“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” ~Anthony de Mello
When people come to me suffering from anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgment etc., there are five things they invariably believe to be true.
Let’s take anxiety as an example. Most (if not all) people with anxiety believe that:
1. It’s bad or wrong to feel anxious.
2. It shouldn’t be there.
3. There’s something wrong with me (for being anxious).
4. My mind should be peaceful.
5. I can’t experience peace until my anxiety is gone.
Pretty much everyone nods in agreement as I take them through this list.
Few people, if any, would question the truth of these statements.
They are, as the spiritual teacher Anthony de Mello says:
“Beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.”
And I’d say that these beliefs alone produce 98% (if not more) of the unnecessary suffering that most people experience.
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice”?
Experiencing anxiety is unpleasant. There’s no denying it’s a painful experience.
But it’s our beliefs and mental commentary about anxiety that cause most of the suffering.
“Anxiety is awful. I hate it. I can’t go on like this. What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I’m so screwed up. I’ll never be happy again.”
The mind’s commentary about the anxiety adds fuel to the fire and turns a painful experience into full-blown suffering.
Lasting peace can never be found on the level of thinking. The mind is restless by nature. It’s not wrong. It’s simply how the mind is.
To end suffering, we need to change the way we relate to the mind.
And to do this, we need to see through the false beliefs that hold us captive.
As long as you believe that certain thoughts are bad or wrong, that they shouldn’t be there, and that there’s something wrong with you for having them, you will continue to suffer… not so much from the thoughts themselves but because of your beliefs about them.
The solution is so simple that most people overlook it completely.
Getting to Know the Mind Better
There’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln I like to use:
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Exactly the same logic applies to your anxiety, depression, fear, or critical inner voice.
If you don’t like your anxious thoughts, resisting them won’t help.
The answer is to get to know them better.
The Two Approaches to Becoming Free of the Mind
There are two approaches we can take to find more inner peace.
The first is to try to fix or change our thoughts through “working on ourselves.”
I tried this approach for years and discovered that change comes painfully slowly… if at all.
After years of effort, I had very little to show for it.
Then I had a breakthrough.
On a six-month meditation retreat, I stumbled upon a completely different approach to dealing with the mind—a way that was much easier, much more effective, and far quicker, immediate in fact.
Through getting to know my thoughts (and feelings and emotions) better, I came to a completely different understanding about myself, my mind… and the path to peace.
I saw that:
It’s not your thoughts, feelings, or emotions that cause you to suffer. Suffering is self-created through the way you relate to them.
See through the false beliefs that hold you captive, and your troublesome thoughts will no longer have the same power to affect your peace.
Since then, I’ve outlined 7 false beliefs that keep most people trapped in their heads for life.
The 7 False Beliefs That Will Keep You Trapped in Your Head Forever
“Demand is born out of duality: ‘I am unhappy and I must be happy.’ In the very demand that I must be happy is unhappiness.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti
The beautiful thing about beliefs is that the moment you see through them, they lose their grip on you. You become liberated in the seeing alone. It requires no time.
False Belief #1: The mind should be quiet and peaceful; otherwise, there’s something wrong.
I love the following quote from the Indian spiritual teacher Nisargadatta:
“There is no such thing as peace of mind. Mind means disturbance; restlessness itself is mind.”
Restlessness is the nature of the mind. Expecting it to be quiet and peaceful is like expecting water to be dry or expecting the grass to be pink.
It’s not the restless nature of the mind that disturbs your peace. It’s the belief that there’s something wrong and that it should be different.
You don’t suffer because the mind is restless. You suffer because you believe it shouldn’t be.
Expect the mind to be messed up, crazy, confused, and anxious. Don’t be surprised. There’s nothing ‘wrong.’ It’s called being human.
False Belief #2: Suffering is caused by negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
What if it were possible to feel down, sad, concerned, anxious even—and to remain perfectly at peace throughout?
Negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, although unpleasant, are not the primary cause of suffering. We suffer because we reject them, think there’s something wrong, and believe they shouldn’t be there.
If you don’t mind feeling sad, don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and don’t think the feeling needs to go for you to be okay, you can be sad and peaceful at the same time.
Most people confuse peace with feeling good. It’s not the same.
Our thoughts and emotions are like clouds passing across the sky. It’s inevitable that there will be dark ones as well as light ones.
The key to ongoing peace is to embrace them all. Even if they don’t feel good.
And anyway, what makes a thought negative? Another thought that says so.
False Belief #3: It’s bad/wrong to be anxious, down, and depressed, or feel unworthy.
This belief definitely falls under the category of “beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that nobody thinks to question them.”
Most of us enjoy warm sunny days more than dark cloudy ones.
But it doesn’t make cloudy days bad or wrong—less pleasant perhaps, but not wrong.
In the same way, the challenging thoughts and emotions that cloud our inner sky are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Like the weather, they are neutral events—part of the human condition.
The real problem (or only problem, in fact) is the notion that unpleasant = wrong.
And this belief, in turn, triggers the mental commentary: “It shouldn’t be there, there’s something wrong with me that needs fixing, I’m unacceptable as I am, I can’t be happy until it’s gone,” etc.—in other words, suffering.
False Belief #4: I can’t experience peace until this/that pattern is resolved.
I talk to many people who have been waiting for twenty years for their anxiety to be healed so they can start living again.
And I’ve seen lifelong anxiety sufferers experience deep peace within a minute or two through seeing through certain beliefs.
I call it the path of understanding, as opposed to the path of self-improvement.
Peace is your nature. And it’s ever-present, no matter what is going on in the mind.
People wait, often for years, for the dark clouds of anxiety, sadness, or self-doubt to move on, before they can get back to living life to the full.
There’s a powerful meditation called the “Noticing Exercise” that I like to share with people who believe they can’t experience peace just as they are.
Without going into too much detail here, I ask people to bring a difficulty to mind, and then, through directing their attention to what’s happening right here, right now, I guide them to become fully present in the moment.
When I ask them afterwards how their experience was, they usually use words like “peaceful,” “still,” or “expansive.”
And when I then ask what happened to their difficulty during the exercise, people invariably say, “Oh, I totally forgot about it.” More evidence that you don’t have to wait for your issues to be healed before you can live fully.
Peace is available right here, right now—no matter what is going on in your mind or in your life.
False Belief #5: Engaging with the mind is mandatory.
If you had told me years ago, when I was a chronic overthinker struggling to find any peace at all, that engaging with the mind is not mandatory, I would have said you were nuts.
When thinking is unconscious and running on autopilot, as is the case with most people, it feels like it’s something that’s happening to you—as if you are an innocent victim being bombarded by an unrelenting torrent of thoughts, and that you have no choice but to listen.
You’re not so much thinking as being thunk!
But here’s the truth. You are the one in charge, and the mind only has as much power as you give it. It may not seem this way, but it’s true.
As we saw previously in the “Noticing Exercise,” you are free to withdraw your attention from the mind in any moment. Thinking is a choice. It’s not mandatory.
Mooji, a teacher I like a lot, says that we suffer because we are open for business. If you choose to close up shop, the mind becomes powerless to affect your peace.
When you learn to step back and watch the mind objectively, you can choose whether to get involved or not. Overthinking is an unconscious habit you can learn to let go of.
False Belief #6: I’m responsible for the thoughts in my head.
Try closing your eyes for a moment and, like a cat intently watching a mouse hole, watch to see what your next thought will be.
You’ll discover that you have no idea what’s going to appear.
Thoughts are self-arising. You play no part in their appearance.
Thinking is a different matter.
For years, I used to judge myself harshly for the thoughts that appeared in my head. I used to think there was something wrong with me for having angry thoughts, jealous thoughts, sad thoughts, etc.
The mind is a lot like a computer. It spits out thoughts in accordance with your programming—the cultural impressions you picked up as a child and through your unique life experiences.
Your thoughts are not who you are.
Which brings us to the final false belief:
False Belief #7: I am my thoughts.
For much of my life, I was compulsively preoccupied with the content of my mind. My thoughts were like a tight ski mask glued to my face, and they pretty much filled up my entire inner space.
Through meditation, I was gradually able to create more and more space between myself and the thoughts and learn to observe them objectively and non-judgmentally—to see the thoughts, not be the thoughts.
I discovered that there was another dimension of my being that was untouched and unaffected by the passing traffic of thoughts.
The analogy of the sky and the clouds is often used in meditation practice.
All types of cloud pass across the sky—dark ones, light ones, big ones, small ones, fast moving clouds, slow moving clouds—but the sky has no preference and always remains the same.
I discovered that thoughts are not “me” and that, through learning to remain as the witnessing presence, they lost their power to affect my peace.
When you leave the mind in peace to do its thing, it will leave you in peace to do yours.
Peace is your nature; not the peace that comes and goes as passing clouds, interspersed with restless thoughts, but the unchanging peace of your true nature.
You are not your thoughts. And knowing this is real peace.