Sunday, February 16, 2014

Buttons...On Learning Discernment

The red truck is in the driveway.

There, above, I have made a statement. What thoughts do you have, patterns of thoughts you engage in, memories, emotions or conclusions you make when I mention this statement? Feel free to take a moment and think on it and jot down a few ideas because this may prove useful in a moment.

Maybe you like trucks, or don’t. Maybe you like red, or don’t. Maybe instead of a driveway, you’re thinking about a parking lot and how you’d like a driveway. Maybe if you have a driveway, you’re thinking about the cracks in it or how it needs new gravel. If you have a truck, maybe you like it a lot, or you hate the cost of filling the tank. Or you immediately think of a GMC, Chevy, Ford, or Toyota, and you think about what traits you associate with those brands or people who buy them. Or maybe you’re imagining whether or not the truck is new or old. Or maybe you’re thinking you don’t have a truck and it’d be nice to have one.

Some folks could take this statement the red truck is in the driveway and reinterpret, even reinvent, it a variety of ways:

“Tess has a red truck.”
“Tess has a driveway.”
“Tess has a paved driveway. Tess lives in a suburb or in a big place in a city, because that’s where you find more driveways.”
“Tess has a gravel driveway. Tess lives in the country because that’s where you find gravel driveways.”
“She sees the truck on television. Tess has television. Tess is watching television right now. She probably has a better television than I do.” Or, “I’ll bet her television is not as large and hi-tech as mine.”
“She sees the red truck outside. Tess is in a place that has windows and she is looking out a window right now.”
“The red truck is shiny and new. Because the truck is new, she must live in a ‘good’ part of town.”
“The truck is a rust bucket on blocks, and can’t move from the driveway. The truck is junk and therefore she lives in a ‘bad’ part of town.”
“Tess needed a truck so she bought a truck.”
"Tess likes red: she's a Republican!"
“Tess has a truck and is therefore a political conservative because rednecks have trucks and rednecks are conservatives. Tess is a conservative and therefore she is closed-minded and an angry fundamentalist."
"Tess is a conservative and therefore is pro-blue-collar worker."
"Tess is a conservative and is therefore fascist, hates minorities, and only likes rich people.”
“Tess has a truck to haul stuff like dirt or mulch. Therefore she’s a tree lover, and a liberal. She is pro-feminism, pro-choice, she’s a ninety-nine percenter, and therefore hates rich people and white males from the ages of 40-60."
"Tess is a liberal and therefore a socialist.” Or, “Maybe she’s actually an anarchist!”
“Tess bought a truck and therefore is a rampant materialist and supports wage slavery.”
“Tess likes trucks.”
“Tess likes trucks and hates cars, buses, vans, scooters, or motorcycles. Tess is anti-biker and anti-van-driving-soccer mom.”
“Tess says the truck is red, therefore she must hate blue. If she hates blue she may dislike the restive qualities of blue. And if Tess hates the restive qualities of blue, she probably hates peace.”
“Tess mentions a truck. Trucks are gas-guzzlers. Therefore Tess hates political ecological movements. She wants to destroy the environment, hates planet earth and wants us all dead. I’ll bet she even opens up a dozen aerosol spray cans a day just so she can bring on an environmental apocalypse.”

This is why an overdose of relativistic thinking—of the “My reality is what I think it is and think it into being. What I think is reality itself because it is real for me, and you should respect my reality” variety—is hazardous. Very, very few of the above statements have any accuracy to them and most of them are flat wrong.

We know that the red truck is in the driveway, but that’s it. In supplementing this factual statement: the red truck is not mine, it is newer and well-cared for but frequently used. It is in a driveway across the street. It is a truck used for a small business. I have no idea what the person who owns the red truck thinks about materialism, political opinions, ecology, war and peace, red or blue, traits regarding truck brands, if the person who owns the trucks likes that specific truck or trucks in general, or what the person thinks about bikers or van-driving soccer moms. And before someone asks, "Well, which one of those is true? What do you think about (trucks, ecology, politics, colors, or soccer moms)?" recall that this exercise isn't about any of's about the red truck in the driveway and what conclusions you make and project on to me (or the truck owner) about the matter

Recall the patterns, thoughts, memories, associations, and emotions that came to your mind when you read The red truck is in the driveway. It’s interesting how many thoughts, assumptions, and conclusions (accurate or inaccurate, both in varying degrees) could arise in response to a simple statement. See how one subjective assumption snowballs into a host of associations which lead to conclusions? I have nothing to do with the truck, but assumptions have been made about me (or the truck owner), and thus without further objective observation, a person has formed an image of me (or the truck owner) which has nothing whatsoever to do with me (or the truck owner). To varying degrees, we all do this with other people and situations in our lives.

Everything else you may attach or associate with that statement about the red truck reflects your views, patterns, emotions, memories, and subjective thoughts. Subjective thoughts are a part of how our minds function; and it is best when we can identify these for what they are…and what they are not. They are not objective observation. An objective thought about this statement may go like this: “The red truck is in the driveway. I have no further information than this. All of these ideas or conclusions I have in my mind that I associated about myself, the truck owner, Tess, the color red, driveways, trucks, people who drive red trucks or have driveways, and further derivations on the topic, may or may not turn out to be true and it is useful for me to keep conclusions in a state of suspension until I have further information.” (Translation: "I know there's a red truck in a driveway. Other than that, I don't know anything. I'm guessing. I should remember guesses are often wrong.") Easier said than done, but not impossible. The "trick" is to run herd on these thoughts and separate what you know and observe from that which reflects your own internal monologue, thought-patterns, emotions, memories, and subjective thoughts.

This process of understanding what is going on in your own head is necessary. In observing then learning how you think, in understanding which are your subjective thoughts and which are your objective observations, in becoming consciously familiar with your own processes of thinking, you are then able to understand when you are experiencing a deity and when you are hearing your own mental dialogue only with a new mask on it. This is called discernment. It takes a tremendous amount of ongoing practice and diligence, and both a compassionate and brutal self-honesty.

There are many ways to begin to understand what’s going on in that grey area between your ears. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that these techniques are tools…and they are tools not to be confused for religion or as religion. These tools can be found in many places from modern psychology (even in Jung and his archetypes) to Zen meditation. One technique I like to use is called “labeling.” I use this in a variety of ways from thought-labeling to activity-labeling.

Activity-labeling uses verbs, usually ending in ‘-ing’, to describe and focus on the activity at hand. For instance, you are getting dressed:

You lift an arm to put on a shirt, “Lifting.”
You bend an elbow, "Bending."
You put your arm down, “Releasing”
You put your other arm in the shirt, “Lifting.”
You set the other arm down, “Releasing.”
You button the shirt, “Buttoning.”
You open the closet door, “Opening.”
You look for a pair of pants, “Looking.”
You find the pair of pants, “Finding.”
And so on.

This technique causes you to leapfrog over associations of these actions or objects with your subjectivity or with your perceived sense of identity. It is not “I am buttoning my shirt,” which can lead to a cascade of subjective thoughts. It is merely “Buttoning”. This takes the conscious mental acknowledgement of the activity out of the grip of subjective thought by creating breathing room between objective observation and the “I” element of perceived identity. That "I" element is a medium in which subjective thought blossoms, and that "I" element is the very thing you want to herd.

Activity-labeling, a basic technique, focuses you on what you are actually doing, on objective reality, in that moment. It is an act of mindfulness, and concentration. It helps you see the superfluous chatter in your mind which may or may not be useful or related to the task at hand. It is surprisingly difficult to engage this simple exercise.

I don’t know about you, but my mind goes “Gaahh. I hate that shirt. It won’t go with the pair of pants I had in mind, if I can find that pair of pants. I need to do laundry soon. Oof, hauling that basket of laundry down all those stairs. Do I have enough laundry soap? Where did I put that shopping list? There’s that other shirt. It’s got a button missing—I can’t go out in that. Or maybe I can…the button was on the bottom of the shirt. If I just tuck it in… What’s the weather like; do I need an extra layer? Oy I have a lot to do today. Did so-and-so ever get that email I sent? Where is she? Like Peru or somewhere? Maybe she just doesn’t like me. Well, maybe I don’t like her either. Wait, maybe I made her mad. What did I say in my last email? Crap. I mentioned my yummy homemade bread and she’s gluten intolerant. I hope she didn’t think I was rubbing it in her face that she can’t eat wheat products any more. How could I be so insensitive? Am I a bad person? Nah, yeah, Idaknow. I wonder how her dog is. I like dogs. I think I like Westies better than…what kind of dog does she have? That large kind with the pointed ears, the police dog-kind? Oh. No, I can't like Westies. Too many little old ladies like Westies and I don't want to look like a little old lady. Note to self: like Westies, but don't often admit aloud to liking Westies.” Blah, blah, blah, like my brain just vomited in print. Some of the ideas even are in direct conflict with each other; that’s normal. Mental dialogue like this happens all of the time to all of us.

In using activity-labeling, we train the mind to observe all of the blah-blah-blah without getting caught up in or becoming the mental dialogue. We cease associating and identifying our identities with—or even worse…as—the mental dialogue. When we activity-label, we become conscious of our mental processes and we become conscious of how little attention we give to what’s really going on. Consider again the exercise: the red truck is in the driveway. Remember all the things listed as going on in conjunction with that statement, the stuff you jotted down, and the stuff I came up with above? Most of these are not based on objective observation, but based instead on subjective thoughts and unexamined auto-pilot subroutines, associations, and opinions in our own minds. When we focus on activity-labeling, we notice the mental chatter which was business-as-usual but which smoke-screened, even filtered, our objective observations. So many times we're on auto-pilot with mental dialogue instead of focusing on what's really going on outside our heads; and the mental dialogue even obscures what's actually going on in our heads, too, with it's look-at-the-monkey distractions. Sometimes when we operate the mental-mouth too much, we draw inaccurate conclusions instead of observing openly first and then drawing conclusions. I know because I've done this, been there, bought the t-shirt.

So how does a person practice activity-labeling when those pesky thoughts keep coming up…because those pesky thoughts will come up, in great numbers, and they’ll usually bring extra guests to the party whether you want them to or not…? When these thoughts arise, we engage in thought-labeling by labeling that mental activity as “Thinking” then playing back the thought in its entirety, mentally saying each word (if there were words). For instance, in the example of activity-labeling above, I’m putting on a shirt and in the process of buttoning, I label the activity “Buttoning,” but I think at the same time “Gahh, I hate that shirt.” I would then consciously say in my mind, “Buttoning,” then “Thinking: 'Gahh I hate that shirt.' ”

When you do this, something interesting will start happening: you may find yourself contemplating previously unexamined associations which had been unconscious. “For what reason do I hate this shirt? Oh. I hate it because I dislike the color. I dislike the color because it was the favorite color of that one teacher I hated in third grade…the teacher who told me I was a bad person. Oh, that’s also why I didn’t like that bedspread. So I'm basing my dislike of that shirt and that color on a situation that doesn't even matter any more and I'm replaying an old perceived hurt and experiencing the hurt again whether I am conscious of it or not. Wow, self, thank you for telling me that. I'm sorry you went through that. Let's redirect and engage a different pattern.” This way, you are more aware when these matters (such as the color, the shirt, the third grade teacher, or the "bad person" issue) come up again, and in your awareness you are no longer unknowingly its hostage. You can redirect and choose to engage in a different, perhaps even new, pattern. Be aware that this isn't for the faint-of-heart: when you engage this process, you will find familiar faces but also many-headed-hydras you didn't know you had.

From then on, you can begin to resolve old hurts, rote reactions, and stagnant habitual patterns which have silently directed your responses and activities for ages, and from then on you have the opportunity to reassess these matters. Processes like these return to you the opportunity to redirect your thinking and allow you to act on your own free will. Discernment only runs efficiently if you do this work of keeping your head clean. You can only hear the deities for themselves if you can understand, identify, and manage your own mental patterns.

I want to be very clear here: subjective thoughts are not “good” or “bad.” They are a normal and a necessary part of thinking. What is detrimental, however, is in mistaking our subjective thoughts for objective reality or in basing our identity on these subjective thoughts and emotions. (I’ll try to tackle more on discernment and perhaps even emotions in another post.)

This is the beginning of that all-important practice of discernment often talked of but seldom talked about in polytheistic practices….

Image Notes:
World War I brass uniform button, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Photo by Lx 121. Used under CC-GNU license.
A circa 19th century handmade Blandford Cartwheel button. Photo by Andy Dingley. Used under CC license.
Button from a 19th century Dutch uniform. Photo by Btns, uploaded to Wikimedia on Winter Solstice 2013. Used under CC license.


  1. This is cognitive behavior therapy by another name, and from what I have learned of it/gone through this is solid advice. Labeling thoughts as thoughts, positive from negative, where things come from, etc. can be, and probably will be a lifelong process. It is worth it, though, especially if we wish to speak from our own voice and not the millions of voices of pressed-down opinion, experiences, and understandings from other people. Well written! Thank you!

    I wonder what it says about me that the first thing I thought of/visualized/explored with 'the red truck is in the driveway' was a fire engine, a home burning, people being rescued, and so on.

    1. I didn't even think of a fire truck! Fantastic, Sarenth. :) (And now I'm thinking of dalmatians...)

      As for labeling thoughts as positive, or negative, I don't even think I would go as far as that because that causes the mind to go back into subjective thought instead of an objective mode. If you observe yourself making that distinction (your mind says, "Hey, that's a negative thought!"), you could then label the activity as "Thinking: 'Hey, that's a negative thought!' ".

      Yes, it's a life long practice. Beauty of it is that it is always there, ever available, like breathing.

      You're welcome, and thank you for reading.