Sometime in the sixth grade, I first heard philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s wisdom, “Once you label me, you negate me.” I wish I could tell you that my exposure to this teaching happened while I was attending some kind of summer symposium for gifted children. But alas, I heard it folded into a joke by Mike Myers’ character Wayne Campbell in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Because Wayne’s World is one of my favorite films and I watch it several times a year, I am often reminded of Kierkegaard’s teaching and am challenged to ponder its layers of meaning. As a woman in long-term recovery who works with others in recovery, and as an out bisexual woman who serves as an LGBT+ advocate, I often handle questions about what it means to label or be labeled versus what it me mean to define or identify. Moreover, discussions rage around me and within me about whether or not we place too much stock in identifying in a certain way or calling ourselves certain things. Do labels or identifiers help to advance recovery and advocacy, or do they keep us stuck in unhelpful pigeon holes? Do labels really negate us, and does it make it any better if we swap out label with the word identifier? And on a spiritual level, does the practice of labeling or identifying keep us cut off from the essence of our true nature?
Let’s begin by looking at the distinction between labeling and identifying, for exploring this distinction sets a foundation to answer these very important questions.
“I don’t like to label things,” is a line I’ve heard from many people around me, from wishy-washy people I’ve tried to date to employers who have been non-committal about issues like job descriptions, expectations, contracts, and titles. Just about every woman I’ve worked with or known has been hurt in some way by a potential partner saying they don’t want to put a label on something, when it is really just an excuse to buy time or not commit. Yet I have also experienced very deep friendships that can be hard to specifically label or define because the feelings and roles involved don’t fit into any kind of a neat box. And I’ve also accepted work gigs that seem to defy the gravity of definitions and labels. On any given day it’s hard to describe exactly what I “do.” In fact, it’s a bit of a running joke in my family as my brother has long asked me, “What do you do?,” and my stepson often asks, “So Jamie, how many jobs exactly do you have? I count nine.” In my view I only have one job, yet it’s composed of so many facets and segments I can understand where it would feel confusing to people who don’t get it.
So an argument to be made for labels is that in many contexts, they can keep people safe (especially in work settings and in certain interpersonal relationships) and minimize confusion. Labels can work very much like boundaries and expectations in this sense, so it may feel better to many to call it a definition. Yet we’ve all run into cases where once somebody gets labeled as something, especially in a binary context, it creates a limiting and maybe even discriminatory tone. In this day and age, we only have to look to how political affiliations have divided us to see how this plays out. Many Democrats don’t trust Republicans, especially if they find out they are supporter of President Trump, and immediately shut them down as people as a result. The opposite can also happen, as I know many people (especially those who knew me when I was younger and more traditionally religious) don’t want to hear what I have to say because I’m now rather liberal. The devil’s advocate response I’ve heard, especially from others in the LGBT+ community, is that knowing if someone voted for Trump or not is a sign, a mark that helps them know if they’re really safe with that person. Although I heavily relate to this sentiment and even experienced a great deal of it myself after the 2016 election, for me it is not that black-and-white.
The issue of labeling comes up quite a bit in the recovery and LGBT+ communities in which I live and work. My Trauma and the Twelve Steps work is brilliant to some because it is integrative. Yet my perspective confuses many because even though trauma-focused in my orientation, I still introduce myself in appropriate contexts as, “Hi! My name is Jamie, and I’m an alcoholic and addict in long term recovery.” For me, this is an identifier and not a label. And it is my choice to identify publicly in this way, which makes it very powerful for me. Saying this identifier out loud keeps me grounded in the reality of my story, and I take great pride in being able to introduce myself in this way. Where it can feel like a label, in a negative sense, is when people judge me by this identifier, or if I completely define myself by this identifier. For me, identifying opens up possibilities where labeling connotes being limited by the way in which I identify (or by the way others try to identify or label me).
I recently put the question out to my hivemind on social media and there seemed to be a general consensus that identifying has a much more positive connotation in the English language than labeling. Another common theme is that labeling is more likely to come from without whereas identifying is something that is very personal to the individual doing the identifying—it comes with within. Skeptics or critics may roll their eyes at me when I say things like, “I am an openly bisexual woman in long-term recovery from addiction and dissociation.”
More PC bull crap. Why does everyone need to label themselves? Or be special?
I offer this response: Being open an honest about these things has allowed me to heal and be able to say and claim other parts of my identify like I am a deeply spiritual person, proud of my Eastern European ancestry, and I live each day to the fullest, enjoying life as much as I can and helping and serving others who my Higher Power sees fit to put into my path. I am a yogi, a seeker, a lover, a mystic, a sister, a daughter, a surrogate mother, a friend, a teacher, and author, a guide, a movie lover, an expressive artist… Shall I go on?
I can celebrate the fullness of my human identity because I’ve learned to be honest about my story and what it has meant to shaping my identity. Robert Ackerman, the teacher and recovery writer, said in a 2015 talk: “You cannot expect yourself to become a fully functioning individual (physically, emotionally, spiritually) if you deny a part of yourself. The key is integrating all of who you are.” I felt like he was talking directly to me, and in the months following this message circumstances allowed me to come out fully (not just to my close friends and colleagues) about my bisexual identity. Doing so was a game changer not just for my mental health, but for feeling more authentic and genuine in my professional work. I feel now that no one can label me, and if they do so pejoratively, it’s lost any power to affect me.
The yogic perspectives and teachings from other spiritual paths may offer a slightly different angle to the challenge. Teachers I’ve studied with contend, “As soon as you say I am…, then you are limiting yourself. Because you are really your soul and the pureness of consciousness.” In fact, in many yoga settings, it’s common to introduce yourself by saying, “I’m called Pragya,” instead of “I am Pragya.” Even saying things like “I am anxious” can be discouraged because you are identifying yourself with your anxiety.” It may be preferred to say “I have anxiety.”
Ever the bridge builder, my feelings are that both perspectives are true. I know that when I look at the bigger picture and my Divine essence, it is very limiting to label or to identifying myself in any way. Who I really am exists at a soul level that cannot be damaged or affected by anything on this plane. Yet I also live on the human plane for the time being and to know who I am in this body, a knowing that is empowered by the ways in which I identify, helps me to thrive while I’m here. Knowing the communities to which I belong and where I stand in work or relational contexts is important. Important, yes; everything, no. Like many answers to existential questions answered through the yogic perspective, the key is to not be attached. Freeing myself from the grip of attachment—to outcome, to definitions, to identifiers, to labels, to anything is the key to health and happiness. And this detachment I practice while also being honest about what matters to me is what allows me to be fully human and fully Divine, dancing as One between the worlds.
I chant to a monkey.
No really, I do. I chant to a monkey.
There was a time in my life where I never would have put this out there in public, especially as a young professional afraid of being labeled as too fringe or hippy-dippy. The time is now to out myself: Every night for the last year I’ve chanted a 16th century hymn from the Hindu tradition called The Hanuman Chalisa. As a monkey, Hanuman is seen as a bridge between the wisdom of the animal world and the human world. As a symbol for breath, he is the bridge that unifies feminine energy and masculine consciousness. Many devotees of Lord Hanuman engage in this chant as a daily practice; it would be similar to those with great devotions to St. Francis singing any version of a Prayer of St. Francis hymn daily. And I’ve been known to sing to him too. Plus, I pray an Our Father and Hail Mary every morning—in Croatian (my family’s ancestral language)—do Japa meditation (prayer beads), practice yoga in various ways, read from my 12-step meditation books and pray some of those prayers. Those are just my daily practices! On any given week I may also consult with my Ayurvedic clinician, see my expressive arts therapist and spiritual director over Skype, or saunter up to Buffalo for some of my own EMDR therapy. And then there’s the penchant I have for receiving bodywork and energy work…shall I go on?
There is a very important reason why I am going here, letting the weirdness of my daily and other regular practices shine out so directly. These practices help me to stay mentally healthy, especially in being able to navigate the judgment and cruelty of the world at large. In the last several years, and with increasing frequency lately, many friends, students, and folks I mentor have shared with me their concerns about being perceived as too weird. Whether it’s a feeling of self-consciousness about their cleaning regimens, their spiritual practices, or having ways of seeing the world that may clash with the mainstream, people can viciously judge themselves based on the fear of how others will respond. In a recent conversation about weirdness and perception, I blurted out the “I chant to a monkey” response. I’ve found this phrase to be such an empowering anthem that I now use it when clients, students and folks I train come to me with a hesitancy to share, fearing how I will perceive them.
“I chant to a monkey… try me.”
For many of us who have survived the trenches of academia or currently hold a professional license as a clinician, the fear of being persecuted for our weirdness or differentness has merit. I and many others in the Dancing Mindfulness community could fill a whole book of horror stories documenting how professors and other colleagues have treated us for taking an interest in Eastern meditation, embodied practices, and anything that is outside of the talk therapy, medical model norm. In essence, we are the weird ones for going back and reclaiming the merits of ancient healing systems and endeavoring to make them work for modern clients, students, and practitioners. Not creative, not integrative…weird.
The professional standards committee of my state’s licensure board has challenged me as an educator three times for offering programs in the area of dance, mindfulness, expressive arts therapy, and yoga. Of course, I’ve been able to support their merit, with literature, of offering such programs for clinicians who will pass the valuable learning on to clients who are desperately needing more than what the field has been giving them. Yet every time I presented before the committees, I have had to address the issues coming up for me about them labeling me as too weird or flaky. Like many of us, my wounding around weird goes back to family of origin baggage and getting bullied by peers in elementary school for being the oddball. Of course, the board challenges made me angry and even sad at first.
Then I learned to embrace the challenge to calmly show them that there is another way to exist as a professional in our field. This involved a great deal of time and effort cleaning out and healing my old stuff and drawing inspiration from the monkey I chant to, Hanuman—be a bridge. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially with others who get your weirdness. If someone you work with or interact with in life needs to see an example of weird as healthy and functional, show it. Yet when working with the mainstream of any given field, a good deal of translation may be required. This is always possible when you are not ashamed of who you really are and know how your weirdness (and all the oddities and rituals that may come with it) helps you live and hopefully even thrive in this world.
In working with my latest expressive arts student to have the weirdness conversation with me, some wisdom from the Croatian language struck me like a bolt of lightning. The Croatian word for weird or strange (čudan) and the Croatian word for miracle (čudo) come from the same root. Both imply something supernatural or out of the ordinary. Yet we can think of a miracle as being a gift and weirdness as being a curse. What if we started to view them as one in the same? Would more of us feel comfortable coming out as weird, or more widely acknowledge that we all do some pretty weird things? Can I learn to embrace my weirdness for what it is—a miraculous gift that helps me to see the world in a way that we need in order to smash existing paradigms and bring about some deep healing?
Whenever someone I mentor professionally expresses fear about being perceived as too weird, I take pride in telling them that they are not alone and that there are others of us who feel similarly. One time I referred to the Dancing Mindfulness community as the island of misfit therapists, and that’s a descriptor I use proudly to this day. Connect with the other weirdos out there and before long you may even learn to see yourself as a trailblazer who is in an amazing position to liberate others from the confines of judgment and condemnation in which they find themselves. If you can be proud of your weirdness as a professional of any kind, imagine how inspirational you can be to the people you serve. If more of us learned to embrace the weirdness that we are in our daily lives, regardless of what we do or where we live, that would truly be miraculous, and it will take such a miracle to heal the world.
I chant to a monkey… what of it?
Risks are fucking scary. Even a cursory glance at the most banal dictionary app’s definition makes my spine shudder: to expose oneself to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance. In contemplating a massive risk that I recently decided to take in my own life, I found myself saying, “I fear death less than I fear giving this a chance, even though my gut and my spiritual practice suggests that I’ll regret it if I don’t take the risk.” When I stepped back, I realized the gravity of such a statement. How is it that my journey has allowed me to become so comfortable with my own death, yet so scared of many aspects of my life?
I travel quite a bit for work—I’m on a plane anywhere from 2-3 times a month and I regularly deal with questions from family members asking if I ever get scared traveling so much, especially internationally.
“No, not at all,” I answer, without reservation or fail.
Maybe it comes as no surprise that I have a recurring dream about dying in a plane crash. Perhaps it’s because, with the nature of my life, dying in such a way is a possibility. Yet I always wake up even more excited to travel. Having this dream about 4-5 times a year has never once made me scared of flight. Indeed, they usually make me more excited to see the world. The most powerful version of my recurring dream gave me some insight as to why.
The dreaming state taught me the lesson on the night of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA (October 27, 2018). Although I was away teaching in Montana, I went to bed with a heavy heart because of my many ties to the community of Squirrel Hill where the tragedy happened. At some point that day, in talking with a friend, I even uttered in frustration, “Is trying to make a difference doing the things we do even worth it?” And the dream delivered the answer.
I was on a flight sitting next to two veterans who had recently been in Iraq. I was not clear on my destination in the dream, although very likely it was work-related. A few minutes after take-off, as I turned off my music and began to reach for a book, the plane began to take a deep dive. There were screams and wails all around me and I heard one of the veterans say, “Here we go.”
They knew what was coming, and then so did I.
I closed my eyes and surrendered my life over to spirit in a way I never had. I don’t recall the impact because shortly after closing my eyes, I just went blank in the most effortless way imaginable.
A short while later the dream continued. I found myself in a holding space, some type of hangar, with others who died in the crash. I learned that 10 survived and 300 of us perished, mostly from smoke inhalation as we tried to get out. I had some vague thoughts about my best friend Allie and many of my other friends being there to carry on my business, although they fleeted quickly. Instead, I became enraptured by the kinship I experienced with the others in that sacred space. We all started moving towards a ladder at the other end of the hangar.
One-by-one, people started to climb the ladder. A beautiful Indian woman adorned in a gold scarf was in front of me in the line.
She turned back to me and said, “I don’t know if this is the most appropriate thing to say right now but—wow! Wasn’t that the most powerful blast of shakti (energy) ever! That crash was amazing!”
I smiled, knowing exactly what she meant.
“Yup, I get it. I’ve never been so relaxed in my whole life. Pure peace.”
We laughed, kept climbing the ladder, and she said, “So let’s get ready to do this thing again…knowing what we know now.”
“Let’s do it again!,” I responded.
I awoke the next morning with the clearest understanding of karma ever—the chance to do it over again with all the visceral knowledge of what we learned the time before. The chance to make it right. In my case, the chance to surrender into life’s divine flow instead of letting it devour me in fear. The most obvious interpretation of my dream suggests that my death and subsequent transition to the next cycle of rebirth will give me that chance. Yes, such an interpretation is in my personal belief system. And yet when my feet hit the ground to engage in my morning practices in preparation for teaching, I knew that message was meant for me in this lifetime.
What if, Pragya, you could surrender into the uncertainties of life with the same degree of unconditional faith and peacefulness that you accepted your death in the plane crash? What if, every time you were presented with a chance to start over knowing what you know now, you could embrace it with the enthusiasm of let’s do it again!? The same way a faith-filled, resilient child who just fell off of their bicycle might, eager to try once more, equipped with the spirit of their new learning? What if you could embrace each new day with the wisdom of what you have learned and with the faith of what you cannot possibly know?
My intention in this next season of my life is to say yes—resoundingly, enthusiastically, and faithfully to all of these questions. This intention is becoming my daily prayer, as my practices help me to integrate all of these pearls into the grand process of living. Yes, I will relax into the uncertainties of life with faith and peace. Yes, I will meet my new opportunities with a spirit of let’s do it again, releasing the burdens of my past. Yes, I will approach life with the beginner’s mind of a resilient child and yes—I will greet each new day fortified with the wisdom of what I have learned while also approaching it with faith of and in the unseen.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.