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Untangling Our Unhappy Relationship With Unhealthy Beliefs

What we believe, we tend to live. As my mentors taught me in Twelve Step Recovery-Land, the word "belief" refers to an idea or attitude to which we give our loyalty... physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

As a young person in recovery, people in the fellowship constantly challenged me to examine my beliefs because they often manifested in unhealthy, shortsighted, and immature actions that were self-defeating and self-limiting. As one mentor put it, "Twisted beliefs can result in a twisted sense of self, which results in twisted behavior." In my own life, the repeated lesson of my suffering was that a person with a negative self-image has a hard time overcoming that self-image on their own. This is why recovery requires support from others.

This aligns with a teaching in Buddhism that "As you think, so shall you become." The Dhammapada, an important Buddhist text, begins with this phrase. For those interested in living in harmony with themselves and others, it is an indispensable guidebook. When I began my Zen training, the Dhammapada was the first book we studied. Although many translations exist, Eknath Easwaran's is the clearest and most comprehensive, in my experience.

The Narcotics Anonymous Step working guide also emphasizes addressing unhealthy and self-limiting beliefs. It says, "Inner or personal unmanageability is often identified by unhealthy or untrue belief systems about ourselves, the world we live in, and the people in our lives. Emotional volatility is often one of the most obvious ways in which we can identify personal unmanageability and unhealthy beliefs." Many people accumulate years of recovery but remain mentally and emotionally unhealthy because they do not change their beliefs. As the saying goes, "Clean time does not equal recovery."

Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction notes, "Another level of inquiry is to look closely at our mind to see who is experiencing this fear. Whose fear is this? Is it mine? Sometimes it becomes clear that the voices of fear are not even our own. We are hearing our parents, teachers, friends or enemies. We have incorporated those voices into our psyche and have believed them our whole life, thinking that the feelings and thoughts of fear were somehow personal."

And so, what we believe, we tend to live. Am I living according to what my survival instincts believe or what my highest self aspires to? My beliefs and whether I examine, clarify and revise them--with support--determine whether I live in heaven or hell. The point of recovery is ending the internal war so that instinct, aspiration, and executive function align. As mentors say, "You're only going to be as happy, joyous, and free as you permit yourself to be..." so I invite us not to ignore our belief system because it's the system we'll be living by.

一May Universal Loving Presence Prevail

Calligraphy Note:

信 | Shin | To believe and trust.

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Steve Slater
Steve Slater
Jun 23, 2023

Gil Fronsdal also has a great translation of the Dhammapada

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