Thursday, October 18, 2012

Destroy what defines you

Ego keeps busy trying to build a wall around itself, to shut itself away from the “other.” Then, of course, having created this barrier, immediately the ego also wants to communicate with the other, which it now perceives as “outside” or not part of itself.-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

"When I look at you, I see same," the Dalai Lama, pointing to himself and an audience of Middlebury College students

* * *

One of things about Buddhism that feels right to me is nonself -- the idea that I don't exist as a permanent, unchanging entity. Everything is always changing, always in play, and that's OK. Labels may apply in a given situation but not another one. There isn't a Me Party line to toe.

I have difficulty with labels, right down to my name. I don't feel like Nancy. But that's what I'm called, so I answer. I've also been known to answer to Linda, Barb, Kim -- whatever name the person who is looking at me uses. I know who they mean.

This week on Facebook I described myself as "'a Buddhist, atheist, feminist vegan who works for a newspaper and believes that sex is biological but gender is a construct and therefore flexible. I'm pro availability of abortion, and some of my best friends (and closest relatives) are gay." I am all of those things, but also none of those things, if you want to lay down cultural rules that I have to abide by in order to use them as descriptors. I am a rebel.

 As a feminist, I expect I'm supposed to be happy that women's issues are front and center in the presidential campaign. And I've enjoyed mocking Mitt Romney's binder full of women as much as anyone.

But it's time to move beyond the meme. Labeling issues as "women's issues" still puts them into a pink ghetto. They are human issues, quality-of-life issues.

Far worse, to me, is that the discourse worsens the cultural divide between men and women. Men this, women that. Yes, there are differences. But differences are just differences, not destiny. And my fluid labels become more solid when someone says that, as someone who falls into one of those categories, I *must think/fee/want a certain thing.

The more we harden our cultural categories and boundaries, the more we hard our hearts to others. If we can slot someone into an "other" category -- however unconsciously we do it -- we've created a divide. We distance ourselves, and we fill that space with barriers.

When Sokuzan Bob Brown visited the Interdependence Project, he looked at the humans sitting there and said, "When I look at you, I see nothing." What a powerful  view. What a beautiful gift to everyone in that room to allow them to be who they were in that moment. No more, no less, because there is no more or less. There just is.

Close your eyes for a moment and clear your mind. Observe your breath. When you open them, notice how quickly you categorize the next person you see and what labels you apply. (Woman. Friend. Worker. Pretty. That's why I got in a flash.)

Sometimes you need to categorize or classify things. Knowing that you're doing it -- what the labels are and what they mean to you -- can illuminate how your mind and your cultural conditioning work.

Gender theorist Kate Bornstein offers this handy chart of 15 common ways we separate ourselves from others. How many do you automatically apply?

1 comment:

  1. So it's not that Romney put *women* into folders, but that he treated *people* that way, condescendingly. I like it! This perspective can help us purge our own superfluous identities, but also, from a rhetorical perspective, taking the label *women* away denies him the very label he is implicitly trying to create. I get from this that avoiding labels is a powerful rhetorical technique when trying to fend off those would oppress others.

    As for "sometimes you need to categorize or classify things", I suspect the times are few when we should be categorizing people. It's one thing to do so in order to help them, as in "let's help *unemployed* people to find work". But other kinds of categorization quickly lead us into an ingroup / outgroup mentality. Did you have a nice chat with a white/black man/woman on the bus? Or just with a man/woman? Or just a nice chat with somebody? We evolved to have a strong affinity toward ingroup and outgroup distinctions, but these instincts are destructive in heterogeneous civil societies, and they detract from reaching enlightenment. As any Buddhist (label!) knows.