The Power of Beliefs to Shape Our Experience…and Destiny

The things that you keep silently telling yourself are your most important conversations. Whatever you habitually dwell on in your mind, you will become, express, or experience. Your subconscious mind will be your best friend or your worst enemy. Everything depends on the way you train it and the use you make of it. It is your individual share of the universal creative mind. It is the great cosmic playground of your freedom to think, choose, reason, and decide for yourself. It shapes your destiny and determines the attraction and repulsion of your life. Guard its portals well. It is your hope of heaven.” -Elinor MacDonald

You Get What You’re Looking For

A few weeks back I told the story, “You Get What You’re Looking For.” I’ve had so many people comment that they liked the story that I decided to pick up on this theme again and for a little longer. The point of the story is that we don’t necessarily see things as they are. We see life through a filter and that filter (not reality) determines how we experience life and, eventually, our destinies. It is logical to assume that our experience originates outside of ourselves. Things happen and we react. But the truth is that it begins within our minds. The mind is like a movie camera from which we project our beliefs, expectations, opinions, judgments, wishes, etc. onto the world. Those beliefs (what we’re looking for) then come back in the form of our experience.

Wise Man at a City Gate

This is illustrated by the story of the wise man sitting at the gate of a large city. A traveler approached him and asked, “Sir, I’m new here. Could you tell me the kind of people that live in this city?”

After pondering, the wise men asked in return, “And what were the people like where you came from?”

The man replied, “They were unfriendly and mean-spirited.”

The wise man responded, “That’s what they’re like here, too.”

Not long thereafter another traveler approached the city and asked the wise man again the kind of people that lived within the city. “What were the people like in the city that you’ve come from?”

The traveler replied, “Friendly, good-hearted, willing to help their neighbor,” to which the wise man responded, “And that is what they are like here, too.”

We experience not what is “out there” but rather what is inside that we project “out there”. In fact, at any given moment the magnitude and complexity of raw data impacting on our senses is overwhelming and more than can possibly be absorbed. We must, of necessity, focus our attention on only parts of that data. And it is our belief system that determines our focus; what we pay attention to and what we ignore. And what a difference our beliefs make in shaping our experience.

A Few Truths about Our Beliefs

Let me share a few truths about our beliefs.

First, beliefs (and the self-talk they generate) are not reality.

I cut my finger and tell myself, “I’m such a clumsy oaf.” Or  I have a flat tire on the way to work and tell myself, “bad things always happen to me.” I make a comment that isn’t well received and conclude, “People don’t appreciate me.” And so on. We act as though our self talk is the way things are rather than our perceptions or judgments about the way they are. “I’m inferior.” “You can’t trust men.” “I’ll never get ahead.” Not seeing this distinction is tragically disempowering.

Second, beliefs are powerful, unconscious drivers of our behavior.

In one research study, replicated many times, a subject is put in a hypnotic trance and then touched with a piece of ice but told that he/she is being touched with searing hot metal. Invariably a blister will develop. What mattered was not what happened but what the person believed happened. In another study, patients with ulcers were given tablets. Half the group was told they were receiving a new and extremely effective medication in the treatment of ulcers. A second group was told they were taking a new, experimental drug. The ulcers disappeared in 70% of the first group and 25% of the second group. In fact, both groups got the same placebo.

Third, the mind functions to be “right” about whatever it happens to believe, thus making our beliefs self-fulfilling prophecies.

I read a story sent by a friend, John Chancellor, just this morning. In January 2010, a 29 year old British construction worker jumped down from a scaffold and unfortunately landed on a 6 inch nail. Although he was wearing steel toed shoes, the point of the nail was visibly protruding from the top of his footwear. The man was in excruciating pain and would not let the emergency medical team perform any first aid until they administered midazolam, a painkiller often used prior to surgery, and then fentanyl, a painkiller which is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Once sedated, the doctors removed remove his footwear and made an amazing discovery: the nail had passed between his toes. It had not even broken the skin. The pain was all a result of the construction workers thoughts. He believed the nail had punctured his foot and therefore knew he should be in great pain.

Selective Perception

We perceive selectively what confirms our point of view and we even go so far as to set up situations to prove our point of view. If we believe we’re undeserving of success, guess what? We’ll find evidence to prove it. If we believe that most people care only about themselves, we’ll prove that too. On the other hand, if we believe that life is beautiful, then that is what will come back in the form of our experience.

Finally, it is not reality as much as our beliefs about reality that imprison us. It reminds me of elephants in the circus. At just a few weeks of age an elephant has a large chain tied around one of its front legs and fastened to a stake in the ground. The young elephant will struggle earnestly for a couple of weeks to free itself. But after a period of time it gives up. Once that occurs a trainer can remove the chain and fasten the leg with a small cord. Never again will the elephant attempt to break away.

And so it is with us human beings. We make decisions and form beliefs early in life, beliefs about our worth and capability, beliefs about how to survive, beliefs about life and our relationships. We experience these beliefs, so often unexamined, as real, the way things are. They become the very paradigm through which we experience life and make meaning of our experience. As such, they determine our destinies.

An Example

If you’ve read The Hero’s Choice, you might recall this passage:

“That’s quite a list. Can you see how your thinking about what Kathy said—your interpretations and the meaning you put on it—caused you to feel hurt and upset and to act the way you did?”

“Now that you put it that way …” Hal had never examined his thoughts this way. He was astonished to realize he’d been reacting automatically and just assumed his point of view was the truth about the situation. No wonder he reacted to Kathy’s words with little insight into why they disturbed him so.

So take a look at an area of your life in which you’re not satisfied.

  • What is happening?
  • What results are you getting?
  • What core beliefs might be driving those results?

Now write down some possible beliefs and begin to examine them. Where are the distortions? Are you willing to challenge them? I’ll introduce a few techniques to do this in the next few weeks.


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