How Belief Systems Shape our Interactions with the World
We were all crammed against the bar, elbows pressed to the counter and leaning forward to hear the audio as Donald Trump gave his victory speech. Clinton had just called him to concede his victory. A woman screamed at the screen, “She just gave UP?”
We were a room full of hippies and outcasts from all over the world who had traveled to this remote Northern California mountain town, with a population of only 300, to find seasonal work in the medical cannabis industry. Most of us were camping, and the bar was the only place we could watch the television. People openly rolled joints on the tables and smoked it on the front porch. A woman in her early twenties was attempting to light a red “Make America Great Again” hat on fire as her drunk friend told her that the hat was made out of rayon and would not burn.
The same woman screamed again as Mike Pence walked out to give his victory speech. “Who the fuck is this guy?” What is he doing here? What is going on?” The musculature on her face was tight, and her eyes were scowling as she spoke. Someone kindly explained to her that this was Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate. It was clear to me that, though this person was passionately against a Trump presidency, she hadn’t voted, nor had she taken the time to look much into this election.
In fact, I was the only person that voted in the 8-person house I was staying at. People said things like, “they are both just as bad,” or, “I would have voted for Bernie.” One of my housemates even said, “I’m not voting for that rich asshole or that white bitch.” Another told me, “I don’t know… I don’t think that the president matters that much. I feel like the election is rigged anyway. I don’t think Trump will win.” The distaste for these candidates did not lead anyone to vote third party or even to consider the many other offices and ballots to vote for. It just created an apathy towards the whole system.
The Truth is, though I took the election seriously, and though outwardly I claimed it could be close, inwardly I did not think Trump was going to win. I remember when Bush won his second term. This was after the war in Iraq. He was horribly unpopular, and a second term seemed unlikely. I tried to remember this every time I felt relieved at the polls, which had Clinton at a huge lead. And yet, it still didn’t really seem plausible.
Watching Trumps victory speech was eerie. It was the first time I had ever seen him use a teleprompter, and it seemed like some strange episode of the Twilight Zone. He spoke in carefully chosen words, words that sounded composed and almost sane, as his hands moved in his usual erratic way, his index and middle finger firmly attached to his thumb in the classic Trump mudra, and he spoke in that same voice that only recently had called Mexicans rapists and women pigs, had said climate change was a hoax, and called for the ban of all Muslims. As his words echoed from the television my heart sank. But that’s not what really hit me.
It was the conversations I had in the bar after the speech ended.
“Wow man, I can’t believe this. Donald Trump. What a trip. I didn’t know this was how they were going to do it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
The middle-aged woman explained that the elites, including both Clinton and Trump, wanted to incite a civil war in order to reduce the population. A strange feeling crept up from my gut and my chest tightened. This was not what I wanted to hear right now. My heart was breaking and my patience was thin. As she continued, I imagined myself screaming at her. I wanted her to know that it was ideas like this that helped get him elected, that although it may feel good to believe these things, there are actual problems in the world. But I said nothing. I had no way to speak my mind without losing it. Instead I practiced loving kindness as her mouth went on rambling.
The next conversation I had was with a man in his mid-forties who explained to me how the moon is hollow. This hollow structure we call the moon was placed “there” by an ancient alien civilization. Although this was not related to the election, it only seemed to echo the same sentiment I had just escaped. It became clear that one’s belief system has a direct effect on the way they interact with the world.
Just a short distance from where I was, in the neighboring Shasta County, the county council unanimously voted to request that the Federal government share their information regarding chemtrails. They also voted to do their own research since federal studies would be skewed. This was done despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that these “chemtrails” are simply naturally-occurring trails of water vapor.
My third conversation involved a man named Buck, who told me about the secret army of the New World Order. As he continued ranting, I drifted off again into a melange of horror and exhaustion. His words were like a giant fist socking me in the gut. I remembered when Facebook friends confidently claimed Trump was just a controlled opposition, and how Clinton was already picked by the elite. Others on Facebook claimed Bernie only endorsed Hillary because she threatened to kill his family. I remembered my time living on Maui when the movie Thrive came out. In response to the movie, people began organizing and holding strategic meetings to combat the government cover up of space aliens and the Illuminati
It dawned on me that Trump’s election was won, at least in part, by a lack of interest by our American citizens. The truth is, most people didn’t want him to win. But, for many, their belief systems prevented them from truly engaging. It is one thing to be open to these theories and to hold them lightly as a possibility. But often I find that many people devote serious time to researching this rather than focusing on real problems.
For this purpose, I am defining a conspiracy theory as a worldview that is immune to the overwhelming evidence that disproves it. Normally, when the evidence shows us that our models and maps are wrong, we re-adjust them to better fit the facts. However, when we are overly-invested in a particular theory, then as the evidence mounts to disprove it, we make our theory larger to include even the fact-givers in our conspiracy.
This is not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather because we don’t care deeply enough to really engage with this. It is easier to believe in alien conspiracies and the Illuminati than to grapple with the real issues facing the world. We claim it doesn’t matter who we vote for because that’s easier than actually taking the time to look into the issues. Reading about chemtrails is easier than actually facing the horrendous and sobering despair of climate change.
This is not just isolated in conspiracy theories. It’s also true that our widespread belief in capitalism and our addiction to shopping distracts us from these issues. A few months ago, Adbusters put out a campaign to create cognitive dissonance at shopping malls. The call was for activists to place these fliers up on the walls alongside the the usual mall advertisements. The campaign works because it disrupts the deep beliefs we hold that materialism holds the key to our happiness. I often wonder if my desire for the technological dream, a world free from the toils of work, really just stems from my desire for more stuff. Our addiction to capitalism probably blocks us from acknowledging our suffering more than any other cultural force. And yet, for those of us who know this, we are often prevented from truly looking at it because we have found a whole new set of tools to block us from seeing clearly.
Although the dominant culture no longer satisfies us, we are still unable to directly face the destruction and exploitation surrounding us. We feel helpless. Conspiracy theories, in their own strange way, allows us to hold onto something in this time of chaos.
When I was in college I got turned on to Robert Anton Wilson and the Cosmic Trigger series. These books gave me the leverage I needed to break free of some of my social conditioning and to consider other possibilities in life. I trust that I would have never found the spiritual path if it was not for him. There were two ideas from his books that I still carry with me. 1) The map is not the territory. Our beliefs about reality are not the same as reality. The idea here is to constantly evaluate our maps, our deeply held beliefs, to see if they are leading us where we want to go. If they are not, then it is time for a new map. This idea has also been popularized by Neuro-Linguistic Programming, but it actually comes from semanticist Alfred Korzybski. 2) Extreme agnosticism. This is the idea that we can’t really know anything. Even core truths about reality should be questioned. The combination between these two views, sprinkled with a few L.S.D. and mushroom trips here and there, helped me in my process of challenging everything I thought I knew, which ultimately opened up the space I needed so I could find something deep and authentic in my life.
Although I grew a lot through this time, and though I feel it was a necessary step in my evolution, it was not without its pitfalls. I also became caught in more than a few conspiracy theories, everything from 9/11 to vaccines to Men in Black stuff. Since I was just free-falling down the rabbit hole with no leverage to know what was real, all I had to go with was my intuition. Yet my gut instincts were often clouded by my desires and attachments. It wasn’t the falling that was the problem. It was my desire to once again grab onto something that got me in trouble.
The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
I remember a palpable sense of specialness that came from knowing something that the rest of the world was seemingly asleep to. There was also a certain romantic mythology to it that created an emotional high. These highs felt good, and without knowing it, they gave me a strange sense of comfort in my time of unknowing.
The real issues facing the world don’t produce these same kind of quick highs, at least if we are probing deep enough to find what will truly make effective change. Global warming, inequality, wars, poverty, colonialism, white supremacy, the war on women, the stripping away of cultures… all of these are vast and complex webs of suffering with no easy answers, and they don’t exist in a vacuum of idealism either. We have to consider the world exactly how it is, and this includes a country that just elected Donald Trump as president. If we keep this in mind, we won’t find many quick fixes or emotional highs.
I keep coming back to the immediate need to embrace complexity, the unknown, our discomfort, our complicity, and our ignorance. We can’t hide out anymore inside of belief systems that prevent us from doing this. The world needs us too much. The same way that we can scan our bodies with our awareness to loosen its bracing, we can lay our bare attention on the world and see it for what it really is.
I have a deep faith and trust that if we apply ourselves in this way the solutions will reveal themselves, but in order to see clearly we need to dismantle and discard the beliefs that get in the way of doing so. We need to take a cold and sober look at our models of the world because they don’t work. If they were working than we wouldn’t be living in such perilous times.