Many people get a permission slip from their doctor to begin a yoga regimen. For me, yoga was the permission slip that brought me to the doctor.

I first started studying yoga in 2002. By study, I am referring to the alignment of the postures, but more importantly, to the philosophy behind it. For the first time in my life I had the permission, the means, and the encouragement to ask:

  • Questions I never thought to ask in school — “What is my true purpose in life beyond getting a job?”
  • The kinds of questions I would never have asked at work: “What if there is more to life than just sitting at a desk?”
  • And the kinds of questions I didn’t dare ask in church: “What if God isn’t real?”

I didn’t take my permission slip for granted. I studied and practiced as though some day an authority figure would ask me on whose authority I read such books as the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Tao de Ching. So I delved into my spiritual search with passion and speed. There was no time to lose and so much time already wasted. I had just turned 31.

The Thought Ladder
Raising our consciousness is like climbing up a ladder of our own beliefs. In this analogy, each belief is a rung of the ladder. Each time we walk into our mind and pull out a rickety or hand-me-down rung and replace it with a wiser, kinder belief, we take another step up the ladder. By ridding ourselves of beliefs that arise from duality, fear or separation, our overall state of mind can rise into one of oneness, peace and connection. Over time, by trading out lower vibratory thoughts for higher ones, we expand our consciousness. As our consciousness expands, our boundaries diminish, duality dissolves, and our reach into the world extends.

But what if we don’t replace the outdated or old rungs as we go?

Sure, it was past time for many of my beliefs to go: I am alone on this planet, or I’m not worthy of taking up too much space.

But no belief was safe from my fiery gaze. So there were other ones, like…Our existence here on this Earth is organized and planned or…God is in charge of everything, or…Everything happens for a reason. That, once gone, sent me spiraling into an existential crisis.

Looking into my mind was like staring up at a ladder with no rungs on it. Lacking any kind of structure to stand on, I fell into a random, meaningless universe. There was no organization and no direction. Neither human suffering nor benevolent acts mattered. Cause and effect — karma — loses its meaning in a world in which everything dissolves back into ether.

I never noticed how every main belief supports many tangential beliefs. I never noticed how intertwined and dependent they all are on each other.

Rather than extending my heart further into society, I withdrew. And my skin, imitating the fire that had swept through my mind, broke out in chronic hives. After months of self-medicating and daily self-loathing, I took myself to the emergency room. I begged for mercy, stronger drugs, and something tangible to hold on to. I left hours later, humbled and scared.

It was time to stop studying spirituality and begin studying what fueled my frantic and fiery approach to my own transformation.

It was time to start reading fiction rather than self-help.

It was time to leave my poor chakras alone, rather than forcing them to clear.

It was time to practice self-compassion.

Hammer and nails
The next time I walked back my mind, it was not with matches but with a hand-held hammer, some nails, and an intention to build up a scaffold of beliefs for me to stand on again:

  • Rung 1: There is meaning and purpose to my life and to our collective existence.
  • Rung 2: Therefore I matter, what I do matters, and how I interact in the world touches others.
  • Rung 3: Other people matter equally, and what they do and how they interact spirals back to me.

As I rebuilt my structures, I regained my physical health and energetic boundaries. The Earth supported my weight once again. My care, my smile, and my love extended from my heart back out into the world.

I am now in the year of my 45th birthday. I take regular maintenance trips into my mind. But if I question a belief, I check to see what else it’s connected to before pulling it out. Then, I replace it with something just as sturdy, but more compassionate and inclusive. Caution and steady hands must accompany our reach into higher states of consciousness.

Meeting Resistance to Change
Last summer, I thought I saw an opening to talk with a relative about her lack of support for gay marriage. I said, “You don’t really believe being gay is a choice, do you?”

“The Bible says it’s wrong and I believe in the Bible,” she replied.

I backed off. I had hit a core belief. I could sense the fear behind her adamant statement. Pushing her to question a belief that was so intricately tied to her own stability and even existence would’ve been cruel.

Largely because of my own journey, I empathize when I come across someone like her who appears unwilling to question their beliefs or raise their consciousness. Perhaps many people understand intuitively what I had to learn experientially: questioning a belief is never about just that one belief. It’s about where this particular rung exists on our ladder of beliefs.

But I worry about this kind of blind defensiveness, especially at a time when threats to the environment, our health, our human rights, and the chance for our children to have a fruitful education are very real, and in some cases may result in irreversible damage or harm.

We must find a way to encourage people to see themselves not as individuals in a “dog eat dog” world, but as members of the human tribe, each of whom deserves the same essential rights. From this height of consciousness, and only from here, can we see, acknowledge and heal the damage we’ve done to the planet.

My relative called my husband not too long ago. She said to him, “I was thinking about the conversation we had over the summer. I think it might be time to study up on some of these issues for myself. I just haven’t taken the time before. I’ve always fallen back on the Bible.'”

I hope that next time, we will wade deeper into the conversation, and into her mind.

Like my relative, people need space, tools and time to question their beliefs without pressure or fear of judgment. The spaces certainly exist — dinner tables, corporate offices, coffee shops, churches, yoga studios and (please) government offices. The tools exist — compassion, patience, curiosity, knowledge and unconditional love. And while I have a gut instinct to end this piece with, “But there may not be enough time,” I catch myself. I must do some belief-maintenance on the spot, for that belief is fear-based. My new one?

I believe that our love and eternal patience for each other will create the time we need. And I believe that if we encourage people back into their own minds with curiosity, a hammer and some nails, they can and do change.

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