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What Can You Believe?

If you’re having doubts about organized religion, if you have trouble with New Age positivity, and if life has kicked you recently in the belly, you may like me be feeling winded, wondering what to believe.

What Can You Believe?I could say, “Nothing! It’s all relative.” But it’s not that simple. I’m a skeptic, not a cynic. That’s why I often wonder just how much explanations can really help.

You can rationalize all you want, any way you want. It’s not going to stop your brain churning. You’ll never think yourself into less thinking. What do you do about a mind that’s on auto-repeat, reciting the same old chattering phrases over and over?

And the answer is…

You may not want to hear this, but here’s the thing: you need to take a closer look.

The thing about mental chatter is that we’re not normally looking at it: we’re caught up in it. There’s a difference. What we need is to take a step back and watch. The more space you create between you and it, the less it will torment you.

Some pointers

I know: it’s not that easy. Still, some ways work better than others. Gazing without any focus is a fruitless exercise. It helps to know what you’re looking for. That’s where a good spiritual teacher is helpful.

For the record, a “good spiritual teacher” is not someone with all the answers, just someone who can tell a dead end from a path that leads somewhere. In the end, the only place you’ll find answers to your existential dilemmas is in your own experience.

You know what’s true

Okay, take a step back and ask, “Why is ‘What can you believe’ the right question?” It implies some sort of belief or explanation will help. Why do we think that?

Because we’re human beings. Our brain is our greatest tool (excuse the pun). It always has an answer and always presumes that answers count. It’s an arrogant organ that explains, rationalizes, understands and convinces everyone that the riddles of life actually have solutions.

I’ve been touched by a lot of death recently. Young people dying for no good reason, old people hanging on for even less reason. It’s sad. Try as I might to console myself with explanations, they don’t help. Like it or not, whether I embrace it or not, all I can do is accept. Bob Dylan put it simply: ‘It’s life and life only.’

Starting next Tuesday January 17th, I’m teaching a Mindful Reflection workshop on this very topic — a 21st century version of what the Buddha discovered: how to escape the tyranny of the rational mind and accept the irrationality of life.

Don’t stay home just because it’s cold and dark outside. Come sit with us. Share your stories, Contribute to the insight. It’ll be the best night of your week, I promise.


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11 responses to “What Can You Believe?”

  1. Bob Schenck

    Keep up the good work, Stephen. I fell under the spell of Buddhism in 1974 when my best friend talked me into practicing the religion and philosophy of the “hippie guru” Stephen Gaskin. Unlike many practitioners, I experienced immediate awesome results. Then I practiced on my own for twenty-five years. At the suggestion of another friend, a longtime student of the Trungpas, I sought a teacher and practiced for five years, or six, with a zen master whose temple was nearby. We had a falling out over what I considered his verbal abuse and his concern for his reputation, and he expelled me “for violating the precepts.” I continued practicing on my own, just as I had before we met. Like you, I am an ethical atheist devoted to the buddhadharma but uninterested in sects, labels, rites, churches, and unquestioned religious authority. I like your posts. On Zen Forum International I’m serializing my Buddhist history on the thread called Stories on the Way. Keep on keepin’ on. —Bob

  2. John Cooker

    Hey Stephen,
    Sorry to hear about your recent losses. As you say, you can only accept the experience, and in that learn how integral it is to one’s life. Really, when explanations are dropped we may feel like idiots having nothing to say. But I find it quite humbling. And that for me is a good first step away from the incessant rationalizations and adjustments our minds shift to and fro. Humility is an experience, a perspective often overlooked in Buddhism.

  3. Ralph Chidiac


    First and foremost, I feel sorry for your loss and need to clarify that I don’t wish to debase death and dying, but dramatizing it has not helped me accept it either.
    A very UNwise friend of mine once mentioned a very WISE point:”Its not death I worry about, its life”. We have seen the latter take a 180 degree spin in a split second.
    I am a bit of a nihilist and my only consolation in DEATH is simple. From the greatest to the most decrepit, we are not alone in this actuality…. Everyone HAS died and IS dying, whether 9 or 99, everyone with a BIRTHday has a DEATHday, I think its time to demystify this inescapability.
    What really irks the most is someone claiming that Life is a Gift….PLEASE… there is a PARADISE after all for a reason, no?
    Thank you Stephen for very interesting blogs that make one think outside the conventional Buddhist box.

  4. Gemma

    You wrote about ….the arrogant brain and its belief that the riddles of life actually have solutions.
    There is a solution to all situations in life. They do evolve even if this process is to do nothing at all ( the action of non-action ) or being silent, which may also mean no answer that may be an answer.

  5. Tim

    “You’ll never think yourself into less thinking.”

    This strikes me as surpassingly odd.   Of course we often think ourselves into less thinking.  For instance we ask mental questions every day and, once having noted satisfactory answers, leave the questions behind.  

    How much tax return will I get?  Thinkthinkscribblethink. One thousand dollars. (brush teeth; go to bed)

    What’s to be done in regard to that person at work?  Thinkthinkthink. Intended course of action arrived at. (proceed to less thinking; maybe savor the breeze the hammock is swinging in)

    What is the eight letter word at 3, Down? Thinkthinkthink …  “RAILINGS”  (all done thinking)

    How did that magician perform that illusion?   Thinkthinkthink …  (golly I can’t figure it out; it was fun to think about for a few moments, though; now that I’ve given it its due of thought, i can just *marvel* [which of course is thinking, too, but as a blog commenter I’m thinking that your controversial claim about the futility of thought was aimed specifically at figuring-out-ish ratiocination, as it were] I can savor the pleasure of being tricked! [more thought–of a kind which needn’t spiral uselessly!]  and credit the magician with delighting me… but I felt an urge to *try* to puzzle it through a bit; in fact–come to think of it– that thinking was part of the savoring!)

    Regarding less mundane concerns–even as when calculating tax returns–we may avail ourselves of the guidance of others who have faced the same or similar questions.  

    I used to thinkthinkthink a lot about metaphysical “questions” *without* thinking myself into less thinking. Then I encountered some new-to-me thoughts on the subject and thoughtthoughthought those for a few years.  By doing so I thought myself into just about  *zero* more thinking of that kind on such topics.  Which seems to me a clear case of thinking myself into less thinking.     

    The mind can do so much more than wrestle and rest.  Let’s not demean thinking as mere chatter that needs quieting.  Aren’t minds for thinking just as eyes are for seeing?  Is an eye in a superior condition when no light is passing through?  Why imagine that a mind is elevated when no thoughts are passing through?   

    And indeed even the most wrestling-ish kinds of thought *can* and sometimes *do* yield their own resolutions.   

    And sometimes “chatter” is the pool into which, and indeed the mechanism by which insight bubbles up.

    But that’s not the Buddhist *way*? 

    Right Insight only comes from non-thinking? The only worthy things we can do with our minds are to perceive and to accept?

    Ok. That’s bullshit on its face (whether it is doctrinal or not.)

    Or am I using some relevant term in a way that is at odds with your usage?

    Thanks for thinking about my presentation of my thoughts!

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