Belief Creates the Actual Fact in Nearly Everything
Wishing on a star, rubbing a rabbit’s foot, crossing your fingers, or knocking on wood, all have one thing in common—the power of suggestion. The magic you imagine in the bones and fur of the rabbit’s foot makes you feel lucky and hopeful, which invites into your mind the anticipation that an outcome you desire could actually happen. The scientific evidence suggests that your anticipation mobilizes vast inner resources and directs those resources toward fulfilling your desire. Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Maryanne Garry of Victoria University of Wellington teamed up to review the most recent and intriguing effects of the power of suggestion on cognition and behavior. The evidence shows that once you anticipate that a desired outcome could happen, you set in motion a chain of thoughts and actions that work together to actually make it happen. “The effects of suggestion,” Dr. Garry states, “are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think. If we can harness the power of suggestion,” Garry concludes, “we can improve people’s lives.” Learning to tap this power moves into the higher stages of human potential, and the good news is that tapping this potential couldn’t be simpler (I’ll show you one approach at the end of the article).
The power of suggestion appears to be at the center of why some people succeed at school, business, or athletics while others fail, and why some people’s illness or pain resolves and others’ gets worse. Believing you are limited or blocked in some way drives the limitation. The great martial artist Bruce Lee said, “There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must go beyond them. Our very thoughts are capable of extending mental and physical limits we tend to accept. It appears that the limits we perceive are not necessarily set by nature, but by our own mental attitude.
Most of what we know about the power of suggestions comes from the placebo effect, which describes real psychological and physiological changes that occur when the mind has been convinced to expect a therapeutic effect from a substance that is inert. In itself, the placebo does nothing; it’s the mind that generates the beneficial effect. While much of the research on the placebo effect has focused on alleviating pain, there is growing evidence that the placebo effect is multi-dimensional. One such study relates to prospective memory. Prospective memory is how the brain remembers details or events that are to occur in the future. It gets us to appointments on time, helps us pay our bills when they are due, enables us to follow instructions, anticipates the next steps in a plan, and reminds us to take medication on time. Chronic stress debilitates prospective memory and researchers wanted to see if it was possible to enhance memory with a placebo. They convinced subjects that a placebo they’d been given was a powerful “smart drug” that improved cognitive function and memory. In truth, the so-called smart drug was nothing more than a vitamin C drink. One group received the placebo and one group was given nothing at all. Then the researchers put both groups through a high-effort prospective memory task. Prospective memory improved in the group that had ingested the placebo, while the group that didn’t receive the placebo showed no improvement.
Perhaps nothing has turned our limited view of human potential on its head more than the research of Ellen Langer of Harvard University. Her research validates what William James, the father of American psychology, concluded about the power of belief more than a hundred years ago. James concluded that we can change anything if we believe we can; that belief creates the actual fact. Langer’s most famous study showed this holds true even with the aging process. Our mental attitude can turn back the hands of Time, reversing the effects of aging. In 1979, Langer conducted an experiment with men in their late seventies, early eighties, who were languishing in nursing homes. She took the men out of the nursing homes and to a retreat center where the men were asked to mentally put themselves back in time twenty years, to 1959. They wore clothes that were fashionable in 1959, ate the food they ate then, carried photo IDs of how they looked, read newspapers and magazines, and watched films, television programs, and discussed sporting events, all from that year. Their assignment was not merely to reminisce about bygone days,” Langer said, “but to make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years before.”
The elders did just that. “They put their mind in an earlier time,” Langer said, “and their bodies went along for the ride.” The results were astonishing. Langer’s time travelers showed greater improvements in blood pressure, joint flexibility and manual dexterity, and incredibly, their arthritis began to retreat. These were men who previously couldn’t bend over far enough to tie their own shoes, but their prowess improved so much that at one point they engaged in a touch-football game. Their IQs even improved and when they returned to real time, their families were astounded at how much younger they looked. The results defied belief. “It sounded like Lourdes,” Langer said. The mind can become Lourdes, or it can become a bed on a geriatric ward. Langer’s study shows that even aging is nothing but a mindset.
 R. B. Michael, M. Garry, and I. Kirsch, Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior, Current Directions in Psychological Science 21, no. 3 (2012): 151–56.
 The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse, News, Association for Psychological Science, June 6, 2012
 Robert Pagliarini, Meet Bruce Lee, Personal Growth Guru, CBS/MoneyWatch, August 27, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/meet-bruce-lee-personal-growth-guru/
 Sophie Parker et al., A Sham Drug Improves a Demanding Prospective Memory Task, Memory, 19, no. 6 (August 2011): 606–12.
 William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 2, Macmillan, 1891, pgs. 288-297
 Ellen J. Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (New York: Random House, 2009), 5–12. [
from Don’s Huffington Post article
Neuroscience has become quite adept at mapping the brain and they can actually measure your level of inner peace. And here’s what they found. We are at our creative cognitive and emotional best when we are at peace. By simply accentuating qualities of a positive peaceful attitude you produce positive changes in your brain that enable you to flourish.
- A peaceful state of mind increases gray matter, making your mind stronger and able to work faster.
- It improves memory, attention, and your capacity to learn.
- You process emotions better, enabling you to feel vibrant and inspired, but not so emotionally charged that you become manic, chaotic, or rigid.
- You are much abler to sustain your focus in a high-stress environment.
- You achieve greater interpersonal resonance and attuned communication.
- You are more empathic, able to see, feel, and understand a situation from someone else’s point of view.
As a result of all the above, you are more likely to succeed at life, with greater subjective well-being. A mind at peace generates the brain power to achieve the Good Life, which is a state of flourishing, achieving the health, wealth and love we all desire.
So what does it mean to be at peace?
Let me start by defining what it doesn’t mean. Peace doesn’t mean to be in a place where there is no noise or hard work or problems. There is a Buddhist parable about a farmer who goes to the Buddha in hopes that the saint can miraculously remove all of his problems.
“I cannot help you with that,” the Buddha said. “Everyone has problems. In fact, everyone has eighty-three problems. You may solve one now and then, but another is sure to take its place.”
“How is that supposed to help me?” the farmer retorted in frustration.
“Perhaps,” the Buddha said, “this understanding will help you with the 84th problem, which is the problem of not wanting any problems.”
Peace is not about taking away our problems; it’s about engaging problems and stressors fearlessly, with the calm, creativity, and optimism that generates the brain power to solve them.
Some people think that a peaceful attitude makes us complacent, but inner peace is a vibrant, dynamic state of mind. It fosters in us an open, curious vitality that is fully present and able to engage life exactly as it is.
Inner peace is having a calm clear sense of our own power in any situation without the need to overpower others.
By definition, being at peace means we are unafraid, unhurried, kind, and resilient.
Inner peace is an end to worry.
It’s a disinterest in judging ourselves or others or events.
It’s an end to the need to change anyone.
It’s a compassionate understanding that is not codependent, and a willingness to forgive.
It’s a heartfelt connection with others and with life itself that engenders a sense of the sacred.
Inner peace is a dynamic choice that leads to a dynamic way of being in the world that literally changes the brain to tap its full potential. But peace of mind doesn’t happen all by itself; not in our fast paced modern world. Peace develops out of that voluntary state of mindfulness called choice. The more mindful we are about choosing to be at peace, the more we experience it. The more we experience it, the more we come to treasure it. The more we treasure our peace of mind, the more expansive it becomes.
Peace takes practice and practice takes discipline, which is simply knowing what you want to experience, and then choosing it consistently. The core choice is basic; it’s between fear and peace. It begins with mindfully asking ourselves, what do I want to experience as I face people and events each day.
Mindfulness asks: What do I want to experience?
Do I want to be stressed or calm and clear … Afraid of failing or creative … Critical or empathic … Think negative or positive … Worry or have faith … Remain stuck or let go … Angry or composed … Condemning or forgiving … Self-righteous or happy.
Byron Katie, author of Loving the Way It Is, says this about the way practice works. She says once a stressful, anxious perception is understood for what it is and met with the feeling of understanding, the next time it appears you may find it interesting. What used to be a nightmare is now just interesting. The next time after that you may find it funny and after that you may not even notice it.
The stressful fearful perception has left your mind making room for you to be peace, and your brain will reward you with the higher brain function that enables you to sustain your best self, achieving your best day, every day.
If peace has alluded you, here’s a tool that can help establish it in your daily life. It’s called the 30-Second Time Out for Peace. Use it for a couple of weeks and then add taking walks in nature two or three times a week, leaving all your troubles and problems behind you as you take the first step. A walk in the park quiets the mind and gradually rewires your brain to raise your IQ and generate great mental health. The experience from taking both of these simple steps will prove to you the power of inner peace. How could that not motivate you to move forward to develop a mindfulness practice that deepens your peace of mind. In my book The End of Stress, I present a simple step by step process that helps you build such a practice.
30-Second Time Out for Peace
- Stop what you’re doing and step away from the world for a moment.
- Let go of what you were thinking and allow yourself to relax a little.
- Now allow yourself to relax a little more.
- Let go of everything. Feel your brain relax as you let go.
- No worries, no problems, no goals. Just let them all go for a moment.
- Take a slow, deep breath – and as you do – let your mind and heart open wide.
- Allow peace to begin to emerge as your experience, all by itself.
You can do this short exercise just about anywhere: standing in line, walking to a meeting, or looking out a window. Try it a few times throughout today and see what happens to your day.
See if you can remember a time that perhaps lasted only a minute, when nothing came to interrupt your peace of mind. Perhaps you were on a beach or walking in a groove of trees, and suddenly you felt safe, whole, and loving, and for that moment all was well and your future was not in doubt. If you can’t remember such a moment, imagine it. Experience how quiet and at ease your mind would become, how expansive you would feel, and how clear and present you would be.
Now picture what it would be like to have that moment extend until it became your day. This might give you a hint of what it would be like to be free of the fearful illusions that a brain chronically under stress generates. Without these illusions, there would be no fear, no stress, no doubt, and no need to attack or defend.
“Who you are,” states Eckhart Tolle, “is the very sense of being, or presence, that is there when you become conscious of the present moment. You and what we call the present moment are one.” In the quiet of the present moment, the false image of yourself fades. The image of a threatening world fades. The judgments you project onto people and events fade. Your fear of failure fades and what takes its place is the happiness you can experience right here, right now, when you are not afraid of anything.
Peace is powerfully positive and yet some people equate it with complacency. To the contrary, inner peace is the mental state that drives the emotional intelligence that predicts success at every level of life. The poet W.B. Yeats said, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” Growing up, the person who fit Yeats’ description in my life was my Irish godmother. She was wise with a face that was lit from within and a quality of presence that was kind and calming. Our home was full of the pandemonium that my siblings and I could make, but when Genevieve came to visit we all quieted down and behaved ourselves. We loved being in her presence. Her way of being had a way of inspiring us to want to do something good with our lives.
Thomas Merton wrote, “All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.” Which is to say, what matters is the quality of your inner experience as you face the outer world. One way to bring a little more peace to a stressful day is to take an occasional time-out to give peace the chance to change your day. It’s simple and only takes a minute. Here’s how.
- Stop what you’re doing and step away from the world for a moment.
- Let go of what you were thinking or doing, and allow your mind and body to relax.
- Let go of everything. Feel your brain relax as you let go.
- No worries, no problems, no goals, no one to please, nothing to change or fix.
- Take a slow, deep breath and as you do, let your mind and heart open wide and allow peace to emerge as your experience, all by itself.
Recently, during a podcast interview, I was asked a question I’d never been asked before or even considered to ask myself. The question was, During my long career in mental health, what was my best day? The day came to me in a flash, full blown, surprising me so much that I had to pause for a moment to adjust to the intense feeling that washed over me.
“This isn’t what the interviewer is looking for,” I thought to myself and I tried to quickly come up with something else, but this memory wouldn’t be pushed aside for something less. It was like it wanted to be remembered out loud. So I launched into it.
My best day in my career, I said, was on the fourth day of a group I was co-facilitating with my colleague Louise Franklin, 20 years before, with victims of the Bosnian War, in a room inside a bullet riddled building in Osijek, Croatia, on the border with Serbia, with genocidal Serbian forces just across the Drava River.
For most of the Croatian men and women, this group was the first time they had been given the space to really talk about the horrible things that had happened to them, working through the trauma with principles that could empower a new attitude for relating to what they had been through and were sure to face again in their war-torn country. Each day, the group opened up a little more, psychologically and spiritually, and then on the fourth day the group reached a kind of heroic shift in consciousness where we found a place of peace inside that transcended what was happening outside. It was a place of power and dignity, where the outside did not prevail … did not have the last word … could no longer refute or diminish the peace we felt as a result of the One Self our sharing and caring had created. It was a miraculous moment of discovering that we had achieved and could even sustain a higher state of mind, which is love, as we lived through whatever egregiousness the world had done to us and would continue to do. The realization of this truth placed smiles on faces that hadn’t smiled in a long time.
That was my best day at work.