It is Practice That Makes Possible — Not Belief
Beginning in 2008, every year, when the winter holiday shopping season begins in the US (which these days seems like some time around Labor Day), Macy’s department store changes all of its decor and slogans to just one word: Believe! Bus advertisements, street flags, shopping bags and television commercials carry this message, often accompanied by a light and lively upbeat jingle, designed to stick in your brain so you sing it way after you hear it, and whose lyrics, drill into your mind and of masses of people, that the one thing that you need to do in order to have all your dreams come true, is believe.
America’s Self-Help Culture Teaches That the Key to Happiness is to Just Believe
For decades, self-help magazines and pop psychology books have been teaching that the key to happiness is to believe – believe in yourself, have self-confidence and self-esteem, believe in others, believe in the possibility of whatever it is you want to be the case. And, that if you believe something strongly enough, then that belief will help, or in itself, make it happen.
This secular religious phenomenon, disseminated by western psychology, gained momentum roughly 60 years ago. First and foremost was the ever popular and widely distributed, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, by Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, first published in 1952. If you doubt the strength of the effort to distribute this dogma, or its reach, note that it has since been translated into 15 different languages, with 7 million copies sold.
Chapter 1, first paragraph:
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own power you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can be happy. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement.
Really? Does believing you can pay your bills after overspending on holiday shopping, pay your bills? Does having self-confidence that you can run a marathon when you have never trained, or have debilitating knee injuries, render you able to run 26 miles? Did believing in civil rights bring it into existence? Does believing in world peace bring it about? Has it?
believe: verb [with object] 1 Accept that (something) is true, especially without proof.
In his article, “Creative People, Believing v. Creating”, artist and consultant Robert Fritz points out:
For years we have heard that what you believe will determine how well you will succeed in life. The premise is simply not true… The most successful, accomplished, innovative, and creative people did not have positive attitudes and thoughts, hardly ever thought that well of themselves, and were not filled with a heightened sense of self-love.
The most common human trait was a sense of doubt, a lack of personal esteem and confidence, and a pronounced lack of a belief in themselves. Instead, they cared about what they were creating. They were in a different business than the belief business. They were in the creating business.
Shall we go down the list?: Mahatma Gandhi, Beethoven, Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Elvis, Helen Keller, Madonna, Mother Teresa, Babe Ruth, both Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney, Shakespeare, William James, Carl Jung, Fred Astaire, Chuck Yeager, Dori Day, Yogi Berra, Clint Eastwood, Mohammad Ali, Mozart, Miles Davis, Louis Pasteur, Ben Franklin, and on and on.
Maybe you respect a few people on this list. Well, guess what? They didn’t have high self-esteem. They thought all kinds of things about God, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, the world, the universe. What they believed was IRRELEVANT to their creative process.
Still, we are taught via every medium available, from fairy tales, to self-help books to pharmaceutical and credit card commercials, that all we have to do is believe. We are trained to be passive, to disconnect our desires from our capacity to bring them into existence. We are disempowered and deactivated. This way of understanding ourselves and the world has become so entrenched, that we take it as a given, a truth; we do not question, with disastrous consequences: we lose our ability to question and think critically, and to actively create our lives.
create: verb [with object] 1 Bring (something) into existence.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, one of our most important and prolific psychologists, taught and practiced a theology and psychology of liberation and empowerment. I refer to him as the therapist for the world. He “sought the integration of the spiritual and the intellectual.” He preached that “one day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.”
Dr. King put forth a therapeutic perspective and prescription to address what he saw as one of our greatest needs: to have a tough mind, and a tender heart. Here, he discusses the need for a tough mind:
The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false.
Rarely do we find [men] who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
This prevalent tendency toward soft mindedness is found in man’s unbelievable gullibility. Take our attitude toward advertisement. We are so easily led to purchase a product because a television or radio announcement pronounces it better than any other. Advertisers have long since learned that most people are soft minded, and they capitalize on this susceptibility with skillful and effective slogans.
This undue gullibility is also seen in the tendency of many readers to accept the printed word of the press as the final truth. Few people realize that even our authentic channels of information — the press, the platform, and in many instances the pulpit – do not give us objective and unbiased truth. Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudice, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.
There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded [men] purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan. –From Strength to Love
Dr. King’s therapeutic honesty and insight, and his prescription, are all too often overlooked or ignored, by his admirers and detractors alike. The civil rights movement, the Arab Spring, the creation of the 1%, and Occupy Wall Street, did not happen because all people had to do was believe. Serena Williams and Roger Federer do not win Grand Slams by just believing.
Whether they believed or not, they engaged in an activity, a practice, that brought something into existence.
You did not stop drinking, lose weight, or build muscle, or repair, or end your broken relationship because all you had to do was believe. Whether you believed or not, you engaged in an activity, a practice, that brought something into existence.
The message that believing is the answer and the source and force of our lives, is woven into the fabric of our society. We absorb it through television and “inspirational” messages and cards; we speed through our inner and outer dialog mindlessly adopting the language of belief – easy answers and half-baked solutions, as Dr. King described – not noticing or questioning the ways in which it disables us and distorts our humanity; the way it atrophies the intellectual and emotional muscles we have at our disposal to create our lives.
practice: noun 1 The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it: Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.
How to we get ourselves out of this quicksand of mythology, release ourselves from its grip, so that we can become tough minded, and exercise our creative capacity? Given how pervasive and deeply rooted this understanding is, it is essential that people learn to question its assumptions, and to create other ways of relating and understanding, and living. In a word, practice.
There are now many people, in psychology and elsewhere, who are developing new approaches, and engaging in very old practices that turn this dogma on its head. Witness the influx of eastern practices into the west, such as yoga and meditation, which teach mind-body-spiritual practices that bring about mind-body-spiritual transformation and strength (though, many westerners still try to translate the philosophy and practice of meditation into being about positive thinking).
The Possibility Practice is one such practice. It is a practice in which you develop your ability to see and think anew, ask new questions, and create possibility. You learn to slow down, take a look at how you see, and examine the web of assumptions you have, that prevent you from living your life in gratifying ways. What if, rather than just believing, you could turn your greatest obstacle in to discovery and possibility?
Practice makes possible.