Labeling

October 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s pretty early in the morning and I’ve only got about 10 minutes to bang this out. Let’s see how well I do with my thoughts on 1/2 a cup of coffe! LOL.

One of my friends posted this article in her FaceBook about the issue of Labeling — as in the Buddhist definition of Labeling. The article, written by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche published in an online article for the Huffington Post, I felt really did a great job of spelling out the problems of Labeling as seen from the Buddhist perspective.

As an educator seeing all these recent stories about teens taking their lives for the various forms of bullying they are going through, this issue really speaks to me at this time. As a parent with two young children who have just entered the public school system, I also look at this issue quite closely — more closely now that I’ve gained a greater understanding of Labeling from the Buddhist standpoint.

Looking out at my classroom, every day, I have to admit that I see the labels that we traditionally place on students (and that we ourselves as students placed on ourselves as teenagers): The Jocks, the Popular Girls, the Troublemakers, the Loners, the Angstful ones, the Nerd, and the Kid Everyone Thinks Is Gay. As a teacher, I’ve always done my best to take each student on his or her own worth, and have always understood the importance of doing so in terms of education. As a beginning buddhist practitioner, this importance has taken on a more far-reaching meaning. In the article, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche states:

“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.”

As rational thinking people, we always know this to be true. I think we realize that opposites are somewhat fabricated — think of the “opposite” that we create between “cats” and “dogs.” Why are they opposites? They’re not even the same species. We’ve made them opposites because we’ve fabricated this cultural idea of cats and dogs fighting all the time. If you place a cat and a dog in a room, however, in my own experience, you’ll have a cat who couldn’t care less, or you’ll have the cat who will corner the dog. It’s not the case that the species are opposites, it’s more likely that the nature of one individual cat that influences it’s decision to ignore or chase that dog (I’m thinking of one particular, petite cat we owned who cornered a Boston Terrier three times her size, and a fat fluffy orange male cat who slept through the whole ordeal). The idea that dogs and cats are opposites make no more sense, really, than the idea that bird and fish are opposites. How do we know? Try explaining the idea of cats and dogs being opposite to a school-age child who is learning “opposites” in school (ugh). You’ll see how difficult it is to explain — and how ridiculous it all sounds once you start trying to put it into words.

This idea of having Labeling being an issue spelled out for us in Buddhist thinking, though, is important. We know it’s pretty well irrational, makes no real sense, and pits two camps against each other. As western thinkers, however, we are not usually led to the conclusion that it is one of the things that we do as a culture that leads to actual suffering. I mean, how could something we are taught by our pre-K teachers lead to SUFFERING? But it does.

I’m thankful for my friend who posted this article — it reminded me of the sea of faces I see every day, and the labels that our students are burdened with, that they carry around all day long. I hope I can do a decent job today of taking those labels off in my own mind. Maybe it’ll make some kind of difference? We’ll see.

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§ 2 Responses to Labeling

  • star says:

    It’s helpful to notice the labels being applied (it’s a useful tool in understanding what’s going on in relationships between people) but it’s also useful to minimize the labeling ourselves. In a sense all language is labels, so it’s necessary; without it we can’t communicate. But the more people (by which I mean “the more often more than one person in a conversation) understand the emptiness of words, that they are rough approximations, not accurate representations of reality, the better chance we have of communicating accurately.

    In my house, the cat and one of the dogs sleep together; our Doberman mothers our orange tabby.

    • Star, thanks for that! It’s too true in regard to the emptiness of words — I think the truthfulness of that statement really comes out when you start to try to translate anything from one language to another. In some languages, there are just some things that don’t translate well from one to another. My father and I often discuss this when we come accross certain Japanese words that we have a hard time explaining to someone in English. Simply, there are some that just don’t translate well no matter which English words you try to use or put together in a combination in order to explain. The best one can do is give examples of circumstances or tell stories to illustrate. Even then, unless you have the cultural background as your lens, it often still won’t translate completely.

      Or, when I was in college, I discovered reading English translations of French poetry simply doesn’t work. The ‘soul’ behind the meanings of the words, no matter how well translated, gets lost (and I use ‘soul’ here simply to mean the spirit in which the poem was written, the ‘feel’ of it, that intangible ‘something’ that a poem evokes). Language is definitely a cultural construct, a human construct, and does limit our perspective.

      On that idea of language limiting our perspective, how does one explain that well to another? My nephew wrote an interesting response to my original blog post yesterday, but he posted it via FaceBook so we can’t see it here. He kind of ‘went off’ on how he is always surprised that ‘people’ take these ideas that seem so obvious to him (and he clearly thinks they must be obvious to others) as ‘light bulb moments.’ He sounded pretty well disgusted that I — and others — were talking about this issue of Labeling how it affects those individuals to whom it is applied. I tried — again in FB — to explain to him that this is just one way in which the issue of Labeling is brought up in Buddhism, but I don’t know really how else to explain it.

      Here’s how I tried to explain it to him, in simple terms:

      “labeling has other more far-reaching issues than that when it comes to buddhism too. Not just the more simplistic one I outlined in my blog entry. Labeling is used to frame our world, one which is very much fabricated — therefore an illusion — thanks to the labels we place on not just people, but objects, ideas, feelings, and more.”

      Reading back on what I wrote, I don’t like how I sound apologetic for my blog entry đŸ˜¡ but I was trying to let him know that Labeling isn’t this one, simple idea that I’d mentioned here. Perhaps I did a disservice to this issue by writing what I did. Hope not.

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