Most of us spend our lives thinking that what we believe is the truth. We often fail to distinguish between what we believe and what we know. Yet, there is a fundamental difference between believing and knowing.
Beliefs—be they scientific theories such as the composition of the atom, religious/spiritual teachings, such as the omnipresence of God, or even incontrovertible facts such as the Earth revolves around the Sun—are handed down to us from others, or arrived at through the process of logical deduction. Beliefs are based on our life-long conditioning. Knowing, on the other hand, is experiential. Knowing happens when you transcend beliefs. It comes from doing, from experience.
Let me illustrate with an example, swimming. Suppose you are a swimmer and I ask you the question, "Can you swim?" You would reply in the affirmative. If I were to ask, "Do you know swimming, or do you believe you can swim?" In all likelihood, you might retort saying, "What kind of an absurd question is that? Of course, I know swimming!" You're right. You know swimming, because you have experienced it; it is not just a belief.
From believing to knowing
A conscious effort to transform your beliefs into knowing can enrich your life. To be sure, not every belief needs to be validated. For instance, not knowing that water is made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen has little impact on what water does for you - unless you're a scientist trying to unravel the properties of water. It is only when beliefs place restrictions on you that you need to move towards knowing. These restrictions can prevent you from exploring your potential in many aspects of your life including work, relationships, and health. Understanding the differences between beliefs and knowing can help you discern which beliefs you need to work on and which ones are best left unchallenged.
Beliefs change; knowing is constant
We all believe that certain foods are good for our health. Yet, your knowing is important to determine whether the universally accepted health food is good for you as an individual. It is possible that you might be allergic to, say, milk, which is otherwise believed to be healthy but produces the opposite effect in you.
An example of mass belief that changed was the shape of Earth. Everyone believed that our planet was flat until Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492 confirmed that it was spherical. Now, we believe that the Earth is round. Beliefs change.
On a lighter note, most of us believed that India could never win the World Cup till we actually won it in 1983. Our belief changed and now we believe that winning the World Cup is a distinct possibility.
In many cases, the impermanent nature of beliefs is potentially hazardous. Watch out for these, For example, we all know couples who, when getting engaged to get married, profess their undying love for each other. A few years after marriage, many of them confess that they didn't actually love each other; they only believed they did. The belief changed and so did their equation with each other. Separations ensue. So many relationships can be saved if only the individuals involved would first get to know their true feelings, and not act only out of beliefs.
Beliefs are retrograde; knowing is progressive
Ask yourself what you know about yourself? Is this knowledge a belief? You might be surprised that most of what we think of ourselves, our self-concept, comes from what people think about us, and which we have now come to believe. For example, if someone once told you in your childhood that your art sense is terrible, ever since you believed that you have no talent for art and can never draw/paint.
What has this belief done? It has restricted you from exploring your potential in art—based on what someone told you. It's possible that a Leonardo da Vinci resides inside you, but has never been allowed to express himself. Listening to others stifles your personal growth because you haven't yet experienced it yourself. However, if you knew deep within your heart that art doesn't excite you, then no matter what others say, art is not your calling. Because, knowing comes from deep within, it doesn't allow interference from others. In the above example, you may replace art with cricket, singing, playing the guitar, writing a book, or even flying an aircraft.
Knowing is freedom
Beliefs and doubts make an odd couple. Beliefs always come with a doubt attached, however tiny, while knowing is absolute certainty. The ability to discern the difference between knowing and belief can help you take control of your life.
"Most humans currently live their lives in this realm around the belief systems of others, be that of their parents', peers', mentors' or society's and because of this they inadvertently give up their ability [and responsibility] to define their reality and have control over their lives," says Alex Paterson, an Australian author.
Many beliefs are like handcuffs placed by others on our consciousness. Knowing is the key that opens these handcuffs. The freedom that knowing bestows upon us empowers us with the ability to attain great heights. It is also, in its sum and substance, the fulcrum that gives us the choice to be what we want to be.
How to cultivate the “knowing” mindset
Here are a few ideas that will help you cultivate an attitude of knowing
- Question everything, including your own beliefs. Not as a cynic but as someone who is interested in knowing the truth—not someone else’s truth (which would be a belief) but your own truth.
- Self-inquiry is not a group activity. You must question your thoughts alone—don’t make it a discussion, as what’s true for you may not be true for another, and vice verse.
- Stay open to opposite points of views. This is especially relevant when we are doggedly righteous about our “opinions”, which are never facts. No matter how convinced you are about your thought process, there’s always another way of looking at it.
- Recognise that even prejudice can disguise itself as a belief, and must be uprooted if you expect to live with greater awareness.
- Absolute truths are unknowable; what we know are always relative truths. Keep this mind and stop taking your beliefs to be absolute truths.
And finally, don’t make the above into another belief. Find out the truth about it for yourself…and then live with that expanded awareness.
Note: The writer updated this article on 3rd March 2017
A version of this article appeared in the January 2007 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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