Beliefs and the changing mind
Updated: Jan 16
Is it possible to change our mind in ways favourable to us?
This question is of paramount importance since changing our mind is likely the first step towards changing our behaviour, or habit energies, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn puts it.
No doubts, this is one of the significant challenges a human being may be called to face, and indeed, a desirable benefit that psychedelics therapy may offer.
First things first, what is it that we are trying to change?
When we ask wether our mind can be changed, we should make sure we understand what it is that we are really trying to change. Say you are trying to replicate the taste of a cake you have tried (and liked very much), would you be able to do that without an exact knowledge of the recipe? Unless you are a highly accomplished patissier, the odds are that your cake will be a mess.
The logical conclusion is that without a clear understanding of the object of our investigation, it is very unlikely we will succeed to manipulate it or alter it in any meaningful way. The question that follows naturally is, what is it that we are asking to change, hence, what is mind?
What is mind?
Mind is the collection of functions (attention, memory, cognition etc.)
Mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components
Mind is a process consisting of all the thoughts and sensations that arise at any given moment
Mind is the space in which thoughts manifest and sensations are cognised
Mind is both a space and a process
Mind is your suffering (well, this is the case sometimes isn't it?)
There are overlapping elements in this list which could certainly be extended or completely revisited. One immediate realisation is the lack of consensus regarding the object of our study. Some aspects of this problem are terminological, others are a consequence of the complexity of the concept which eludes clear definitions.
In the present context, our scope here is to choose a functional definition that allows us to take the next steps and to understand wether inducing positive changes is possible or not and wether psychedelics are a tool fit for this purpose.
We are in a constant exchange with our surroundings. It is a fact that our skin has to have a highly advanced filtering mechanism for our body to survive. It is also an accepted fact that the mind too is constantly filtering informations.
Expanding this further, we recognise that not all mental processes or thoughts manifest in our behaviour at all times. This observation supports the idea that some sort of filtering process is present within the mind and allows certain thoughts to become action while others remain inactive thoughts.
Exploring further the mechanics of this filtering process it is reasonable to ask, and highly relevant to understand:
In which way does mind filter outward flowing informations (that become posture, verbal action, breathing pattern)?
In which way does mind filter inward flowing data (that become the building blocks of our opinions on the matters of the external and internal world)?
*To add a layer of complexity here, i find it interesting to contemplate this question: what happens when we stop the information exchange by sitting still in a quiet dark place for a long enough time? (nice read on Jhanas and dark room problem here )
The filtering process: beliefs
Now, given our previous assumptions we are allowed to think that our perceptions of the world, inner and outer, is not raw but filtered.
Some recent theories backed by cognitive neuroscience state that our perception of the world is an elaborate construct based on prior experiences(*). In Buddha's words, the world as we know it is an illusion, a type of dream.
The questions for us to explore are:
What is the nature of this filter, and
Can we manipulate this filters?
The nature of these filters determine the type and quality of informations we collect from the environment and the interpretations we create based on those informations, hence, our filters determine the quality of our actions, or to be more specific, the set of actions that at any given moment become available for us to chose. Ultimately, the nature of our beliefs creates a sort of "pre-disposition" which shapes and directs our life.
Can psychedelics help us revisit our beliefs?
We concluded that our beliefs act as a sort of informational filters, activating a chain of consequences which ultimately shape our life. This core aspect of our mind-system, our beliefs, seem to be the psychic target of psychedelics like psilocybin and other tryptamines, assuming correct use, dosage and preparation.
So far the discussion has been somewhat abstract, let me offer some examples: say you have a very strong belief that you are not worthy of a partner, or you are not capable of singing or playing an instrument.
Psychedelics induce a highly fluid mental state in which our ordinary assumptions about how the world works, about our life and about the narratives we have about ourselves seem less solid or reliable. This state of things may put the mind in severe distress but at the same time it provides an invaluable opportunity to view things from different angles, now you are not so sure anymore about who you truly are, wether that tree you are looking at is "just a tree" or for that matter if anything you ever experienced in your whole life was not so much more, or less, than you actually thought.
Our beliefs, which come from prior experiences as well as societal and familial indoctrination, act as an energetic barrier that stops certain inward flowing informations and colours our actions. In other words, beliefs and belief systems are psychic forces powerful enough to create blind spots and repetitive behavioural tendencies which ultimately shape our destiny.
By entering the fluid state induced by psychedelics we have an opportunity to "release" certain tendencies and pre-dispositions that we may have acquired, consciously or unconsciously.
A note of caution is mandatory here, the psychedelic state is also a state of "hypersuggestibility", hence great care must be directed at the psychological context of use beyond the standard set&setting and include the belief system of the psychedelic providers themselves.
Wishing you safe and fruitful journeys!
C. Timmerman (2021), Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs
H. T. McGovern(2022), Do psychedelics change beliefs?
RC Harris, The entropic brain
Thich Nhat Hahn: understanding our mind
Jakob Hohwy, The predictive mind
Andy Clark: Surfing uncertainty
Martin A. Lee e Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD