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Beliefs, values and the nervous system. What's the link?

"Your beliefs don't make you a better person. Your behaviour does." Dr Sukhraj Dhillon

Religion, politics, economics, education, relationships, identity. Our beliefs are the architecture in which we live, the cognitive spaces we inhabit, the sheltering rooms we rest in as we look out the window of our consciousness into the world of other people. Our beliefs help us make sense of the world, and shape our reactions to it. Loftily put, maybe... so let's make it real.

I have beliefs. You have beliefs. Sooner or later those are going to collide.

How do you know when they collide? The minute you start thinking in shoulds.

So-and-so should x, y, z... This should never have happened... I should be able to expect... and so on.

I have heard a lot of these Should statements, often about myself, and often in my own head. The Should statements happen during any kind of human conflict, and they start a cascade of emotions like of hurt, anger, bewilderment, and painful separation when they're attacked, or - what's really going on - we feel like we're being attacked. In bio-neurological terms, your nervous system is put on high alert for danger. Your survival is at stake.

Your brain and nervous system really don't know the difference between danger to your body, and danger to your beliefs. Both feel like your safety is being violated; both feel like a threat. And the stronger you hold onto your beliefs in order to survive life - which is what we humans usually do to cope with the stress of uncertainty - the stronger your reactions.

The thing is, you are entitled to your beliefs, and your reactions to your beliefs. So am I. Beliefs are part of being human, and part of our growth in wisdom as we age. But: If our beliefs are violated by something outside of us, or someone - how can we restore a sense of safety? Not just for us personally, but for those we have relationships with? And to the relationships themselves?

There is really only one way we can do that, and that is to go deeper than our beliefs - that collection of preferences and reactions and experiences and rules and mental contracts and mental patterns that we've acquired, many of which we don't even know we have (especially the rules and contracts). We have to go back to our values.

This is really the only way we can ever find common ground with people who upset us (and who we upset). Shared values.

So - what are your values? Like really, what are they?

If you're having conflict with someone, what are their values? Could you ask them? Would they be willing to discuss values with you?

Following are some examples of some big values questions. They could apply to you,and/or they could relate to the conflicts in your life:

Do you value peace? Harmony? Cooperation? If so - what are you willing to do in order to make these things happen in your life? Are you willing to take personal responsibility for creating harmonious relationships? (Not that it's all up to you... if your relationships are with people who are not willing, you may have to think about what to do to establish peace and harmony in your own life as a priority.)

Do you value truth? Are you willing to spend some time establishing the truth, listening to others who may have different perspectives on what that actually means? Do you think you own the truth, or are you in a relationship with someone who thinks they own it? (Wow, this is a big one - there's so much disinformation out there now, and those that use "facts" they find on the internet as weapons against people who threaten them.) There's truth, and then there's being right. Two different things - and if you want a harmonious relationship, this one needs to be looked at constantly.

Do you value learning? (Or is the satisfying emotion of knowing more delicious to you?) Are you willing to learn, for yourself, without ever weaponising what you learn to be right?

Here is one for the valuers of religion (like me): is your religion compatible with goodness in the world? Does your religious viewpoint help people? Do you help people? Do you believe in yourself as holding special beliefs?! And by the way - judgment is okay - we should all be judging, discerning or whatever we want to call it, all the time - but are your judgments for people or against them? Are your judgments used for establishing a hierarchy of rightness? Or are your judgments used for yourself to become a better person?

Do you (or those you are in relationships with) value apologies, admitting mistakes, forgiveness and atonement? Can you say thank you easily? Are you willing to work on these values and develop the skills and mindset to deal with them?These last questions are really comprehensive, aren't they? Without these, relationships can only ever suffer.

These questions are just the start of something big. And something wonderful in your life, if you're willing.

If you're willing to look at "beliefs" and realise that usually they're just our opinions and preferences, then you can go a little deeper, into your values.

And if you can discover and define what your values actually are, you can have some really great and healing conversations with those you care about.

And here's the thing: you can heal your nervous system. Because the greatest threat to our nervous systems is not feeling safe. The greatest threat to our nervous system is the danger coming from the conflict between our true values and our behaviour. Between our true values and the behaviour of others.

The sad and sorry thing is that it's a clash of values, and not a clash of beliefs, or even a clash of behaviours, that cause so much trouble in the world.

Your values - that's where your actions come from. Your values are intrinsic to your character. And as Goethe said, "Your character is your destiny".

The thing is, in this interconnected world, it's not just your destiny that's affected by your values. It's the destiny of your relationships, it's the destiny of your family, your culture, your country and your planet.

I've gone a little philosophical in this essay, but I feel that the times call for it. My very best to each and every one of you reading this, as we create and co-create our world.

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