Remember when you were a child, and life was full of wonder and excitement? When every experience was new and you were fully present in each moment, feeling more than thinking, and enjoying your connection to everything you interacted with? What if you could jump back into that state of aliveness and appreciation, and experience life again, for the first time?
I’m writing this post because I’m excited about how alive I feel when I live beyond labels and images, and the profound difference it’s making in my health and relationships. I want to share my experience with you, and learn from your experiences in the comments below.
Alive Like Little Children
Young children live without labels because their language abilities and brain have not fully developed. When they see a couch, for example, they are engaged completely with the couch. Their senses detect what we call colors, textures, smells, etc. Their eyes widen and they are fascinated with the experience of seeing, touching, and maybe even tasting the couch. Their experience completely consumes their attention and being, as if nothing else exists.
But soon they learn that this object is called a “couch”. It is identified, labeled, and boxed up in a mental package that can be recalled by the mind. From then on, the experience becomes less and less special, and is seldom experienced for what it is beyond the label of “couch”. Further, when other couches are seen, they are quickly categorized by the mind as a couch, rather than experienced fully in their own unique beauty.
As we learn to think, we find ourselves constantly swimming in our thoughts, rarely experiencing or appreciating what is around us at the sensory level, except when something new or different appears, and we get the feeling of novelty, which quickly wears off. But is it possible to jump back into this state after we’ve already formed a label and have experienced it thousands of times?
Those who have taken psychedelic drugs will probably tell you yes. I haven’t tried them yet, so I can’t say, but I’ve felt this kind of aliveness to different degrees without the drugs, where time seems to move slowly, colors pop out more vividly, and I feel deeply at peace, connected to everything around me, without the immediate need to label or identify anything. While the more powerful moments didn’t persist for longer than a few days, I’m learning how to tap into these states more regularly.
Update: I have experimented with the psychedelic drug ayahuasca since this post was written. Read about my experiences here.
Benefits of Label-less…ness
Of course, living life completely without labels would be impractical for a modern adult. It could take hours to brush your teeth – what an amazing sensory experience! And we’d probably make choices we’d later regret if we didn’t use our ability to recall our past experiences.
But by consciously removing the labels our mind creates, not only can we experience and appreciate inanimate objects like couches more fully, we can also better enjoy our emotions and humanness, allowing us to see and accept ourselves as we really are underneath the images we try to hold up. It also enables us to connect with other people as they are in that moment, instead of who we think they are based on past experiences or stories we’ve told ourselves about them. Our life experience becomes more authentically real when the labels are gone. There is no judgment. No separation. Only love and oneness and bliss. And this feels more real to me than any words I later use to describe or identify the experience.
In essence, every word is a label, a judgment. It is not reality, only a pointer to it. Words are necessary for modern life. But in the moments when we move beyond them, we experience the world in a whole new way, and open ourselves up to a broader and perhaps more accurate view of our ever-changing reality. The mind is an amazingly powerful tool. Logic and reason help us understand ourselves and our world, and to grow and create. But if we allow it, our mind can also rule our lives and keep us from seeing the beauty that constantly surrounds us.
Moving Beyond Labels
Here are a few examples of how seeing beyond the labels can work in different areas of life, and how it allows us to tap into deeper states of aliveness, awareness, and presence.
When I feel an emotion like anger arise within me, I can unconsciously identify with that anger and take it out on those around me through blaming, yelling, or physical violence. Or I can recognize and label the emotion as anger, judge it as negative or unwanted, push it away, and try to focus on more positive thoughts. While the second reaction may seem more healthy, both have undesired consequences such as damaged relationships, lack of respect, inauthenticity, health problems through suppression, and general suffering.
Fortunately, there is a third alternative. When I feel anger, I can pay attention to what’s going on inside my body. Perhaps I feel my heart beat faster, I notice heat in my palms, tension in my jaw, and a churning feeling in my stomach. Whatever it is, I can notice those sensations, and allow them to be. I don’t need to label them as “anger” or even as negative or uncomfortable. They’re just interesting sensations happening in my body and I can feel into them like a baby would a couch, with wonder. Eventually, they may morph into different sensations or dissipate. But by stepping out of the mind and into the body, the label of anger, and the reasons for it, disappear, and I realize that I’m not really angry. I am not my emotions, but there are sensations arising in my experience of life. I don’t have to suppress these feelings for fear of them sticking, or for fear of me acting in some way I would regret. I don’t have to act at all, but I also don’t have to suppress these emotions, which are part of being human and alive. I can just enjoy the ride. This makes it easier to make appropriate decisions from a place of peace and wholeness, rather than from anger, fear, or from being caught up in mental stories about the emotion.
Of course, this technique applies to all emotion, from anger and shame and greed to peace and joy and bliss. We don’t need to label any of these emotions. But we can feel and appreciate them as they arise, and let them flow through us without feeling a need to control, suppress, prolong, or identify with them. In this, we can experience them fully as they are, rather than as the label we choose to place on them. This allows them to run their course in a natural and healthy way.
It seems human nature to label ourselves and hold up an image of how we want to be or how we want to appear to others. Maybe we see ourselves or want to be seen as intellectual, successful, beautiful, organized, kind, funny, spiritual, or authentic. Or maybe we view ourselves as dumb, ugly, sloppy, lazy, an addict, or a victim of circumstance or disease. Sometimes we identify with our family roles, profession, religion or belief system, social status, or culture to the point that we don’t know who we are without it.
In truth, we are not any of these things we identify with. These are just stories your mind has created to try and understand yourself, but they are not the real you. Plus, circumstances can change unexpectedly, and if we’re attached to a label, this change can be a very traumatic experience because we fear losing our identity. This fear can lead us to behaviors that may cause us suffering.
If we’re trying to hold up the image of ourselves as intellectual, for example, we may lie or stretch the truth to impress others, attempt to cover up our errors, resist statements that challenge our words instead of honestly questioning them, and take offense (and become defensive) when our image (whatever label we think we are) is questioned by others. We may feel intelligent one moment, and stupid the next, but we’ll try to hide it, and try not to feel it. This isn’t real or authentic. It’s just putting on a show of intellectualism, and causes separation between us and others.
So what can we do? I’ve written a little about this before, but when I find myself feeling offended, emotional, or needing to prove something, it’s an indicator to me that I’m attached to a label or image of myself that I’ve chosen to uphold. In that moment, it’s helpful to step back, and again, feel and appreciate the feelings inside my body, realizing that I am not these thoughts and emotions. I can also remember that how I choose to uphold this label will affect the relationship with the person I’m speaking with, and that I could easily be wrong.
Labeling Other People
Labeling people is pervasive. When we meet new people in our travels, they often begin the conversation by asking where we’re from. In some parts of the world, people ask “what do you do [for a living]?” The answers to these questions provide a label to attach to the person so that the mind can place them in a box and understand them. These labels may tell us something of the person’s culture and upbringing, but say almost nothing about the person themselves, in that moment. If I tell you I’m from Utah, or Bali, or Iraq, does it really tell you who I am? Or does it just cause you to view me through a lens of stereotypes based on what you know about the place? Does it change how you interact with me? Are you interacting with me at all, or just with the image you’re telling yourself about me?
When we label someone, and see that label as negative, it can cause us to reject, withdraw from, or fear that person, rather than embrace them for the beautiful being they are underneath the labels. Interestingly, when we reject others, we’re also (often unknowingly) rejecting a part of ourselves, causing less wholeness, connection, and love within ourselves and in our relationships. Labels we see as positive can also cause us to idolize others, trust them blindly, and have inflated expectations.
Here’s an exercise I’ve found helpful for connecting with the person, beyond the labels and stereotypes of culture, religion, and social status. This works both with meeting new people, and with those I’ve known for years.
It’s like this: When visiting with someone, whether you think you know them or not, try to forget what you’ve heard about them, forget your past experiences with them, and meet the person as they are today. Notice their facial features, posture, the texture of their skin, the way they breathe. Look into their eyes and try to connect with what they’re feeling. Do you really know them? Or are you just interacting with a story you’ve told yourself about them? The key to this, again, is to notice how your interaction with them feels in your own body. Pay attention to your senses.
This goes for mean bullies, stupid politicians, annoying bloggers, and everyone else. Do we need to label them or their behavior as mean, stupid, or annoying? Who are they underneath their labels and behavior? Who are you underneath yours? What is happening right now in your experience? What sensations are you feeling? Is there any difference, or even separation between you and the person next to you? At the deepest level, I feel there is not.
If the person in front of you is expressing a strong emotion, or an opinion that differs from yours, remember that just as you are not your thoughts or emotions, so also are others not their thoughts or emotions. Allow them to experience whatever thought or emotion arises within them, and accept them through it all. You don’t have to agree with them. But by unconditionally allowing what’s appearing in each of you, you’ll be able to better avoid an emotional reaction that can create disharmony in the relationship.
Labeling Situations or Events
When we’re washing dishes, where are our thoughts? What about when walking through town, eating, working, traveling, or skydiving? Are we thinking about other things? Are we thinking about what we’re doing? Or are we simply doing these tasks, becoming fully enmeshed with the experience? What labels are we placing on our situations that are keeping us from enjoying the richness of each moment?
Is any experience “good” or “bad”, or is it just an experience with the label of your choice? We don’t know how current circumstances will shape future events. Sometimes our most difficult challenges become our greatest blessings, and our greatest blessings become our most difficult challenges. Life is. Everything else is just what we choose to call it. Or as Shakespeare said, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
If something we label as “bad” happens, it’s happened. If we resist what’s happened, we cause ourselves suffering by resenting the past. Peace comes when we accept and love whatever is present. Once we’re at peace with whatever circumstances we’re in, then we can make conscious choices to move ourselves forward in the direction we want to go, rather than being driven by subconscious feelings of lack or fear.
Practice Being Alive
I’ve found joy in these deeper connections with myself, other people, and the world around me. I can feel alive and as if I’m experiencing reality for what it is instead of what I think it is. But it has not been easy for me to sense this. It still takes a lot of effort and practice, and I’m usually not there — not by a long shot. But when I am, I find it deeply rewarding and fulfilling.
One way I’ve tried to practice is, in a given moment, to identify what’s going on with at least three senses. For example, maybe I can feel the clothes on my skin (touch), I’m seeing a tree (sight), and hearing a car drive by (hearing). I also try to avoid focusing on “clothes”, “tree”, and “car”, but just notice how those sensations “feel”. I’ve also found that meditation helps me practice observing thoughts and input from the senses rather than identifying with them and reacting to them. In the end, for me it all boils down to being aware of, allowing, and fully feeling emotions and sensations, no matter how subtle or strong, and appreciating them all, without becoming attached to them.
I’m still very much a beginner at these practices, and I’d love to hear about what has helped you feel alive and experience the reality that lies beyond labels. I invite you to share your experiences and thoughts, whatever they are, in the comments below.