On Beliefs vs Ideas (and Sleep)

Ok so I’ll just drop something straight on the table now: I haven’t drunk coffee in a long time.
Which is why I’m writing this, because caffeine is no longer a part of my life and it does… things to my head. My brain feels like a party of ideas, some of them actually making sense. So rather than just… tremble or something, I’m letting my fingers expel that party venom on the keyboard, and see what happens as I write. Besides, I’ve been wanting to write something down for a while so this is perfect.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and studies about belief systems lately. That subject somewhat fascinates me, and with the recent events of a big crisis in Middle East between Israel and Palestine, that just makes it a lot more interesting to ponder about. We humans are very complex social machines, even more complex on the social side than on the biological side. We are unique individuals with isolate identities, a feeling of ‘self’, a positive attitude about thinking for ourselves, working out our own answers and, as Hollywood teaches us, “finding our own story and realising that the hero we were looking for was us all along”. Yada yada, we get the drill. It’s an individual identity that I have as a “me, myself, I” and we proud ourselves into feeling we are capable of making our own choices in life, and exercising our freedom from others.

But we are social machines as well. We can’t deny it. We follow our pack, live under complex hierarchies of status, economic and age levels, gender inequality, family structure, religious and political (and sport) affiliation. We vote for a single leader and a small group of representatives, follow his or her command to the bone sometimes, wait and listen for the green light and the go sign before doing anything important. We rely and depend on others for survival, for food and safety, for spiritual guidance, and for almost everything we make our lives from. We even proudly identify as parts of a group as a regular habit. When I was living in Mexico I didn’t identify myself as Mexican, but as “Tapatio” – that is, from Guadalajara, Jalisco – and I made fun of Mexico City inhabitants – being myself born in Mexico City but since we have a history of soccer rivalry, I used 25 years of living in Guadalajara as a shield. Then, I moved to New Zealand, and from that point on, I was known as “that Mexican dude”. Since there are so few Mexicans in NZ I was labelled as one, you know, for easy recognition.

That didn’t trouble me at all, but it made me wonder, why do we need to have an identity based on our social background so badly? What if I don’t want to be identified as a Mexican, but something broader, like an Earthling? And what do belief systems have to do with all this? That same question was illumined in a way or another last week, when me and my wife sat down to watch Kevin Smith’s 1999 movie “Dogma”. It’s kind of a fun flick about Smith’s Catholicism and his search for a profound meaning in all that dogmatic environment he grew up in, but with Silent Bob and a poop monster and a black Jesus in the mix; oh, and Alanis Morissette. I had heard about his movie by one of his very fun talks on Youtube, and I enjoyed it very much. Towards the end, though, he states something extremely powerful. Rufus, a black apostle that got “mysteriously omitted” from the Gospels and performed by comedian Chris Rock, has a conversation with Bethany, the main character:

Rufus: His only real beef with mankind is the shit that gets carried out in His name. Wars, bigotry, televangelism. The big one, though, is the fractioning of all of the religions. He said mankind got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure on it.
Bethany: You’re saying having beliefs is a bad thing?
Rufus: I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it. The whole of existence is in jeopardy right now, because of the Catholic belief structure regarding this plenary indulgence bullshit. Bartleby and Loki, whether they know it or not, are exploiting that belief. And if they’re successful, you, me… ALL of this ends in a heartbeat, all over a belief.

Man, I can’t describe with words how much sense that made to me in that moment. I thought about my own ideas vs my beliefs and it was exactly like that. Allow me to demonstrate it with a simple example:

I always wondered how many hours you need of sleep per night in order to be healthy. More is better? Less is better? I used to struggle with sleeping less than 7 hours back in Auckland. Usually between 7 and 8 was my ideal length of sleep, but I couldn’t help but notice there “should be” a way to train yourself to need less. I had the “idea” that there was a method, and as itself, that idea made sense to me. So I started looking around, asking and reading information about sleep patterns, brain functionality and such. Up to that point, my idea was easily challenged by more and new information, and it kept changing from one side to the other. So far so good.

Then I found a meditation group in the city, and since I wanted to learn how to meditate since I was a teen I took classes gladly and they mentioned that meditation helped to increase the quality of sleep patterns, by getting your mind into an alpha-like state and so, if you meditate long enough and frequently enough, you would need less sleep. That was perfect! I embraced this new idea, and in time, I also embraced the centre I was attending as my own spiritual school and home. I became a disciple on this meditation technique, and under this meditation teacher.

Under his guidance, I learned that practice makes perfect so I started getting up early, at 5 am, to meditate for half an hour and then eventually an hour. At the beginning it was new and exciting so I was motivated enough to get up and do it. I found that it gave me energy and drive during my day, so I kept doing it. I became eventually convinced I could sleep less by meditating. That initial idea slowly became stronger, sturdier. It became a belief. I believed I had the way to sleep less and be fine.

But after a year or so my body started giving me some alerts. My sleep was intermittent, whilst before this whole thing I used to sleep like a rock. I found myself fighting the desire to go back to sleep instead of actually meditating. I spent that hour sitting down, with my head bouncing up and down like a bubblehead doll, and having the worst of times. I was not enjoying meditation either. I got up with my eyes half closed, dragged my body to the floor and sat down, and then snoozed for that hour or so until my alarm got me up. My day had a tiring feeling altogether. Since I had stopped drinking coffee by then, I suddenly found myself wanting something to wake me up during the day. So I had some coffee which helped a little, but I now had this belief that drinking coffee was bad, evil. Not to accuse my meditation centre of that, but it was generally frowned upon, since they’re not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke or do drugs. I didn’t do any of that, but when I felt very sleepy I just wanted a hot cup of coffee and my belief guilted me into not doing that.

My belief was hurting me in a way. I was sleeping 5 or 6 hours per day and getting worse at it. The thing is, it was a more profound belief by then, so I wouldn’t do anything different, I started resisting to the idea of changing something to improve. Until one day where I just didn’t hear my alarm (it was fortunately Saturday) and slept on till 10 am or so. Then the following day I didn’t wake up early either. I didn’t meditate in the mornings on about two or three days, since I woke up and did my usual activities instead of fighting my way through meditation, but I felt a lot better after two long sleep nights.

I believed I didn’t need to sleep if I mastered meditation. Which could still be true, but it’s now back into the “idea” realm. An idea can be tested, can be put under scrutiny, can be verified or doubted at. But a belief is stronger. My days as a disciple ended eventually and I went back to drinking coffee occasionally (not so often since I still think it’s not that good at all and doesn’t help to wake up as well as sleep, exercise and good food choices) and I kept doing meditation with a bit easier routine, albeit shorter and not so disciplined.

Then I found an article saying that according to several studies, if you sleep less than 6 hours per night for 2 weeks, your brain starts behaving like a .1% alcohol infused brain, that is, legally drunk. Keep that pattern for long, and it takes a long time to recover, eventually even making the recovery process slower and inneficient. It can be as bad for your brain as too much sleep (which also leads to health problems, obesity and risk of heart attacks). This new idea clashed with my previous idea that you could sleep 5 hours perfectly. But it was an idea, so I assumed and analized it, and there was no problem making an opinion about it. Since I didn’t believe I had to meditate and be a disciple and do all these things, I could mold and manage my ideas better. It’s once we turn ideas into beliefs that they get sturdier, slower, resistant and difficult to move and change. We become ourselves resilient to new ways of thinking, to new ideas and concepts, and reject altogether people who think differently. When two ideas clash, they interact and interchange information with each other, being modified and improved in the process. When two beliefs clash, well…

My point here is, we have to be conscious about our beliefs. If they are strong enough, we need to look at them cautiously, since they can, and will, clash with others’ beliefs and become weapons of mass destruction for relationships, well-being, perception of self and others and even be physically destructive to oneself and others. Just ask a terrorist suicide bomber why is that belief driving him. Or even better, don’t ask. He might pull the trigger in response to someone doubting his beliefs. But an idea can change the world. It can mold it and make it more beautiful and healthier and wiser for everyone. Since it can be put in doubt, an idea is constantly evolving. Quoting “K” from Men In Black: Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

We can turn beliefs into ideas any time. The strongest belief, the most religiously, sturdy and immovable concept can become an idea and be put into the test by asking, by stopping for a second and considering, what if I’m wrong? Think of this the next time you clash with other person’s belief system, be it religion, soccer, politics or any other pop-culture discussion we have online or offline: if this was about the best way to tie my shoelaces, would I be angry? if it was about my theory of unicorns coming from old narwhal skeletons vs an unknown unverified species of horned horses, would being wrong be such a bad thing?

When you have ideas, you can use them. When you have beliefs, they can use you. No quotes here, I just made this last one up. But I kinda dig it.

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About Eduardo

I'm some dude with a huge love for animation and film. I've been working in TV animation for the past 6 years in New Zealand. I love dragons, pointy metal things that can cut dragons, and flight simulators.
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