Real But Not True: Freeing Ourselves From Harmful Beliefs

Our Life Experience is Shaped by Our Beliefs
Ghandi describes how our beliefs become our thoughts and emotions which influence our behavior, and how our behavior creates our character and then that determines our destiny. In other words, the familiar pattern of thoughts that continuously cycle through our minds actually ends up shaping our life experience.
Beliefs about ourselves and the world that cause suffering arise from our experiences of severed belonging — the wounding that happens early in life when we get the message, from our families and our culture, that there is something about us that is not okay. And we all have a negativity bias, which means that the conditioning is strong to seek evidence and latch on to whatever confirms that sense that something is wrong with me.
The Trance of Limiting Beliefs
When we are suffering, we are believing something that is not true. To live inside the belief that we or others are bad and wrong is suffering. Rather than directly feeling our hearts and responding to the life around us, we are viewing our lives through an interpretive lens that separates us.
Rumi writes:
          I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
          to sneak into my own house and steal money,
          to climb over my own fence and take my own vegetables.
          But no more. I have gotten free of that ignorant fist
          that was pinching and twisting my secret self.
          The universe and the light of the stars come through me.
          I am the crescent moon put up
          over the gate to the festival. [1]

I love this verse because it illustrates so clearly how we get into a trance of limiting beliefs and injure ourselves and each other with our thoughts and ways of behaving.
There is a longing to wake up from the twisting, pinching clutch of that ignorant fist. So we start looking at the beliefs that separate, the judging beliefs of right and wrong, the beliefs of personal failure. There really is a pure heart in us that does not want to be bound by these limiting constructs.
Real but Not True
There is a fundamental understanding that is helpful as we begin to look at our illusions of reality. Tibetan teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche coined the phrase Real but Not True.[2] What this means is that, while thoughts are really happening and there is a real biochemistry that accompanies them, they are only representations in our mind. They are not the experience of this living moment. Just like a map is not the territory that it represents, our thoughts are not reality.
Our beliefs fuel our sense of separateness. Uninvestigated, they are a veil between us and reality; they actually prevent us from seeing truth. But when we deepen our attention and start seeing past the beliefs, the light of the stars starts shining through.
There are two ways of paying attention that begin to clear away the illusion of our beliefs and loosen their grip. The first is inquiry — bringing interest and the attentive, laser-like quality of the mind to penetrate through the layers of the belief — and the second is mindfulness — meeting what arises with a quality of full, embodied presence.
What Am I Believing Right Now?
We can begin to identify and challenge limiting beliefs by starting with the simple question: What am I believing right now? And then: Is this true? Is it possible that this is real but not true? Even if your answer is yes, just asking the question, enlarges the space that you occupy and opens up the possibility that what you are believing is a representation and not the reality of what is happening. Real, but not true.
Next, you might explore: What is it like to live with this belief? How is this belief affecting my life? Sensing our suffering around the belief begins to open us to compassion and leads us to ask: What does this place in me most need? What would bring healing? What would my life be like if I wasn’t living inside this belief? **
As we practice mindfulness and seek to disempower our false illusions, the thoughts and feelings still come, but we learn to believe them less. When we rest in a larger space where we are less confined by our thoughts and beliefs, we begin to sense a larger possibility that calls our heart and soul towards their own natural awakening and the kind of compassion that brings healing to ourselves and to the world around us.
Adapted from a talk by Tara Brach given on June 1, 2016, Real but Not True: Freeing Ourselves from Harmful Beliefs.
Reflection: Waking Up from Limiting Beliefs (8 min.) - Enjoy a guided reflection that addresses limiting beliefs surrounding interpersonal conflict – from the ending of the Real but Not True talk.
More blogs, talks and guided meditations from Tara at

[1] Barks, C. (Trans.). (2004). Wax. In J. A. Rūmī (Author), The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition (p. 347). New York: Harper Collins.
[2] Tsoknyi Rinpoche & Swanson, E. (2012). Open Heart, Open Mind: Awaking the Power of Essence Love. New York: Harmony Books.
**For further exploration of Byron Katie’s work on overcoming false or limiting beliefs, visit

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