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Why It’s So Hard to Break Through Our Staunch Beliefs

As political tensions escalate and information sources increasingly reinforce individual views, ideology often perpetuates at the expense of meaningful dialogue and understanding.

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The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people, and some very good people have some very bad ideas…” Though this seems like a particularly rational approach for a judge to have, it is one that often gets lost on the average person. Once a belief is held closely, whether in regards to an election cycle, a family decision, or individual religious affiliations, there is a real temptation to lose perspective. We decide we’re right, and sometimes we decide those who oppose us are bad. Our cultural climate supports this by providing us with no shortage of information that supports our worldview. A Trump supporter never has to learn about the humanity of a Clinton supporter. A Sanders supporter never has to really understand the depth and intensity of those that would like to see Cruz elected. While sharing ideas and cultivating empathy seem like the only way for us to evolve in our families, in our societies, and in our own hearts, many of us are never truly called to do so.

But don’t feel too terribly; the science isn’t exactly in our favor.

According to a study published in the journal Annals of Neurology, researchers Sam Harris, Mark Cohen, PhD, and Sameer Seth, MD, studied how the brain processes belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Their study, “Functional Imaging of Neural Responses to Expectancy and Experience of Monetary and Losses,” used an MRI machine to scan 14 adults while they were presented with written statements covering topics that ranged from mathematics to ethics. The idea was that many of these statements were factual while others were philosophical. The subjects were asked to rate whether they believed the statements were true, false, or uncertain.

In a UCLA news release about the study, Harris said, “What I find most interesting about our results is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottleneck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward and primal feelings like pain and disgust.”

This indicates that those objective decisions that we think are being made dispassionately are, in fact, being processed in regions that make them emotional. To some extent, all reasoning is partially emotional.


Related: The Surprising Upside to Embracing Vulnerability


Harris goes on to say, “While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think it has long been assumed that believing that two plus two equals four and believing that George Bush is President of the United States have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations, but what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform.”

This idea that our brain processes statements we agree with the same way—whether factual or philosophical—might give us some insight into why it’s so hard to change our ideologies. Though brain processes are different for agreement and disagreement, both the prefrontal cortex and parts of the limbic system were activated. An editorial by the American Neurological Association puts it more succinctly when it stated the following: “But Harris et al.’s work raises the possibility that all decision making involves both emotional and cognitive processes…The acceptance or rejection of propositional truth claims…appear to be governed in part by the same regions that govern pleasantness of tastes and orders.”

As we observe our cultural climate where ideologies are reduced to Twitter-speak, poll results insult the ideas of the polled, and dissenting opinions can invoke physical violence, we must understand that even those of us who consider ourselves “informed” are making choices that are governed, in part, by our emotions. Emotions carry wisdom, but they aren’t infallible; thus, a new question arises: How do we cultivate the courage to, as Scalia says, separate opposing ideas from the people who have them? How do we learn to scrutinize our own belief though they may seem as alluring as the scent of our favorite dessert?

Ericka T. Phillips, a meditation and yoga teacher and former director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, offers up how a robust contemplative practice can be a key component for helping us cultivate space in our volatile primary election season filled with polarizing views and beliefs.

“I’m someone who likes to debate and argue,” Phillips offers. “I have respect for that form, and I’ve always believed that that’s an important part of our democracy, but lately I find myself more and more interested in things like: Where are Trump supporters are coming from? What are they really upset about? What are their lives like? What has happened in their life that’s made them feel this way? What’s the situation around this idea and belief? I’m much more interested in that, and even that process is scary, and I’m noticing that. I’m noticing the hesitation—this fear of me just embodying this other view, but what you realize is that it’s just false. We shouldn’t be afraid to understand each other. There shouldn’t be any fear in that.”

And perhaps, beyond the neurology and the automatic connections our brains make, the biggest impediment to hearing and understanding the views of another is a deep fear. Perhaps many of us find it threatening to embody the beliefs of one another. Phillips uses her own meditation practice as an example of how we can foster the ability to “embody the opposing view” is a direct result of her meditation practice.

“It’s the fact that I’m practicing that allows me to notice the fear, which is 90% of the obstacle. I can actually see myself. I can see the fear. There’s some space between it. I recognize, ‘Oh, I’m actually afraid…’ and then I see that there’s a physical sensation of fear and resistance that comes up around that. And then I’m like, ‘Why do you have that resistance? Do you think you’re going to have to change your mind or have to let go of your view or you know? That’s interesting.’ That’s what I practice. That’s what my practice has been teaching me: how to hold all of that. How to hold difficulty. How to hold opposing views. How to be a witness of my experience of my experience and be a witness to another’s experience in a non-judgmental way.”

For those who might find themselves so deeply entrenched in their own ideas that they can no longer hear one another, Phillips suggests the following, “First look at how that [belief] feels and what the effect is on them—even just starting physically. Like, really stopping and paying attention and seeing and examining what it’s like to hold that view or to be. And I think from there, making a decision about if that is healthy or not. Or if that feels good or not, and I would say that if for them, that [belief] is causing them some suffering, on any level, my advice would be to cultivate a meditation practice so that they can practice letting go. And if letting go is too strong a word, practice relaxation. Because, in my experience, when I’m holding too tightly there is a physical sensation of tightness and discomfort. So, they could work with it on a physical and mental level with a meditation or contemplative movement practice, and see what happens.”

Embodying a differing view and cultivating compassion doesn’t have to destroy your own stance. Softening to the opposing idea doesn’t mean that your adversary is any more correct than you are. In the book Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation, Adam Bucko recounts a testimony from Pancho Ramos-Sterile that originally appeared in Yes! Magazine. Sterile shares his experience with a police officer during Occupy Oakland. On Mondays, the group would take a vow of silence, and as a result an arresting officer thought they were hearing-impaired. The officer got a notebook and pen to communicate with Sterile:

It was very considerate of him, and I could feel his energy shift a little, and so when he gave me the notebook I wrote, “On Mondays, I practice silence, but I would like you to hear that I love you.”

When he read that, he had this big smile and he looked me in the eye and said,“Thank you. But, well, if you don’t move, you’re going to be arrested. Are you moving or not?”

So I wrote back, “I am meditating.”

He said, “Okay, arrest them one by one.”

That was one of my favorite moments from the whole ordeal.

We do not have to agree with one another. We can actually oppose each other and even agitate each other in pursuit of our own agendas, but perhaps there is a promenade at the intersection between belief, love, and committed action where we can congregate despite our opposing views. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio thinks there is, and he’s testing his belief at the ground zero of opposing ideas, the United States House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Ryan is a devout practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, having been converted in 2009 at a retreat in upstate New York where, for the final 36 hours, he was compelled to maintain silence. Since then, he has used legislation to help bring mindfulness practices to veterans and schoolchildren, and he diligently works to cultivate it among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Once a week, when Congress is not on recess, he leads a members-only meditation session in the House chapel.

It is not easy to embrace those with opposing ideas and alternate agendas. What would happen if we did all meet on that promenade of belief, love, and committed action and exchanged ideas? How would our hearts, if not our actions, be? How would the national conversation, a worthy conversation, be exalted?

May we find the courage to one day find out.

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