Sunday, May 1, 2011

Losing Labels

Greetings NIP,

            I love language. I love the way that certain words sound or the way they can be strung together to convey complex ideas. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been moved by words. This love of language continued during my collegiate studies, as I double majored in Classics to study Latin and ancient Greek. I then went on to study American Literature while working on my MA in Religious Studies. Still consumed by logophilia, I devoured works of the written word in an effort to appreciate the author’s ability to mold meaning from otherwise lifeless vessels of abstract, phonetic symbols. Even as a Human Geography teacher, I discuss language with my students because it is one of the critical components of culture. It is in this vein in particular that I’ve been most fascinated with lately. If our language is part of our cultural heritage, then it defines us in ways that we probably don’t often think about. While words in and of themselves are meaningless, the shared meaning that is mutually understood by those who speak the language and/or live within the particular cultural context in question is not. The universality of meaning arises from consensus, which is something we don’t often recognize. We take meaning for granted. But it is in taking meaning for granted that can get us into trouble, especially when we use our words indiscriminately or thoughtlessly to label others or ourselves.

            While labels can be helpful to discern one item or idea from another, they can be downright insidious when applied to people. It’s probably difficult to imagine a world without adjectives or a language without descriptors to modify the meaning of words, because part of our interaction with the world is one of classification. We love to compartmentalize our information (and our lives, truth be told) and try to separate “this” from “that.” In so doing, however, we invite comparison in through the backdoor. When we start to compare, it is inevitable that we will also contrast the two ideas or objects and, in some measure or another, label one as better than the other. Sure, concepts and/or things don’t have any preference as to how they’re labeled, but people do. And whether we realize it or not, behind the labels we so casually employ are judgments. We may not see them consciously as such, but they are there underneath the implied meaning that the culture has given these words. For instance, just think about a few polar opposites: black / white; Democrat / Republican; gay / straight; poor / rich. What comes to mind? Depending on your own convictions and perspective on the world, probably a whole lot. You might champion one side over another, explaining your rationale for the choice. But when we use labels in this way, do we really see the person in question? Do we really try to get to know that person, or is that knowledge tinged by the way in which we view the world? Can we ever truly know another person objectively without judgment? Perhaps not, though I cannot say for sure. But with mindfulness we realize that there is some form of judgment that is carried out in the labeling of all phenomena, particularly when it comes to people. On a genetic level, human beings are 99.4% the same. Think about that. Six tenths of one percent represents every bit of variation that you see when you look out into the world of people. We are fundamentally all the same yet more often than not unwilling to recognize this fact because of differences in perception. So we continue trying to pigeonhole each other with labels as if any single one of those words could ever capture the combination of beautiful idiosyncrasies that comprise who we are in any given moment.

            The reason why I have been mulling over this in my mind for the past few weeks has to do with thoughts of an old friend/teacher, someone whom I had not thought about for more than a decade. But the thoughts of this old teacher were brought to my attention from a new teacher, Karin Stephan. For those of you who are not familiar with her, Karin was one of the first students of Iyengar (perhaps the man most responsible for yoga’s introduction to the West) who brought his teachings back to the United States in the 1970’s. While she taught Erin and me much during the two workshops we attended, both of us were more impressed by Karin the person than Karin’s yoga skills (which, after practicing for over 40 years, are incredible in the most etymologically formal sense of the word). From the first moment we met her, we knew we had serendipitously discovered our master teacher. Karin is perhaps one of the most authentic people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. At 69, she seemingly cares little for social convention that only serves as impediments to our progress in life. But this probably has to do with the old teacher to whom I was originally referring: Jiddu Krishnamurti. It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of this person, NIP; until Karin mentioned him, I’ve never heard anyone outside the context of Religious Studies utter his name. While many (if not most) people would know someone such as The Dalai Lama because of his rock star status among spiritual teachers, Krishnamurti seems to have been swept up into the pages of history without much fanfare. Though one could argue for the merit of his teachings, this would probably go against what Krishnamurti believed and perhaps explains why so few know of him. Karin, however, actually had the opportunity to learn from him directly while she was in India—in a tent, no less! It was through Karin’s teaching that I heard the echoes of Krishnamurti, which places utmost importance on letting someone be.

            At first, this sounds overly simplified. We often think of that expression in terms of not bothering someone, but to let someone be in this particular case is more about allowing the other person to live their lives in a manner that is consistent with his/her own perceptions of the world, not what our preconceived notions of how that person should live his/her own life (please don’t misconstrue this as vindicating cultural relativism). When we come into contact with “the other,” no matter who that person is, we have a static idea of who that person is. The reason I say static is that the idea in question is a product of presuppositions, much of which stem from past interactions with that person. Or, worse yet, we’ve had no interactions with that person and begin the process of labeling unconsciously. Even if we think the person is “nice” or “good” or “friendly” we are unintentionally defining the whole of that person—which is impossible. Krishnmurti was prescient in this regard. He knew that labels limit potential and only foster false divisions among people. He advocated giving up cultural constructs that only bring people into further conflict, whether with words or weapons. Religion, nationalism, politics, socioeconomic status, et cetera only divide humanity and create an “us” and “them” mentality. To rid ourselves of these spurious classifications is to achieve ultimate freedom (“freedom from the known” as Krishnamurti famously called it). Only by acknowledging the limits of our perception can we allow other to be. We cannot enter into relationships with solidified ideas of who we are or who others are, because in truth we are never the same. Are any of us identically the same from one moment to the next? Impossible. Even at the cellular level this is easily witnessed. We are not static, we are dynamic. Always changing, always on the precipice of possibility and potential to make our lives better and become the best of who we know we can be.

            This is what made Karin’s teaching so impressive. I think I can speak for just about every person in the workshop when I say that when Karin was teaching an individual, she was letting that person be. Karin entered the relationship with no preconceived notion concerning that person’s skill level. No matter where that student was in that specific moment, Karin only sought to help that person improve him/herself. Clearly, this impacted not only the alignment of my asanas (yoga poses), but the larger framework of orthopraxy. Yoga isn’t just about practicing on the mat, it’s about living it out in the context of real life. The whole world is my mat; I’m just trying to find my place on it and settle into the still point, the “choiceless awareness” of which Krishnamurti spoke. Meeting Karin proved to be a momentous point in my life. She illustrated the importance of entering into relationships without expectation, something that will ultimately have an impact on me not only as a yoga instructor but as an educator as well. While my students may not know it, they have played an integral part in my personal growth this year and for that I have nothing but love and gratitude for them. But it took meeting Karin to remind me of Krishnamurti’s teachings. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “someone who has seen the truth / will guide you on the path to wisdom” (4.34). Karin certainly did this for me, because there is a difference between seeing the path and walking upon it.

            While it may be impossible to completely eradicate labels from our way of thinking and interacting with the world, an important first step toward “freedom from the known” is simply being aware of when we are doing it (labeling). In your interactions with others, NIP, try not to limit that relationship’s potential with your ideas about who that person is, how that person is feeling, or any other limitation you may unwittingly apply in your mind. That person may have changed for the better since your last interaction. After all, isn’t that what life is? An opportunity to take part in the beauty that surrounds us and try to enhance it and ourselves in some way? Many of us take it as an assault on our personhood when others make sweeping generalizations about us, knowing that many of them are completely unfounded (and perhaps a twinge of regret when we know some of them are true). By trying to limit the labeling of others, we take on a new vantage point for interacting with those people. We enter into relationships—whether new or old—with a sense of purpose and discovery. Let the others in your life flower before you, NIP; you may be surprised by what you discover when your mind is open to new possibilities and not hampered by the limitation of labels.

Keep opening up, NIP…

- Ryan

P.S. – If you’re at all inclined to philosophical reading, I’d really recommend Jiddu Krishnamurti’s The First and Last Freedom. It is a series of talks that he gave in the 1950’s that were recorded and then later transcribed into this magnum opus. If you enter into it with an open mind, he’ll leave you with no answers and only more questions. But it is during this reflection we often find our own, personally intuitive answers. These are the ones we cannot afford to ignore if we’re seeking enlightenment.

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