Labels, names, and flags

Naming something is inherently disadvantageous to understanding it. Any label, any flag, any uniform, any acceptance of a signifier stands between the thing itself and the comprehension of its reality. Without names the world is not filtered; some scary and intense things can get through to the senses and the heart, and therefore people cling to the words and ideas which block out the world and reduce it to manageable and safe pieces. In the end the real world is lost to the person, who is left holding nothing but a network of interlocking concepts, associations, and labels, each of which hides something which has become too painful or simply too real to be touched directly. The real secret being hidden by this complex structure maintained with such energy and ferocity, is that if the person throws it aside and stands naked in the real sunlight of real existence, he or she casts no shadow. That is to say, much of the artificial meaning and significance generated by the structure of name, signifiers, and so on, has the effect of generating the “I” who constructs the artifice. In fact it also generates the fabricated reality which passes for a world, as it must in order to create a context reinforcing the existence of the “I”. Without I and without all that has been built around it to support and reinforce it, without this construct, the real being would be utterly free and utterly a part of actual existence. Somehow the prospect of that freedom and that lack of the various props of the significance of things, that lack of meaning, seems to generate a terrible fear. But of course that fear exists only in the context of the unreal world, the imputed world of the meaning of things, rather than in the real world of the things just as they are. I think the fear is the energy put to create the artificial structure, winding around on itself when the edifice is starting to be pulled apart – as if it can no longer flow through the pylons of a building and must instead form a whirlwind.

Which is not to say that language’s only function is as a sort of psychic “padded room” where an imaginary lunatic can be kept safe but unhappy. Communication has its positive aspects, as long as it isn’t being used to regenerate and reinforce prejudices. It is possible to see the underlying world, to feel the wind and the sunlight so to speak, and to pass that sight and feeling on to others. One of the reasons the constructed world is so compelling, however, is that it isn’t formed in a homogenous way. Much of it is composed of structures which have their own internal form. They suck energy like parasites on their host, recirculate it to make themselves stronger, and usually encourage their hosts to spread them to other beings. These are memes, the classic example usually being the idea of putting on one’s baseball cap backwards. That’s a shallow example, however, because it’s not a terribly compelling meme, just a passing fashion which has its association with gangs and rebellion to thank for its rather limited influence. The big memes are things like religion, nationalism, racial superiority. They cause their hosts to devote a great deal of energy, thought, and time on their behalf. Their hosts identify strongly with these complexes of interlocking labels, meanings, and values. That is to say their hosts construct important parts of their “I” from these powerful memes. They may, as a result of this identification, act in ways which are quite against their impartial self interest. How many wars are not fought on behalf of madnesses like these?

One important tactic in freeing oneself from these parasites, and the chains of meaning and association, is to avoid wherever possible giving labels to things where it’s not necessary. And where it can’t be avoided, to label things as much as possible in ways which aren’t loaded with hooks into the various meme structures. Some sorts of labelling is automatically full of dangerous associations. Uniforms and flags, for example. “I am a” job, nationality, or religion. People hide behind these things; construct themselves from them. Seeing past these things robs the big meme complexes of their energy and gradually weakens their influence. Nothing, after all, can be named with a single name. No truth is the whole truth. Keeping simplistic thinking like this at bay is the only way towards peace and compassion in a world in which security and comfort seem to be offered by clinging to black and white labels, and in which blunt prejudices are the currency on all sides.

The way which can be named is not, after all, the way.


Some links, references, and ideas:

Charlotte Joko Beck: Nothing Special
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (Ursula Le Guin’s translation is terrific)
Suzuki: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Thich Nhat Han: The Miracle of Mindfulness
Susan Blackmore: The Meme Machine
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