Beliefs Are Heroin For The Ego

Nick Williams
6 min readOct 28, 2022

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Image — reddit.com

We all want the world to make sense to us in terms of our own habitual, comfortable mode of understanding things, and this is entirely a matter of inertia. There’s no ‘intelligence’ in this at all. Having to change our viewpoint is very hard work and so unless we have an appetite for what Gurdjieff calls ‘conscious labour’ we will avoid any such necessity as we would avoid the devil himself. The result of this inertia — the inertia of not wanting to change our way of looking at things — is that we will always be distorting incoming information (i.e., ‘the evidence’) so that it fits the way we want to interpret it. This is by far the easiest option and, what’s more, far from it being difficult to have our viewpoints — or our beliefs — proven right in this way, it actually feels quite delightful. It is sweet nectar. There is a reward factor involved — this business of ‘bias-confirmation’ is — we might say — pure ‘heroin for the ego’.

Were we to reflect upon this we would of course see it to be totally and utterly absurd — how can it possibly help us to distort the way we see things just to save ourselves the inconvenience of having to change the way in which we understand the world? What kind of abhorrent nonsense is this? The answer to this question — if any were needed — is that it’s the type of nonsense that almost all of us engage in almost all of the time. It would constitute a very great rarity to come across somebody who wasn’t involved in this type of spin-doctoring. Anyone with a belief (of whatever sort, religious, political, philosophical, etc.,) is by definition continuously engaged in misrepresenting reality to themselves so as to avoid the risk of having to ‘go back to the drawing board’, so to speak. There is no such thing as a belief which doesn’t need propping up, in other words; beliefs are created by systematically distorting the way we see reality. As the 3rd century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna says…

All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.

What we are saying here — very straightforwardly — is that our allegiance is to ‘having an easy life’ rather than having anything to do with the actual truth of things (which can’t be represented in any theory or philosophy), but who is ever going to own up to this? Naturally we’re not going to admit our allegiance — if we won’t see the truth because seeing the truth is difficult, then it goes without saying that we won’t see the truth about us not wanting to see the truth. When we edit reality to suit ourselves we also edit out our own editing and so in this way we ‘stitch ourselves up’, we stitch ourselves up good and proper…

We could say that the root cause of this self-deception is simply laziness and that, as far as it goes, is perfectly correct. We can go into it more deeply than this, however — if it were simply a matter of common-or-garden laziness then it would be fairly straightforward to do something about it, all we would have to do is push ourselves a bit and ‘snap out of it’ this way. We’re used to doing this. There are complications lurking under the beneath the surface however, contradictions the like of which we can’t even imagine. It’s not just that we get comfortable with a particular way of looking at things, just as we might get comfortable in a little nest that we’ve made for ourselves, but rather we identify with this viewpoint — that’s why we feel validated when our POV is proven and personally and insulted — which is to say personally devalidated -when it isn’t. If we were interested in the truth then we would be delighted to be proven wrong (just like any scientist worthy of the title is going to be delighted to have their hypothesis disproven) but we’re actually much more likely to be hurt and disappointed. We fight against the truth on this account.

What we don’t generally understand is how having a definite view or picture of things automatically creates a definite view of ourselves, a definite picture of ‘who we are’. Without a positive view of the world we can’t have a positive idea of ourselves. When I am dogmatic about my beliefs, therefore, I am actually being dogmatic about my identity, and it is having a fixed view of myself — the type of fixed view that gives rise to a concrete identity — that is the attraction here. This is known as ‘grasping after a self’ in Buddhism and so instead of saying that conditioned existence is all about ‘grasping after this, that or the other’ what we could equally well say that conditioned life is all about ‘grasping at some sort of identity’. There couldn’t be any such thing as conditioned existence without there being ‘an identity that we think we are’. Our mistaken notion of ‘identity’, of being this ‘phenomenal person’, is therefore the very root of samsara, the very root of all our illusions.

To embrace some arbitrary and unfounded notion of who we are is also to embrace samsaric existence. We gain the initial satisfaction of bonding with a fixed or unchanging viewpoint, but the downside of this is that all of our experiences — from this point on — are totally illusory. Everything good that happens to us is an illusion and so is everything bad. Our pleasure is an illusion and so is our pain. But the thing about this is that we just so long as we are identified with a fixed viewpoint we can never ever see beyond pleasure and pain, beyond being right and being wrong, beyond winning and losing. We’re caught up in a cycle that never goes anywhere and we mistake this circle for the whole world — anything else, we’re just not interested in. In the West, before the advent of ‘mindfulness’ — which we now (apparently) welcome with open arms — we used to haughtily dismiss meditation as ‘mere navel gazing’, not seeing that it’s us who are the navel gazers, us who aren’t in the least bit interested in reality. In the 21st century we’re still not interested in reality — we’re no more interested than we ever were. Technological culture is of course only interested in control and we — very bizarrely — imagine that this is what meditation offers us.

We can only have a genuine interest in reality when we don’t have allegiance to a false or mistaken identity, an identity that were not. It’s not possible to be self-centric and yet at the same time not be completely deluded! It’s not possible for us to imagine that we are this person or that person, this identity or that identity, and actually have a connection to reality at the same time. Our insistence on having an identity (or having a belief-structure that explains everything) precludes us from having any sort of relationship with the truth of what’s actually going on. Our only ‘relationship’ (so-called) is with our own unowned projections, which have nothing to do with reality, nothing to do with the truth. Were we to stop requiring the world to make sense to us in terms of our belief-structure, in terms of our habitual way of understanding things, then we’d have to say goodbye to the security of that fixed picture of what the world is, who we are, and this — from where we’re standing — is giving up a lot. This equals ‘giving up the drug that we’re addicted to’ and we’re looking at some serious cold turkey in this case. What we gain in return for the disagreeable loss of our false comfort is however an actual connection to reality. We can’t for the life of us see what this ‘connection with reality’ will mean — it’s not possible to represent this state of affairs to ourselves in any way — but this is a profound blessing, not something to be worried about…

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