The Problem with Dividing the World Into Good & Bad

 

As I write from Madrid, I am very aware of how my mind embraces the differences between my life in New York and in the Spanish capitol.  It is a beautiful city, and I have enjoyed many summers in Madrid.  As I walk the streets, my mind wants to divide the world into two categories:  I like this, I don't like that.  I like a cafe solo, without milk, which is rich and strong.  I don't like the abundance of Starbucks, which seem to have grown in number since I was last here.  (Don't you people know that your coffee is so much better than Starbucks?).  I like the narrow streets, with cobblestones, teeming with pedestrians.  I don't like all of the cigarette smoke that, despite being outside, seems to hover in small grey clouds throughout the city.

 

Most people do this all the time with everything. Facebook encourages it, reducing our reactions to liking or ignoring every post and picture in our news feed. An important mindfulness practice is to notice how often your mind assesses everything that you perceive and divides it into "I like" or "I don't like."  Your mind might even go one step further and say, "That's good" or "that's bad."  Our minds are constructed out of this binarism, that separates the world into different objects and then labels them as "good" or "bad." Our minds are in a constant state of differentiation and evaluation. Yet, our minds often are making valuations based on the slightest of information and making rapid-fire conclusions, almost unconsciously. We do this so often, we might not even be aware of our minds' capacity to discriminate between what it thinks is good, and therefore likes, and what it thinks is bad, and therefore dislikes.

 

Unfortunately, this basic structure of our minds is what is at the root of so much strife in our world. Our capacity to divide into good and bad, to make constant evaluations of what we like and dislike, often without much if any information, is also at the basis of the widespread discrimination in our society. We might not believe that our small discriminations each day with all sorts of mundane objects has anything to do with racism, sexism, and homophobia, but that's not true. The mind's structure--separating and evaluating objects into categories of good and bad, like and dislike--is what permits people to extend that same line of thinking to whole categories of people or types of behavior.  In word, we judge: we judge objects, people, activities, and of course, ourselves. 

 

To begin to see where you are engaged in constant judgment, begin to watch your mind throughout your day.  Notice how often you say or think versions of "I like this" or "I don't like that" or "This is good" or "That's bad."  You might begin to see as you walk to work or are on the subway that you do this with various people, their clothing, their actions. You no doubt do it at work with your work assignments, your boss, and your colleagues. At the end of the day, take a look at all the occasions when your mind divided the world into like-good and dislike-bad, and see if there are any patterns. Did you notice if certain people or things provoked you more than others? Did you notice how often people engage you in conversation around what they like and dislike, trying to get you to agree to their perceptions?

 

Watching your mind's constant discrimination along the axis of good and bad is the first step in developing equanimity. When you notice yourself saying you don't like something or that it's bad, pause and really ask yourself: what's so bad about it? Why do I instinctively dislike it? See if there's something there that actually has any substance to it. You might find yourself judging out of habit or because your parents often said the same thing. In those cases, recognize that you're just engaged in an unconscious act of ventriloquism. See if you can relax your judgment and just let whatever person, object, or behavior triggers your reaction to just be. You might find yourself beginning to accept a lot more things than you previously did. With this comes greater equanimity and peace as you cultivate a state of non-reactivity.

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