Underlying Beliefs

UnknownThe 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)


Is Gratitude a Spiritual Bypass on the Road to Samadhi?

IMG_3246I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat. 

Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.

This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode. 

I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.

“Gratitude is over-rated.”

Do I really mean that?

imagesThe Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.

UnknownIt’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.

In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.

“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.” 

I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.

We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.

Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.

If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.


Asteya

pinkeyeglassesAsteya is the third Yama, or social observance, in Patanjali’s Sutras.  It means ‘non-stealing’.

Superficially asteya is a concept easy to grasp yet there are greater depths to explore beyond the simple idea of not taking what isn’t yours.

On the gross level we can steal another’s belonging.  On a more subtle level we can steal another’s time.  If we interrupt a conversation we are, as Nicolai Bachman writes in his volume about the sutras, stealing attention.

Pulling the veil back further we recognize that covetousness and envy are also forms of thievery by the manner in which they tarnish attitudes and dull joy.  Both Bachman and scholar IK Taimni draw our awareness to the truth that when we embrace asteya we rise above our basic nature.  When we are honest and honorable we nourish the heart and soul.

And that is why asteya is important to me.  I want to live an honorable life.  I try to not steal joy, celebration or even sorrow and pain from others.  I don’t take what is not mine.  I avoid feelings of envy.  I listen without interruption.  Usually.  But I am not perfect and this is a practice.

What resonates for me most as I practice asteya and non-stealing is my relationship with time.  I place huge emphasis on arriving where I am needed on time.  To that end I am especially cognizant of beginning and ending my classes and private appointments with clients on time.

Anything less?  That would be stealing.