We spend our lives trying to define everything in the world around us with neat little fixed definitions. We have definitions for everything that surrounds us and even for our own personal identity. These definitions have attributes that tell us exactly what everything is, and that makes us feel comfortable about the world around us.
For example, what is the definition of an egg?
An egg is an oval or round object laid by a female bird, reptile, fish, or invertebrate, usually containing a developing embryo. The eggs of birds are enclosed in a chalky shell, while those of reptiles are in a leathery membrane.
That sounds pretty simple. Right? Well yes, but the simplicity of this definition is exactly why it is misleading. Nothing is ever that clear cut. Buddhist philosophy teaches us that nothing in the world is truly simple and fixed. For example, at what point did the egg become an egg, and at what point will it cease being an egg? When you frame the question this way, the cracks in our definitions start to show because we don’t have ways of dealing with the in between states. Everything in the universe is in a constant state of change, a flow from being one thing to being another thing.
But why should we care? This sounds like the old Buddhist monks are just being a bit pedantic and making a fuss over nothing. But of course they do in fact have an important point.
There are three good reasons why we should view our definitions of everything as fluid instead of solid:
When you believe that everything fits into neat little boxes, you miss out on the subtlety of so many things that are simply not black and white. For example, is a driver whose blood alcohol level is 1ppm above the limit a wreckless criminal and a driver whose alcohol level is 1ppm below the limit a responsible citizen? Of course not. Are people who are aged 59 years and 364 days middle aged and those who are aged exactly 60 years suddenly old aged? Of course not.
Belief in fixed definitions blinds you of the true reality of everything around you. It makes you closed minded, over simplistic and consequently it impairs your judgement.
When you develop a habit of seeing everything as fixed and static, you fall into the trap of assuming that everything will still fit the same definition next time you encounter it. You assume that world will always be the way that it is now. You become less able to cope with change. You are shocked and surprised by change. Change causes you stress. You struggle to adapt to the changes taking place around you. But if you can’t embrace change, you can’t enjoy the future.
Every extinct species in history became extinct because it wasn’t able to adapt to the changes in the world around it. Don’t be one of them. The ability to adapt to a world in a constant state of flux is a key element of both survival and happiness.
The worst thing that you can try to define with a neat little definition is yourself. As individuals we are infinitely complex and constantly changing throughout our lives. As hard as we try to define who we are, it is simple not possible. Putting labels on ourselves feels like it should make life simpler and help us to understand our own identity, but in truth it makes life harder and causes more confusion.
For example, I could define myself as a British designer who likes chocolate and hates bananas. But if I change my nationality, lose interest in design, stop liking chocolate and develop a love for bananas, am I still myself? Of course I am, but my simple definition would imply otherwise.
The problem is that when you define yourself like this, you put limits on yourself. You start to believe that if you do things that don’t match the fixed identity that you have created then it would mean that you were not being true to yourself. You start to worry that other people will judge you for not acting like “yourself”.
People might judge you, but the reality is that the only way to be true to yourself is to not limit your own life with fixed definitions and to instead let yourself evolve naturally. People might accuse you of being wishy washy and lacking conviction, but the truth is that the only true way to have conviction and integrity is to judge every situation as unique and make decisions on a case by case basis.
This fluid attitude helps make you more resilient to what life throws at you. While you might think that resilience requires you to be hard and solid, it can actually make you fragile and brittle. If you hit a piece of wet clay with a hammer, it moulds around the hammer and remains a piece of wet clay. If you hit a china pot with a hammer, it ceases to be a china pot and becomes a collection of broken fragments. Would you rather be the clay, or the china pot? As the classic TV character Morph taught us, there are a lot of advantages to being fluid and adaptable to life’s challenges!
I wrote recently about why you don’t need to define yourself as a vegetarian to eat vegetarian food. This is the perfect example of how boxing yourself is not necessarily in your best interests. If you define yourself as a vegetarian, you take away your own freedom to choose what you should eat in any given situation. You also give people something to aim at and try to break down. I have seen countless examples of people being rude and critical (arguably racist) against people with certain dietary definitions, and without any good justification. They have something solid to attack, and the victim has something solid that they feel they need to defend. If you don’t put yourself in the box (whatever that box might be), then you don’t need to protect the box and can simply get on with living your life the way you want.
Embrace change, observe the subtlety of everything in your life, stay open minded, adapt quickly to change, have confidence in your true self, give yourself the freedom to make informed choices and follow the natural flow of your life.
Be fluid. Be yourself, whatever that means.