It all started when I was living in Taiwan, 21 years old, having just graduated from Yale with a degree in mathematics and philosophy.
Of course I did what most people do with such a degree — I got a job in a bar. One day on my way to work I attempted to kick-start my motorcycle. After several unsuccessful tries I have it one final frustrated stomp with all my strength. The starting lever jammed and sprang back, severely spraining my ankle. I took a cab to work and by the time I arrived my ankle had ballooned to twice its normal size, bright red and painful to the lightest touch. I gratefully accepted the bartender’s offer to take me to the doctor. Imagine my surprise upon arriving at the “doctor’s office” and finding, not an antiseptic suite of professional offices, but a single room with a bare cement floor, five or six chairs, and a few “patients” sitting around waiting their turns. In this waiting room / examination room / treatment room, the doctor held court, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. We all listened to the first patient in line describing his hemorrhoid problem as I nervously awaited my turn.
The treatment could not have been more painful. For several minutes (I’m not sure how long but it seemed like eternity) he dug his thumbs hard into the midst of the inflamed, swollen mass of my ankle, massaging and rolling, pressing and pulling, while I gripped the arms of the chair, teeth clenched, sweat popping. Finally he slopped some goo on the ankle, wrapped it up in a bandage, and sent me on my way.
Needless to say, I had been expecting a very different treatment — something involving ice and anti-inflammatory drugs. In fact I’d had a very similar injury at a cross-country meet in college. It had taken six weeks on crutches for it to heal, and had continued to bother me for at least a year. This time was just as bad. Imagine my amazement when I woke up the next morning, unwrapped the bandage, and found the swelling gone completely. I took a tentative step — no pain! Just a tiny shadow of tenderness. The following morning I went hiking.
How was I to incorporate this experience into my belief system? It simply contradicted my faith in that modern Western medicine was far advanced over anything else in the world.
I tried persuading myself that maybe my sprain wasn’t all that bad — maybe I’d just panicked being in a foreign country. But that explanation didn’t ring true to me. Who was I kidding? I knew it was bad. I just couldn’t fit it in. The only alternative was to forget about it, or to start deconstructing my entire existing belief system.
The next challenge came a few months later when my flatmate Chad took me and another friend to visit a qigong master. I went with an attitude of patronizing skepticism, which turned to downright suspicion when the “master” began bragging about his “super powers”. I decided to indulge him anyway. Chad asked him whether he knew acupuncture. “Yes, of course,” he said, “but I don’t need needles.” Then he demonstrated by grasping an invisible needle between thumb and first two fingers and pretending to poke it into my arm. To my surprise I felt, undeniably, a tingling sensation go right through my forearm. He could even do it from several feet away. All three of us could feel it when he did it to us. Then he announced, “And now I will clear your meridians,” and had us sit down. He tapped us here and there over our bodies and then walked away. Almost instantly, I broke into a profuse sweat which continued for about fifteen minutes. Afterward we all felt strangely energized but also discombobulated; it was as if we walked out of the premises into a different world from which we’d entered. I remember we joked about whether we had become his zombies.
Again, my old belief system put up a mighty struggle to survive in the face of this new experience. The sweating — that was just nervousness, or maybe he’d sneaked off to turn up the heat. The tingling? A mere psychological effect. The other students devoting hours a day to qigong under his tutelage? Mere dupes of his charisma. He must be a charlatan, trying to get the foreigner’s money. And what about Chad, who claimed to have had similar experiences before? Well he’s obviously even more suggestible than I am. Heck, maybe he was even in cahoots with the master. But I was grasping at straws. None of these explanations rang true. I saw what I saw and felt what I felt.
Reader, are you now faced with a similar choice? How do you explain what you are reading now? Are you evaluating my credibility to decide whether you should believe or not? Do you crave more proof? Videotapes? Witnesses? A controlled laboratory experiment? One that is run by an avowed skeptic? What will it take? No matter how deeply you pursue certainty, at some point it always comes down to a choice, a leap of faith.
I met more and more people who shared stories like this. Stories of ghosts, of shared dreams, visions, seeing auras, energy healing, UFOs. . . the whole gamut of anomalous experiences. I no longer disbelieved these people, not intellectually at least. To do so I would have had to assume that otherwise sane, trustworthy, honest, humble people were actually mentally unstable, mendacious attention-seekers. That didn’t ring true. I knew these people. I believed them.
And yet, I did not really believe them. What I had gained was a mere opinion that these phenomena are real. But an opinion is far less than a belief. An opinion is a mere vapor floating around in one’s head; a belief is something lived. I dared not let these opinions grow into beliefs. I dared not act on them. I wanted certainty, I wanted proof. “Then I’ll believe,” I decided.
In other words, I wanted to make all these new fields of experience into a science subject to the same standards of control, verifiability, objectivity, and proof that defined my academic training. What I really wanted was to preserve the basic structure of my belief system, that reality is something “out there”, separate from me. My quest for certainty lasted fifteen years. Fifteen years later I still don’t have it, neither certainty nor proof, but I do believe — and it is from this belief (and not as its prerequisite) that certainty and proof are beginning to emerge.
This is the opposite of the scientific, empirical approach to knowledge, in which we impartially search out facts and evidence, experimenting with an objective universe to derive sure knowledge. That is what I tried to do for nearly fifteen years and I got nowhere. Now I believe first and let the evidence follow. That is insane. From the perspective we call “scientific”, the events related above started my descent into insanity.
What I’m really talking about here is the difference between an opinion and a belief.
Here’s an example to illustrate. Most people say they believe in some kind of afterlife, but usually this is just an opinion. When someone actually has a near-death experience, complete with the White Light, the homecoming committee of deceased loved ones and spiritual beings, and so on, they come back profoundly changed, possessing a serenity and spiritual ease that comes in the absence of fear of death. We see the same serenity in people of very great religious faith. These people believe. But most of us have a mere opinion of the afterlife without really living it. A real belief suffuses our entire lives, everything we say and do.
In a shamanism workshop I attended recently, we attempted to bend spoons. Part of me, that old rational part, said, “Sure I’m willing to believe it, but I need to see it happen first.” But the whole technique involves first having a sincere belief that the spoon will bend. The empirical mindset puts the evidence forever out of reach.
I have learned that the acceptance of a new belief can take time. The years I spent exploring and developing my opinions were not wasted. I look at them now as nascent beliefs, which grew over time and are still deepening their roots in me today. Every day, the universe offers me new opportunities to live my beliefs at a deeper level, to accept them more fully. And with each step of acceptance comes a new level of proof — but not before, only after.
To step into a new belief system is truly a walk of faith.
One of the beliefs I am growing into is, “If I follow my bliss and trust my feelings, I will be taken care of.” Another is, “I can give freely and fully and be supported by an abundant universe.” In the past I’d approach these beliefs with a wait-and-see attitude, which is to say I actually empowered their opposite. Now I find that each step on the walk of faith brings its own confirmation and its own reward. Each day I step into new certainty and prepare myself for the many greater steps still to come. My faith is still very small.
Originally published at charleseisenstein.org.