Belief Systems and Life Mastery: Unlocking Lasting Change

I had studied psychology and all aspects of our brain and nervous system to understand "how I work" from the inside out - but I was still completely stumped as to how Awakening actually happens. How belief and experience work were the missing keys.

Table of Contents

This is a post in the ongoing series "The Way of Awakening", a complete, holistic system for achieving awakening.

All The Learning Wasn't Enough

The year is 2011. I had been on my search for 18 years at this point.

I had dove head-first into religion to find God. And that part of my life was rapidly coming to an end - I had learned and grown all I could from the religion's teachings, and should have left years ago. The "system" aspect of the church was harmful and there wasn't any more benefit for staying there.

I had studied everything I could get my hands on related to how our brain and nervous system works. I understood how our brain "builds" the experience we think of as "me" and all of the rest of the world.

I understood the neurological aspects of how the brain works when depressed, angry, fearful - and how all of these negative states physically change the flow of blood away from our creative brain centers, preventing us from "seeing the way out" of whatever problems loom in front of us.

I knew all of these and more, but I still didn't know how "I" worked. The brain - sure, just read a book (or 20), but the self, that's a different story.

I'm sure you've been there - you've heard about all these gurus talking about enlightenment, awakening, and seemingly out-of-this-world experiences.

It can be bewildering.

My situation was especially difficult, because the church I was in would have frowned on my Eastern studies, and there was no way I would have been able to have a teacher or guide help me on this path.

So here I was, after 18 years of searching, still not finding what I had been looking for, and no one to reach out to that could help me.

All I needed was just one experience of "spiritual enlightenment" to know how it worked.

A Sacred Text

For me, that moment of breakthrough fortunately came when I decided to start reading the Satipatthan Sutta.

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The Satipatthana Sutta is the text where, amongst other things, the original teaching on Vipassana meditation is recorded.

Vipassana was the meditation method Siddhartha Gautama (the original Buddha) taught directly after his Awakening.

After 12 years of a lot of mindfulness practice, I had begun vipassana meditation. I had found Satya Narayana Goenka's (lovingly called "Goenka") teachings from his 10 day retreats.

In them, he taught how to do vipassana meditation and I had begun my practice from his instructions.

After a little research I found the Satipatthana Sutta was the text where the original Vipassana instructions were recorded and wanted to read it for myself.

While it was repetitive and long, it was considerably less instruction than the hands-on, practical instruction than Goenka had given during his teaching sessions.

To this day, I'm still thankful to Goenka for all his work he did in bringing Vipassana to the west. His teaching has been a foundation of change in my life.

A significant moment of enlightenment happened when I was reading a specific set of lines in the Sutta, but I'll get to that in a moment.

To understand the impact reading these lines had on me, we need to talk about habits and beliefs first.

Changing Our Habits

All of us have bad habits we want to change.

And we've all tried the millions of different ways to change our bad habits or implement new good ones.

One of the most effective strategies I've found is to change the way we view ourselves.

For example, if you want to ride your bike every day, seeing yourself as a dedicated cyclist will help you make the change. When it's raining, a person who sees themselves as an occasional bike rider will stay home. But if you ask yourself "what would a dedicated cyclist do?" you'll be out on the wet road in no time.

In a short amount of time, you'll be a dedicated cyclist. You'll cycle because that's what dedicated cyclists do.

What Changes Our Habits?

Before we get too far, let's put the pieces we have together into a little framework.

Why do we want to change our habits? Because we want to get different results.

So the obvious pieces we have for our framework are this:

Habits (aka "actions") produce our Results.

But what about the example of seeing ourselves as a cyclist in order to implement the habit of bike riding?

This would be categorized as belief - we believe we are a cyclist, so we do what cyclists do - we ride our bike all the time no matter what.

Putting that into our framework, we have this:

Beliefs form our Actions which produce our Results.

We can shorten it to this:

Beliefs -> Actions -> Results

But Beliefs Are Hard To Change!

So we want to get different results, and we realize they are ultimately affected by our beliefs.

But when we get busy trying to change our beliefs, that's when we realize just how hard it is to change beliefs.

Example: We think "if I eat healthy, I'll lose weight, live longer, etc." But we believe "just this one ____ won't hurt this time." And we eat that one thing. Over and over and over.

This Belief -> Action -> Result chain gives us the results we really don't want.

So how can we change our beliefs?

The Neuro-Chemistry of Habit Change

Remember all that brain-and-neurological study I did all those years?

This is where it pays off - understanding exactly how we're wired internally.

Our brain is comprised of roughly 100 billion neurons. How they work is how we work.

When we're presented with new situations, our neurons learn by taking "guesses" and getting feedback on how good that guess was.

Once they find a solution that works, they remember it.

This is why habits are hard to change - once we do something that "works," that behavior is quite literally hard-wired into our brain.

Notice the key ingredient - the neurons had to have a experience that "worked" for them to hard wire that habit into place.

I use quotes around the word "worked" because our neurons don't necessarily know how well things went. They use hormone levels, like serotonin and dopamine, levels to determine how well things went.

When we're stressed, serotonin levels are initially high. This is a signal to the neurons that their calculations aren't "working," and that a change is needed.

Serotonin is like an eraser - it tells the brain to forget that habit.

Think about how that works. We make a mistake and get stressed out from the bad results. That produces the serotonin necessary to help erase that behavior so we don't repeat it.

Side note: if we're stressed for a long period of time eventually our serotonin gets depleted and we enter a hopeless/depressive state. So short-term stress is good for making life changes, but long term stress is harmful.

I can hear you now "But omni, does that mean in order to change my habits I have to get stressed out?"

The short answer is "no."

A Magic Potion For Beliefs

Remember I said neurons use hormone levels to determine how well things are going?

That's not just serotonin (stress), that's also dopamine (reward).

Dopamine appears to me to be an even more powerful change-agent for habits.

And that's good news - because dopamine makes us happy.

The down side of dopamine is that it's the hormone of addiction, from those cute cats showing up in our insta feed all the way to hard core drug addiction. This is why it's hard to quit doom scrolling once you've started.

The upside of dopamine is you also get a "dopamine hit" when you have deep insights (what I call "enlightenments").

I get dopamine hits so strong from insights I experience frission. I've experienced frission for nearly 40 years, often several times a week.

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Frission: pronounced FREE-son. French for "psychogenic shivers."

Psychogenic means "having a psychological origin or cause rather than a physical one."

So frission is the experience of shivers/chills that originate from your mind, not your body.

It's like getting a lightening bolt of life, inside your mind.

I even get frission when I work with my clients and see deep insights into their life. This is why I love working with other people, because the jolt of life I get with each insight and change my clients go through.

If serotonin is the brain's eraser, dopamine is the brain's reward.

They both change our beliefs.

Serotonin signals "that's a bad belief, don't believe that any more," and we adjust our behavior (which gives us different results).

Dopamine signals "that's a great idea - do it more!"

The Full Framework For Change

Let's revisit our framework, this is what we have so far:

Belief -> Action -> Result

Both serotonin and dopamine both change belief at the neurological level, so they must come before Belief in our framework.

Both of them are a result of Experience. Putting that into our framework, this is what we have:

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The full framework for change:

Experience -> Belief -> Action -> Result

One thing you may immediately notice is Results are Experiences.

So this framework for understanding how we change points out how this can be a virtuous cycle, looking like this:

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The full framework for change:

Experience -> Belief -> Action -> Experience -> Belief -> Action -> Experience -> Belief -> Action -> Experience....

We have a positive experience that gives us a positive belief. That belief then changes our actions in a positive way, leading to positive results.

In turn, those positive results are an experience that further reinforces the positive belief, leading to more positive actions, and more positive results.

That First Positive Experience

So the question becomes "how can I have that first positive experience that will lead to a change in beliefs in order to change my actions and results?"

Well, let's go back to 2011 with me reading the Satipatthana Sutta.

I was reading it to learn exactly how Siddhartha had taught to meditate.

Along with vipassana, there are other passages, like the one on cittànupassanà, which is the one I was reading, after reading about vipassana.

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Cittànupassanà: means "observing the mind"

"Citta" (pronounced chee-ta) comes from the Sanskrit word "citta," which also means mind or consciousness.

"Anupassanā" is derived from the Pali verb "anupassati," which means to observe or contemplate closely.

It has lines like this:

When a mind with greed arises, a monk knows, “This is a mind with greed”
When a mind with anger arises, he knows, “This is a mind with anger”
...

It repeats this form with over ten different mental conditions, including things like laziness, distraction, and concentration.

This is when the magic happened.

I read lines that weren't actually there.

Let me explain. Often with insight, we're reading something, watching a video, or talking with friends, and the thing that we read/see/hear triggers something else in our mind.

It's the thing that gets triggered that is the insight, not the thing we read/saw/heard.

We have to make ourselves available for these insights, but they don't always come directly from whatever we're studying or working with.

And that's what happened to me, this is what I was reading, the underlined part is what I read that isn't in the original text:

When a superior mind arises, a monk knows, “This is a superior mind”
When a concentrated mind arises, a monk knows, “This is a concentrated mind”
When an enlightened mind arises, a monk knows, “This is an enlightented mind”

The moment I read that last sentence (that wasn't really there), I experienced frission the same way I had for many years and realized "this is what enlightened mind is" - exactly the meaning of the sentence.

Suddenly I realized how Awakening would happen, and what type of experience it would be.

This specific enlightenment I was experiencing was "enlightened mind."

I concluded Awakening would be an enlightened mind experience, but with a different insight.

Within a year, I experienced Awakening, and count this specific insight that isn't written in the Satipatthana Sutta as a catylist that accelerated the process. It was a key stepping stone for me.

Let's look at how this worked, using the framework we've put together:

  • Experience: I had the experience of "enlightened mind." I had "enlightened mind" many times in the past, but without seeing clearly that this is what it was. In the past I knew I was getting an insight, but I didn't know it was tied in with Awakening. This new experience made it clear to me, the Awakened mind would be like the enlightened mind experience I just had.
  • Belief: Now I knew the way I was working with enlightenments was exactly how Awakening would happen, I just needed to keep focusing on this one specific type of activity. In hindsight this is obvious - I teach that enlightenments come before Awakening, but I can only teach that now because of my direct experience. At the time it wasn't clear because I didn't know how Awakening worked or what enlightened mind was like.
  • Action: Knowing exactly how Awakening would happen lead to me continue improving my focus through meditation and gave me the specific things to focus on - the mental states. Since I also knew Awakening is to see through the illusion of the self, I began examining all the ways I thought the self was something substantial.
  • Result: I continued my meditation practice, focused on mental states and how the illusion of the self was created, until Awakening happened.

Using The Formula In Your Life

You can see how harmful/wrong beliefs can totally wreck your life. They lead to harmful/wrong actions, which give harmful/wrong results.

My experience is all beliefs can be harmful. Even the ones that have helped us.

This is why I don't teach beliefs. I teach frameworks, ways to understand and work with the way things really are.

These frameworks should be used like tools in a toolbox. We don't need a hammer for every job. A skilled carpenter will know which tool is needed and use them appropriately. It doesn't take belief in the hammer to use it. And it doesn't make the saw "wrong" or "bad" just because the hammer is the right tool to use at the moment.

This Is Where The Real Work Starts

With this in mind, consider your own beliefs.

The results you're getting in your life are coming directly from those beliefs. Those results are unavoidable.

If you want to change the results you're getting, what beliefs do you need to give up or change?

It won't be obvious. Why?

If we knew which beliefs were bringing us bad results, we would have already changed them.

Our beliefs are the blind spot that keeps producing results in our life that we don't want.

You can change your beliefs, even if you don't know which ones need to be changed. But it's hard work and not always obvious.

One thing I had working for me all those years prior to Awakening was I lived by principle. My intentions were always pure, and I always gave my best effort on following what I knew to be right.

I had a lot of opposition. Ironically, most opposition was from the religious people.

With patience you can always do what you know to be right.

And when we're in situations where we don't know what to do, having pure intentions is something we can always do.

We may make mistakes, but if we make them, let it be with the best of intentions.

Living by principle gave me the experience that changed my beliefs. It starts slowly at first, but with each belief change, our view of the world becomes clearer.

We enter that virtuous cycle of the Results of our Actions becoming the Experience that reinforces our Beliefs.

Overall, my search took 19 years because I did it alone. I didn't have a teacher, I didn't have someone who was ahead of me who could tell me clearly what I needed to work on.

If we know the beliefs that are producing the results we don't want, the next thing is finding the right experience to change the beliefs.

Finding The Right Experience

There was one belief I had for many years I knew was wrong, but didn't know how to change it.

I correctly understood the Zen Koan "Thoughts without a thinker," but it hadn't been incorporated into the way I viewed myself. It wasn't a belief - it was just an idea that I "believed."

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Just because we understand something doesn't mean it's actually helping us or changing our life. We have to incorporate it into Beliefs to the point it changes our Actions.

Ideas that aren't actually incorporated into our life are worthless. Worse - because we "know" the idea, we can't even see there's a problem.

The meaning this koan conveys is that although there are thoughts going on, there's not a person who's doing the thinking.

Why didn't I fully believe it even though I thought it was true?

Well, using our framework, we can figure it out. Beliefs come from Experience.

So I hadn't had the right experience yet to change my belief.

The experience I was having was one of continual thinking.

And because of this, I still identified my self as the thinker - even though I fully knew there was no "me," no self, no me doing the thinking.

In this particular case, the experience that destroys the belief of the self is Awakening.

This is one reason bringing patience to our practice is so important. We're often waiting to see what belief needs to be changed, and then we're waiting for the right experience to create that changed belief.

I've observed this same situation with clients in the things they know to be true, but their beliefs haven't changed.

I work with them to bring their focus in the right areas, and with that focus comes the experience they need to change their beliefs.

Often the focus is as simple as a concept to focus on in meditation.

The most powerful sessions I've had are when I can give my client the direct experience they need right on the zoom call.

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Do you need help working through your beliefs and changing the results you're getting in your life?

Let's setup an initial consultation - I'd love to see if I can help!