In his remarkable book, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins tells a story about Pablo Casals, one of the great musicians of the twentieth century. It’s a story of beliefs and renewal, and we can all learn from it. Cousins describes meeting Casals shortly before the great cellist’s ninetieth birthday. Cousins says that it was almost painful to watch the old man as he began his day. His weakness and arthritis were so devastating that he needed help in dressing. He had very difficulty in breathing. He walked with a shuffle, stooped over, his head pitched forward. His hands were swollen, his fingers clenched. He looked like a very old, very tired man.
Even before eating, he made his way to the piano, one of several instruments on which Casals had become proficient. With great difficulty, he arranged himself on the piano bench. It seemed a terrible effort for him to bring his clenched, swollen fingers to the keyboard.
And then something quite miraculous happened. Casals suddenly and completely transformed himself before Cousins’s eyes. He went into a resourceful state, and as he did, his physiology changed to such a degree that he began to move and play, producing both in his body and on the piano results that should have been possible only for a healthy, strong, flexible pianist. As Cousins put it, “The fingers slowly unlocked and reached toward the keys like the buds of a plant toward the sunlight. His back straightened. He seemed to breathe more freely.” The very thought of playing the piano totally changed his state and thus the effectiveness of his body.
Casals began with Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier, playing with great sensitivity and control. He then launched into a Brahms concerto, and his fingers seemed to race above the keyboard. “His entire body seemed fused with the music,” Cousins wrote. “It was no longer stiff and shrunken but supple and graceful and completely freed of its arthritic coils.” By the time he walked away from the piano, he seemed entirely different from the person who had sat down to play. He stood straighter and taller; he walked without a trace of a shuffle. Then he immediately walked to the breakfast table, ate heartily, and then went out for a stroll along the beach.
We usually think of beliefs in terms of creeds or doctrines. But in the most basic sense, a belief is any guiding principle, faith, or passion that can provide meaning and direction in life. Beliefs are the prearranged, organized filters to our perceptions of the world. Beliefs are like commanders of the brain. When we consistently believe something is true, it is like delivering a command to our brain as to how to represent what is occurring. Casals believed in music and in art. That’s what had given beauty and order and nobility to his life, and that’s what could still provide daily miracles for him. Because he believed in the supreme power of his art, he was empowered in a way that almost challenges understanding. His beliefs transformed him daily from a tired old man to a vital genius. In the most profound sense, they kept him alive.
The Most Powerful Force
When handled effectively, beliefs can be the most powerful force for creating good in your life. On the other hand, beliefs that limit your actions and thoughts can be as devastating as resourceful beliefs can be empowering. Religions throughout history have empowered millions of people and given them the strength to do things they thought they couldn’t. Beliefs help us tap the richest resources deep within us, creating and directing these resources in the support of our desired outcomes.
Beliefs are the compass and maps that guide us toward our goals and give us the surety to know we’ll get there. Without beliefs or the ability to tap into them, people can be totally disempowered. With powerful guiding beliefs, you have the power to take action and create the world you want to live in. Beliefs help you see what you want and energize you to get it. To change our own behaviors, we have to start with our own beliefs. If we want to model excellence, we need to learn to model the beliefs of those who achieve excellence.
The more we learn about human behavior, the more we learn about the extraordinary power that beliefs have over our lives. In many ways, that power challenges the logical models most of us have. But it’s clear that even at the level of physiology, beliefs control reality. A remarkable study was done on schizophrenia (a chronic mental disorder that affects the way a person thinks, acts, expresses emotions, perceives reality, and relates to others) not long ago. One case involved a woman with a split personality. Normally, her blood sugar levels were completely normal. But when she believed she was a diabetic, her whole physiology changed to become that of a diabetic. Her belief had become her reality.
Other Important Studies
There have been numerous studies in which a person in a hypnotic trance is touched with a piece of ice represented to him as a piece of hot metal. Invariably, a blister will develop at the point of contact. What counted was not reality but belief—the direct unquestioned communication to the nervous system. The brain simply does what it’s told.
Most of us are aware of the placebo effect. People who are told a drug will have a certain effect will many times experience that effect even when given an empty pill with no active properties. Norman Cousins, who learned first-hand the power of belief in eliminating his own illness, concludes, “Drugs are not always necessary. Belief in recovery always is.”
One remarkable placebo study concerned a group of patients with bleeding ulcers. They were divided into two groups. People in the first were told they were being given a new drug that would absolutely produce relief. Those in the second were told they were being given an experimental drug, but that very little was known about its effects. Seventy percent of those in the first group experienced significant relief from their ulcers. Only 25 percent of the second group had a similar result. In both cases, patients received a drug with no medicinal properties at all. The only difference was the belief system they adopted.
Studies conducted by Dr. Andrew Weil have shown that the experiences of drug users correspond almost exactly to their expectations. He found he could lead a person given a dose of amphetamine (a stimulant drug) to feel asleep or a person given a barbiturate (a drug that causes relaxation and sleepiness) to feel stimulated. “The ‘magic’ of drugs resides within the mind of the user, not in the drugs,” Weil concluded.
In all these instances, the one constant that most powerfully affected the results was belief, the consistent, congruent messages delivered to the brain and nervous system. For all its power, there is no puzzling magic involved in the process. Belief is nothing but a state, an internal representation that governs behavior. It can be an empowering belief in possibility—a belief that we will succeed in something or achieve something else. It can be a disempowering belief—a belief that we can’t succeed, that our limitations are clear, intractable, and overwhelming.
If you believe in success, you’ll be empowered to achieve it. If you believe in failure, those messages will tend to lead you to experience that as well. Remember, whether you say you can do something or you say you can’t, you’re right. Both kinds of beliefs have great power. So do the analysis of your own beliefs, whether they are helping you reaching toward your goals or not. (Excerpt is from ‘Unlimited Power’ by Tony Robbins).