A crash course in authentic rebellion

The true nature of rebellion is not going against the grain blindly; it involves a thoughtful approach to sift out nonsense beliefs

Red umbrella between black umbrellas

The beliefs we hold as “core” are most often hand-me-downs. Our societies, cultures and families are responsible for socialising us, and they do so by instilling beliefs into the basically empty vessels otherwise known as infants and children. We are conditioned to think, “I don’t want to stand out, or I’ll be ostracised.” However, everyone has the desire to be different; to stay true to their own selves. This urge often leads us to blind rebellion. We rebel without knowing what it really means to do so.

What is rebellion?

It’s not unthinkingly doing the opposite

One friend is married to a guy who continually lives by his own rules, but it’s rebellion for rebellion’s sake. He’ll go to a restaurant, get seated and then demand another table. He’s highly opinionated, but it’s without thought or consideration. He’s not a true rebel; he’s just annoying.

It’s not “teenage rebellion”

This is a more benign version of the guy above. Teens have a tendency to argue for argument’s sake. The parent says “black”; the teen says “white.” Not because white is correct or even their preference, but because it’s a safe way to engage in anti-parent rebellion.

It’s not just being “against” something

It is impossible to rebel when one only knows what one is against. A woman I knew had doctors for parents. They insisted she be one, too. However, she wanted to be a pianist. They refused to help, and bought her a microscope instead. So, as a teen, she “rebelled” against them by dropping out of high school and getting pregnant. Her next step was to become a secretary and to marry a guy her parents hated. When she came to me for advice, I suggested that all these actions were equivalent to thumbing her nose at her parents; it accomplishes nothing.

I asked her what she was for. She, no surprise, still wanted to be a pianist. We talked; she enrolled in a university to learn music, and became a pianist.

It is impossible to rebel when one only knows what one is against

The act of rebellion begins in the mind

1.  The first step is discovery

Societies prize compliance; the desire to follow the values they promote is embedded in us. Sadly, only about five per cent of the population questions their beliefs. That is why true rebellion is rare; pseudo-rebellion is prevalent, and going along to fit in is dominant. But let’s just say that you’re pulled to question your beliefs. Start by listing your basic beliefs. I call these things “rock beliefs” because they are foundational. Make a list of all of the foundational truths you believe—about yourself and about the world. A hint: think in broad categories. For example, think of people of different nationalities, creeds or races. What comes immediately to your mind? What are the “truths” you know about men, women, business or religion? Carry on from there.

2.  The second step is examination

The best thing you can do for yourself is to find someone [or a group] to help you examine your beliefs. It might be a therapist, a professor, a guru or a rōshi. I’ll use a therapist as an example. A good therapist will help you to challenge your belief system by asking you to examine where your beliefs lead. For example, you might say you want an excellent primary relationship, but have a core belief that women are subservient to men. That belief means you won’t allow a relationship between equals. The therapist will point the contradiction out to you, and ask you to choose. The therapist will not make the choice for you. This is important. For example, many students in college join a particular club and hear endless diatribes about what that group thinks is “wrong.” The student listens, has an emotional reaction, and ends up blindly swapping one set of beliefs for another. You have to choose for yourself. Examination requires patience and trust.

A good therapist will help you to challenge your belief system by asking you to examine where your beliefs lead

3.  The third step is trust

And the person you trust is you. As you start examining each of your beliefs, you will monitor yourself. You will notice both feelings and thoughts arising. The first feeling is often cold fear. You are challenging a deeply held belief—and this triggers the fear of ostracisation. This leads to your mind trying to come up with all of the reasons why you should leave things alone. When this happens, I urge you to persist. Just beneath these two knee-jerk reactions resides a wisdom voice. It will say: “This is who you will be, and how you will be, if you let go of that belief.” Trust that voice. It’s never wrong.

4. The fourth step is to expect external challenges

To continue the pianist’s story, the woman’s rebellion [at 28!] was met with her being cut off by her parents. Then mockery from her husband: “What makes you think you can do this?” It took courage to persevere. Challenges will come from the people and groups that instil or follow the old beliefs. If you change something that others believe can’t be changed, and you succeed, what does that say about them? So they want you to cut it out, and they will tell you they have your best interest at heart, but they don’t. They don’t want their own boat rocked, and believe that bad things will happen to them if you change. Change anyway.

5. The fifth step is to act

Having examined and shifted your beliefs, what could possibly be left to do? Obviously, the doing. An internal shift is nice but useless. True rebellion is active. The good news is that completing the first four steps means you’ve done more self-examination than the vast majority of your peers. The bad news is that most people stop just this side of changing the one thing they can—their behaviour. Complaining about the world does not change the world. Going to rallies and listening to speeches does not change the world. Signing online petitions does not change the world. Acting in keeping with your newly adopted beliefs changes your world. The pianist changed her world at her first public concert, and not a second before.

An internal shift is nice but useless. True rebellion is active

Be the change

Revisit the above points and find a way to be what you want to see. Describe to yourself what you believe and then ask, “How can I live out my belief in the real world?” This is integrity—your actions match what you say you believe in.

The society you and I come from is heavily invested in you behaving yourself, giving lip service to the status quo. And sadly, most of us do exactly that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the beliefs they hold so dearly are meaningless and useless. So do the work that is necessary to ruthlessly expunge from yourself what does not work, establish a personal belief system that counteracts the ineffective beliefs, and then passionately engage. Make a difference, and start with each of your interactions, because you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to transform your own world, one step at a time.


A version of this article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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