This article was last updated December, 2017.
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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 often affects us more 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 - over the course of our lives - we have developed the habit of labeling everything.
Experiences are inherently neutral, but we label them as "positive/good" or "negative/bad." Then, we apply the conditioning we associate with those labels. And, this conditioning dictates our behavior (decisions, actions, reactions).
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).
Labels aren't just relegated to "good or bad," nor do we only label experiences - we also 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 more 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 from this more neutral perspective. 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.
As noted earlier, we have developed the habit of labeling everything. But, if you cultivate awareness of this habit, you can notice it throughout the day. Watch what happens after you become conscious of sensory input (a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a sensation, or even a thought). Your mind labels it, putting it into a category based on your personal history (background and culture). Labels are your mind's attempt to make sense of the world by putting experience into "this" box or "that" box, whether it actually fits or not.
As you become more skilled at noticing your mind doing this, you can stop the process from completing. You can interrupt it, and - as a result - stop the way labels dictate your behavior.
Practice is key, however. You can't just flip a switch and reverse a habit that has developed over a lifetime.
What do you get in return for your efforts? Happiness, peace, and contentment that aren't dependent on - or affected by - external factors.
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