Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Hardening of the Categories

"A New Day Dawning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -
Back when I used to teach college courses in Interpersonal Communication I would often warn my students to be aware of what I referred to as “a hardening of the categories” as they made their way through life. If you think you have it all figured out, when you have another person “pegged,” when your ideas are fixed, sure, certain and calcified and when you find that you are making the world fit into the way you want or expect to see it, you are probably suffering from the hardening of the categories. 

You should do something about this condition unless you want to live in a never-ending rut all your life.

Yesterday I sat in a local coffee shop and for some reason my teaching about hardened categories flashed into my mind, so I began to thinking about my own calcified ideas that I was imposing on everything and everyone in that little coffee shop and I began to foster a Zen-style “Beginner’s Mind” uncluttered and cleared of my own pre-dispositions and ready-made narratives about the world I was encountering:

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything, it is open to everything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities
but in the expert’ s mind there are few

 As I looked at the people around me I realized in some sense I had already written their stories.  A mom with her toddler sat at a nearby table, she looked exhausted - probably getting out of the hectic chaos of her house for a little morning break. Then there was a bunch of middle-aged women who looked like they just came back from their tennis match – must be nice to be able to play tennis then go have coffee when everybody else is at work.  I also looked at the elderly man sitting across from me - he looked kind of sickly, probably lonely.   I sit in that same coffee shop almost every day, I sort of know what to expect.

But then I thought, “what if none of my stories about those people had anything to do with the lives they were actually living.” So I softened my categories and said to myself, “I don’t know anything at all about the lives of any of these people- I am open to all possibilities.” Beside which, even if I did know who these people were, and even though I had sat in that exact same place everyday for the past months, at that moment everyone and everything was different than it had been before because everything “is” change, and nothing remains the same.  

I think of something the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, once said

There is nothing static or fixed, all is fleeting and impermanent.
This is the first mark of existence.
Everything, every tree, every blade of grass, animals, insects, human beings,
rocks and buildings, the animate and the inanimate,
always changing moment to moment.

Yesterday when I cleared the way for a “beginner’s mind” and accepted the glorious impermanence that characterizes this ever-changing world, I felt exhilarated, freed, pulled out of the rut of routine - so many surprises every moment of every day. The Buddha taught:

Everything is impermanent.
When one sees this with wisdom one turns away from suffering.

I really experienced the wisdom of this teaching yesterday when I gave up all my hardened categories –such a relief. 


  1. without a different perspective, and concrete action; we live and die for a materialistic quest alone.... Buddhism is one such alternate perspective. (-: