Last updated July, 2016.
Here is a famous Taoist story that offers several valuable lessons:
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years, and one day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
"Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.
"Maybe," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
"How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.
"Maybe," replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses and was thrown, breaking his leg as a result.
The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
"Maybe," answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by.
The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
"Maybe," said the farmer.
One lesson: quite often, our initial reaction to a particular situation is wrong.
Another lesson: how we view what happens is usually more important than the actual happening itself.
And, another lesson: we should refrain from labeling.
Most of us understand the first two lessons, but the third is usually dismissed because we have been conditioned to label everything.
Situations and experiences are inherently neutral. But, we label them as "good" or "bad," and apply the conditioning we associate with those labels. That conditioning drives our decisions, actions, and reactions, and determines our mood and outlook.
This is how a single incident - something you see, something someone says to you, something you think about - can end up ruining your day (or week, or month).
Not only do we label situations and experiences, we label each other. Color, political affiliation, religious belief, nationality, favorite sports team - there is an endless supply of labels, and once we apply those labels it makes it easy to view other people as different from us.
It makes it easy to dislike them because of all the thoughts and emotions we associate with the labels we applied to them. In essence, we cease viewing them as people and now view them as the label.
They are terrorists. They are Republicans/Democrats. They are [insert label here].
Think about war: we aren't killing people, we are killing the label of "enemy."
But, as the farmer in the Taoist story above illustrates, resisting the urge to label allows us to view people, places, and events from a neutral perspective. We see things as they are, not as we make them because of our own bias. Not from the perspective of an inner narrative that judges and clouds reality.
And, by seeing things as they are, we can take more skillful actions, build stronger relationships, and be more compassionate and understanding.
Life is full of peaks and valleys. But, you can minimize their effects if you approach things with a neutral outlook. In doing so, you keep yourself from getting stuck on a roller coaster fueled by your own judgment.
How do you break the labeling habit?
Awareness is key. As noted earlier, we have been conditioned to label everything. But, if you cultivate awareness of this conditioning, you can notice your mind doing it throughout the day. Watch what happens between sense perception, the thoughts that arise from sense perception, the urge to label, and the feelings, emotions, urges, and actions that follow.
As you become more skilled at noticing this process, you can stop it from completing. You can interrupt it, and - as a result - take your life off autopilot.
Practice is key, however. You can't just flip a switch and reverse a lifetime of conditioning.
What do you get in return for your efforts? Happiness, peace, and contentment that aren't dependent on - or affected by - external factors.
note: ready to practice? Our free guide to mindfulness and meditation is here.
Address the root cause of your suffering.
Read our most popular articles.
If this article resonated with you, please "Like," "Tweet," or share so others can read it too (thank you)!