Our Self-Imposed Prison

Jul 15, 2016

By Esther Veltheim

If you have taken a BreakThrough class you might have experienced the power of exercises that shed light on the habit of assuming. For those of you unfamiliar with BreakThrough, here is a simple exercise to try for yourself: 

Keeping a note pad on hand, for half an hour make a note, maybe with numbers or ticks, each time you realize you have made an assumption.

The first time I did this exercise and tallied my number of assumptions, the result was horrifying. At the same time, I was struck by the extraordinary potential of such a simple act of observing.

I was reminded of this exercise recently when I watched a powerful and fascinating documentary. It is the story of Nick Yarris, a man who spent 23 years on death row. The documentary is called The Fear of 13 (on Netflix). If you decide to watch it, I highly recommend that you read nothing about the making of it in advance.

You might already know that in BreakThrough we explore the healing nature of conflict. Nick Yarris' story is testament to the value of such work; exemplifying the opportunity conflict offers us to clarify the mind which, quite naturally, unguards the heart.

There are so many reasons to watch this documentary, but if your experience is anything like mine, you might find it most helpful in showing you how often assumptions jump into the mind, masquerading as certainties.

Assuming who-done-it when we are watching a movie can hardly be considered detrimental thinking. However, staying alert to assumptions of any kind can be surprisingly beneficial.

The alchemical power of consciously observing our assumptions is this: Whenever the thought "I was wrong!" collapses an assumption, for just a second the habit of certainty dissolves. "This is how it is!" thinking is humbled. These healthy cognitive interruptions are the brain's opportunity to re-gain plasticity.

At first glance it might seem as if assuming is nothing more than casual, harmless guessing. A slightly closer examination may reveal how many of our assumptions are raised to fact and truth status without so much as a second thought or a 'by your leave'. Deeper investigation may reveal something more alarming still; that all our coveted, often hand-me-down, truths are the fertile ground in which resignation and its bed-fellow false-strength thrive. In other words, our inner battle ground is made up of the stuff of assumptions.

Once we truly start realizing that assumptions are not just fallible but profoundly disempowering, it becomes evident that power lies, not in accumulating answers, but in learning to formulate clearer and clearer questions. "How important is it to me to be right?" "Do I really benefit from amassing more and more information?" "Do I feel alive and expansive living from a place of answers?"  

Because this kind of curiosity has no interest whatsoever in superficial certainties, our mind starts taking on an expansiveness and receptivity that is new to us.

By paying just a little attention to our thinking habits, it is easy to see that while we are slaves to our assumptions we can only live from a place of resignation, whether we are aware of it or not. This is because our mind is 'set'.

The good news is that assumptions are no match for healthy curiosity and self-enquiry. When these processes take over over it signifies a quickening within us. The sense is growing that: 'There is something practical I can do to help myself!" When we seize this opportunity the mind truly begins to serve us. A window is opening within the psyche and the heart is letting down her guard, waiting patiently.

This clarifying process is profoundly healing and freeing to the psyche that mistakenly assumes it is trapped.


"Do not assume that he who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find these words."

Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet) 

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