I have a confession to make: I don’t know everything. I don’t even know much.
I do know a lot about some things, too much about some others (pull up Madonna’s Wikipedia page and quiz me!), and, of course, very little about most everything else. Which is… most everything. And in truth, I know even less than that, because inevitably much of what I think I know will turn out to be wrong.
And you too. What are the chances that every belief you hold right now is entirely correct? (I can tell you: 0%. That’s one of the things I do know.)
For most of our beliefs, thankfully, that doesn’t much matter. You’re probably not basing any important decisions on the “fact” that water always drains clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. (If that’s why you bought a ticket to New Zealand, I’m sorry to break it to you. But you’ll still have a great time.)
But we’re wrong a lot. And sometimes, it does matter. Our misperceptions, according to yoga, are at the root of pretty much all our suffering. That could mean misperception as broad as the nature of reality, or as individual as how I might feel after eating one more spoonful of peanut butter. Either way, when we don’t perceive things as they actually are, then the choices we make (which are based on those misperceptions) will probably not have the effects we intend. Those decisions are probably not going to help us find lasting happiness.
So if you’re genuinely interested in finding the truth — and making wise choices — it’s essential to be willing to question the beliefs you hold. But our minds are often stubbornly resistant to change, so maybe the most important question you can ask yourself is: Is this belief something that I want to believe?
When I’m being honest with myself, the answer seems to be yes an awful lot of the time. I can find reasons for wanting to believe many, maybe even most, of the things I believe — like my occasional snarky judgments of others, or even the negative self-talk that can be so pervasive. Believing that I’m just bad at something is an excuse not to try, after all. And any bias I might hold or judgement I may make about someone else is invariably accompanied by a tiny jolt of feeling superior.
The different ways your beliefs might serve you are legion, and they are often subtle. (Or not. I don’t think I need to explain how easily my mind and I can talk each other into having more peanut butter.) But when you can finally begin to identify those things you might want to believe, then you may also start to be able to see your mind’s own tricks for maintaining those beliefs.
Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning plague us all: We seek out the information that will support what we’re already inclined to believe. And despite how much you (and I) might want to think that we’re too smart for that, intelligence doesn’t seem to make us any less susceptible. I suspect it’s just the opposite, in fact: Higher intelligence might just make the mind even more effective at rationalizing our beliefs.
Now of course wanting something to be true doesn’t automatically make it untrue, but it does mean that it deserves extra scrutiny. So you just have to keep asking the question — Do I have any evidence for this more compelling than my own desire for it to be true? — and try to be rigorously honest with the answers.
Awareness is the essential first step: The habit of remembering to check in with yourself, and the ability to step back and notice your mind’s own tendencies — two primary mental capacities strengthened by the consistent practice of mindfulness. But awareness is also every step, because you have to be willing to be honest about what you find. Awareness without honesty is not awareness. It’s delusion.