Sunday, April 3, 2011

Labeling and Post-Processing

Last winter I wrote about how mood and perspective are at the mercy of mere mental concepts. A very pleasant evening spent watching a great DVD on a comfortable couch instantly changed its character when a concept ("Christmas Eve") suddenly popped up. A perfectly satisfying scene became dissatisfying, because the mind drew a comparison to a concept unrelated to what was actually happening in that moment.

If there's no concept, there's no problem! But label the moment, and, like magic! - pain and sadness arrive. We post-process with our minds, and live in that post-processing mental lag. At the moment things happen, there's no dissatisfaction; no pain.

I had a big taste of this several years ago, while walking home amid a sudden downpour. The crowd around around me scattered to find cover, but, oddly calm, I just kept walking. Megawatts of stress and wasted energy were expended all around me, all viewed with vague puzzlement, as if from the tranquil eye of a hurricane.

I was getting "wet", yes, but the requisite feeling of anxiety never quite caught up to me. I tried to kickstart it by repeating to myself "It's raining and I'm going to get wet!". But the words couldn't stir me. It was as random an observation as, say, "It's Thursday and I'm wearing socks!". The label my mind was affixing to this situation seemed plainly, cheaply, stuck-on. And so I kept walking. I was wet, and that was ok. Actually, it wasn't even "ok". I wasn't judging it either way. It was just what was happening, neither good nor bad.

My mind abandoned the idea of stirring up anxiety, and tried a different tactic: exuberance. "Hey, I'm walking through the rain without a care in the world!", it announced (obviously cribbing from Gene Kelly). If my mind couldn't judge the rain bad, it would judge it terrific. But that label, too, failed to move me. The rain just didn't seem judgeable...and so my mood didn't budge. I was neither stressed nor exuberant, and couldn't imagine why being wet should make me feel one way or another. Being wet just felt....wet!

A few weeks later, I missed an exit while driving, and discovered that the next one was 25 miles ahead. The same thing happened. I knew, intellectually, that I should be cursing and stressing, and even made some half-hearted exclamation of disgust - which sounded so lame that I couldn't help but giggle. The need to drive fifty extra miles was unquestionably surprising, but I couldn't find a way to convince myself it was "bad". The word would simply not apply, like a block that won't fit a given hole.

It reminded me of something I'd observed in the subway. When a train arrives, everyone on the platform freezes in heightened anticipation. They are living for doors to open so they can board. Every cell yearns for that magical, blessed moment when they can get on the train (or elevator...or get a green light...or reach the checkout clerk). Yet, looking around a few moments later, no one seems all that thrilled to be on the train (or elevator...or green light....or check out)! They're on to pressing with all their might for the next rather humdrum thing to happen. Much like dogs, come to think of it.

I once found myself on a subway platform near a Tibetan monk, in saffron robe. I watched him as the train arrived. Even he visibly strained forward, anticipating the opening of the gates of heaven in the form of that lousy, grimy subway door.

Back to my highway incident: really, what's so incredibly great about exit five? And what's so horrific about driving? If driving's so bad, why do we pine so strongly for green lights?

This isn't about patience. What's to be patient with? You must label something negatively before being patient with it! This is about staying ahead of the hailstorm of mental conceptualization where we label our moments. In the raw perceiving, before the concepts arrive ("It's Christmas Eve, and I ought to be surrounded by holiday cheer!"; "Getting wet is bad!"; "My joy and fulfillment lie at exit 12 - or the next N train!"), there's nothing to rattle your equanimity.

The trick, it seems, is to simply live through it all, warmly registering what happens (including the unexpected*) with attention diligently focused on the point of actual happening, rather than lagging a few instants behind amid the noisy, artificial mental post-processing - the labeling, worrying, brooding, remembering, comparing, and judging. We choose to lag mostly out of mere habit - a decision made long ago to respond to the world in certain ways.

* - Why do we always want things to go as expected? Is the status quo of our lives truly so richly marvelous?

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