidence I saw of my belief, but the less I perceived data that lay beyond the scope of the belief’s narrow view of reality. 

At this point, you might be wondering: should we believe in the Believer’s Paradox? 

I like to hold this concept of the Believer’s Paradox in mind as what Alan Siegman calls a “thought model.” A thought model is a useful way of thinking that requires neither belief nor disbelief, a kind of conceptual tool. Thought models can be picked up and played with so long as they are useful and discarded when they no longer serve a practical purpose. 

There’s another interesting thing about beliefs; we don’t seem to be able to consciously will ourselves to believe or disbelieve. If I disbelieve something, I can’t will myself to believe it without seeing through my ruse. If I believe something, I can’t will myself to disbelieve it; its apparent truth shines through my attempted disbelief. All I can will myself to do is consider the evidence and arguments in favour and against a proposition and then see if my mind believes or disbelieves it as a result.

The unconscious seems to play a role in the process of ‘adopting’ beliefs just as the conscious mind does. As social psychologist, David Myers points out in his phenomenal book, Social Psychology, we are not only persuaded by rational arguments (what he calls the ‘central route to persuasion’), but also by peripheral cues (‘the peripheral route to persuasion,’ in Myers’ terminology). Without even realizing it, we can unconsciously end up believing someone’s message if, for example, they seem to be credible, if they have social proof, if we like them, or if they appeal to our feelings. 

Being a critical thinker helps us be less prone to subconscious persuasion. However, it may also be helpful to change the way we frame “beliefs” to see them, instead, as “thought models.” The less we are the mercy of beliefs and the more free we are to play around with thought models, the more options we have for ways of seeing the world and the less susceptible we are to the limiting effects of the Believer’s Paradox.


For example, a manager who clings to and believes in one particular model for how to manage her subordinates limits herself to perceiving situations in the narrow way construed by that particular model.

If, instead, she cultivates an awareness of multiple management approaches and holds these loosely as ‘thought models’ or tools in her toolbox, she remains open to seeing a situation in many possible ways. When she looks at the situation through one model, she perceives some of its facets. When she looks at the same situation through the lens of another model, she perceives other facets that the first model did not help her to see.

Without clinging to one particular thought model, she remains open to using a variety of thought models in order to get the fullest possible view of a situation. In this way, she expands her perception of reality instead of shrinking it.

This is the true value of the Believer’s Paradox; when we understand how it works, we can think in a way that minimizes its effects and maximizes our options for perceiving the world as fully as possible. “Beliefs” may limit perceptual options, but “thought models” increase them. In other words, the more aware we are of alternate thought models (ways of thinking about and seeing a situation) and the more willing we are to flexibly play around with them, the more of reality we are able to perceive. 

A Thought I’ve Never Thought Before

By Adam J. Pearson

I yearn and long to think a thought I’ve never thought before,
A thought that cuts through stories and takes me right to the core.

The thoughts here in my mind, they are so old, they recombine,
These words I use weren’t coined by me, but in them I’m entwined.

I want to reach the heart of truth where not a word can reach,
I want to dive into the sea, not tarry on the beach.

I don’t want new beliefs to hold or theories second-hand,
I want to taste reality, explore its pathless land.

That’s why I want to think a thought I’ve never thought before,
A thought that cuts through stories and takes me right to the core.

Because our time, it is so short; death comes for all, I fear,
That’s why I want to taste the truth deeply while I’m still here. 

When We Feel Vulnerable, We Feel Alive: Reflections on the Power and Vitality of Vulnerability

By Adam J. Pearson

Vulnerability–the feeling of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure–is not weakness. It’s a source of inner power and a source of vitality. When we feel vulnerable, we feel alive.

The connection between vulnerability and the feeling of aliveness is natural since, as shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown points out in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, life itself is vulnerable and all of our emotions are born out of a space of vulnerability.

This idea might sound surprising. We usually recognize the ‘unpleasant’ feelings that come out of vulnerability, like shame, fear, worry, and loneliness. However, we don’t often see that vulnerability is also the core of our deepest moments of joy, creativity, and excitement. When we are feeling great joy, for example, there is often a nagging sense that something could go wrong and the joy could vanish; we may even try to “brace ourselves” for this future vanishing and end up missing out on the full richness of our joy as a result. Bracing ourselves in the midst of joy is really just a way of trying to shut out vulnerability in order to try to protect ourselves from pain or disappointment. The ironic truth is that this attempt to protect ourselves actually hurts us; the only way to feel the deepest form of joy is to dive into its vulnerability.

When I think about all of the moments that we feel most alive–when we do something risky like parachuting out of an airplane, when we fall in love, when we feel uncertain and worried about how we will survive, when we lose someone we love, when we feel our happiest and most fulfilled–I can’t help but notice that we are vulnerable in all of these situations. We are in a state of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Our whole nervous system is in a state of intense activity and even if we are afraid, we still feel intensely, deeply, and robustly alive.

Vulnerability is the core of the feeling of aliveness. It is the core of all of our feelings. If we numb our vulnerable feelings, we numb all of our feelings for this very reason. To repress and numb our vulnerability out of a desire to escape shame, fear, and anxiety actually ends up shutting us off from the feelings we yearn for the most like love, joy, creativity, and genuine belonging.

If we want to get the most out of life and feel on the deepest possible level, we need to embrace our vulnerability with bravery rather than try to run away from it. We need to be all in, fully present, fully grounded in the truth of what we’re experiencing. To be all in can hurt, but it can also help us to unlock a level of fulfillment that we never thought possible while living in a state of numbness. The more we are willing to be present in our vulnerability, the more vibrantly alive we tend to feel.

Vulnerability is certainly the core of all love. The vulnerability of love is clearest in cases of sacrificial love where a hero gives up their life out of love for someone else. However, all forms of love place us in a vulnerable position.

Parents feel the vulnerability of love when they look at their children and wonder if something bad will happen to them and when they see just how vulnerable their children really are. 

People feel vulnerable in romantic love when they realize that their beloved could leave, betray them, or pass away.

Whenever we love something impermanent, we feel vulnerable. And because all things are impermanent, all love makes us feel vulnerable. However, the vulnerability of love is not something we can avoid because it’s a feature of the terrain of love itself; to love is to be vulnerable. The vulnerability of love is something we need to accept and even embrace.

Love is strong and flows like a river, but it’s also fragile like a flower. And as in the case of a flower, this fact only adds to its beauty.

Frames of Reverence

By Adam J. Pearson

In relativity physics, we talk about “frames of reference.” A frame of reference is basically a point of view from which we are observing something. What if we had a correlative or analogous concept for spirituality?

I would like to coin a new concept, which I call “a frame of reverence.”

A frame of reverence is a view of the world in which something or someone is seen as sacred, awe-inspiring,or worthy of reverence.

Different religions present different frames of reverence. In Wiccca, the frame of reverence centers on a Goddess and God and their activity in nature. In Hinduism, there are many frames of reverence centered on different deities. Atheism tends to focus its frame of reverence solely on the natural world and a deep scientific understanding thereof. Chaos Magick uses a technique called ‘paradigm-shifting’ to adopt and drop belief systems at Will; they essentially adopt and drop different frames of reverence as suits their purpose. Even political perspectives sometimes present frames of reverence; nationalism, for example, reverences the nation as an idealized entity. At many points in American and world history, particular world leaders have become figures of reverence in the frames of reverence of their followers, sometimes explicitly, as in the deification of Augustus in Rome and the Pharaohs in Egypt, and implicity, in the way many American presidents have been seen throughout history. 

The idea of frames of reverence can be an interesting catalyst for self-reflection:
What does your frame of reverence include? What does it exclude? Can you expand it? Can you contract it?

The Power of Cold Showers

By Adam J. Pearson

Want to make a small change to your lifestyle that can, without any exaggeration at all, change your whole life? It won’t even cost you a dime. You won’t have to go somewhere far away. You won’t even have to change your diet.

All you have to do is take cold showers. Seriously. 

This is how James Bond did it in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and this is how I like to do it as well:

First thing in the morning, I like to start with hot water for cleaning purposes, but then drop the heat and go colder and colder until it’s borderline ice-water. Then stand there under the freezing water. Lean into the cold and really feel it. Be fully present with it. (You can also start straight from cold; that’s a more hardcore practice, but you don’t have to start there).

I mean this in all seriousness. Cold showers are absolutely awesome. They don’t feel that way, especially at first, but the things they can do for your life are nothing short of spectacular.

What are the benefits of doing this crazy, uncomfortable, counter-intuitive thing every morning, you ask? Here are 7:

(1) It jars your whole system awake when you’re drowsy in the morning without requiring the slightest bit of caffeine.

(2) It teaches you how to practice one of the most central principles to psychology and social work, namely: “lean into discomfort.” At first, your body will jerk back from the cold water like a hand from a hot stove. After a few weeks, though, you won’t even wince as the temperature plummets. You’ll breathe in and lean into the cold without flinching.

(3) It toughens you up against cold temperatures. While everyone else around you is complaining about the cold, you’ll be comfortable.

(4) It builds your willpower. It takes guts to do this again and again, day after day. It takes will. And the more you do it, the more you will fortify your will. And if you can will yourself to do this one thing, how much harder can it be to will yourself to do the other things you yearn to do?

(5) It makes you more comfortable with uncomfortable situations in daily life. It sounds like a paradox, but it’s true. You’ll be more able to walk towards an uncomfortable situation without wincing or pulling away. The reaction to the shower trains you for your reaction to the events in your life outside of the shower.

(6) It pumps you up and builds your inner strength and courage. The shock of freezing cold water in the morning makes you feel pumped. After a week, you’ll go into that shower with the attitude “bring it on!” Over time, you’ll start to carry that attitude into your life after the shower. Implicit in that open, ready, mentality is a great deal of strength and a great deal of courage.

(7) It makes you less dependent upon being comfortable, which will actually make you feel more appreciative, more grateful, and a little more joyful. After a few weeks, you will find that you no longer NEED to be physically comfortable at all. That culturally conditioned ‘need’ will drop out of your system.

Let me explain this last point a little. This one little lifestyle change will give you an edge on the vast multitudes of people who need to feel pampered and comfortable and can’t handle the slightest inconvenience without complaining.

You won’t be a complainer. In fact, you may even find less to complain about in daily life. Because after starting your day with this ordeal, the rest of what you will encounter will suddenly seem a little easier to deal with. You will notice that you start to appreciate little things in your life a little more. And that appreciation builds gratitude, which in turn builds joy. Moreover, when you *are* comfortable and cozy throughout your day, you’ll appreciate that even more than you did before too because it will contrast with the discomfort you willingly experience every morning.

So try cold showers, I dare you. Try them for two weeks, or better yet, a month. Take the Cold Shower Challenge. And watch your life evolve.

***

If you want to read more about the powerful benefits of “cold shower therapy,” see this fantastic article. The authors, Brett and Kate McKay describe 7 additional health benefits of cold showers:

Improves circulation. Good blood circulation is vital for overall cardiovascular health. Healthy blood circulation also speeds up recovery time from strenuous exercises and work. Alternating between hot and cold water while you shower is an easy way to improve your circulation. Cold water causes your blood to move to your organs to keep them warm. Warm water reverses the effect by causing the blood to move towards the surface of the skin. Cold shower proponents argue that stimulating the circulatory system in this way keeps them healthier and younger looking than their hot water-loving counterparts.

Relieves depression. Lots of great men from history suffered bouts of depression.  Henry David Thoreau is one such man. But perhaps Thoreau’s baths in chilly Walden Pond helped keep his black dog at bay. Research at the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine indicates that short cold showers may stimulate the brain’s “blue spot”- the brain’s primary source of noradrenaline — a chemical that could help mitigate depression. I guess a bout of the blues isn’t so bad after all.

Keeps skin and hair healthy. Hot water dries out skin and hair. If you want to avoid an irritating itch and ashy elbows, turn down the temperature of your showers. Also, cold water can make your manly mane look shinier and your skin look healthier by closing up your cuticles and pores.

Strengthens immunity. According to a study done in 1993 by the Thrombosis Research Institute in England, individuals who took daily cold showers saw an increase in the number of virus fighting white blood cells compared to individuals who took hot showers. Researchers believe that the increased metabolic rate, which results from the body’s attempt to warm itself up, activates the immune system and releases more white blood cells in response.

Increases testosterone. (…) The study by the Thrombosis Research Institute cited above showed that cold water showers actually increase testosterone production in men. Increased testosterone levels not only boost a man’s libido, but also his overall strength and energy level.

Increases fertility. Trying to become a dad? Cold showers are good for your little swimmers. Your testes aren’t meant to get too hot; that’s why they hang outside your body. Sperm counts decrease when the temperature of a man’s testes increases. Experiments done in the 1950s showed that hot baths were an effective contraceptive. Men who took a 30 minute hot bath every other day for 3 weeks were infertile for the next six months. More recently, the University of California at San Francisco did a study with men who were exposed to 30 minutes of “wet heat” (hot baths and such) a week. When the men cut this exposure out, their sperm count went up by 491%, and their sperm’s motility improved as well. While switching from a hot to cold shower may not have as dramatic an effect, if you’re trying to create some progeny, it surely won’t hurt.

Increases energy and well-being. Every time I end a shower with cold water, I leave feeling invigorated and energized. Your heart starts pumping, and the rush of blood through your body helps shake off the lethargy of the previous night’s sleep. For me, the spike in energy lasts several hours. It’s almost like drinking a can of Diet Mountain Dew, minus the aspartame. And while it hasn’t been studied, many people swear that cold showers are a surefire stress reducer. I’m a believer.”

Power Born From Vulnerability: Reflections on Powerful Relationships

By Adam J. Pearson

Relationships take a wide variety of forms. Some relationships seem so fragile that the slightest fight, disagreement, or mistake could crush them into oblivion. Others seem so resilient that they can weather the most ferocious storm and emerge scarred, but empowered. What distinguishes these fragile relationships from the more powerful ones that inspire and nurture us?

Fragile relationships tend to be tentative. We don’t go into them fully. We don’t commit to them. We approach them cautiously, like a hungry squirrel cautiously approaching an offering of food in the outstretched palm of a human. The squirrel doesn’t know if the same hand that now feeds him might also go on to hurt him.  He doesn’t know if he can trust the person before him. So he is tentative, careful, ready to run at any time. We are the same way in fragile relationships. We’re afraid to get hurt, so we don’t fully invest ourselves. We don’t fully trust in order to protect ourselves. We don’t let ourselves care all that much in an attempt to protect ourselves from disappointment. And we often see the relationship in a totally conditional way: if it ceases to satisfy my wants or starts to hit rough terrain, we are ready to leave in a heartbeat. Fragile relationships cannot handle adversity; as soon as it hits, they crumble, like a ship shattering against dark rocks its captain did not spot in time.

In my experience, powerful relationships are completely different from their more delicate counterparts. Powerful relationships–whether romantic, friendship, or family relationships–are resilient. They’re elastic. They don’t crumble under the weight of being rocked, or of people messing up, making mistakes, and getting hurt. They bounce back. That’s why we feel we can be vulnerable in these relationships without letting fear or shame numb us into silence. Because we know that we’re safe. We know that even if feelings get stirred up, the relationship is strong enough to handle them without breaking. This elasticity comes from trust, comfort, caring, respect, and connection. When these things are in place, the elasticity is in place. The resilience is in place. And the relationship handles hurt and bounces back.

This ability to bounce back, to adapt to adversity and accommodate challenge, is the source of the power of powerful relationships. They are richly infused with the trust and security that fragile relationships so desperately lack. And one of the most paradoxical features of powerful relationships is that they are born out of vulnerability. To trust is to be vulnerable. To care is to be vulnerable. To seek comfort in another person is to be vulnerable. To reach out in connection is a vulnerable act. Therefore, in order to create a relationship in which we feel like it is safe to be ourselves, a relationship that can handle the truth of our shame, fear, anxiety, along with all of our joy, strength, and creativity, we have to take a leap of faith into vulnerability. We have to dare to care, dare to trust, dare to connect. And when we do, we find, much to our surprise, that this unsafe act can unlock the keys to our safety. Perhaps ironically, it  is only by taking this vulnerable leap with someone who deserves our trust that we find the strength and the relationship resilience for which we have always yearned.

The Wordless Mystery Without and Within: On the Reach of Stories and the Silent Core of the Self and the World

By Adam J. Pearson

When we pause to think about it, the extent to which we perceive the world through stories is absolutely staggering. Nothing has so great a hold of us and so fundamentally structures our experience like stories do.

Examples of this truth are ubiquitous in daily life. We make snap judgments about each other and weave them into stories. We see the world through fictional characters and worlds we’ve read about or watched on TV. Our media images bombard us with advertisement stories to tell us what to feel and what to buy. We interpret each other’s behaviour as well as our own through stories. Our thought process unfolds as a series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves. Stories tell us what is valuable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, how we should live, and what we should be. We make meaning out of nature itself via scientific and religious stories. Out of the ineffable oneness and unending vastness of the universe, we create stories with finite beginnings, middles, and ends. The limits of our minds require the limits that stories offer by packaging meaning into neat little units that make sense to us. We draw lines where none exist so that our minds can handle small facets of an inconceivably vast reality. And perhaps most profoundly of all, we create our own imaginary personal identities, our own ‘selves,’ out of a network of stories written by us and by others.

In the constant game of narration called our life, fiction and truth blur together and it’s often hard to tell whether we are creating our own story or acting a part in someone else’s. Sometimes we find ourselves doing both at the same time. And yet, we find ourselves confronted by countless questions. How much do our stories clarify, how much do they obscure? Which truths to they reveal and which do they conceal? How much of the stories we live by lies out there in the physical world, and how much is just here in our heads? What is the deep stillness of outer space like in the absence of all of the stories we tell on Earth? What is the nakedness of existence like if we don’t evoke any concepts or stories to interpret it? For all interpretations are stories, and all stories involve interpretation.

As they are, as they nakedly exist, all things have their being prior to the speaking of a single word about them. Their basic nature is wordless, ineffable, unspeakable, silent. Language reaches out to try to grasp this bare reality desperately, but always fails to do so. Indeed, the wordless silence of all things has deeper roots than we could ever imagine. We reach out through words, language, concepts and stories in a futile attempt to grasp the fundamental nature of this wordless nature. But we are donkeys chasing a carrot at the end of a string; it always seems so close, but is always out of reach. Somehow, we intuit that bare existence lives beyond all words. And do our feelings not themselves get numbed and limited by the names we pin onto them? What is it like to feel outside of any words about what we are feeling? If we could connect our minds directly to the bare nature of the story-less world without evoking the words and concepts to which we cling for safety, could we experience its reality directly? Could we dive into the wordless vastness of being? Could we handle the totally unfamiliar and unrecognizable texture of this silence? Would it transform us, liberate us, or destroy us?

The truth is that we can ask all of these questions, but all of the answers we can come up with are like beautiful, deceiving traps, for questions invite answers and answers are stories. The minute we open our mouths to speak, it is too late. We’ve already made answering the question of what the reality of the world is like beyond all words and concepts impossible.

Only silence can answer silence. And the bare nature of reality will always lie beyond the reach of the language of stories. Only bare awareness can reach out to it and  only in silence. What it finds there in the land beyond words, it cannot say, and whatever it says is not it. This wordless mystery, this truth beyond story is not only out there, but within us too. The core of what we are cannot be spoken; every word betrays it, every story leads us away from it.  Only silence leads us deeper into it, into our core and into a more direct engagement with the reality of the world around us.  Only silence  is at home in mystery and only mystery is our true home. And so even these words must be dropped, cut off, and left behind.

***

Summary:
Stories mediate our daily lives, but the core of our world and of who and what we are lies beyond the reach of words, concepts, and stories. We can only meet it in silence and mystery.

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