The following is a relatively narrow, shallow look into a very wide and deep topic, one that has been a subject of study and debate for thousands of years. This discussion is limited to a practical look at how we assess statements about how and why things happen.
How can we know if a story or explanation (such as the benefits I am claiming for meditation) is true or not?
This is an age-old question. The answer (such as it is) involves a number of considerations and requires a walk through psychology, philosophy and science.
Ready for a stroll?
When presented with a statement, we typically (and quickly) apply the following considerations.
Do we trust the source? If so, we may believe it based on faith.
Does it seem consistent with other stories we already believe? If so, we may accept it based on reason. Or if it is inconsistent, our reasoning shows that something is untrue.
Is it consistent with our understanding, experience and known facts? If so, it is knowledge – we know it is true.
How do I feel about the statement? Ultimately, accepting the truth (or not) of a story is a decision. Consciously or unconsciously, all our decisions are based on feelings including our decisions regarding belief. In the case of deciding to believe a story, that feeling is trust. If we trust the story, we are more inclined to believe it with minimal support. On the other hand, if we do not trust the story, we will still doubt, or maybe even deny it, despite strong evidence.
Social pressure also plays a role in our ability to trust. It’s much easier to trust a story that everyone else accepts. Conversely, it is hard to maintain trust in our own judgments when our social circle holds the opposite view.
On any given topic, where we land on a belief scale ranging from yes to no and everywhere in between, is a process. Some of this process is conscious and some unconscious, but like our weight at this moment (which is the result of what has happened in the past), our beliefs are the result of our past. We can not arbitrarily choose our beliefs.
As mentioned above, some of the processes leading to belief are unconscious. Our beliefs may change or become less certain if we bring unconscious processes or assumptions to light and find they are fragile or unreasonable (for example, unconscious biases). And of course, new information or facts also could result in a change in belief.
Before we go further, there is on more issue to keep in mind.
There is reality. There are the stories about reality. And then there is our belief in those stories.
What connects these 3 together?
Only our internal processes. And these are subject to error.
Just because we absolutely believe a story, doesn’t make it true. One thousand years ago, most people, educated or not, believed the world was stationary, and everything in the sky moved around the earth. Based on all the evidence at hand, it was unreasonable to believe anything else. Yet we now know that is not true. The earth moved, even when we believed it did not.
Because of the limited connection between belief and reality, it is worthwhile maintaining a degree of humbleness and uncertainty, regardless of how confident we are in any given belief. We can choose to hold our beliefs lightly. As learning often means letting go of previous beliefs, this can make it easier to learn. It can also free us to act when belief is irrelevant. For example, if you are hungry, and someone says there is food in the other room, there is no need for belief. You can suspend any judgment and just go to that room and see for yourself.
The same applies to meditation. Simply believing it works is of no value; the value comes from practicing. And if the practice truly has value, it will emerge regardless of belief or doubt.