Investigating Core Beliefs

March 22, 2021 by

By John Schorling

All of us have core beliefs through which we judge the world.  Often they are so ingrained we are not even aware that we have them, they are just the way we see things and think they should be.  The most powerful core beliefs often come from recurrent stress or trauma that occurred when we were young.  Why is this?

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our brains to rewire and change.  Our brains are very plastic when we are young, and they rewire all the time.  When we have recurrent experiences, the connections become more well established, to the point that we aren’t even aware of their influence.  As psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has observed, “Although rooted in the past, our core beliefs feel current and true” (True Refuge p. 119).

The good news is that neuroplasticity persists throughout our lives and our brains can rewire no matter our ages, that “neurons that fire together wire together”, as Donald Hebb observed over 70 years ago.  The neural connections that arise from what we pay attention to get reinforced, and those that we don’t pay attention to diminish.  Functional changes in connectivity with practicing mindfulness can be seen in the brain immediately.  Structural changes take more time, but there is good evidence that they occur.

Every time a core belief is violated and we wish that things were different than they are, we suffer, and yet we still come up with reasons why the beliefs leading to our suffering are justified.   When someone treats us in a way that we don’t think is appropriate, we may have a strong emotional reaction, and immediately think “they shouldn’t have done that”, or “that’s not fair”, and often our minds are off and running, creating the story to justify how we feel.  Yet this just magnifies our suffering.  As Tara Brach has also stated, “Our beliefs become our destiny- unless we see them”(True Refuge, p. 121).

The answer is not more thinking or more obsessing or more worrying, it’s becoming aware of these beliefs, inquiring into them and creating more space around them, and perhaps ultimately letting them go, letting go of the beliefs that are real but not true.  Real because we experience the emotions related to them, not true because they are not based on current circumstances.  Having something happen and thinking that we are not good enough as a result feels real and yet this belief is often based on past experiences and may not be true in the current situation at all.

So how can we do this, let go of beliefs that are real but not true?  One way is by inquiring into our experience using the practice called RAINS.  This inquiry can shine light on our beliefs, and help insert a pause between stimulus and response to allow us to question our assumptions.  The five steps of RAINS begin with Recognizing what is happening, that something is amiss, becoming aware of how we are feeling, and just Allowing it to be.  We can then Investigate our experience, first noticing what we are feeling in the body.  We can also ask ourselves “When do I first remember feeling this way” and “What am I believing”, directing the question at the feeling that is arising.

This investigation needs to be kept connected with our present moment experience, and not just become an opportunity for more thinking and getting lost in thought.  It should be grounded in the body, remaining connected to both physical sensations and emotional feelings.

Realizing that whatever we are believing was likely learned a long time ago and has been conditioned over years of experience and does not define us can help with Not identifying with it, the N of RAINS.  It may be useful to acknowledge this by saying to yourself “not me” or “not mine”.

Being with difficult emotions is hard, and practicing Self-kindness and Self-compassion is often essential.  If the pattern we’ve encountered is one we would prefer to let go of, we can acknowledge this with kindness. We might practice this by responding to ourselves as we would to a friend, with warmth and caring.  We can also envision how a friend or a spiritual figure would respond to our suffering.

Recognizing difficult emotions, investigating them and the underlying beliefs with kindness, can help with letting them go.  Doing this can decrease our suffering and help us choose our actions more skillfully, so that we do not just react when an emotion arises that leads us to judge how things should be, based on beliefs that feel real but often are not true.

It’s important to note that that help from a meditation teacher or therapist may be needed if the source of the difficult emotions is a too traumatic, and too intense when sitting with it to tolerate.  If this is the case, the most compassionate thing we might do for ourselves is to ask for guidance.  It can be very challenging to move toward rather than away from core beliefs that are associated with past traumatic situations.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings