One of the (gulp) many books I’ve wished I’d written myself is a little book of thought experiments called Astonish Yourself! by Roger-Pol Droit, whose playful activities expand our perception beyond the habitual.
In a period in which many of us are all too familiar with the four walls around us and maybe could use a little jostling of our perceptions, I thought you might enjoy playing, too, with a new thought experiment I sprang on the participants during a half-day PD workshop I just conducted for the National Association of Social Workers in Wisconsin.
For this activity, you’ll need a pen and an index card or a stiff piece of paper.
First, put into a sentence the single spiritual belief you hold that for you is the most unshakeable.
Take an index card or stiff piece of paper, and fold it in half to make a table tent. write that belief above the fold, and then set up the table tent right in front of you. That belief you wrote should then appear upside down.
Next, you’ll read out loud, one at a time, a few of the beliefs listed below, each of which may be held by someone. You’ll read one, glance at your table tent, close your eyes, and just notice:
- Does entertaining that belief cause your throat to tighten?
- Does the ticker tape of your mind flash with, “Well, that’s just absurd!”?
- Or do you have a moment of curiosity, something like, “I wonder whether you can believe that and also what I believe at the same time”?
- Or perhaps of dizzying confusion?
Do this process with as many of the beliefs on the list below as you like.
- It doesn’t matter whether you talk about one supreme God or multiple personal gods or goddesses; they’re the same thing.
- Suffering is there to teach us something.
- God has a physical form.
- My religion’s practices are preferred over conventional medicine.
- Men’s and women’s roles are divinely ordained to be different.
- We do good things just because they make us feel good. Nobody’s going to reward us for them.
- The chief thing wrong with us, and that leads to the wrong we do to each other, is ignorance.
- God takes deep interest in human affairs.
- Only natural forces, like evolution, are responsible for life on earth as we know it.
- There are no, and never have been any, incarnations of God.
- God ordains that women be modest.
- There is no true spirituality outside of a religious or spiritual community.
- Illness is caused by witchcraft.
- We owe a Supreme Power our worship.
- War is never spiritually or religiously justifiable.
- I revere nature as a central aspect of my belief system.
- All people pray to the same God, whether or not they use the same name for that God.
- As long as the men in my family are praying, the whole family is good.
- There is nothing after life on earth.
- Human beings have sinfulness in their nature.
- If the government leaves them alone, most businesses will do what is right.
- My social class is divinely ordained.
- Being sick is a particular opportunity for me to repent.
- Humankind will be saved by our own efforts, not by the intercession of a Supreme Being or by religious practices.
- The only thing I can improve is myself.
- My ancestors give me strength.
- If I didn’t read the Bible, it wouldn’t matter.
- The purpose of life is to earn as much as possible, so you can make the most of life.
- If a belief is proven by science, then it’s true.
- The world is purposely flawed, and it’s our job to help repair it.
- I pray for miracles.
- Mission work is an essential part of being a good member of my faith.
- We suffer because the cosmos is out of balance.
- You get what you deserve: if you do good, you get good; if you do bad, that’s what you get
- My belief system requires that I be engaged in the betterment of others’ conditions.
- What is right or wrong depends on what you believe.
- When people do evil things, they are punished in the afterlife.
- There is no such thing as a personal God, only an impersonal reality that does not care about what happens to us.
- You can be a member of your religious or spiritual tradition without doing any practices or rituals whatsoever.
- If I suffer, there must be a reason.
- I’ll be reincarnated because I clearly haven’t learned everything I need to yet.
- God loves us, whether or not we believe in God.
Finally, notice any patterns in the reactions you had. Did you discover types of beliefs that are particularly threatening or, alternatively, affirming, or even exciting?
In the NASW workshop, we took a fourth, and, for the time being, final, step. We spent a few minutes looking at the beliefs we hold about our beliefs. This is where the real “action” may lie in terms of how we may discriminate against others’ world views (spiritually, politically, or otherwise). We may believe, for example
- What I believe is the true way.
- My way of believing is the best way.
- Other people would sure be happier or better off if they believed the way I do.
- People who believe other than the way I do are underdeveloped or sadly deluded.
- People who have not adopted the vows I have taken are less likely to be happy or successful than I am.
- People who are part of my group have “got it” or are chosen.
- Religion has been responsible for so many deaths in history that I choose not to believe.
How many of us had burning cheeks by the end? Possibly only those who in the moment recognized themselves. Thankfully, many of the people in the NASW workshop saw themselves in this reflection.
And two of those burning cheeks were mine.