By Brent Purple Oliver
I hate to admit it, but I’ve always sort of been into labels.
As an odd, outsider kid and then an equally weird adult on society’s fringes, I’ve identified myself under numerous titles. Firstly, because there’s strength in numbers and it pays to unite with other freaks and outcasts. It’s easy to stuff a lone seventh grade geek into a locker; you just need to knock the comic books out of his hands first. But if there are ten little geeks milling around like nervous meerkats, all shouting arcane D&D rules at each other and watching for predators, it’s way harder.
Some of those kids mature into high school metalheads and picking on them becomes downright dangerous. They roam the halls in denim and leather-clad packs, covered in chains and bristling with spikes, literally looking for trouble.
I loved heavy metal and the group safety was convenient, too. But I identified as a metalhead partly because I wanted to contrast with everyone else. I wasn’t a prep, jock, band kid, goth, stoner or redneck and I felt people should know it. My loud, little tribe hated most of the other tribes (because high school), and we enjoyed aggressively standing out.
Which is the second reason I’ve usually embraced some kind of label: It defines what I’m not just as much as what I am—maybe more. I enjoy being against more than being for. The resistance is what appeals to me. I’ve never wanted to be in power, I’ve always wanted to fight the power.
When I realized I was an atheist, it was all about what I wasn’t. I lacked belief and was defining myself by that absence. And, of course, atheists often band together. In a country that’s overwhelmingly Christian (on paper), it’s pretty normal for nonbelievers to huddle up and support each other (or at least support each other’s atheism).
After I discovered Buddhism and connected so deeply to it, I had no qualms about declaring myself a Buddhist.
This was less about opposition and more about belonging. Buddhism saved my life and changed it for the better; I wanted to stand up and be a part of it. There aren’t many of us, especially in central Kentucky, and, in order to learn more and grow, I needed a community.
I found one at my local Shambhala center, where I tried my best to learn and grow but felt hemmed in by the tradition. There were lots of rules and rituals, plenty of pomp and copious circumstance. Not to mention the lingering, looming shadow of Shambhala’s alcoholic, playboy-guru founder, which darkened my initial desire to belong and stained my conscience.
I moved on to other Buddhisms, but never really joined another one. I practiced Zen but was never a Zen Buddhist. I went deep into Theravada and Vipassana but was never a Theravadin Buddhist. I was just a Buddhist, a rogue meditator, without a spiritual home.
Secular Buddhism swept me off my feet, though. I became part of a loose, ill-defined group of dedicated practitioners that offered a modicum of security and clarity. I didn’t have to be a contemplative Ronin roaming the wastelands; I could snuggle up to a pack of others who shared my trepidation of tradition.
At the same time, I strongly identified myself by what I was not, which was a traditional Buddhist. Karma? Rebirth? Mystical beings? Pfff. I’m a secular Buddhist, pal.
So yeah, it hooked me hard. I could belong and feel all warm and safe, and I could also juxtapose myself against all the stuff that didn’t work for me. I see a lot of silliness in traditional Buddhism, a lot of stuff that may have fit the worldview of India 2600 years ago but clashes with what I understand now.
I’m not opposed to traditional Buddhism, and as a whole, Secular Buddhism isn’t opposed to it either, despite a popular opinion to the contrary. I enjoy standing apart from it, because rebellion is in my nature, and I enjoy having brothers and sisters with me who have my back. Those things considered, all we’re really doing is embracing something that serves us better and enhances our understanding of practice and ourselves.
In daily life, labels are pretty damn helpful. You’ve got your insecticide over here and your margarita mix over there and it’s handy to have a way to tell them apart other than a taste test.
But, despite my odd affection for them, labels aren’t much good on the contemplative path. They’re just as limiting as they are helpful. Insecticide will never be anything other than insecticide and margarita mix will forever remain margarita mix. But I don’t fit inside any neat little boxes and I’ll bet you don’t either.
I mean, yeah, I still love heavy metal, but I also dig punk, funk, rap and Elvis. Is my metal card revoked? I suppose I’m technically still an atheist since I lack belief in supreme beings but I honestly don’t care what it’s called or if I meet the criteria.
What about being Buddhist, traditional, secular or otherwise?
I probably still am some kind of Buddhist, although my flavor isn’t likely to be recognized by the mainstream any time soon. It’s some sort of post-traditional, post-secular, semi-speculative realistic mysticism. Try hashtagging that.
So just what the hell am I? Well, after years of dedicated contemplative practice, I’ve come to a deep, personal spiritual realization: I don’t give a shit anymore.
Finding a safe place to belong, a way to stand out, making a name for myself, used to feel so important to me. But I’m not a particle; I’m a wave. I may fetch up against a label that accurately describes me for a moment, but the natural movement of existence persists. I’m a verb, not a noun—an ongoing event, both expanding and contracting.
It stung to give up my labels. I’d been wearing some of them so long they were really stuck to me. But they were still only skin deep. The discomfort of shedding them was nothing compared to the freedom of living without them. There’s a certain stiffness that’s gone; the struggle to live up to something, to fit the bill you’re self-imposing. In its place is a pleasant flow, a seamless movement between and beyond all labels, using what’s helpful and ignoring the limitations.
The goal is just to manifest what’s authentic and skillful in each moment.
So I guess that’s what the hell I am: goal-oriented. The means to accomplish that goal are fluid and evolving, the ultimate expression of our humanity. We’re all in this together and each of us eventually has to decide whether our labels bring us closer together or drive us further apart.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.
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