Since I was fifteen years old, I have dedicated my life to philosophy, religion, and the pursuit of my happiness. I have since refrained from such religious labels and strayed from categories like Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. While I have been clear on what I don’t believe, I have been less clear on what I do believe and am discouraged to put any singular label on what it is I believe.
Labels are walls that lock us into one thing. The only label I was satisfied with using was “Agnostic,” which simply means “I don’t know” or “the pursuit of truth.” Weak Agnostic meant, “We may know one day…maybe.” Strong Agnostic was too strict a label for my taste as it meant, “I don’t know, nor will we ever know the truth.” To this I ask, why bother searching? To claim “we don’t know the truth” is much like saying, “I have all the answers and can tell you that we will never know more than we know today.”
Weak Agnosticism allowed me the freedom to search and pursue the truth while keeping an open mind that everyone may be wrong. I soon realized that “right” and “wrong” were labels.
This last week, I have been watching “Life:” A nature show produce by BBC. Every episode focuses on a different life form and how they live from hunting, to reproduction, to birth. One lizard left me stunned. Like so many animals in the animal kingdom, predators are a threat to their young. This lizard had developed the instinct to locate a haven to lay its eggs, and bury them so well that not even she could find them again.
I watched this lizard carefully select a location where she was certain her eggs would be safe. I watched her lay her eggs and bury them, unaware that a snake was watching, hidden nearby in some foliage. The moment the Lizard finished laying her eggs, she erased all evidence and departed. The lizard hadn’t crawled two yards before the snake emerged. The lizard watched unemotional as the snake located her eggs, dug them up with its snout, and ate all five eggs in front of her. The lizard observed completely without emotion, or so it appeared, as a predator ate her offspring. She would not be able to lay eggs again for an entire year.
While this was certainly a behavior I did not want for myself, it was all at once interesting and quite disturbing. I put the episode out of my mind until today. As I sat with my daily meditation, my eyes closed, I breathed deep and followed the directions. Just observe. No emotion. Just notice. Observe. It is with expectation that we find anger, stress, hate, rage, sadness. frustration, and sorrow. This is Vipassana.
In meditation, we are taught to feel an itch, observe it, name it, but to not react. Don’t scratch. Don’t call it good or bad. Just call it by name and observe. I did so, never truly understanding the exercise until today.
I observed the pain in my shoulders from knitting, but didn’t move. I noted the sounds around me, but didn’t respond. I listened. I felt. I cleared my emotions and simply observed. It was as if I stepped out of my body, changing my perspective, and just watched. I noticed the sunlight, but didn’t feel happy or sad. I observed and called it what it was. Sunlight. I removed the good and the bad from the label and only saw.
Finally, I understood. Like a lizard who stands by and watches her young being eating, neither good nor bad, it just is, we are encouraged to apply this same lifestyle to the lesser things in life. A red light directing you to stop in traffic. An overcooked steak. A misplaced cup of coffee. These things are not bad. Nor are they good. They just are and hardly warrant an emotion. By removing the expectations from these fleeting moments, you remove the negative emotion that follows. You remove disappointment and discouragement. You remove sorrow and sadness.
This is Vipassana: the heart and core of understanding what Buddha discovered. From the outside, mediation looks like sleep or rest. But it is the mind and our perspective that is kept from the observer. It isn’t a hum that gives us peace with our legs crossed, eyes closed, and fingers pinched together resting on our knees. It is the act inside of clearing our hearts and just noting. Observe without label.
The freedom that opens following this change in perspective was illuminating. Shrug and feel the stress fall from your shoulders. Shrug and feel the rage slip away. Patience and calm slides in its place and suddenly, you can breathe the clear air. Slow down and observe. Take note without labels. Watch. Understand. Observe the calm settle over you and smile.