18 February 2006

Belief: we are what we think.

examing beliefIn this second look at the subject of belief I'd like to examine a more positive aspect. I was sparked off by a BBC Radio program in the same week as a New Scientist issue (28 Jan 2006) with several articles about belief. Both sources had quite a lot to say about the belief in medical treatments.

Recently medical researchers have become much more interested in the placebo effect. This is the phenomena in which the belief that one has been given an effective medical treatment can have a beneficial effect, even when one is given a placebo, or dummy treatment. Placebo is Latin for "I shall be accepted". What is becoming clear is that the placebo effect is really quite remarkable. It is not a figment of our imagination and it can produce startling physical changes in our body. Covertly given placebo medicines do not work. The strength of the effect seems to be linked to expectations and strength of belief. One scientist thinks that it may be beneficial to err on the side of gullibility: "If you miss the tiger hidden in the grass, then you are always dead. If you always see tigers, you are always running away, but you're not dead". New Scientist p.39

Kathy Sykes, a scientist who investigated alternative medical treatments for a BBC documentary says in the Radio interview: "the power of placebo is enormous". She sites several examples including people who received placebo knee surgery and did just as well as those who had received the full treatment. The result, she suggests, may be down to the brain's expectation and reward system.

I have written about the way that I was able to think myself into a fight or flight response - with adrenaline charged, heart pumping fear! So what we believe is starting to look pretty important isn't it? The impact of belief is not simply psychological, but physiological.

The first line of the Dhammapada goes "manopubbangamaa dhammaa". The literal translation is something like 'mind precedes phenomena'. It's not a trivial exercise to translate this short phrase because mano and dhamma are complex terms that have no exact counterpart in English. But in a sense we could translate it by the phrase "you are what you think". It's not saying that thoughts literally create phenomena, that idea would not become current for several hundred years after the Dhammapada was composed. It is more of a psychological statement. Mano indicates the thinking mind, as distinct from more general consciousness (vijñana) or the heart (citta) in the poetic sense - although these terms can and are used interchangeably, and in different ways at different times. We can think of mano as that aspect of consciousness that supports opinions and views.

What's being said, then, is precisely that we can think of ourselves as being happy, as being free of suffering, and that it will have an effect. The modern research on the placebo effect confirms that this is the case. Buddhism of course goes further and says that if you wish the same for all beings, then that also is possible! The research tells us that the placebo effect is very powerful, and related to the strength of belief. If we believe that Buddhist practice will help us be better people, happier, more loving, then it probably will. If we believe the opposite then that is probably true as well. I'm not saying that practice is all placebo effect, but I think most experienced practitioners would agree that one's attitude to practice is vital. If you believe it won't work then you will have an uphill battle.

There were two words for belief in Pali: saddha means something like 'to place the heart upon'. We place our heart upon what we value. What we value is down to belief. Saddha is usually translated as faith. Ditthi means view or what we would call opinion or attitude. Our ordinary views and opinions weigh us down, cause us suffering. We place our heart on things that can never be satisfying. By reflecting on our views, by comparing what we believe to our actual experience of the world, we can come to what the Buddha called samma-ditthi or Perfect View. This is often translated as right-view, but samma is a bit stronger in connotation than 'right' suggests. When we see things as they really are, then we begin to place our heart upon the things that will really satisfy us. We will, in the traditional idiom, Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

Buddhism offers us a plethora of methods to observe our own beliefs, and to bring them into line wit Reality. These range from simple observation, through directed meditation, up to elaborate rituals. We may think of them as technologies of belief. Two weeks ago I suggested that all Buddhist methods amount to ways of paying attention. Paying attention, in the way I have described it, enables us to see how our beliefs condition our experience, to have a vision of Reality, and to enable us to align ourselves with that Reality. The tradition tells us that it is possible to entirely align one's beliefs with Reality: we call this Awakening.

Last week I pointed out where we can come unstuck in belief. This week I've pointed out how belief can work to help us. Given the way humans work we cannot avoid belief. I don't think it's possible to believe in nothing - that in itself is a belief! At worst we can be a victim of what we believe, at best we can radically change what we believe so that our world is forever transformed. The choice is ours.
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