The Black Lives Matter protests have, I hope, encouraged us to reflect on our values and beliefs. Each of us have values that we try to live by and beliefs we hold that support those values. But sometimes our beliefs, our values and our actions are not in harmony. Sometimes they clash. Sometimes they are inert.
For example, I value equality. I believe all people should be treated equally. I value education. I believe every child deserves an epic education, teachers deserve a living wage and schools need adequate funding. I value health and wellness. I believe every human deserves access to the best medical care available and the resources to support a vibrant and healthy lifestyle. These are three of my values and beliefs but, while I can talk the talk, the truth is I don’t know that I always walk the walk. Do I treat everyone I meet with fairness and equality? Do I support the teachers I know or nearby school districts in underserved communities? Do I petition my government officials when health care is on the line?
You might ask, “What’s stopping you?” What’s stopping any of us? I believe our deeper, underlying beliefs are silent influencers that direct how we relate to the values by which we want to live. Our underlying beliefs don’t make us bad people, but they might prevent us from being the best versions of ourselves.
Underlying beliefs – the elusive beliefs we can’t always name – become so much a part of who we are that we lose sight of them. Since fourth grade, when I was laughed at for taking too long to answer a simple multiplication problem at the black board, I’ve believed I’m bad at arithmetic. From the age of ten I told myself ‘I can’t do math’ until it settled into a truth I’ve carried with me for fifty years. Likewise, from the moment Mrs. Arnold took interest in an essay I wrote on the themes of transcendentalism in the music of John Denver for eleventh grade English I believed I had a facility for writing. While I won’t score in the highest percentile in math tests it doesn’t mean that I can’t do math. And while I may have the ability to write a coherent sentence from time to time it doesn’t mean I’m on the path to a Pulitzer.
Underlying beliefs begin to slip into our psyche at a young age. They are fed to us – almost always unwittingly – by parents, teachers, friends or our own observations. Sometimes they are positive and serve to support how we navigate life. Other times the underlying beliefs that form are negative. They limit and sabotage the steps we take to add meaning to our existence. Neither the boy who laughed because I couldn’t multiply nor Mrs. Arnold who loved my writing would ever know the impact of their interactions with me.
The experiences I had in school formed very personal underlying beliefs. But in these times, I’ve been questioning the role of underlying beliefs in the collective unconscious of all our communities, whether they be indigenous communities, the community of white privilege to which I belong or communities of color. I’m not so foolish to believe our conflicts are caused by underlying beliefs alone. But when I hold my backpack a little tighter because the person walking toward me is of a different color, or when I assume the driver taking a sharp turn with no signal is from a different culture – it’s proof that sometimes the underlying beliefs we thought we vanquished long ago can rise to the surface. We cannot deny that our histories have built thick walls of mistrust. Yet when I see a line of police officers taking a knee with a line of protesters I feel a rush of hope. I see underlying beliefs crumbling like dust. Still, my white community is not absolved from the crimes it has committed. There’s more work to do. Centuries of work.
In the meantime, a recent email from the IAYT (a professional organization for yoga therapists) included this quote from the Rig Veda, one of four ancient Indian collections of Vedic Sanskrit hymns:
“Let us come together! Let us speak together! Let our minds be all of one accord. Let our speech be one; united with our voices! May our minds be in union with the thoughts of the Wise Ones. Let our hearts be joined as one. United be our thoughts. At peace with all, may we live together in harmony.” (X.191)