With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”
True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.
Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.
In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.
But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.
The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.
A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.
“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.
So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.
Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.
Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.
So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.
Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?
My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?
The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.
As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.
A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.
I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.
For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.
The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.
Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.
This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.
Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.
This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.
If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.
A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?
We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.
If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.
By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.
Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.