In my heart I know I have labelled my children. I’m pretty sure we all do it. A child shows patterns of behaviour and we use words to try to describe those patterns. We use these terms to define a person’s personality. In some respects those labels help us to predict a child’s behaviour and be sensitive to his needs. But these labels are limiting, and it can be liberating to let go of those labels and just allow our children the freedom to be who they are. Here are some descriptions that might be familiar to you:
- she’s not a very good sleeper
- he’s sensitive or high-need
- she’s just like her father
- he’s so needy
- she is so gifted
- he is a real bruiser
- she’s tough as old boots
- she’s a real madam
- he’s such a drama queen!
Lately I have been re-visiting some Yoga philosophy. And while I don’t want to hit you on the head with a philosophy lesson, it has set me to thinking about labels and patterns of thought. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that there are 5 obstacles to having a quiet mind. These are known as the klesas (clay-shuhs). The first of the five is thought to be the the source of all the others and it is avidya (ay-vid-eeuh), or ignorance.
So I have been thinking about ignorance. And here’s the trouble with ignorance: how do you know you’re ignorant about something? There are things I know: stuff about Yoga, breastfeeding, how to make a gin and tonic, etc. There are things I know that I don’t know: anything to do with sailing, the laws of physics, how to wire a plug. And then there’s all the things I don’t know, and I don’t know that I don’t know them. Whoa. How mind-blowing is that?
So ignorance, Patanjali says, is a major affliction. But frankly, there’s loads of stuff I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem to bother me. My life isn’t terribly affected by all those things I don’t know… at least I don’t think it is. However the central problem for Patanjali is that we mistake the fluctuations of the mind as being who we are. The mind, if you can visualise for a moment, is like a television screen or a blank canvas. Thoughts, feelings and images pass over this canvas, but they are fleeting. The unfortunate thing for many of us, myself included, is that we assume that these thoughts are who we are. Identifying with our thoughts limits us and this creates suffering.
Here’s an example of how ignorance and labels are connected. I was pretty good at reading and writing when I was in school. I enjoyed reading and I liked to write stories and research ideas. Everyone at school thought that you were either a reading/writing person or a science/mathematics person. I thought so too, so I always said, “I’m not very good at math.” I even said this when I was only one of 10 students out of nearly 500 to take a university-level Calculus class in high school. I still thought, “I’m not very good at math. I’m a reading/writing person.” I took this idea into my adulthood, and only now have I started to wonder why I stuck that label to my blank canvas with such strong glue. The fact of the matter is that I can do lots of mental arithmetic, I can work out percentages and I don’t usually need to use my fingers. I wouldn’t call that being bad at math. I am now able to peel that label off my canvas and look at it for what it is: an erroneous thought that has done me no favours.
Another example. Say there is a particular person in my life who I have had a conflict with. The thought of her makes me cross and irritable. I go to bed at night and her image comes into my mind. I begin to rehearse what I should have said to her when we argued, what I should say the next time we see her. I revisit all of the wrongs she’s done to me, and I recycle my experience of bad feelings. An hour has passed and I am hot and angry. My stomach is churning and I’m not sleeping. We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to have one irritating thing taking up residence in the mind, and it continually bothers us. In time my thoughts might become less unsettling because they may be replaced by other thoughts or the situation could change.
And that’s the thing– change is the only constant. The mind wants to cling to things that are temporary and make them permanent. It feels safe to use labels with my children, but how useful are they? I believe that in the end they will cause suffering because I am clinging to an idea rather than letting reality shape itself.
The ignorance that Patanjali is talking about is this clinging. We have a desire to make still a world that is constantly in flux, we resist change and feel pain when the ideas that we have so comfortably ensconced on the canvas of our minds are ripped to shreds by a new reality. Or, we suffer when we hold tightly to certain thoughts or ideas and refuse to have the flexibility to let go.
As mothers and fathers we know that our children are constantly changing. And yet it can take us by surprise. One week my toddler loves eggs, the next week he turns his nose up at them. One child spends nine years with her hair parted down the middle, and now decides that she likes it parted at the side and swept across her forehead. I can’t keep up. My cluttered life is moving at a faster pace than I can handle. We know that change is inevitable and yet we resist it by applying labels and building walls where there needn’t be any. The walls make us feel safe, but what freedom there would be if we could only see beyond them.
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.