What are your core beliefs?

IMG_0042A decade ago I moved from northern Virginia to a small town in Colorado with just a carful of belongings.   I left behind a marriage and a job and joined some good friends who were living what I saw as a conscious and sane life.  A part of me was looking for time in the mountains to deprogram and start afresh.  With more space and quiet, in a gentler town, perhaps I could get down to some wiser ways.

Did that happen?  In many ways it did.  The East is so dense with people, buildings, and culture that a girl sometimes can’t separate her own values out from those of the society.  In the cacophony, the quick pace, the getting and spending, one doesn’t even have time to think.  The attitudes of society soak in through her pores and affect her thoughts and behavior.

When I settled in Colorado, I found a job with odd hours, and I hiked up many a mountain.  I sought out yoga classes, then a yoga teacher training.  Slowly I began to unwind my physical patterns, my muscular tension and my defenses against the world.  In a hakomi, or body-centered psychotherapy, training I sat with peers in mindfulness and observed my core beliefs emerge.  I found an outstanding yoga teacher whose classes took me on an ecstatic journey, and after all this, I could feel my feet on the ground, my animal body engaged in the world, my heart open so that I engaged more easily with others.  I hoped work and love would flow more easily.  And they did, especially love.  Work?  I’m still progressing on that front.

Presently I find myself wondering how we in this country developed the mindset we have and the belief that we must work excessively and purchase new gadgets regularly.  I wonder how our environment, healthcare system, and political system all became so toxic or dysfunctional.  There is an armoring and network of habits at the national level just as there is at the individual level, of course.  We buffer ourselves against remembering another set of values by escaping into entertainment and the pursuit of status, or things.  I see a clinging to old beliefs and habits.  I see a belief in the dominance of a market economy above all.

I turned to history to understand more, and I read about the founding fathers and their ideas, about Christian fundamentalism, about the decline of intellectualism, about our perspectives on the body and about the evolution of psychology.  How, I wondered, did we become so materialistic?  How did a business mentality so thoroughly permeate medicine and education?  How did we get to this place where we must work such long hours and commute such long distances to have enough money for expenses?

At the same time I wonder what might help us to loosen hold of those beliefs and reconsider.  Let some new ideas in.  Would it be a change in education?  More yoga and less time on treadmills?  More time in nature?  That’s my prescription!  But each of us thinks we know what would be best, and none of us knows the whole truth about our troubles and what to do about them.

The good news is that younger people are coming up with new ways of doing things.  Whether it is because they are facing less abundance than their parents or just seeing what the world is now, they are already trying something different.  Generation Y, for example, is said to want a shorter work day and more time for family, more flexibility in their jobs, and meaningful work or lifestyle that includes work.  They want to support their communities.

I see this trend evolving in this small town I landed in.   Many young people are starting small businesses, collaborating to build a counter economy.  There are people making a living as web designers, social media managers, artists, and healers.  They find ways to network, or share office space, to promote one another’s businesses.  When our society can sustain these folks well, or if they can sustain themselves, we will all be healthier.

There is so much that is rich in life that becomes buried in business and striving.  I am a baby boomer with the values of Generation Y.  A yoga teacher in need of a job, a job in which I work with others for something I believe in and yet also have time for family and creative work.  Time to be outside.  Time for prayer and mediation and the study of history.  We need to really think about what we believe, what we feel in response to the world around us, and where we need to go.  Because if we don’t change course, we will pay a big price.

Can we not examine the bundles of assumptions and beliefs wrapped around us so tightly that we can’t notice?  It is time, right now, to slow down, to look both inside and out and consciously choose the values we will live.

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Looking back to move forward

I have been reading Jacob Needleman’s book American Soul:  Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, and I’m finding it makes me think intensely, particularly about work and our current political conflicts, but for this blog I will focus on work.  Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, writes,

From our nation’s beginning,

“America embraced the necessity of hard work not as an evil but as an expression of self-respect and independence.  Americans have always understood the obligation to ‘pay one’s way,’ but in its origin this attitude toward life was inseparably connected to the sense that human beings were on earth to serve some purpose far greater than their own satisfaction or comfort and even greater than what is ordinarily understood as love or charity.  To be free and independent was to be worthy of a task placed upon us by God; all our functions and capacities—physical, mental, and emotional—were to be engaged.  It was understood that our life was not given to us for ourselves alone and that human beings would be granted a certain greatness only to the extent that they sought to be able to serve God and their neighbor.”

I find it almost startling to remember that early Americans thought so deeply about virtue, service, and the inner work of conscience, given our lack of thought about such things in past decades.  We truly came to focus on profit, more profit, material goods, security, and status.  At least that has been our predominant mode.

“In absorption into action and doing America entered a long adolescence at the beginning of the 19th century,” says Needleman.  He describes our motivation as being a “tangle of unnecessary desires and unstable standards of self-worth.” I see these statements in my own life:  Though I have been a bit out of step with the motivation of money and status, I have been alienated and isolated.  It has only been in more recent years that I have been facing myself and my attitudes, searching for my true gifts and how to serve society’s need.  I think others are doing the same.

I have been driven by a desire to be part of a changing paradigm for health and mental health care.  But these ideas noted by Needleman provide me with an even broader and deeper sense of work, what it means to be human, and what it means to be a member of my community, my country.  They point me toward a sense of calling, of meaning.

Needleman says ancient wisdom, and its echoes in the words of the founding fathers, point us inward to work on understanding our desires and motivations and acting from our higher selves.  To quote him again: “ . . . the ancient wisdom has always sought to free us precisely through hard work within ourselves and outside ourselves.”  That freedom allows us to engage more fully in work, community, and the building of society that allows us to live together and find fulfillment.

Our economic downturn has shown us what shaky and illusory ground we were on, and it has spurred new thought and behavior in work. While the old paradigm of achieve/buy/build status/buy more/buy bigger fades away, we are building a new one.  We inquire about the meaning of our individual work and how to respond to job loss, and some of us are propelled to create something new.  I am excited to see things like a local work coop where people do their own work but share ideas and resources, inspired to see business models and missions change to more collaborative endeavors and more green practices.

We really do have a cool opportunity to redefine our work and communal lives. We have a chance to consider what our gifts are, what calls us, and what needs we can meet in our society.

We know it is necessary to our survival on the earth to rethink vocation and work.  To consider community and sustainability and to work together to create new models of healthcare, education, and ways of doing business.  It may be that grass roots movements like Occupy, or many of us making individual and institutional changes, cause our government to pay attention and work for the common good as well.

The founding fathers were influenced by ancient wisdom as well as modern metaphysical thinking, says Needleman.  They saw virtue and inner work (or self-improvement) as foundational to the American experiment.  They perceived of government as providing protection and freedom to exercise our conscience.  Where have we been all these years?  What has meaning to us now? Were do we want to go next?  Perhaps turning inward will provide the answers we need.

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