Truth or Judgment?

So much of our suffering in life comes from our conceptual mind and its habit of trying to categorize and put labels on our experience. Usually our labels have nothing to do with reality, or with the actual things we are labeling. Things in themselves, as they are, are beyond all concepts; but our confused mind creates all these labels and wants to attach them to things. Because of this labeling mind, we have friends and enemies, black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. In society, people put more weight on this label or that one, and so we experience segregation and discrimination. In Buddhism, we call this duality — our mind’s tendency to divide up the world into pairs of opposites. This is the root of so much of our suffering.

This is one of the important things we need to come to terms with on the spiritual path: seeing how the conceptual mind labels everything, and how much trouble this gets us into. Think of how often you’ve had a conversation where you assumed someone was judging you in a critical way. Perhaps you built up a whole storyline about what she thought of you. For 24 hours, you carried this storyline around in your mind, and it tortured you. Then the next day, when you went back and talked to her again, you realized she hadn’t been thinking of you that way at all. Your suffering was self-created by the labeling mind. Sometimes we bring this kind of suffering on ourselves, and sometimes we cause suffering for others by projecting our labels onto them.

We cannot just do away with the conceptual, labeling mind. We have to work with it.

Labels are necessary, but only to a certain degree. Without them we could not even ask for a pen or a piece of paper, or for directions to get from point A to point B; we would not have any words to communicate our thoughts and ideas. But so often we go beyond that basic level and add unnecessary complexities to the situation.

When we go overboard with labeling and projecting, it makes us crazy. Look at what happens when there is a big election and the talking heads come on TV and start speculating about the results. They keep talking about their projections 24 hours a day — taking polls, making up stories, and applying labels — until everyone in America is confused and up in arms. And quite often their expert projections are just plain wrong.

When we get carried away in our own conceptual labeling process, we’re like the talking heads on the TV news.

We talk ourselves into believing a storyline that leads us further and further away from the truth. After 9/11, who could get on an airplane without looking at the other passengers and scrutinizing them? We size up each person according to our concepts, and then we label them. This one looks trustworthy, but that one definitely looks fishy. We keep our eye on him throughout the whole flight, and watch him anxiously if he goes toward the front of the plane to use the restroom. Because of our labels and projections, we can’t relax.

If our labeling is actually helping us get closer to the truth, then we should pursue it full-steam. But if it’s taking us further away from the truth, then it can only lead to suffering. There’s our problem. At the same time, there’s our solution. When we learn to watch the mind and stop labeling everything and everyone automatically, we start to see things differently. Instead of a divided and fearful world, we see a world that’s fundamentally whole and unbiased. Then we can start to relax and enjoy ourselves, maybe a little more each day. And it’s not just us freeing ourselves when we let go of our labels. We’re also freeing other people from the boxes we’ve put them in. Then we can meet each other on airplanes, in the street, or wherever, as who we really are — possibly for the first time.

Looking Without Labels: An Exercise

1. Take a moment to relax and feel your breath moving in and out. Simply watch your breath for a few moments.

2. Look around you. What do you see? Try to simply see that thing, or person, just as it appears. If some labels or thoughts come up in association with that person or object, look at the label itself, not the object. Notice the label, then let it go and return to watching your breath for a moment.

3. You can repeat this process a few times and see what happens.

4. If you like, write down these labels and anything else you noticed while doing this exercise.

You can do this contemplation anytime throughout your day. It is one way to connect with the basic essence of people and things. It can help you see how things and people –– including yourself ––appear naturally, and how your perception changes when you add thoughts and labels on top of those appearances.