Do Our Beliefs Create Reality?
Without a doubt, consciousness plays a decisive role in creating and shaping our world. So, I want to be clear about something: What I am about to say does not diminish or invalidate in any way the insight expressed in phrases such as “belief creates reality” or “we create our own reality.”
The core insight is valid, and I honor it. I think it gives expression to a profound truth. However, I also think it can be misleading if simply taken at face value, without finer discernment. As a philosopher, I like to burrow beneath surfaces to reveal deeper meanings and truths.
I want to draw attention here to the difference between “belief” and “intention.” When I hear people talk about “beliefs creating reality” they usually mean intention co-creates reality. These are two very different claims, with very different—and important—consequences for our lives and for the world we live in.
Yes, many people do believe in the creative power of belief. I don’t. I have a different view, discussed in my books Radical Knowing and more recently Consciousness from Zombies to Angels. Here’s my take on this issue.
Frozen Fragments of Consciousness
Beliefs are made of thoughts. Thoughts are abstractions—“frozen fragments of consciousness” taken from the moment-to-moment flow of ongoing experience. Because thoughts are abstractions, they are only fragments of reality, echos of expired experiences that have now moved into the past (near or distant). Thoughts are “mental snapshots” of a moment in time. Thoughts and beliefs are rooted in the past.
Experience is always happening now. Reality, too, is always happening now. The “happy coincidence” of experience and reality meeting in the now means that by paying attention to what we are actually experiencing in the present moment, we have direct access to reality, to what is actually happening now.
When we focus on thoughts and beliefs, however, our attention is fixated on residues of expired experiences that belong to the past—not to present reality. We get mesmerized by our intricate tapestries of thoughts (literally “entranced” by them). We then mistake our abstractions (snapshots of the past) for what is real, and we miss out on what is really happening now, in our in-the-moment experience.
Because thoughts are abstractions, they have no real power or potency. And because beliefs are constructed of thoughts, they are essentially impotent, too. Beliefs are “mental habits” and, like all habits, they are mechanical, having no creativity. As “habits of mind,” beliefs are tools of the ego (egos are mental machines).
However, experience is very different. It is naturally and intrinsically creative. Why? Because at every new moment a new experience comes into being. Each experience is literally an act of creation—a gift from the universe. And the wonderful thing is we don’t have to do anything for experiences to happen. They come built into the very fabric of existence itself. To be is to experience. To experience is to be creative.
That’s why I encourage people to focus on being present—bringing awareness and attention to what we are actually experiencing right now, moment-by-moment. That’s where our power lies. That’s the source of our creativity.
When I examine sayings such as “beliefs create reality” I find that what is really being expressed is the insight “intentions create reality.” That seems to me to be the deeper truth.
Language is critically important, and so I pay close attention to the words we use. I do so not merely as an intellectual exercise (that would be pointless), but because, as I see it, the words we choose do make a real difference in how we live our lives and, therefore, how we impact the world.
I pay particular attention to the distinction between “belief,” “experience,” and “intention” because a great deal of confusion and strife in the world is caused by people holding onto their cherished beliefs at all costs. People die by the thousands, perhaps millions, every year when different belief systems collide. And countless millions of individuals from other species die, too, because of clashing human beliefs.
I sometimes say, only half humorously, that I’ve never met a belief that created anything—except trouble.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb for choosing experience beyond belief: No experience is ever wrong—or even could be wrong. Every experience simply is exactly what it is. However, beliefs can be wrong because they are interpretations (they are stories), and like all interpretations they can miss the mark, be mistaken, or be misunderstood.
Experiences happen in the moment before interpretation kicks in. Every experience reveals a slice of reality for what it truly is at that moment. Here’s what typically happens:
experience —> interpretation —> belief —> dogma —> ideology —> action
Notice that our actions (how we interact with others and the world around us) are many steps removed from the original experience that connects us with reality. Is it any surprise, then, that so many of our actions just add further confusion and disruption to our lives and the environment? For the most part, for most of us, our actions are out of touch with reality.
Much better, then, to learn to act directly from experience. Cultivating this ability is at the core of most (perhaps all) spiritual practices and effective psychological discipline.
Think, for example, about master martial artists or think of great athletes—men and women who achieve exceptional performance because they have learned to act directly from their experience in the moment—not from their beliefs! In the midst of action, they do not stop to think or to make sure they act from their beliefs. If they did, their performance and effectiveness would collapse.
Intention: The Creative Expression of the Soul
So much for “experience beyond belief.” What about “intention”?
Whereas beliefs are habits of mind rooted in the ego, intention is the focused creative expression of the soul’s natural intelligence.
By paying close attention to our experience in the moment, we open up to expressions of intelligence flowing from the soul—from the innermost depths of our being. Intention is choosing to align ourselves with our deepest wisdom. (Actually, it is not really “our” wisdom. Ultimately, it is the collective wisdom of all sentient beings, expressed through us as individuals at a particular point in space and time. But that’s a topic for another discussion.)
Wisdom, then, involves getting the ego out of the way—getting beyond our mental, mechanical habits—and, instead, choosing to allow the soul’s intelligence its full natural expression. “Intelligence seeks expression,” declares Darwin in Deep Spirit. One way or another, intelligence will express itself. We might as well choose to go along for the ride. Why fight or resist the flow of natural intelligence by trying to mold reality to our beliefs, by trying to shape reality to fit in with our mechanical mental habits?
When we consciously choose to align with this deep collective intelligence, we open to the creativity of intention. Creativity flows from intention, from focused natural expression of the soul’s deepest intelligence and wisdom.
Beliefs don’t create reality; they distort it—inevitably. Beliefs distort reality because they are rooted in the past, and reality is always now.
Of course, I don’t want you to believe a word of this. I do, however, want you to pay attention to whatever you experience as you let in the meaning of these words. What are you feeling right now? Guided by that feeling, what do you choose right now? What is your intention beyond belief?