What I Learned about the Mind by Spending 100 Hours Alone with My Thoughts
Understanding what beliefs are and how to choose helpful ones to improve yourself and your life
Imagine this: for ten days you’re disconnected and isolated from the rest of the world. You have no internet, no music, no books, no phones, no nothing. You’re not even allowed to speak. For ten days you sit in silence and explore the unknown world of your mind.
This is what I did in 2017 when I took a silent meditation retreat in South Korea.
Spending ten hours a day alone with my thoughts helped me uncover profound truths about the nature of beliefs, truths that have the power to improve your life.
The Truth About Beliefs
During the retreat, I had the most disparate thoughts. One day I believed that what I was doing in that Korean meditation center was a great thing, so I meditated diligently all day and never skipped my group meditation sessions.
The next day I suffered heavily from boredom and believed the retreat was a huge waste of time. Demotivation kicked in, so I stopped going to the group sessions and stayed in my room sleeping or staring at the ceiling.
This roller coaster of emotions made me realise that although reality never changed, my perception of it kept being shaped by what beliefs and thoughts I would focus on at any given moment. And my actions, in turn, would change accordingly.
“What I’m doing in this meditation centre is pointless!”
“What I’m doing here is great!”
Neither of these beliefs was objectively true.
A belief becomes true to you only when you choose to believe it. In fact, the very definition of the word ‘belief’ is “something that you think is true”.
NONE of your beliefs are true. They’re just thoughts your mind has accepted as valid based on your experiences, interpretations, and conditioning.
So, if you believe you’re an anxious person, a great partner, a perfectionist or an idiot, then you’ll perceive yourself as such. If you believe people are evil, then you’ll see nothing but evil in people.
You are what you choose to believe you are. You see what you choose to believe to see.
What are the practical implications of this?
If none of your beliefs are true, then it’d be a great idea to adopt only those beliefs that can help you in life.
For example, if you want to complete a ten-day silent meditation retreat, “What I’m doing here is great!” is a helpful belief to have. (It’s this belief that helped me endure the experience and make it to the end of day 10).
Here’s another personal example.
Sometimes I wake up during the night and worry I won’t be able to fall back asleep. I don’t look at my watch because — if I know what time it is — I’ll start calculating how many hours of sleep I have left, which only makes it harder to relax and drift off again. So, since I never know what time it is, I can believe it’s whatever time I want it to be.
I say to myself, “Relax, it’s only 2 a.m., you still have more than five hours left before you have to wake up.” Adopting the belief that I still have plenty of time helps me relax and fall asleep. It may not be true that it’s 2 a.m. But it’s useful to believe so.
The usefulness of your beliefs determines the quality of your life.