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The Labeling Disease

March 3rd, 2007

There is a mental state which we could call “The Labeling Disease”. It works like this:

Oh, he is Japanese. I knew a Japanese woman once. I know Japanese. I can close the book on this.

or…

Oh it is Buddhist. I know about Buddhism. I read something once. Saw something. Looked at a picture. I know it. I can close the book on it.

or…

Oh, he is Christian, I know Christians. I can close the book on him.

or…

Oh, this is abstract art, contemporary art, cubist art, I know this, that or the other. I read something once, saw a special on the Discovery Channel, read an article in a magazine once, know a friend. I know this. I can close the book on it then.

I can close my mind to it.

I don’t have to understand anything outside of my own boundaries of understanding.

Do you understand where I am going with this? Often we say, ever so subtly sometimes to ourselves, sometimes right out loud, depending on our levels of arrogance, that we know something as soon as we find a category to place it in. Then we compare and contrast it with other things we know in that category. Most often this is done not just out of arrogance but out of laziness. People often don’t like having to look deeper or even want to see something new. People like to say “there is nothing new under the sun” because it makes them feel comfortable. If there is nothing new under the sun then they don’t have to try to understand anything. It’s all old news.

Life itself is newness though. Constantly, every moment of time is recreating itself before our eyes and as it does that so are we doing the same. Our body is constantly recreating itself, every cell, coming together, breaking apart, and then so is what we perceive- waves instantaneously coalesce and are particles every time we stop to look- form happens every time we interact with the world. Every time we open our eyes, move a hand, take a breath. But whatever it is, any moment, any thing, any thought, is something you have never seen done or heard of before, no matter how much your mind tries to tell you it is familiar with it.

A naturalist might tell you that every tree they see has it’s own story, its own feel about it- every sycamore, every oak, every redwood is unique in and of itself. To some- once you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all. An oak is an oak. A birch is a birch. What is the difference between the two? The naturalist is open to it and allows each to tell its story. The naturalist is not blinded by the archetypal tree in his head.

There are two ways of approaching things, in this light. One possibility is via the comparison to every archetype in our heads. If what we see matches, then we define it based on the archetype’s set of parameters. We will never see the singular experience of that one tree. The other way of approaching things is by allowing it to expand the archetype that we know. We approach the tree first and, after much examination, conclude that yes, it is X-type of tree but also- it has shown us whole new ways that trees can be. This is true for anything and everything. The Japanese man you may meet, the artwork upon the wall- examine it, look at it, hold it and feel it and experience it.

Knowing something proves nothing. Knowledge of things is as illusion of experiencing things. The assurance of knowledge blocks us from experiencing wisdom. Wisdom is something we experience. Knowledge is simply an entry of a fact in a ledger of comparisons.

Wisdom comes from openness. If we are open to what life has to teach us then there is the possibility of gaining wisdom. Being open to what life has to teach us is not labeling it as soon as it walks in our door, not closing off to it as soon as it asks something of us, not lying to ourselves that we know it because we have seen something like it before. Some of the saddest people are the ones who say they have seen it all. Nothing new under the sun, they say.

Forget about the label, ok?

We need labels though, you say. Otherwise, how will I know, for instance, what exactly is in the soup can at the store. Chicken soup or split pea? A silver aluminum can is useless! It could be lima beans or pickled quail eggs! So, of course, labels can be quite useful. But once you buy the can, and you open it- and you eat your chicken soup, again, you can take one of two approaches- you taste it as it is, as it is meant to be tasted, enjoying the elements of it. Or you say, “This is chicken soup. It will taste like chicken soup. I am eating chicken soup.” And you don’t taste it at all because you taste only your own beliefs of the thing.

This is a big problem with our consumerist culture today. A lot of the crap you see out there on the grocery shelves, in the fast food restaurants, the vending machines, tells you what it is but if you actually stop to try and taste it you will be disappointed. They lack substance and contain mostly just salts and fats: enough to jog the primal brain that desires only those things.

Sometimes a person will see some painting I have painted and they label it “psychedelic” or “new age” or “spiritual art”, thereby reducing it from something which they would have to take a moment to understand and turning it into something they have already, at some past time when they learned about these things, already understood. People often like to live in the past, on old memories and learned behaviors. What’s the use? How can you ever learn anything?

Children are so open. Everything they see is new. They have no definitions. Somehow we equate “letting go of the desire to learn new things” with “growing up”. Somehow we feel that, when our library of archetypes is filled, we are done learning. We’ve seen all the horses, all the fire trucks, all the moonrises. What’s to get excited about?

Life. Everything is new, different, never quite what you saw before. Every nuance of every person is entirely unique to themselves. Every branch of every tree. Every reflection in every pool of water is not at all the same reflection you saw last.

If you don’t learn anything by experiencing life this way, with a sense of openness and curiosity, then I promise, you can come back to me and tell me how, truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

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