What's possible for you, for me, for any of us? Perhaps the most useful way to explore such a question would be to look at how we see the world and the limits that can come from our perceptions. "I can't help it, that's the way I am." This familiar idiom, which many of us use casually to explain feelings, behaviors, and physical states, suggests an out-of-control relationship between us (the thinking/decision-making self) and our emotions, actions and bodies. Many would have us believe that we are aliens inhabiting physical units that we do not control. In essence, we become victims rather than initiators, responders rather than creators, adapters rather than masters. What if all of these notions were simply cultural myths rather than facts? What if who we are, what we have become, and how we can change are arenas under our complete personal jurisdiction? What if being happy or unhappy is an experience we can choose? And what if that choice has enormous impact on our body chemistry and electrophysiology? What if we are in charge, and have always been so, but have never found a useful way to understand, acknowledge, and harness that power? One aspect that distinguishes us from others is our beliefs. Our emotions and behaviors follow from those beliefs. Parents, priests, teachers, corporations, and politicians busily compete to teach us or sell us beliefs. They know (and we soon learn) that the game of power (personal and political) depends on what we choose to believe. Nobel Prize winners, army generals, physicians, lawyers, journalists, carpenters, masons, truck drivers, secretaries, and homemakers have this in common: they operate from their beliefs (how they vote; what sort of army they support, if any; what purchases they make; where they live; whom they marry; what clothes they wear). We understand immediately the power of beliefs in the political arena and in the marketplace, yet we do not readily apply that same clarity to ourselves. The Option Process acknowledges our beliefs as the heart of the matter. To be happy (and to foster physical well-being) becomes more than a debatable philosophical construct for some distant time, but an actual living possibility, a choice that we can make right now. We become happier and healthier by exploring and changing our beliefs. From the attitude to love is to be happy with comes the method for helping ourselves to become happier in every way. An unhappy person is a person reacting to his beliefs of unhappiness. The self-discovery involved in finding the clues (or beliefs) that fuel our unhappiness points out the opportunity we have to change. This realization comes simply from approaching ourselves with honesty and acceptance, from opening ourselves to our beliefs. Often the journey has exciting and unanticipated twists and turns as the person exploring becomes the master sleuth of his or her own beliefs and motivations. Each self-discovery becomes an opportunity for change and re-creation. Sometimes the effects, though profound, are internal and unspoken. On other occasions, the result of changing a belief or judgment can be quite visible and startling. There are no good or bad beliefs, no good or bad behaviors or feelings. We are what we are, and in every way we do the best we can, the best we know how, based on our present beliefs. When a young boy in a wheelchair, suffering from a progressive and fatal neuromuscular disease, began to entertain the idea (the belief) that he could help himself improve despite the prognosis of experts, he began to regain the use of his hands. After a thirty-five year-old woman discarded her beliefs about the burdens of adulthood, she experienced dramatic relief from years of chronic back pain. Once a business executive forgave his dishonest partner, a bleeding stomach ulcer began to heal. When a homemaker stopped judging her husband, dropping the belief that she needed him in order to survive, her lingering viral infection abated. These are not infrequent events or feats by only the courageous or intellectually gifted; these are everyday miracles that all of us can perform in an everyday world. Thus, exploring our beliefs and changing them (either through formalized dialogues with a guide, or just by confronting them ourselves) can have a definite impact on our physiological systems. Beliefs and their accompanying feelings translate into neurological responses, which in turn affect one's immune system and general physical well-being. If depression and unhappiness cause a dampening and diminishing of the health process, then joy and happiness can result in a strengthening of the physiological system. Often, discarding the belief that created the unhappiness opens the doorway to comfort, an enhanced sense of "wellness," and a more healthy bodily process. Option provides a gentle, loving, user-friendly technique and lifestyle perspective that has far-reaching implications. The Option perspective begins with an attitude of trust and acceptance. In such an environment, people worldwide demonstrate continually their ability to be their own experts, to find their own answers, and ultimately, to transform themselves and their bodies. Any of us can begin that process by listening and accepting and trusting what we know. And we do know! Many years ago, one of our six children (our son) was diagnosed as incurably ill, afflicted with a syndrome known as autism. He spent his waking hours spinning in circles, mute, self-absorbed, and pushing away from all human contact. Viewing this severe developmental impairment and brain dysfunction as a lifelong condition, the well-meaning "experts" told us that eventually he would live out his days in some nameless state institution. Hospitals, clinics, and the medical and psychological literature supported this view (belief). In contrast to such guidance, we chose to see our son very differently - not as a sad, hopeless case, but as a unique and beautiful little boy doing the best he could. Adopting the attitude of acceptance that we had been teaching, we approached him nonjudgmentally. Instead of forcing him to join our world, we entered his universe (spinning with him, rocking with him) and tried to express our love and communion with him. In an intense program that we devised, and with the help of our other children, we worked with our son twelve hours a day, seven days a week for almost three and one half years. When we finished the journey, the mute, autistic, retarded (under 30 IQ), self-absorbed toddler blossomed into a highly verbal, extraordinarily intelligent (near genius IQ), extroverted, and happy youngster. Today, at fifteen years of age, he maintains a straight A academic average at a neighborhood school, loves astronomy, computers, baseball, and people, and bears no traces of his earlier difficulties. Had we accepted and adopted the beliefs of those trying to guide us, no doubt this child would have been condemned to an institution, and those beliefs would have become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we hadn't believed we could effect change, we would not have tried. Instead of following experts, we opened ourselves to the possibility that our internal systems-neurological, biochemical, electrophysiological-are not fixed and inflexible, but are ever-changing, self-regulating, and self-adjusting, capable of being influenced by our motivation, our wants, and our beliefs. What we witnessed in our child was either his somehow repairing neurological systems that were not operating effectively, or his creating new neural pathways so that he could learn, participate, be open to loving and to being loved. Our son's wondrous journey became a pivotal experience that reaffirmed the power of beliefs and of a willingness to approach a situation or person without any preconceived judgments or expectations. The only limitations are the ones we create! We acquire beliefs in order to take care of ourselves in the best way possible. Beliefs are so numerous in our culture and language process that often we articulate them without question or review: "This is the best country in the world..." "We have a right to free speech..." "Death is inevitable..." "College prepares you for life..." "You have to take the good with the bad..." "Life is a series of ups and downs..." "Feelings are like instincts; you don't choose them, they happen to you..." "Good health is a matter of good genes and good luck." To question beliefs like these does not necessarily mean they are erroneous or invalid. An inquiry simply creates an opportunity to understand more fully why we believe what we do and whether we want to continue believing it. Do the beliefs we hold serve us? Do they empower us or make us feel impotent? Do they lead to happiness or unhappiness? Do they promote health or sickness? Frequently we reformulate what other people say into conclusions (beliefs) about ourselves. The avalanche of commentaries begins in childhood. "Be seen but not heard." (Conclusion: What I say doesn't matter.) "I know better than you." (Conclusion: I'm not intelligent enough to know.) "You are too young to understand." (Conclusion: When I get older, I'll get smarter-I hope.) "Don't question what I say, just listen." (Conclusion: Other people's statements are more important than my own.) "You make me unhappy." (Conclusion: I have the power to cause unhappiness in others.) "If you loved me, you'd keep your room neat." (Conclusion: If I don't do what someone wants, it means I don't love them.) "Take the medicine or you won't get better." (Conclusion: Outside intervention is the only thing that will save me; I have nothing to do with my healing process.) Once childhood and adolescence give way to the more mature years, then the messages appear to change-or do they? "If you loved me, you'd be more caring or sexually active." (Hmmm-Conclusion: I still have to do what someone wants in order to prove I love them.) "You'll never understand me." (Conclusion: I must lack insight or compassion.) "When will you change?" (Conclusion: It's not okay to be me.) "You make me furious." (Conclusion: I determine what others feel.) "Can't you do it right?" (Conclusion: I'm ill equipped; there must be something wrong with me.) "You can't expect to be healthy forever." (Conclusion: I have no control; disease and sickness are inevitable.) Our beliefs are learned from others or deduced from our own experiences. In effect, they are interpretations and conclusions. What others say and teach us tells us about their thought processes and beliefs. What we decide to "buy" --adopt and empower-- tells us about our processes and our beliefs. Despite all this belief-consuming, we do not believe all that we are told ("The stock market is a good place to invest your money" -- some of us believe it, some of us don't). We choose our beliefs freely; therefore, we are free to discard them if we decide to. Nevertheless, our beliefs tend to be constant. We hold onto them for a long time, usually because we don't explore or challenge them. Option opens the doors to questioning any belief, not as a sign of disrespect or indictment, but as an opportunity to review, to reaffirm, to change, and to be happy. The impact of the beliefs we hold is profound. The ramifications can be empowering and liberating, but they can also be devastating. If I think something is wrong with me or that I am unlovable, I will probably have corresponding feelings associated with such belie sadness, isolation, and impotence. My actions will follow from such beliefs. For example, I might leave a relationship or bury myself in work to find meaning or a sense of self-worth. Ultimately, my body process (sluggishness, suppressed immune system, vulnerability to disease and viruses) will reflect my mind-set. Without implying that I am to blame, it becomes clear that I precipitate my susceptibility to illness. I can divert my body, with my beliefs, from working properly. The realization that we are responsible for our health is not to be construed as an indictment or reason for guilt, but rather a realization of our own power to determine what happens to us. With this realization comes the hope, strength, and opportunity to create ourselves anew, with vim and vigor and a wonderful state of complete health. Why, then, do we rush to judgment, to create interpretations or beliefs? The answer is quite simple: beliefs are created and held to support what the believer thinks is best. A pertinent example is beliefs about unhappiness. We teach the value of discomfort as a medium of growth learning, and enlightenment. "No pain, no gain." Our scriptures echo the vision of suffering as a method of purification. No wonder we teach unhappiness. We use unhappiness to motivate ourselves and others. We use the fear of cancer to induce others to stop smoking, but more cigarettes are being sold than ever before. We hate our fat so we diet, yet more people are overweight now than in any other period. We spank our children to teach them, and we express anger toward lovers to get them to change - all of which usually leads to resistance rather than compliance. Nevertheless, we push on! We teach misery as a sign of caring (if I am unhappy, you should be unhappy to show you care) and as a sign of intelligence (conscientious people would be rightly unhappy about famine or disease; any opposing position would be unthinkable). It is no accident that we use the phrase "happy idiot" to suggest the inappropriateness of sustained good feelings. Finally, if all else fails, we threaten ourselves with the promise of future unhappiness. (If John doesn't get home on time, I'll be angry. If I don't get that job, I will be heartbroken. If this Epstein-Barr virus doesn't go away, I'll hate my body.) Once they are articulated and itemized, our beliefs begin to sound somewhat bizarre and self-defeating. This is why a careful review of them provides each of us with a wonderful opportunity-something we affectionately call "belief-busting." Using the Option dialogue, we unearth our beliefs (like those stated above) to make ourselves conscious and aware of why we think, feel, and do what we do. If we discard the belief (belief-busting), we change those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and give ourselves room to be happier. If we choose to keep them, we usually do so with strengthened conviction. Either position becomes a victory; the decision is ours. Option presents only the opportunity to change, to re-create ourselves and to be happy. We do the rest. How do we unearth our beliefs and provide ourselves with the possibility for such sweeping and dynamic changes? Questions! Simple, nondirective and nonjudgmental questions! Often we pursue answers before we have even clearly formulated what it is we want to know. As I teach the Option dialogue to others and use it for myself and my family, I become more and more aware of what a gentle, loving, and joyful gift a question can be when confronting doubts, confusion, and despair. Imagine becoming the happy detective exploring your own feelings and behaviors in order to uncover the clues (beliefs) to your discomforts. Imagine taking an impartial position, doing the best you can not to judge what you come to know. The attitude with which you pose the questions - an attitude of acceptance - is, in effect, a crucial part of the process. The more we discover and the more we come to understand about ourselves, the more powerful we become in resolving issues and living a happier and healthier life. We have nothing to lose, but so much to gain! Where do we begin? The Option dialogue, in essence, can be viewed as a progression of three simple, essential questions. Remember, we are sleuthing through our mind-set in search of beliefs - our beliefs! The first question: What are you unhappy about? Suppose your answer is: "My severe case of CEBV." The next question, really just a variation of the first, might be: What is it about it that makes you unhappy? Wait, you may want to protest, how could anyone ask such a silly question? More than absurd, you might want to argue, it's offensive. Anyone would be unhappy if he were sick! Perhaps, but that doesn't invalidate asking you or anyone else what specifically the unhappiness is about. I am often surprised and amazed, in dialogues, by the varied and unique perspectives people have on their unhappiness with their particular malady. Frequently, therapists, helping professionals, and teachers believe they know the answers (your answers) in advance; that's how they make diagnoses and predictions. But only you can know your answer! Back to the question. What is it about your CEBV infection that makes you unhappy? No one is saying that you should not feel unhappy, or that if you become unhappy, you should suppress it or not vent it. The probe is to identify the underlying belief. Here is a sampling of answers to the question given by different people dealing with the same illness. "I am unhappy because I have suffered so much." "I am unhappy because I am not able to work." "I feel guilty about not taking care of the house and not having any energy for my children." "I am unhappy because I am so difficult to love and will end up alone if this continues." Each answer followed from that first simple question. There are no right or wrong answers; there is only your answer, and the dialogue follows from your answers. There are no preset goals; this is your journey. As for varying the question, remember that "unhappiness" is a catchall word. You might find that the words "anger" or "anxious" or "depressed" or "sad" seem to best describe your mood or state of affairs. Then the question gets a simple adjustment. What are you angry" about? Or what are you "sad" about? Again, this is your dialogue. Make it fit you! You are in charge! The second question is: Why are you unhappy about that? Or more specifically, why are you unhappy about being chronically ill? Again, no judgments are implied by the question. We are just trying to understand. The first question helps define what we are unhappy, concerned, disturbed about. The second asks us to explain why that state of affairs results in these feelings. Here are some possible answers to the second question: "I am unhappy about being chronically ill because I feel I have no control over what is happening to me." Or, "I have been cursed with damaged genes." Ah-ha! Beliefs have surfaced, which leads us to the third and final question: Why do you believe that? (that is, why do you believe you have no control over your illness or why do you believe you are cursed with damaged genes?). Now you have an opportunity not only to view your belief, but to explain to yourself why you believe it. If it doesn't make sense, you can drop it-here and now! If you do, your perspective about your illness and what you might choose to do about it would change quite dramatically. But let's suppose you find you have good reasons to hold your belief. No problem! You can just ask another question. For example, suppose you said: "I have bad genes because my parents were always sick." We can stay with the belief question. "Why do you believe your parents' illnesses mean you have bad genes?" There are also many questions you could ask about what, in fact, you think "bad" genes means. If you think you are getting stuck an alternate question might be helpful. What are you afraid would happen if you weren't chronically ill?" Or, "What are you afraid would happen if you didn't believe you had bad genes?" Some possible answers: "Then I would have to work harder and be more responsible." Or, "If I didn't have bad genes, then I couldn't blame anyone else for my illness." Thus the detective, in a dialogue with him or herself (or with an Option Mentor), often discovers that there are payoffs to our problems and illnesses. Once we discover this, we can change the dynamics of our self-manipulation and find healthy ways to achieve our goals (like taking time off, getting attention, soliciting the love and caring of another). Another helpful note: Write your dialogues on paper or say them aloud if possible. Why? So that you can see or hear them, making them more concrete in your mind. Fears and beliefs alike are easier to grasp once articulated. It's also exciting to hear yourself say aloud something you didn't know you believed until you said it. Belief discovery and "belief-busting" can have profound effects, permeating every area of our lives. The Option Process dialogue helps us literally to re-create ourselves.(For an expanded presentation of The Option Process and the dialogue, see To Love Is To Be Happy With, by Barry Neil Kaufman.) Now, a tight recap. There are three basic questions (with some sub questions or alternatives to help clarification). The more specific we can be, the more visible the underlying beliefs become: What are you unhappy about? (What do you mean by that or what is it about that that makes you unhappy? Do you have an example?) Why are you unhappy about that? Why do you believe that? (Or, Do you believe that?) Alternatively: What are you afraid would happen if you weren't unhappy about that?