On Labeling Part 2: Examining our Prejudices

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Hearing about other people’s experiences, and especially what they gained from them, can open up new possibilities that hadn’t occurred for us before. My hope is that we can all derive benefit from thinking about my forest dwelling days, and that you will also ponder your own past, searching for wisdom gems. As the Greek philosopher Socrates wisely admonished us, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Applying this principle, my lifestyle at the time practically demonstrates an important point I have mentioned before: by simplifying our life, being in a peaceful environment, and studying ancient spiritual wisdom, we often gain insight into the meaning of life, and our purpose in the world. Exactly how those three things affect one depends on the spirituality carried with us from past lives. Thus I became aware of many perspectives for the first time. Seeing the limitations of labels was one.

As much as I can speak about the shortcomings of labels, they are useful to an extent, and unavoidable. As human beings we are wired to categorize—something science is obsessed with. To make sense of the world, and as a survival mechanism, we can’t help but give some kind of shorthand to the great diversity we see (consciously or unconsciously). Think of a snake or barking dog. Labels, at best, are part of the truth of someone or something. The problem comes when they become the total truth for us, or a stereotype. This seems to happen when we find something we are attracted to, or don’t like, and add to it, our emotional attachment or aversion. Spiritually speaking, such traits in living beings are bodily designations, or particular coverings of the eternal soul which we give more importance to, due to our conditioned preferences. A sexy movie star or inebriated street person comes to mind. Regarding the inanimate world, we may see it as meant solely for our economic benefit instead of as part of the fabric of life, and not disconnected from us.

Even if such qualities appear prominent (in our mind) they are only an approximation of a much deeper picture of material identity. If we are aware of this one-dimensional, or superficial understanding, without negative emotional judgment, our tendency to label will not be harmful. Easier said than done! Never the less, it is important to be a thoughtful person, and follow Socrates’ counsel to study our prejudices, since they are usually unconscious, and a hindrance for spiritual advancement or equitable dealings.

While I saw the labeling of plants and trees as a poor substitute for the wonder and complexity of life, I failed to see how my labeling of the forest tourists was also one dimensional. In the counter-culture of the sixties that I loosely identified with, the longhaired youth, or hippies, were, “hip,” or wise and “cool” persons. Others were “straight,” or unthinking out of touch parts of the status quo of the military industrial complex, and thus contributing to the problems of society. Children born in the late ‘40s and 50’s grew up in a time of unparalleled material prosperity, and generally knew few privations, and with their free time—to their credit—perceived the short-comings of a shallow life divorced from higher meaning, and based to a large extent on material goods, and labor saving devices.

When I took up the process of bhakti, or Krishna consciousness, I was presented with yet another set of labels. For example, devotee and karmi (non-devotee), divine and demonic, infallible and fallible, etc. These are labels, but are means of giving us important distinctions meant to foster our spiritual life. Although there is an underlying unity, or Oneness of all things as Krishna’s energy, in the practical world everything is not equal, and thus affects us differently. Devotees of Krishna are advised to keep good association that fosters their faith, and avoid doubtful or envious persons who could damage their faith (in the neophyte), or influence them with the ways of the world. While these are useful distinctions, they have to be applied in a balanced, compassionate, thoughtful way. Otherwise we may become fanatics or hard-hearted persons who cannot appreciate other viewpoints, and at worse, try to destroy them. So-called righteous indignation may only be our prejudices dressed in spiritual clothes, or meant to cover over our spiritual doubts.