“What got you here won’t get you there – Breaking free from categorical thinking”
This article delves into the subtle ways in which our own minds can trick ourselves by (mis)understanding and (mis)using the knowledge of Vedanta to strengthen old ways of categorical thinking and conclusions about people and situations. The purpose of shining light on this is to be aware of the subtleties involved in the visible and not visible processes of the mind. This can enable us to break free from categorical thinking because the nature of Atma I is the whole and which can never be categorised.
For many of us, our spiritual journey starts when we begin to question the various aspects of our lives. Some of the questions we may have asked ourselves – Is there more to this 9-5 existence? What can relationships and family give me? What can they not give me? Is that okay for me? Is there more to life than earning a good living, having children and enjoying life? For some of us, we may have done all this and still found something missing in our lives.
The way life unfolds is a series of events/experiences/situations that we find ourselves in or that we have contributed to. Hence to be able to respond effectively in a situation, it is a significant shift to recognise that I may choose to respond, I need not respond or I can respond differently. To respond to a situation, what I recognise about the situation without wearing coloured glasses becomes critical and hence seeing things as they are or the need for objectivity grows.
So, how do we tend to view different aspects of a situation, particularly the people involved? Here it is worth looking at how the mind has been trained when exposed to regular education. Any category of knowledge – let’s say Science requires the mind to know things distinctly or categorically as either ‘this or that’ or some category. People thrive on certainty. The mind too thrives on and revels in certainty. Hence we take this orientation of viewing things to how we think about people. Most of us are comfortable when we have categorically concluded about a situation or people – “this was terrible”, “How annoying this person is”, “He is so emotional etc etc…” The reason we conclude is that we want to protect ourselves from any harm or threat. Nothing wrong with that. But when it becomes the driving force, then I cannot view the person objectively any more. If the said person behaves with compassion or understanding, we cannot accommodate that aspect in our view of the person since we have already concluded that the person is emotional. To justify the tag of ‘emotional’, we might say that this new event is just a fluke or that the person is faking the understanding. We no longer respond to people, we respond only to our perceptions of them – it is like wearing green colored glasses and saying that this person is so green with envy or wearing red colored glasses and saying that this person is always angry. We will keep bumping into reality because of this colored vision.
Because of our categorical conclusions, we start to live in fear of being hurt or angry and hence try to avoid all situations and people who may cause that. We think that the moment we name the person or situation, only then we can deal with the person or situation. This has worked well for us in the past and hence we think that this will work well for us in the future. We think that what got us here will get us there (in our understanding).
As one continues being exposed to some teaching, words like ‘acceptance, being non judgmental, giving the person freedom to be’ start to enter one‘s world. All of this sound nice and we start to wish for people around me to be more accepting, non judgmental and letting me be. And when this does not happen, we start to get irritated. As they say, charity starts at home. So then we painfully realise, how do we start to be non judgmental?
In our spiritual pursuit, we (mis)understand or miss the understanding of our true nature because we want something to hold onto and hence two things contribute to our further labelling of people and situations: our search for the infallible and the process of negation
Search for the infallible: All of us irrespective of cultures are looking for something greater than ourselves as we recognize that we have not created this world. This translates into a focused search or just groping in the dark. This further translates into our need for heroes or role models. When exposed to a guru, we superimpose and project our notions of how a guru ‘should be’. Very few of us may recognize that we are looking for the infallible in people. However, only God is infallible. So, as expected some of us can be hurt or angry because our expectations born from our need for infallibility can never be met. It is easier for us if we recognize that our disappointments from ourselves and people do not really stem from these but from our deep desire and search for the infallible. It can be such a relief.
Process of negation: Additionally, when one is exposed to Vedanta initially, to help ascertain the purpose of life, there is an emphasis on seeing the limitations of a situation in terms of security and pleasure. There is an initial joy experienced when one sees the limitations of something (career or relationships for example) because it conveys to oneself that I am more than this situation “I am not as limited as I thought I was”. Seeing limitations naturally of my own situation then also translates to how I see people or tend to focus more on their negative traits. Some views that may be common are: “This person claims to be spiritual but look at how he has no control over his anger. I definitely have more equanimity in situations than the others. This person has no maturity although studying Vedanta”. Unknowingly we use these views to strengthen categorical thinking and give a false sense of superiority to ourselves. We cannot stand being anything less than complete.Along with the process of negation of excessive identification with the body-mind-sense complex, any traditional teacher of Vedanta presents the vision of the Vedas – You are the whole. For some, it takes time to truly assimilate this.
The reason it takes time is because some of us are used to the mind concluding or us categorizing people and situations into neat boxes because we can deal with them better. One feeds the other. In the name of objectivity, negation or seeing the limitations of a situation made us deal better with situations. We also start to see that Vedanta is the only knowledge where our methods of concluding/categorizing stops working for me. The more we try to fit things into my understanding, the more we fail to see the truth. The teacher also adds to it by saying: “Your true nature cannot be categorized or objectified.”
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Suppose I ask, what is this that you see? Some people may say 3 lines with dots, some people may say square, some people may say 9 dots. Although there is no square in the picture, what made the mind conclude it is a square? The principle behind this is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And hence the mind projects to create a form or see some pattern or just make sense of what it is seeing. It is tried and tested that the mind is capable of holding or containing many views – some contradictory and some greater than the sum of its parts.
Taking the same principle forward, is it possible to not conclude? The answer is yes and no. We can conclude at the same time we can keep it a tentative or working conclusion – depending on what we know of the person, ourselves and the situation. Rather than saying – “I know this person very well, he/ she will behave in this way alone”. Or “this person is so ……..” it is good to replace these absolute words like ‘always, never with “ In my view this person tends to be or sometimes behaves like that….”
The above is a powerful thought, I have qualified that this person is such and such …’in my view’, means that it is possible that it is my view and not the view. Again, using tentative words such as ‘sometimes, tends to, often, perhaps’ helps me wake up to the reality that the person is not always like that. This is a powerful shift to make for the mind because it loosens the grip of categorization. It also allows me to see ‘shades of grey’ in myself and people; and learn to be okay with it.
While seeing people and ourselves objectively without labelling is one side of the equation, our response to them in being kinder and accommodating becomes the other side of the equation. There is no more huge effort involved in being kind and understanding. It flows through because we are better able to objectively see what is – ourselves and our situations. We recognize that earlier we used to label people because we could deal with them better. Now we flip the equation and see that because of our own competence and understanding, we can increasingly deal or not deal with different people and situations. Hence we don’t need to label or categorize people anymore – it is possible to be relatively accommodating and non judgmental. Whatever it is we can handle it with God’s grace. This is not positive thinking – just a simple recognition of the fact that we have been able to deal with different situations and have grown.
Whatever kept us going initially in the spiritual pursuit – definite categorisation of people, our search for the infallible, our own small understanding and excessive negation of limitations does not work in the long run – neither for us nor for others. Understanding the truth requires us to go beyond our own categorisations and look at the implied meaning of the Vedanta teaching.
When we are better able to appreciate that the satyam or the truth of our existence is both this and that and at the same time neither this or that, we can lighten up. We are able to see that we no longer feel the need to always categorize or label an experience, a situation, our understanding. And hence when exposed to Vedanta we can see clearly the truth of oneself. We enjoy what is.
Om Tat Sat
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