DT – Shed Labels in Open Awareness

Tonight, I’ll continue a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome. The theme of the tenth chapter is how easy it is to become attached to our perceptions of reality. Our perceptions are influenced by the words we use to describe our experiences. 

Pema refers to the 14th century yogi Longchenpa, who taught that how we label things is how they appear to be. She admits that her habit of labeling was a problem when she became director of Gampo Abbey, the monastery in Nova Scotia founded by Trungpa Rinpoche. Perceiving that the kitchen was dirty and messy, she made cleanliness and neatness her mission. Her incessant instructions and inspections upset the cooking crew, and she was unhappy that their efforts to reform never met her high standards. 

Realizing that her negative labels were causing suffering for herself and others, Pema made a vow to stop meddling. Once she let the staff run the kitchen in their own way, she was surprised to discover that it seemed cleaner and more orderly, and that the meals tasted better. With less vigilance about dirt and messiness, she could relax and everyone around her felt more at ease. Her role as director began to be enjoyable. 

Thogme Zangpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva describe the benefits of changing how we label difficult circumstances. According to one verse, “Even if someone humiliates you and denounces you in front of a crowd of people, think of this person as your teacher and humbly honor him.” Our immediate reaction to such unkind treatment is to consider the speaker an enemy. But a bodhisattva knows that the denouncer and humiliator can be a teacher for awakening and for transcending the ego’s resistance to criticism.

Pema cites Machik Labdron, a 12th century Tibetan Buddhist, who counseled all who cling to their egos to “Reveal your hidden faults.” Instead of attempting to conceal our flaws and being defensive when they are exposed, we can be open about them. 

At the New York Zen Center, my teacher Koshin Paley Ellison uses this philosophy as a didactic tool. In my Buddhist chaplaincy classes, he pointed out verbal and nonverbal habits that blocked communication among group members and encouraged us to do the same. For instance, he noted my tendency to focus on just the person I’m addressing instead of widening my gaze and opening my posture to include the rest of the group. At first, I felt embarrassed about being criticized in front of my fellow chaplain interns, but over time I learned to appreciate how this kind of critique has helped me become more aware of body language in group meetings at hospice and elsewhere.

Pema asks, “If your goal is inner transformation, then why not see everything that helps you grow—however unpleasant it seems at first—as your teacher?” The more we adopt this attitude, the more we will feel at ease in situations that might be distressing otherwise. Her advice is, “Never underestimate the power of mind.” Working with inner habits transforms how we perceive the outer world. For example, if we practice curbing our own aggressive impulses, people around us seem friendlier. 

Trungpa Rinpoche used the phrase “random labeling” to refer to our arbitrary ways of thinking and speaking about things. In English, we call the object that we sit on a “chair;” in Spanish, it’s “una silla,” and in Zulu, it’s “isihlalo.” It’s fine to give neutral objects a label so that we can communicate about them. Problems arise when an object or a feeling or a person that we label becomes that label in our mind and when we hold our arbitrary designation rigidly. 

One of the exhibits at the Kinder building of the MFAH displays various designs of seats that are legless, backless, flattened, inflated or twisted. By playing around with form, the designers loosen our ideas about what elements are essential for labeling an object a “chair.” 

In Pema’s words, “If we get too fixated on our label, we forget that the nature of things is open, fluid, and subject to change and interpretation.” Recently I attended a virtual workshop taught by a former music therapy student of mine. Santiago introduced me to the group as his esteemed teacher of guided imagery and music. As soon as he began to teach technological steps for offering online GIM sessions, though, I embraced my role as one of his students, a neophyte in the realm of devices, optic fibers, speed tests, Ethernet cables, and microphones. 

There is a delightful story about Trungpa Rinpoche, sitting in a garden with his teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who suddenly pointed and exclaimed, “They call that a tree!” Both men roared with laughter, amused that a complex, changing phenomenon with roots, leaves, bark, sap, and buds could be labeled simply a “tree.” Not tied to concepts, the two Tibetan masters could enjoy the freedom of experiencing life unfolding moment by moment. 

To free ourselves from labels, Pema recommends the practice of open awareness. In chapter eleven, she describes the method: “Practicing open awareness is a gradual process of continually going back to seeing what we are seeing, smelling what we are smelling, feeling what we are feeling. Whatever happens, the method is to keep letting go of the extra stuff and return to just what’s here.” 

By training ourselves to notice our habit of labeling things, we realize how much we create our own reality. So often we label experiences automatically and unconsciously as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Without awareness, a label of “pleasant” can lead to craving and even addiction; “unpleasant” can escalate to prejudice or violence; and “neutral” can evolve into indifference and lack of compassion towards others. 

What seem like simple, innocent labels can influence actions on both individual and collective levels. Mark and I watched a documentary series about the end of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia for 300 years, from 1613 until 1917. While warfare and famine were devastating the country, Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra were attached to the comfort of their luxurious lifestyle. After three daughters were born, they celebrated the birth of a son, Alexi. This pleasant period ended abruptly when the infant heir to the throne was diagnosed with hemophilia. Unable to face this painful reality, the family kept Alexi’s condition a secret and withdrew from public life. The Czar’s unconcern for massive suffering outside the palace sowed the seeds for the Russian revolution. He was assassinated, along with his wife and their four children. In retrospect, we can see the tragic karmic consequences of the Czar’s clinging to family, fortune and power.

During a typical day, our conceptual mind is busy labeling, judging, comparing and solidifying what we encounter. Rarely do we experience anything directly. Instead, we overlay our experiences with views, opinions and emotional reactions. Pema uses this example: if you wake up in the morning and hear the rain falling outside, you might label the sound “comforting and soothing” and want it to last. But if you had planned an outdoor event, you might label the sound “bothersome and inconvenient” and want it to stop. Apart from your positive or negative associations, the sound of the rainfall remains just as it is, free from conceptual limitations. 

Concepts separate us from our experiences. When I taste salsa picante, I tend to have a sense of “I”—a separate subject who is tasting an object and then deciding if I like it or not. But in the direct experience of tasting the salsa picante, there is just taste—no “me” or “it.” 

In One Dharma, Joseph Goldstein writes about the concept of a “self” being as insubstantial as a rainbow, which doesn’t exist apart from particular conditions of air, moisture and light. So too, what we call “self” or “me” is, in his words, “an appearance, a display arising out of the various changing elements of mind and body interacting with one another.” 

Of course, concepts are useful. Instead of telling a friend, “I see light mixing with moisture in the air and producing a spectrum of color,” I say, “Hey, look at the beautiful rainbow.” But because we don’t understand “self” to be a concept just like a rainbow, we keep hoping that our self will find satisfaction or completion. Joseph quotes Wie Wu Wei, “It’s like a dog barking up a tree that isn’t there.” 

Not until the mind relaxes into open awareness do we become one with our experience. When we practice what Pema calls “showing up for our life,” the senses, mind, and heart open, and we let go of labeling things as “good” or “bad,” “self” or “other,” etc. 

She recommends having an attitude of “sitting in the middle of what’s happening.” 

For instance, if an upsetting issue—like an angry interaction or a painful childhood memory—comes to mind during meditation, we can practice letting go of concepts and labels, interrupting the momentum of any story lines that arise, and returning over and over again to a sense of open spaciousness. In this way, we can sense  space filling the whole body from head to toe or expanding to encompass the room and even the vastness outside. The more we go through the cycle of unhooking from emotional dramas and sitting in the middle of open space, the more we see how life flows by in an impermanent stream. 

When we are in harmony with this flow, we move beyond labeling to enjoy the indescribable unfolding of each moment.