Our Present Meaning-Making Machine
Deep within all of us — in our unconscious beliefs — lies a “Meaning-Making Machine.”
It’s a part of our identity that is constantly trying to keep us “safe” by creating meaning around the events and experiences we encounter as we go through life.
The Meaning-Making Machine is particularly active when we’re young. As children we create unconscious beliefs and meaning about the world by trying to interpret what we’re experiencing with our fresh young minds.
The problem is, much of the meaning we create about the world is based on wrong conclusions. I mean, how wise were we as six-year-olds?
But we then carry these “conclusions” into adulthood not realizing just how much they can cloud our experiences of life. Have you ever wondered where you got your beliefs about money? Or love? Or your health? Or your self-identity?
Yet these unconscious beliefs, created by the meaning-making machine, are probably far greater than the sum of the conscious beliefs you have about yourself — and can have a strange effect on your life.
In this post, I wanted to share two deeply personal encounters I had with individuals that helped me realize how many “junk” unconscious beliefs I was carrying in my head. Perhaps you might recognize a pattern that you have too.
At the end of the post, I then share a simple exercise you can do to help unravel common unconscious beliefs we take on as children.
The Monk in the Hot Tub
“Do you have time right now?” the young monk asks me.
“Let’s go talk.”
Did I have time? It was our last night in Fiji. We were sitting around a large table, enjoying one of the grandest meals I’ve ever seen. It was 2009, and my then business partner, Mike, and I were guests at a nine-day advanced meditation retreat at Namale, a magnificent resort owned by Tony Robbins.
Our group was an interesting assortment including Hollywood actors, a stock market prodigy, and a former beauty queen — plus the monks from India who led the retreat. I was honored that Tony and his wife had invited me to join this group and experience their beautiful island home.
It was a celebratory nine days of intensive self-exploration, during which we tried to truly understand ourselves and our potential. And on the final day, we were told, we’d have a private consultation with a monk who would give us a “revelation.”
For reasons I’ll never know, my monk decided to have his consultation with me in the middle of this sumptuous dinner. Just after my third glass of wine.
But when your monk calls, you listen.
“Where would you like to go?” I ask.
“Let’s go to the hot tub,” he says.
We go to the open-air hot tub under the starry Fijian sky. I climb in. He sits on the edge, dipping his feet into the water. He looks at me. And says:
“You know what your problem is?
“No,” I respond, surprised and, to be honest, mildly annoyed, “What is my problem?”
“You have low self-esteem.”
What the . . . ?
“I don’t think so,” I reply, as reasonably as I can, trying to hide my growing irritation. “I think I’m pretty confident. I run a business. I’m thrilled with my life—”
“No no no no no.” He cuts me off. “You have low self-esteem. This is the cause of all your problems. I’ve observed you. When you’re brainstorming with your partner and he shoots down one of your ideas, you get agitated and defensive. I bet you have issues with your wife. And I bet you have issues with others and you cannot take criticism. It’s all because of one thing: you have low self esteem.”
It was like a smack in the face. The warm water in the hot tub no longer felt so comforting. The monk was dead-on. And after nine days of meditation and self-reflection, I was more open to this sort of insight, even if it was painful to hear.
I was overly defensive in brainstorming meetings, especially with my business partner. I did often feel hurt or misunderstood in family situations. But the real problem wasn’t that someone was shooting down my idea, not listening to me, or misunderstanding me.
It all boiled down to a deeply buried belief that I, by myself, was not enough.
It was why I got defensive in meetings. I felt the dismissal of my ideas as a dismissal of me.
It’s why I became an entrepreneur. To prove I was worthy and enough.
It’s why I built the most beautiful office in my city. To prove I could do it.
It was why I became wealthy. To prove I was enough.
I could see how this belief that I needed to prove that I was “enough” — this model of reality I’d held for so long — had driven me to succeed. But I could also see how the idea that I had to prove myself had caused great pain in my life. Was it possible that without this limiting belief, I might be even more successful in my work and relationships — without paying such a high personal price?
What might happen if I developed a belief that I was enough and had nothing to prove?
What I learned was that our beliefs lie below the surface. Often we do not realize we have them until some intervention or contemplative practice makes us aware.
And that is what happened several years later when I met a woman who would help completely re-shape my unconscious beliefs.
The Hypnotist in the Hotel Room
In 2015, I had an experience that helped me knock down another set of beliefs that was having an incredibly limiting impact on my life: for some reason, I could not hold on to money.
My business was doing well, but I was extremely uncomfortable taking ownership of the financial gains.
My festival-like event, A-Fest, for example, was profitable, but I was giving away 100 percent of the profits to good causes without actually keeping anything as a reward. I was the co-author of several personal development courses, but I’d never negotiated for the higher royalty I felt I deserved.
This detachment from material wealth wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I also felt it had a downside, as it could limit the growth of my businesses and projects.
In 2015, I had just wrapped up another great A-Fest, this time in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The event had just ended and hundreds of participants were heading home.
Walking into the restaurant overlooking the Aegean sea, I saw hypnotherapist Marisa Peer and her husband, British entrepreneur John Davy, having breakfast.
Marisa is an extraordinary individual who has helped people with serious problems have profound breakthroughs in personal growth very quickly. She counts the British royal family and a Who’s Who list of Hollywood celebs among her clientele.
Marisa’s speech at that A-fest had commanded a standing ovation and was voted the best presentation of the event. In her speech, Marisa explained that the biggest ailment afflicting human beings is the idea of “I am not enough.” This childhood belief carries well into adulthood and becomes the root cause of a lot of our problems.
As we had breakfast and discussed her work, I asked Marisa if she could hypnotize me. I’d never had hypnotherapy and was curious about the effects. A few hours later, Marisa came to my hotel suite, and we talked about my goals for the session.
My aim was this: I wanted to understand my attitude about money. I wondered if it connected with some beliefs I might need to get rid of.
Marisa guided me into a regression, sifting through memories and images from my life. I felt as if I was drifting off into a light nap as she guided me with her voice.
“Go back to a moment in your past when you first developed this belief,” she said.
Suddenly, I saw Mr. John [name changed], a teacher I had as a teenager. I adored him and he was an incredible teacher. But while everyone in the class liked him, we all felt sorry for him. He always seemed so lonely.
We knew his wife had left him. We knew he lived in a small apartment and didn’t have much money. But we loved him; we spent a lot of time talking about what a great guy he was and what a shame it was that he was in that situation.
“Can you see a thought pattern that you may have developed from this moment?” Marisa asked. And I realized that the belief I had internalised was:
“To be a great teacher, you have to suffer.”
I saw myself as a teacher because I run an education company and speak and write on personal growth. And I had an unconscious belief that I had to suffer in order to be a great teacher — which in my case manifested as not being receptive to riches.
But Marisa didn’t stop there. She made me regress to another moment. I saw myself in the back seat of my parents’ car. It was my birthday. I was maybe nine or ten. My parents were driving me to a store to buy me a birthday gift. I was pretending to be asleep, but I could hear them talking in a worried way about money.
My parents at that time, were not wealthy, but they had enough. My mom was a public school teacher and my dad was a small entrepreneur.
I remembered a feeling of guilt washing over me about my birthday gift. At the store, I picked out a book. “That’s all?” my mom asked. “You can pick out something more.” So I picked up a hockey stick. She said, “It’s your birthday. You can have more.” But I felt OK with just those two things, not wanting to burden my parents with any more expenses. That memory crystallized another model of reality I’d been carrying around:
“Don’t ask for too much, because someone will suffer if you do.”
We kept going. I regressed to another moment. I was sixteen, standing in the hot sun on a basketball court. I was being punished by the head of my school, a burly former weight-lifter turned principal who, for whatever reason, seemed to despise me, even though I was a top student.
That day, I’d forgotten my shorts for physical education class. He punished me for this small infraction by making me stand in the sun for two hours. Then, because I didn’t seem afraid, he amped up the punishment by phoning my father in front of me and saying to me, “You’re expelled from the school.” Then he walked away.
When my father arrived at the school, the headmaster told him, “I’m not really expelling your son. I’m just trying to scare him to teach him a lesson.” My father was livid and confronted him about this extreme behavior in response to such a minor infraction.
I had tolerated being treated in this way.
“Now that you’re an adult, can you see why he did this to you?” Marisa asked. In my mind another Brule surfaced:
“Do not stand out. It’s not safe to stand out.”
I immediately saw how these three childhood lessons were holding me back in numerous ways. My beliefs that it was dangerous to stand out, that being a good teacher meant not having wealth, and that I’d hurt or disappoint others if I asked for more, all were undermining me. I never even realized I had those unconscious beliefs.
When the (now conscious) beliefs were removed,
massive changes occurred in my life.
What happened in the months afterward was incredible. Because my belief about standing out disappeared, I started speaking more. Almost immediately I got two major speaking engagements and my biggest speaking payment yet. I got on camera more and hired my first PR firm.
It seemed as if requests for interviews and appearances came out of nowhere.
I made the cover of three magazines, was more active on social media, and saw massive rises in the number of followers I had on Facebook.
I also decided I wouldn’t be a suffering teacher anymore. I gave myself the first raise I’d had in five years. I was going to grow my business, pay myself in a more healthy way, and claim royalties on the courses I was involved in.
The result? In just four months, I doubled my income. But my business also began to grow. We hit new revenue milestones. It turned out my beliefs had not only held me back but had been holding back my business and everyone who worked for me. These experiences proved to me how erasing old models of reality can have a profound impact on our lives. In short,
when you replace disempowering beliefs with empowering ones, tremendous changes can occur in your life at a very rapid pace.
Know that beliefs, once brought to the surface, are highly swappable. You can swap out an old, disempowering belief for a newer, more empowering one.
Taming The Meaning-Making Machine in Your Head
I’ve shared these deeply personal stories because I’ve learned from my travels and speaking that most of us have our own versions of disempowering beliefs. Beliefs about the way we look. About our relationship with money. About our self-worth. These beliefs can come from unexpected sources: a bullying teacher, overhearing a conversation between parents or other authority figures, or the attention (or lack thereof) from people we’re attracted to.
As we believe these things take these beliefs to be true, they become true. All of us view the world through our own lens, colored by the experiences, meanings, and beliefs we’ve accumulated over the years.
It’s as if we have a meaning-making machine in our minds that kicks in and creates Brules about every experience we have.
The meaning-making machine never sleeps. It runs during childhood and in adulthood, too: while on a date, dealing with our mate and our kids, interacting with our boss, trying to close a business deal, getting a raise (or not), and much more.
All of us view the world through our own lens, colored by the experiences, meanings, and beliefs we’ve accumulated over the years.
We add meanings to every situation we see and then carry these meanings around as simplistic and often distorted and dangerous beliefs about our world. We then proceed to act as in accordance with these beliefs.
The experiences I’ve just described proved it to me personally, but scientists are beginning to study this phenomenon, and the results are astonishing. While the bad news is that our models of reality can cause stress, sadness, loneliness, and worry, the good news is that we can upgrade them. When we swap in optimized models that work better, we dramatically improve our lives.
Exercise: The What I Love About Myself List
Here’s a tool you can try using if you have any feelings of insecurities of self-esteem issues.
This final tool is a powerful way to shut down the meaning-making machine from creating beliefs about people’s judgment or opinions of you. It also helps combat negative childhood indoctrination, where you might have felt unworthy as a child.
Simply think about what it is about you as a human being that you love.
Is it your sense of humor? The feel of your hair or the shape of your feet? Did you leave a big tip for your last waiter? Maybe it’s your commitment to daily personal growth. Or the fact that you have a good amount of cash sitting in a bank account. Or maybe it’s that you’re broke but still happy, or that you solve complicated problems at work?
Is it your way with animals? Your musicality? Your jump shot? That awesome meal you cooked last night? How you kept your cool when your child spilled milk all over the restaurant floor?
You can identify qualities that are big or small, but you must pinpoint three to five things every day that make you proud to be who you are.
This is the same exercise I do with my son that I described in previous blog posts. You’re doing it now, too. And while it’s not for your children — it’s for your inner child.
Marisa Peer suggests that all of us have a child within who never received all the love and appreciation for the qualities that we prized in ourselves that we sought at that age. We can’t go back and fix the past. But we can take responsibility to heal ourselves now by giving ourselves the love and appreciation we once craved.
So think about a quality or an action of yours that made you proud today. Maybe nobody else told you that they appreciated it, but it’s time that you affirmed it for yourself.
I believe the best thing we can do with outdated beliefs is to let them go gracefully. Turn them into history. Let’s celebrate our extraordinary ability to evolve emotionally, mentally, spiritually throughout life, taking on new ideas, thoughts, philosophies, and ways of being and living.
First you make your beliefs. Then your beliefs make you. And when you go out in the world, the world will support your beliefs.
– Marisa Peer
Are you looking to overcome self-doubts, self-esteem issues, or limitations so that you can live an uncompromised life? Try Marisa Peer's FREE Transformational Hypnotherapy session.