We label them differently; stereotypes, generalizations, expectations, assumptions, preconceived notions and of course labels. We may say “stereotypes” are bad, but they aid us in navigating the tangled web of social interactions. Are all politicians crooks? If you use a bit or reason the answer would be a resounding “No”, but we would certainly like to think so wouldn’t we?
The Buddha said not to live in the unalterable past, not to dwell on the unattainable future and to live in the here and now. Surprisingly you find this teaching in places you least expect it to be
So while presumptions make it easier for us to understand the convoluted, complicated social world around us, it also impedes our ability to have an open mind. This is sometimes quintessential. An open mind is a terribly rare thing to have. Some claim to have one, but in practice they do not. Take for example an American who grew up with liberal American ideals. He would be more accommodating about someone being gay (the correct vernacular I am told) than a Sri Lankan who grew up with traditional conservative Sri Lankan values. Such an “open minded” American would consider the Sri Lankan to be a backward homophobic troglodyte. Is this being open minded? It is not. Cultural values and meanings are simply ignored in this ethnocentric judgment. If anything, this too is presumptuous. And to a point it was presumptuous of me to make assumptions about liberal American ideals and/or conservative Sri Lankan upbringing. We have a tendency to label everything liberal as “open-mindedness” but that scarcely seemed to be the case.
Humans are social creatures, perhaps some more social than others. Who we are is the sum of our social interactions. Our behavior is consciously or subconsciously shaped by our experiences. How we are as people is dependent on what we come across. It is easier to be afraid. To be very afraid. Fear comes naturally to us. It is what kept our species alive. It is an evolutionary aid that stuck with us through the eons. Preconceived notions coupled with fear are what keep us from repeating the same mistake over and over again. But what if our fears were not based on our past experiences? Would we be more risk loving individuals? Would we be more open to trying things that we failed at once? Perhaps it may turn out that our original presumption was all wrong or perhaps we may be even more wounded, more broken. But we will never know unless we dared to try. Unless we took a leap of faith.
Most of us when we were learning to walk, fell countless times, bruised our knees and bumped our heads. However it never deterred us from trying again and again until we got it right. On occasion we still fall, we still get bruised and we bump our heads. But most of us don’t think of giving up walking do we? This is one instance where we don’t let our past determine our course of action. To err is human they say. We make mistakes over and over again but we can also be defiant, we can be stubborn and that’s what makes us strong.
“Live in the moment”
What is the first thing that came to your mind as your read that? It sounds like something that was uttered by a hippie, does it not? But it is more Buddhist than hippie. The Buddha continuously taught his disciples to concentrate on the here and now. He said not to live in the unalterable past, not to dwell on the unattainable future and to live in the here and now. Surprisingly you find this teaching in places you least expect it to be. I found it in a 2008 animated movie where a talking tortoise was advising an easy going panda:
“Po: Maybe I should just quit and go back to making noodles.
Oogway: Quit, don’t quit… Noodles, don’t noodles… You are too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Whimsical it maybe but very Buddhist nevertheless. This maybe one of the hardest things to do in practice. As impossible as it may be, living in the here and now is what saves our sanity. If we live in the past, we would be burdened with things that we cannot change. Similarly, if we choose to live in the future we will dread all the possible scenarios we cannot possibly conceive. Sometimes it is best to let it play out and see where it goes rather than let our fears get the best of us. This however is far easier said than done