Gwilym Morus is a regular contributor to the website. Amongst other things Gwilym is currently studying for a doctorate in Welsh literature at Bangor University. His latest solo album, Llwyn Eosiaid, and his previous album The Dressing Gown Goddess are available from: www.caneuon.com. Gwilym's own website is at: www.gwilymmorus.com
You’re going to anyway. Before you even started reading this paragraph you probably had at least a tiny expectation of what you were going to find, just from reading the title and looking at the graphics. That expectation, no matter how subtle and small, is at this very moment colouring your perception of this text. You’re not actually seeing it as it really is.
And as you read on, you're going to be measuring this article’s value - evaluating your experience against a continually updated and prioritised list of your own expectations: will you find this worth your while or just a waste of your time? Will you move on to another web-page or just go and watch the telly? In the habitual re-assesment of experience, something of experience is lost.
We have a ferocious apetite for stuff that satisfies our expectations, stuff that re-affirms our own beliefs, and it’s those beliefs, inevitably, that colour everything we perceive. We just can't escape our own assumptions about life. Our beliefs mediate everything we experience.
All of our beliefs, at some point or another, began as an assesment of experience. One day Mr Cave-man thought, “When I shake it like this all the ladies start looking at me. That probably means that they think I’m really cool. If I keep doing it I might just get a shag!” Such was the belief of many a young buck back in the days of the cave-disco.
The origins of your beliefs?
Humanity has been assesing its own experience, and as a result forming beliefs, since forever. Everything you believe has been gleaned either from your experiences or someone elses. Even your own instincts, those fundamental, hard-wired impulses, were at some stage assesed, and beliefs formed about them.
That’s why so many people react differently to the same basic impulses. To some people, the whole urge to pro-create is a thing to be suppressed and denied; while to others life is all about hunting down the perfect sexual thrill. Many of us live in the space in between, but all of us are perceiving life according to a particular belief, probably formed or inherited at a very early age.
Every facet of our personalities is the result of our having either adopted or rejected a certain belief, whether it be a belief in The W.I., whether sunglasses are cool, or whether Santa is really the mushroom fantasy of a triping reindeer herder. Whatever it is, you can bet that somewhere along the way it’s the result of a belief for or against something.
How do we believe?
So if what we believe in is so fundamental to who we are, to how we lead our lives and treat our fellow beings, shouldn't we give some attention to this very fundamental dynamic of the human soul? Shouldn't we question how we believe before getting anywhere near the question of what we believe?
We should, but we don’t. Apart from the fact that vast swathes of the human race are too hungry to waste their energy on pondering the finer points of the human psyche, those of us with enough tins in the cupboard are inherently averse to anything challenging our beliefs. We just don't like it. It makes us feel threatened.
We all continually succumb to our own adopted, fostered and inherited beliefs, and have been doing so since the year dot. That’s why you can only ever successfully preach to the converted - and we do preach, continually, to ourselves. We’re really good at convincing ourselves that our perception of things is the right one, the real one.
What I’m heading at is this: most of us never interogate our own inner bible basher, even though that would seem to be a sensible thing to do: consider the mess poeple’s beliefs have gotten this world into recently. I mean, Jesus! Just look at all the star-spangled, yogurt-weaving, oil-vamping, celebrity-wankers out there!
Alas, most of us will never voluntarily question our own beliefs, never mind explore how we formed them so convincingly in the first place. But never fear, help is at hand - a very particular school of eastern thought have come up with a plan. Put simply, it involves trying to get you to believe in nothing, absolutely nothing - not even yourself.
This particular school is called Zen Budhism, and appart from all the obvious parafanalia (temples, gongs, bald heads etc) it isn’t actually a religion; it’s probably more correct to call it an anti-religion. Actually, it’s probably not even worth trying to call it anything whatsoever, because you know that whatever you say, the Master is going to thwack you over the back of the head with the heel of his monk’s slipper and tell you to stop being so ridiculous.
The basic tenet (if you can call it that) of this very grumpy school of old slipper-thwackers, is that what you think you know, what you’ve spent your whole life believing in, isn't real. Our day-to-day experience is totally and continually mediated by our beliefs, and the mother of all missleading beliefs is that you are seperate from what you perceive.
We all fundamentally come to believe that we are unique, indivisible egos, personalities, individuals, whatever you want to call it: the singular puff of smoke that you think is you, that loose bag of preconceptions you hope will keep you from making a knob of yourself in front of your mates.
But alas, according to the Zen people, you and I are simply the product of an over-fed sense of self-importance. Through out our lives we have been gorging on what we deem to be sound, but totally self-involved beliefs, and we’ve mistaken these beliefs for a personality. We’ve created an illusory persona for ourselves out of a rag-bag collection of pre-conceived assumptions.
The hunger we have for these beliefs (and the resulting ego) stems from the basic insecurities of being a human animal. The more unsure we are of what’s going on, the more we hunger for credible information to keep us on the right track. The more desperate we are for some belief to cling to, the more likely we are to believe anything. Our old habit of fearing the unkown has resulted in our gorging on what we believe to be ‘the known’.
As a result, our psychological digsetive system is a bit over-worked, and the Zen people, they want to put us on a diet. In their opinion, our desperate need for things to believe in has left us psychologically over-weight and unhealthy; all those nice tasting beliefs arent really that nourishing, and inevitably result in bad smells. All that pongy metaphoric gass is just building up, inflating that ego balloon, and the worst thing is: many of us like the sound of our own farts (this, by the way, is the Camembert of all gaseuos paragraphs).
Their plan is devilishly simple to outline but incredibly difficult to accomplish, hence the need for decades (if not lifetimes) of practice. The advice of these people is simply to try and stay as much in the present as possible (Za Zen), that way you’ll avoid having expectations of the future and as a result rely less on those beliefs formed in the past. The hope is that some day you’ll finally realise what’s really going on in the cosmos, as opposed to just sniffing your own brain fart.
Believe in nothing
It’s a given that you will always try and believe what you want to believe, whatever your religion, creed or dress sense. The important thing to realise is that the Zen people don't want to give you anything more to believe in, they simply want to bypass all of that rubbish and try and get you to experience existence as it really is, not as you think it should be. It’s the paradox at the heart of believing in nothing: you actually have to start by believing it’s worth trying!
The last thing the Zen-botherers want to do is give you anything else to believe in; they even tell you not to have any expectations that any of their practices will achieve anything, because that’s just not Zen. And neither is this by the way, because, if you got this far, you’re still assessing whether this is worth believing in or not. That is unless you’re the Buddha, or Jesus, or a raindeer herder. The sad thing is, you never get tired of sniffing your own farts. Well, I don’t.
Gwilym Morus: 30th September 2009