The Prisons of Belief
It is an intriguing and persuasive metaphor, the notion that a belief can be imprisoning, and one I’ve often hinted it when discussing “belief systems”, those religious, cultural and political ideologies that millions of us humans are partial to. They provide the categories, definitions, boundaries, rules and regulations that allow young egos to feel safe and calm while leaving small gaps to let off the steam of minor irritations and rebellion. Nation states, both democratic and authoritarian, religions, liberal, evangelical or fundamentalist, economic systems, free market or heavily controlled, educations disciplined or sloppy, societies emphasizing individual values or those of the collective, they all have their playgrounds with varying degrees of enforcement and flexibility. And they all provide training wheels and blinkers to keep their members on what many assume are “tried and true” paths.
But as the gruesome conflicts of history have taught most of us the value of peaceful coexistence as we pursue our individual aspirations, our reaching out to rebel is performed offstage in tune with colleagues and trusted friends. The only cart we’re overturning is our own. And as the golden rule of treating others as we would like to be treated has, in its varied forms, demonstrated its innate wisdom we rarely if ever discard that.
Yet for those of us pursuing the inner journey of spiritual discovery those systems of beliefs act more as annoying restrictions on individual expression and creativity than useful guidelines. As we progress in our chosen paths of development we see all too clearly those norms and guidelines hem us in and hold us back. We eventually learn to become spiritual anarchists. Not political anarchists out to destroy societal structures of justice and elected authority but spiritual mavericks making up our own paths through the thickets of beliefs overgrown with the endless rule makers and guidance counsellors convinced we need their assistance.
Our journeys are often littered with the various belief system cast-offs, that psychic luggage we finally realized was there after years of self-examination, and seeing how easily we could do without it, how much it lightened that load, and furthermore, how lightning that load was part and parcel of becoming a light being, ascending into the light body as some would have it, to leave behind the gravitational pull of the physical plane with its insecure settlers and fly free into the mysteries unfolding on those horizons beyond the sanctified and approved.
Well, so far so good: we all see the luggage we left behind on the platform before boarding the train we knew would take us somewhere beyond the realm of recognized routes and destinations. We can chuckle as we discuss the individual variations, – this repression, that blind spot, those denials, – it all seems so obvious and silly now that we are well past the spells and incantations that kept us behind fences peering out all timorous and hesitant, reassured that our risk-free option was where the smart money was going.
And now, our ships gliding free from those safe harbors, those spells and incantations can easily be witnessed casting many of our brethren into the trances of timid obedience and self-hypnosis that weak wills and low self-esteem seem always to invite and court.
The promise of salvation or enlightenment, the charm of regulated ritual, the warmth of acceptance and belonging, the pride of sectarian insularity, – the hug, the handshake, the hearty backslap, the tears of joy, – they all once convinced us to an extended residence in the tribe. Until we outgrew them, saw through the deceptions, the charisma of the cheat, and wanted out, usually just as the minders made a beeline for the exit we had picked.
The church, the political party, the educational institution, the powerful all-embracing corporation, the compassion driven charity, the fraternal organization, they all offer a protective umbrella in exchange for services rendered and loyalty unquestioned. And they all want team players, not the questing individuals that the inner journey of spirit requires.
I was reminded of all this while watching the Alex Gibney documentary of a few years back, Going Clear and noting the subtitle referencing “the prison of belief”. Seeing the former adherents chart the course of their expulsions and escapes as the clutches of their tribe tightened in devious and ruthless ways, with vulgar threats and endless intimidations, was sobering to say the least.
How could we have been so blind, so trusting, so stupid, they all seemed to be saying. Intelligent, educated, creative people all, yet somehow easily persuaded by the tempting ideology that teased them into the circus in the first place.
I have seen similar confessions from many over the years as they look back ruefully on the various inducements and addictions that swamped their ambitious egos with the big promise. And while they all feel sad at those seemingly wasted years, I see a journey interrupted not halted, an expansion sidetracked not reversed, an enlightenment deferred not destroyed. Nothing really can stop us as we move inexorably towards the knowing that dispels all doubt. We can be tricked and cheated in the card game almost forever, but not quite, for we can always get up, kick the chair away from the table and leave the persuasions behind.