Allowing The Mystery Back In

I recently spent a week meditating with 90 other people without talking. We ate, slept, walked and sat next to each other, the whole time in silence and avoiding eye contact, like peaceful zombies. I had no information about my fellow zombies. But by the week’s end, they each had a persona in my head, including:

  • “Interesting-purple-clothes lady.” What will she wear next?!
  • “Mr. Cough drops.” You know how unwrapping candy in crinkly plastic is incredibly loud in a quiet space, like at the theater, or, say, a meditation hall…?
  • “The Really Good Meditator.” She seemed so peaceful, the whole time.

This experience showed me how naturally the human brain engages in labeling, even without our intending it. The brain takes a teeny amount of information — purple clothes, cough drops — and creates labels and stories. The event of labeling needs neither real data, nor our conscious direction. Labels are as automatic as breathing.

Given this tendency, labels are endemic to human interaction. But, unfortunately, labels may also slow or stop our learning, encourage error, and keep us from seeing something really beautiful: A Mysterious Human Being.

As an example of the drawbacks of labels, I will never forget the simple moment of relief that came after I heatedly described an office conflict to a friend once. “How could he act this way? I mean, I just don’t get it,” I said in frustration.

“Arden, because he’s a control freak,” the friend replied.

Oh – that’s it?! That’s the answer? I felt relief wash over me. Suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about how I had contributed to the situation, nor did I have to seek to understand the other person’s point of view. I didn’t have to take responsibility for my feelings of anger, fear, whatever — they were his fault for being so controlling. He was a “control freak,” and that explained everything.

But, of course, it didn’t. In the longer run, viewing him as a control freak only made our interactions more strained, and the label also made me suspicious of his motives. I started seeing his actions as moves to gain control, rather than seeking to understand how he was contributing to our division’s bottom line.

Ultimately, I caught onto the fact that the label wasn’t helping me. But while I was using it as a crutch, it prevented me from asking questions and learning about myself, the other person, and the situation.

The alternative to applying labels is to let people be the mysterious, dynamic beings that they are. In her book The Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment, Aikido master Wendy Palmer describes this act:

 What a wonderful gift we could give our loved ones, friends, students, clients and teachers, if we could look at them with interest and a genuine curiosity. Instead, our perception of them is usually obscured by a huge bundle of knowledge and information we think we have about them. By expecting people to behave in a certain way, we tend to hold them to that way of being. For the most part we expect no surprises and we get none. … If we view the elements, situations, and people in our lives as unknown and mysterious, anything is possible.

So how do we let in the mystery?  Here’s an idea:

Practice: The Mysterious Human Being

Pick someone you find frustrating, and with whom you have to interact on a regular basis. Take on the practice of asking yourself these questions, once a day:

What is [this person] teaching me?

What is more mysterious to me about this person today?


Pick a loved one you know very, very well. Ask the same questions.