For most of my life, I blindly absorbed values from teachers. These teachers included family, friends, culture, society, education, workplaces, media, role models and more. The younger I was, the more porous I was and ready to absorb whatever was around me.
The company that we keep, the content that we consume, the contemplations that we explore, all shape our values. Our values shape our choices. Our choices shape our experience of life.
We are rarely given the space, or rather rarely encouraged to create the space, to choose our values and beliefs. They are handed to us, often unconsciously.
Living at home with my parents over the past few months now, watching them in close captivity, I continue to make sense of so much now, about myself, that I have long been curious about.
My work ethic has been reflected back to me by my mom so clearly. She is gardening, painting, tidying and learning constantly. Behind this is a desire to always be doing something, a desire to be productive. She cannot sit still and I have yet to inspire her to meditate with me. Now I know that this desire to always be productive, which I value, and at times have even resented that I value, is something that I have absorbed from her.
My interest to imagine what does not yet exist has been reflected back to me by my dad ever so clearly. Dinner conversations are filled with an endless stream of new ideas from him. I grew up watching my dad share his ideas enthusiastically with others, and now am privileged enough to be the first to hear many of his ideas. Now I understand why I am continually sharing new ideas with my teams, and also how they may feel. Creativity and imagination is something that I value and that I have absorbed from my father.
It can be a powerful, sometimes dangerous, combination to feel the space to imagine new possibilities and to feel the confidence to execute them.
Understanding that my values shape who I am, I have a responsibility to myself to be intentional about the values that I absorb and keep. This is the path of freedom. The freedom to choose.
Like an invisible hand, my values help me navigate life. They are often subtle, operating beneath my consciousness and quietly pulling the strings it feels.
When I first started to meditate, I became curious about myself in a way that I had not known previously. I became introspective, from which, changes began to flow. How I saw the world and showed up in the world began to change in ways I was becoming conscious of. These changes stemmed from taking a moment to pause and to inquire about the values that had been guiding me through life thus far.
In this inquiry, one at a time, I picked up each value or belief, looked at it closely, and asked myself if I still believed it to be true. I wanted to really know, from deep inside myself, what I believed and to not be afraid to challenge a belief simply because I had once believed it or have only known to believe it.
If the answer was yes, then I would put it back in its place, with a smile on my face.
If the answer was no, I would place it aside, and no longer let it take me for a ride.
If the answer was ‘I don’t know’, I would not lament, but experiment.
These experiments involved sometimes taking the opposite extreme of a value. For example, I used to believe that ‘more is more’ when it came to consumerism. I experimented then with ‘less is more and adopted an extreme minimalist approach. This experiment, one of many, helped me understand what I now believe to be true. This inquiry of my values has not stopped to this day and will continue through my entire journey.
I have also discovered that my values change.
The purpose of my values are to serve and shape me, each in their own way. Some values are life long, like kindness and compassion. Others are for specific chapters in my life, like graduating university with a solid education, getting experience working for someone or establishing financial security. All of these were once important for me but are no longer today. And that is okay.
The real inquiry is to examine the values that I have absorbed unknowingly from the circles and communities that I identify with. It can become easy for my preferences to become prejudices, where I risk discriminating unknowingly based on what I have absorbed. If left unchecked, what was once an idea can become cemented as a strong value, even if unconscious.
For example, I thought that I should only do a yoga teacher training program once I was more skilled and confident with a yoga practice. It was not until the first day of my yoga teacher training course, five years after I had been practicing consistently, that I realized I could have, should have, would have done the course in my first year.
It is one thing to live life according to a set of values and beliefs that one blindly absorbs, without conscious choice. It is another thing to live life according to blindly absorbed values that have been reinforced to the point of extremism.
For example, imagine a child recruited by a terrorist organization. The child, usually a boy, has been brainwashed based on a set of values and beliefs. The boy now carries a gun, shoots people, or even worse, takes his own life, in the name of a belief system that he did not even choose.
Upon exploring this example, I may feel sympathy for the boy. However that feeling may actually be better described as empathy. There is a part of that boy’s journey that I have been victim to. The terrorist organization might be called capitalism, racism or elitism. The brainwashing power of strong belief systems are often systematic and remarkably effective.
It is especially disheartening when harmful beliefs spread rapidly online, which social media enables so effortlessly. Social media is also remarkably effective at reinforcing my existing beliefs, even if they are ones that I do not truly believe. The hill to climb, to lift myself out of a narrow ditch, becomes even harder.
I may not be able to prevent others from sharing their beliefs, founded or unfounded, however I can choose what to absorb and what not to absorb. I can also bring attention to what I share with others, and ask myself why is it that I feel inspired to share. Is it to widen a perspective, confirm a bias or perhaps even seek validation.
While it may feel safe and easy to absorb the beliefs that appear to be the mainstream, I should not always do so. If everyone believes that they should jump off a bridge, drive with their eyes closed or eat furniture, these are values I would not absorb blindly.
A sponge does not discriminate and soaks up clean and dirty water. Similarly, we soak up all of the values from our environment. This is why we must make an intentional and conscious choice about what it is that we truly value.
How many of us have taken the time and space to reflect deeply on what we value and believe to be true? Based on what we see unfolding in society and the choices many are making, I would conclude not enough of us have.
Each time that I interact and engage with someone whose perspective is different than mine, I can recognize that they are coming from a different place. A different set of values and beliefs. If I am to blame or block that person, then I am depriving myself of the opportunity to learn and grow. I cannot choose a value or belief that I am not aware of.
This moment has raised into our awareness a wide diversity of beliefs and values. It is helping us to ring out the values that we have absorbed, and to make the space to choose our values. Some of which may be the same and some no doubt will be different.
Year Zero has given us the space to reflect about ourselves and become more intimate with what it is that we truly value and believe. Knowing this will shape the choices we make, and this will shape the world that we all get to continue to live in, together.