In the last post, I provided a very general and rough definition of mindfulness as “a more or less cohesive set of propositions about what is and what matters, along with various practices associated with those propositions.” I initially wrote "beliefs" instead of "propositions" but changed to the latter after remembering that "belief" is one of those words that has the power to offend. Which leads me to a not-that-short digression about the word “belief” and how it relates to “the truth”.
Dictionary.com defines “belief” as confidence in the truth or existence of something. Some people object to labeling something they hold to be true as a “belief”, because “belief” connotes a leap of faith rather than a true statement. Seen this way, a belief is not the result of an encounter with reality but is merely “in the head”.
Prefacing a statement with “I believe” is usually an acknowledgement of some uncertainty. “I believe you are wrong” is softer than “You are wrong”. It’s curious that “belief” is defined in terms of confidence but “to believe” reveals an element of doubt.
If we feel sure about something that is important to us, we probably don’t like to hear our conviction described as a belief. It feels invalidating and belittling. I know for myself, if someone characterizes something I just said as a “belief”, my first impulse is likely to be defensive: “No, that’s not just a belief – it’s true!”
When we hear the word “belief” the focus seems to be on the believer and not on the reality they are upholding. To call a conviction a belief is to highlight that it is subjective and not necessarily an objective statement about reality. I still remember one of the schizophrenics in The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach (1964), who had a standard response to anyone attempting to puncture his delusions: “That’s your belief, sir”. The implication being that belief qua belief is not reality.
People who follow the teachings of The Buddha are not immune to a certain prickliness when their understanding of reality is described as “beliefs”. This from Master Chin Kung (http://www.amtb.org.tw/e-bud/buddhism_education.html):
"The Buddha wants us to know, not merely believe. The Buddha's teachings flow from his own experience of the way to understand the true face of life and the universe, and show us a path of our own to taste the truth for ourselves…. The Buddha uses a perfectly scientific way of showing us reality in its true form."
Such sensitivity may also be the case for some who embrace the mindfulness movement. I acknowledge this sensitivity but will occasionally use the word “belief" and its variations throughout this commentary. However, it’s not my opinion that characterizing something as a belief necessarily invalidates it as a true statement. And I do believe in the possibility of true statements!