Symptoms, roots and subtle reductionism

Beliefs as the root

Through the filter of certain forms of self-inquiry, such as The Work, it certainly appears as if beliefs are the roots of a whole cascade of effects, including emotions and behaviors.

I believe that I am not good enough, make myself depressed, and eat ice cream. I believe my co-worker should be more considerate, feel anger, and try to avoid that person. I believe my kids are at a wrong track because of something I did, feel guilt and regret, and get involved in their lives far more than they appreciate.

So, of course, the thing to do then is to inquire into those beliefs, to get at the root of what is going on.

Working with the effects

At the same time, there are many approaches that work with what appears to be the effects of beliefs, and not the beliefs themselves.

I may experience strong emotions, such as fear, sadness, grief, anger, resentment or panic, or a strong sensation such as pain.

And I can ask myself can I be with what I am experiencing right now?

I can sit with it in meditation, allow it to unfold and live its own life in awareness.

I can bring attention to my body, to the weight of the body, the movements of the body, the breath, the facial expression, the tone of voice.

In each of these ways, I shift the center of gravity out of the seen and into the seeing of it. So here, there is a very real release from the pain that comes from (blind) identification with the seen.

It works, as there is indeed a release from being blindly caught up in the seen, and it helps me find myself as the seeing itself, as the witness.

At the same time, it may only work temporarily. Sometimes, allowing the seen to unfold with less or no interference in this way, and allowing it into awareness, is enough for the patterns to erode and wear themselves out. But other times, they remain and come up again, and again, and again.

(Then there are all the other ways of working with these symptoms, such as therapy, yoga, visualizations and so on. Each of these seem to work in some cases, and maybe not fully in other cases.)

Working with the beliefs themselves

So then, and especially if there is a recurrent pattern, it may be very helpful to inquire into the underlying beliefs themselves.

Is it true? What happens when I hold onto that belief? Who would I be without it?

Allowing the underlying beliefs to unravel in this way, through examining them more thoroughly, also allows its symptoms to fall away. Without roots, no trunk or branches.

Symptoms, roots and subtle reductionism

So working with the symptoms may work for a while. And it can also have other benefits such as finding myself as the seeing, and noticing the shift of center of gravity from the seen and into the seeing, and the effects of that shift.

Yet working with the roots – the beliefs themselves, is is far more effective. It gets to the root cause of it.

Or so it seems, through this filter of inquiry.

I also see that there is a subtle reductionism here, assuming beliefs as the cause and anything else as the effect, in any and all circumstances. Isn’t there also an effect the other way around? If I work with emotions, can’t that influence, and maybe even release, the belief, at least in some cases? And if I work directly with emotions, won’t that support the effects of the inquiry?

And there is also a, maybe less subtle, absolutism here. First, if we see beliefs as the only cause of stress and suffering. And maybe especially if we see the relationship between beliefs and emotions (etc.) as a one-way-street.

Supplement and inquire

In practical terms, it may make our repertoire limited to inquiry only, and we may miss out on some of the insights and transformations that can come from other practices which appear to deal more with the symptoms.

As Ken Wilber says, there is nothing wrong with the practice we are already doing, but supplement. Try some other things as well, and see what happens.

And it may also be helpful to notice this tendency to subtle reductionism and absolutism, and bring even that into inquiry. Is it true that beliefs are always the cause of stress? Is it true that I won’t benefit from working with other approaches besides self-inquiry?

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