Those were the very first words I heard my therapeutic counselling course tutor say.
Ooh, cynical, I thought.
Then she read, ‘Do not believe what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe anything because it is rumoured and spoken by many; do not believe merely because a written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe merely the authority of your teachers and elders. That includes me,’ she added with a laugh.
I protested, ‘But you’re our teacher. What are we supposed to believe?’
She smiled. ‘That’s one of the things you’ll learn.’
Oh great, I thought. This is going to be a waste of time and money. And yet, that turned out to be one of the most useful precepts I encountered on the course, and for the next twenty years.
Today these words (said to have originated from the Buddha), are more relevant – indeed, vital – than ever: technology has opened the field to anyone, wise, unwise, or otherwise, to share advice in blogs and on social media.
The internet is awash with well-intended advice memes: ‘First impressions are everything.’ ‘It doesn’t matter what others think.’ ‘Relax; it will be okay.’ ‘Never stop trying.’ ‘Risk being vulnerable.’ ‘Express your anger.’ ‘It’s not your fault.’ ‘Be patient.’ ‘Trust more.’ ‘Say no.’
All of them can be helpful, reassuring and sometimes life-changing. They can also be misleading, confusing and counter-productive. ‘Walk away’ might be good advice for someone enduring an abusive relationship. It might not be so good for someone who serially walks away from jobs because they’ve never dealt with a recurring issue/theme in their life, and takes ‘Walk away’ – especially with a mountain or sunrise (or both) background – as confirmation to quit. Again.
All such messages speak from the personality and story of whoever creates or shares them, including recognised teachers – they cannot do otherwise. For example, mindfulness might be taught by someome so intrigued by abstract ideas, they’ve never paid much attention to the here and now. When this person experiences the benefits of being present, they learn avidly and become a passionate expert – not recognising that many ordinary people, uninterested in abstract ideas, are already naturally good at being in the here and now.
We are all different; we are all unique, with our unique and complex stories. I’m hardly the first to suggest that true acceptance of difference is the biggest hope for world peace; it’s also important for individual peace. People sharing profound words of guidance don’t know your circumstances, your personality. It’s good to deeply know your own, and develop your intuition. Then you’re able to sift through the exhortations of others, take what’s useful, leave what isn’t (whilst recognising that it might be useful for someone else).
Yesterday’s street-wise are today’s information-wise. Whether we read it in the Daily Mail or the Bible, on Twitter or Tiny Buddha, we’re getting better at discerning. However, we all have stuff – facts and ideas – that we believe out of habit, without even realising. They’re called introjects. We acquired a whole bunch of these messages masquerading as ‘truths’ from the people we grew up with. We carry on acquiring them from the significant people and groups we interact with. Even with the help of a coach, counsellor or therapist, it can take a lifetime to identify our introjects; to tease them out from what we now feel as we evolve into greater maturity, and into a surer sense of what we believe and what we don’t (and what we remain open-minded about).
So should you believe this ‘believe nothing’ advice? Well, of course even that is ironically but neatly subjective. Some are more inclined to trust (often those who are more trustworthy). But some habitually and immediately reject new ideas, and could usefully open up to believing more. Some are learning to be less trusting, some to be more so. Neither is better than the other – just different.
But don’t take my word for it.