Last month I was reminded of the importance of and the inherent trouble with "believing." A friend and I were chatting and it came up that he subscribes (somewhat) to the validity of astrology, a system I view as essentially made up and coincidental. I, on the other hand, take similar guidance in how we relate to our environment from Ayurveda, a system that he seemed uncomfortable having come up in conversation (perhaps just as I had seemed when he asked me my astrological sign). It seems to me that Ayurveda carries a little bit more credibility in the scientific community, just judging from the two wikipedia entries, but at the level of use value to each of us, the validity of either comes down to what each of us believes about the world and how we can understand ourselves in it.
I do, generally, believe what science has to tell us. As a diligent student who has often looked up to teachers as embodiers of truth itself, most "facts" I learned in school have long been just that. And most of them still are, but some have since been disproven, replaced with new facts uncovered by science. (Of course, in some cases, it wasn't the availability of facts that was missing, just the sharing of the whole story, but I'll save you my diatribe on our broken education system.) This new information, for someone like me, is unsettling. If everything is black and white and fixed, great. I can just learn the facts and put them to use. But if some things are certain and some things aren't€¦? Well, then, how am I sure which "facts" to believe? Which then raises for me the question of what it means to believe or believe in something -anything.
In the yoga sutras, the practice of yoga is defined as requiring the exercise of three things: tapas, ishvara pranidhana, and svadhyaya.
Tapas translates as "heat," that which burns out impurities, or basically the effort + persistence you need to contribute to find balance.
Ishvara pranidhana translates as surrender to the "universal intelligence" or simply to the idea that you can't control everything and need to allow what will happen to happen.
And svadhyaya translates to self study, meaning the essential or "big" self, that which is universal in each of us.
Now, just as often (as in the Satchidananda translation/commentary that I am using), you'll see ishvara pranidhana translated as "surrender to god" and svadhyaya as the "study of spiritual books" (implied is that in these books the truth of the Self is documented), but those concepts don't have any use value for me, so I've put the original Sanskrit concepts into language that does (translations are never perfect, after all!), with many thanks to my teachers at ISHTA (in this instance I am thinking of Peter Ferko, Kristin Leal, Mona Anand, and Alan Finger) who've given me the broader understanding of yoga within which to do so.
That said, the "spiritual books" bit really bugs me; if there is nothing to assure me that they got it right, why should I trust that my study of them will bring me closer to understanding all that is?
In my continued effort to make some sense of this (still within the context of the sutras), I went back to sutra 1.7 (the sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and scriptural testimony), from which I take away that we can build useful knowledge through a synthesis of our own experiences, established knowledge, and our conclusions drawn from both experience and established knowledge.
What is established knowledge? Well, it's probably become clear that I rely on the knowledge that science and observation (history, philosophy, art, etc) have made available to us, understanding that what we "know" is only as certain as it is current. But I also allow that it can be different for each of us, depending on one's beliefs in what constitutes fact/reality/what can be known + explored. I believe that knowledge is liberating, that through objective understanding, one can find harmony with one's subjective experience.
That's what I get from svadhyaya, tapas, and ishvara pranidhana. But even in my take away, belief and trust are part of negotiating how to use the information I'm taking in. It's nice to have evidence that is impersonal and not specific to me, but I still have to believe that it holds true for it to really do me any good. Or do I? Is that the reality I'm looking for, the one I don't have to believe in?
In a response to the question of why we use Sanskrit mantras (sounds) in meditation, Alan (Finger) writes that you can use any word that is simple and is something you truly believe, but that the mantras are "better" to use because their vibrations correspond to nadis (energy lines) in the body. I think he's saying that believing is critical, but that the mantras have an effect on the subtle body irrespective of belief. This makes sense to me, but I am not yet sure that I believe it is true, because I don't have enough knowledge or experience of this to take Alan (or even ancient texts) at his word (even though I really want to).
But I do have an experience of and read studies that claim that we have this amazing (or not so amazing, depending on how you view it) thing we can do, which is to affect the physical reality in our bodies and energy simply with our thoughts, with our belief. We can't make matter exist by believing it to be so, but we can make ourselves happy (and many other states) by believing we are so.
Where does the difference in those two roles of belief lie? I'm not sure, but for now, I'm going to do my best to keep thinking happy thoughts.
Om shanti, om tat sat.