My new granddaughter is barely a week old and already she has been pigeon-holed and typecast. Her gender, weight and height have been duly noted and these facts have refined the perception of her parents, extended family and friends. Her physical features have been matched to known patterns. She has her father’s brow, her mother’s ankles, and her great-grandmother’s cheeks.
Like any other mammal, the human is biologically driven to devote itself to its offspring, and the initial ritual of sniffing and checking out to make sure that this offspring is in fact its own, is a natural part of the process of claiming, making the novel and extraordinary understood and ordinary.
The ‘I don’t know mind’ has been tossed aside in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor a vacuum of solid facts, strong opinions and pigeon holes in which to store them.
But, biological imperative aside, doesn’t that still leave room for this new life to be a wondrous mysterious unknown? Will everything she does in her first week of life have to go on her permanent record? Will all her efforts to come to terms with her environment, skillful or not, be brought up again and again to haunt her?
This is just the beginning after all. She will have a well-documented existence, with photographs, achievements noted in the baby book – whether she is early or late with the various stages of learning to hold her head up, roll over, creep, crawl, walk and talk. Each erupting tooth will be noted, each word learned will be remembered for how endearingly she mispronounces it.
I remember that Josh called a piano a plano and Katie called it a pinano. Josh got his first teeth at four months, Katie at fourteen months – both extremes noted and incorporated into the body of knowledge that attempts to describe their nature. His early teeth got him weaned off the breast earlier than was healthy, thus causing his allergies perhaps? Her late teeth had her used to swallowing food whole without chewing, and she is still a fast eater with indigestion. This is all part of the family lore that weaves a cozy family nest around those who passed that initial sniff test of acceptance into the fold.
But is this who we are? Are we the sum total of our report cards, our teachers’ and fellow students opinions? Are we, as studies often show, a product of our sibling placement, whether we’re the oldest, a middle child or the baby? Are we our grade point averages, our diplomas, our credentials or lack thereof? Are we all living under the weight of our accomplishments, our failures, our faux pas that did not go unnoticed, our favorite music, color, gem stone, animal, genre of book or movie, or our preferred style of dress or home décor?
Will this new life I have been holding in my arms as she sleeps, her dear little mouth and hands in constant movement, be plastered with so many labels she forgets who she is? Will she read the labels as directives of who she should be? Will she struggle to win the affections of her first grade teacher by conforming to the ideal of a good student? Will she struggle to win the admiration of her playmates by being funny or daring? Will she struggle to win the love of a young man by being sexy and willing? Will she struggle to win the approval of her employer by becoming her job title or by foregoing her own moral bearings for the company’s bottom line?
How will she know she is not all the labels put upon her? That she is more than her gender, her ethnicity, her nationality, her preferences, her foibles, her perceived strengths and weaknesses? If she is like most of us, she will come to believe that it is the labels themselves that those around her love. If she is like most of us, it is these very labels that she will love or hate about herself. She will be ready to name her favorite and most hated body parts for the degree to which they conform with those she sees in the media or the most popular girl in class.
Will she feel, as we often do, somehow lost in this naming process?
This is how life is. This is what we do for each other, whether we are parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, coworkers or friends. We mirror each other. Because it’s hard to see ourselves, we rely on the mirroring of everyone around us who, in their response to us show us if we are brave or cowardly, smart or dumb, interesting or dull, beautiful or plain, big or small, fat or thin, old or young, agile or clumsy. We do this in ways overt and subtle, through our words, our expressions and our choice of whom we spend time with and whom we avoid.
When we think about the Buddha’s call to practice Right or Wise Speech in our relationships, we understand the power of our words. In this mirroring process, where we in a word or phrase sketch the whole character of a person, we fall off the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Not just the person we are describing’s suffering, but our own. We can feel this, the heartburn that follows a meal of labeling a person, claiming to know them, or to know how they must be feeling in any given moment based on causes and conditions. If a person is in mourning, we assume that in every moment they are in misery. When in fact every moment, every second, has a vast array of fleeting emotions and thoughts. When a person has a new grandchild, we assume that in every moment they are thrilled, euphoric, over the top deliriously happy. And even though these assumptions are not totally incorrect in both cases, they are not allowing for the person to be fully present with the actual feelings that arise.
Perhaps the person in mourning just enjoyed a lovely conversation with an old friend or just took a walk in nature, and in fact was not in that moment caught up in a sense of loss. Perhaps the grandmother had just received news that a friend’s husband had died, had just discovered that her credit card had been used on a spending spree in a foreign country, or was worried about another family member’s health. So even though she is totally over the top thrilled beyond belief at the gift of this new life, it is not for any one else to name or claim to know how she is feeling right now.
We have all experienced this sense of disconnect when someone says, “You must be so…fill in the blank: thrilled, devastated, heartbroken.” And yet our need to label and pigeon hole is very strong, so we find ourselves doing this as well.
When we thrust this pre-determined appropriate emotional response to a situation on those around us, we give the other person the clear message that that is how they should be feeling, leaving them no room to say how they really are feeling. Then they may have a sense of failure or shame of somehow not living up to expectations of others because the named emotion is not the predominate one in this moment.
This is just something we say. It's the accepted expression of love and concern in our culture. So when we recognize it we don’t have to make ourselves wrong. We can just acknowledge that it’s a product of this need to label, to known, to make connections, to organize the untidiness of life into some semblance of order.
But if we truly want to end suffering for ourselves and others, we can look at it from the standpoint of Right Speech. And what are the three guidelines to determining right speech? The first is “Is it true?” How does this assumption of a particular emotion or this assignment of a particular trait hold up under the light of the truth test? Not very well, we have to admit. Because the truth is that we don’t know. We can’t know how a person is feeling about any given situation. Bringing our assumption into it is not truth, it’s just assumption. Often the truth is that we don’t know. But how often do we believe that? Not often enough!
The second guideline is “Is it useful?” Not really! If it makes the person get caught up in comparing mind instead of being able to stay present with their own experience, that’s not useful at all. In fact, it’s obstructive, veering them off their present course into a quagmire of confusion and emotional discord.
Is it timely? No. Since in every second a person has a panoply of emotions, hitting the mark on naming just one is more chancy than roulette.
So must we always be watching what we say? While awareness of what we say is useful, watching it as if on a fault-finding mission will simply create suffering. Instead, we give ourselves the gift of slowing down, being as much in this moment as possible, and allowing our natural curiosity, compassion and love to guide us. The words that arise out of that state are less likely to be habitual, more likely to be in tune with whatever is going on.
In this state we have less urgency to label and file our experience, feel less rushed to get on to the next exciting thing. Unrushed, we settle down and sink into the experience itself, without the need to label or draw conclusions. We can relax into not knowing, and not needing to know. We can simply be present.
This is just one example of how this labeling process goes on way beyond the realm of report cards and early defining of characteristics. We are constantly providing each other with feedback. But is this feedback accurate? Each of our perceptions are distorted by our own associations and interpretations, our own misperceptions based on feedback we have received from a whole league of equally unreliable sources. What is received may have some truth in it but is not a clear reflection.
This labeling process is like being trapped in a fun house with hundreds of wavy mirrors giving us faulty information about who we are. So the question is not which mirror is correct, or what is the cumulative adjusted equation of all this provided information. The question is: which way out of the funhouse?
Meditation provides a door out of the fun house. By coming into awareness of physical sensation, we access this present moment. In full awareness of this present moment, things can get very simple. Very clear. A spaciousness arises that makes room for the tangle of distortions to be seen, known, examined and perhaps eventually released.
When we talk about No Self, (a concept that this class came upon in studying the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson while I was away and has asked for clarification) we are talking about letting go of our attachments to the labels we have been given in our lives. Last year I read to you something I wrote in 1995 called The Dance of the Seven Veils. Since you have been meditating for so much longer now, I will read it again, to see if it answers any questions about this concept of No Self.
The Dance of the Seven Veils
An exercise in letting go
The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.
The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.
The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.
The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.
The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.
The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body's very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.
The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.
Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.
Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.
You’ll notice that we remove the veils and then we don them again. After seeing the truth that we are not the veils, we can wear them more lightly. Instead of a constricting straight jacket, these labels weave together to make a filmy gown that gives us freedom to dance playfully. We can don the labels with which the world defines us and know that this is just part of the experience of living this existence, but it is not the be all end all of who we are. Who we are is both much more complex and more simple than all these labels would have us believe. Who we are is not how we measure up in possessions or accomplishments or strengths or interests. Who we are is not attached to our stuff, our relationships, our beliefs or our preferences, but our moment by moment experiencing of this gift of consciousness and the spaciousness of not knowing. We can relax and dance in the mystery.
We don’t know much of anything and, as we discussed last week, that is a very liberating acknowledgment. Our brains are busy trying to assess and assimilate information from current conditions and past experience, trying to find a match, so we can plaster a label on it and file it away, because without an efficient filing system, we get easily overwhelmed.
But maybe not all information has to be assimilated and assigned a file drawer. Maybe we can just let ourselves float a bit in the moment and allow our curiosity to run free and our file clerk to take a much needed vacation on a white beach with balmy breezes.
This is the gift of meditation: A step back from the fray of needing to get caught up in the thick of the sniffing, checking and labeling. To just be open to what is.
Through meditation we relax into the mystery a little more, and become more fluent in the language of the I Don’t Know mind. It is the most beautiful language of all, for allowing what is to retain its mystery is a great gift. Allowing ourselves and others to simply exist without labels or expectation grants a certain gracious gratitude for life as it is, however it is – a mysterious gift we are continuously unwrapping in no hurry to end the experience.