What Are You?

Are you a Republican? Are you gay? Or straight? Are you pro-choice? Are you anti-environmentalist? Are you a Buddhist? Or a Jew? And, if Jewish – are you Reform or Conservative? Or Reconstructionist? Are you a vegetarian for moral reasons? Do you smoke?

Are you a writer? Or a lawyer? Or a businessman? Are you a failure? Are you a woman?

Write down all the things you are. Use a pencil and not a pen. How big can you make the list? Are you a husband? A good father? A bad friend? Maybe you are lonely? Are you an artist?

Did you write down the list? Hold it up in the air. Look at it carefully. Did you put everything? Are you a bad son? Are you on the side of those who favor nationalized health care? Or against? What college did you go to? Are you a jealous person? Are you Nigerian?

We all have a list of labels. I have a big list. Too big. I wrote it down just like I’m asking you to do. I had about 50 items on my list.

Then erase each item one at a time. Do it slowly. After each one close your eyes. Imagine what it’s like to not have that label. Imagine you will never have that label again. Maybe even imagine you never had that label to begin with. It’s just imagination. You can return to all of your labels in a second.

If you were once a Democrat and now you erased it, what does it mean? For one thing, it means you can’t really argue with Republicans about politics. Or Democrats. You’re neutral. You just don’t know what the right answers are on political issues. Congratulations. Nobody does. So now that’s off the list. Phew!

Every item you erase think about all the people who were on the other side of that item. Take a breath to think about it. If you were a vegetarian and you erase that on your list then the non-vegetarians are no longer on the other side. If you think your “poor” then how do you feel when you erase that from the list? What things are you now rich in? If you wrote down “sick” imagine that deep inside you are the healthiest you’ve ever been.

We’re just playing. You don’t have to start eating meat. But just imagine “I am no longer labeled a ‘vegetarian’ “. I’m no longer “a Jew”. I’m no longer “great at basketball”. I’m no longer “psychotic”.

When you are done erasing just close your eyes for a minute. You’ve done a lot decluttering. You’re no longer “lonely”. Or “ivy league educated”. Or “Confucianist”. Or “Irish”. Or “a failure”. You need to relax for a moment. Take a deep breath. Search around inside of your head. Did you miss any clutter? Don’t rush. Breath a few times. Slowly. Do you feel the air going in and out of your nostrils? Your throat? Make your stomach go in and out with the air. Nothing to do. No labels left. This is the Paleo Diet for the mind.

And wonder…now that you’ve erased all the labels, is anything left? Breathe. Really picture it. Feel it. What’s left?

You. You’re left.

I’m right.

  • jdcmorgan

    Great post. I think I’ll start incorporating something similar to this script as a meditation in the future… Keep it up and thanks.

  • otcviper

    Exactly… precisely what I needed to hear today. As usual, on the mark JA.

  • Brilliant!

  • this is great, James! I llold when I read the nigerian bit, as I added the word prince.

  • Toshon Jennings

    This is maybe my favorite post of yours, ever.

    “And wonder…now that you’ve erased all the labels, is anything left? Breathe. Really picture it. Feel it. What’s left?
    You. You’re left.”

  • Ann

    Love this, James. Love it. Thank you. I think I’ll incorporate it into a yoga class that I teach. So, so freeing. :-) You are an excellent writer, good sir.

  • James, with this post you have achieved your principles of writing a good blog. Really great one – short, crips, precise

  • bennyzr

    What hogwash. You are not your physical body which is all you are left with when stripping everything you believe in, stand for, your morals, etc. You are all of the above and your physical body is the tool which you can use to live what you are. You can also change who/what you are.

    • What a small mind you have.

      • bennyzr

        How prejudice you are! Is that the best you could come up with?

    • I dont think it stops at physical body. I think he’s saying we are more than what we see. All of us. Our bodies are nothing. Just a way to show what sex you are. But spiritually speaking, we are all the same. It’s like how people ask, what if God’s female? who cares what he is, it’s just a label and we’re missing the point. And by changing who you are, you’re missing the point as well. It’s not about how one way is better than another so you have to change it. It’s about not living in a world divided into groups. That’s why the world is so violent. I would say, stripping yourself of all those labels is not even necessary. Just by making sure that you realize that the labels are meaningless and no one way is better than another. I think. haha

  • As J. Krishnamurti said, when you call yourself a Christian, Muslim, capitalist, communist, socialist, Republican, Democrat, or any of the other thousands of divisions of man, you are being violent.

    • s_q

      well youre not per se violent, but social psychology shows that only by dividing people into groups (no matter what the criteria for division is) increases rivalry drastically and is the starting point for group discrimination.

      @james i like the ending of your post, made me laugh (youre left, im right) though i wouldnt let it end there, because by dumping the labels and the group division you are not left (from leave). its the first step from being the opposite! now you can really connect and listen and think and and and. i hope you know what i mean

    • Thank you for bringing up Krishnamurti; and I would add John Lennon right after.

    • wonderjam

      J.K. never lived up to his teachings himself. – Once U.G. sunk in, there was nothing left to know….

  • chimera.swa

    interesting exercise. i know how difficult it is to remove deep-set ideas and notions. Most often I think of myself as a ‘world-child’ ( a term i made up) but sometimes I think of myself as an ‘Indian’. Even if we do not change all the notions about ourselves, it is worthwhile to do this exercise.

  • Labeling is an addiction. You can take this exercise even further by removing one label and keeping it off one whole day. Go on with your day practicing awareness of that label that you’ve removed. When it comes back (it will) acknowledge it, take a deep breath and continue. It can be terrifying in the beginning but it gets easier with time.

  • John

    James, great post – I struggle with thoughts constantly racing through my brain. These thoughts always seem to center around the labels I hold on to. I did this exercise and got the chills as I released myself from each. I felt fresh again, weight was lifted. You are right.

  • I would suggest doing the exercise a second time and paying very close attention to the words you choose. Do they imply permanence or a condition that is inherent to who you are (i.e. “poor”)? Think carefully and choose words that might accurately define your condition but do not define who you are. For instance, Instead of writing “poor” write “broke.” Broke is a temporary condition. “Poor” defines who you are within a group (which is relative).

  • kamalravikant

    Erase your labels to connect with others (as a nice by product). I like it.

    • bennyzr

      Who says you need to erase your labels in order to connect with others. As long as there is mutual respect for people and what they believe in there should not be any impediments to connecting to others. It just gets more difficult the more vile an individual.

  • Freudianexcusesarefunny45

    “They can tell you what they think you are, but they can’t tell you what you have to be.”
    -The Secret Saturdays.
    Wow, I saw the episode that had this quote in it three years ago and have forgotten about it until I saw your post, James. Thanks for being back my memory and sense of self! :)

  • Great post. Perhaps an upshot of this is that throughout our lives we invest so much time, energy, and belief into various “institutions” like school, work, religion, etc., and often times our expectations are not fulfilled and we feel disenchanted, if not duped, with what we previously deemed to be of utmost importance. But maybe that’s also the point of enlightenment, where we come to realize what’s important and “real” in life and what isn’t.

  • Lame Blog

    Sorry… but if you strip away everything you are then you don’t exist. Just because you love basketball doesn’t mean you are prejudice against people who aren’t. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean you segregate yourself away from straight. If you take everything you are, and strip it away, then you wouldn’t be anything except blood and bones. Except if you wrote down “I’m AB+” then you wouldn’t have blood either.

  • I really love this. This has always been a sticking point for me in Tolle’s book A New Earth – I just couldn’t see how I could get rid of my labels and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I really like this practical exercise, this experiment, that focuses privately on how you feel about it. I’ll give it a go later today and I bet it’ll be helpful in identifying which labels I am most attached to. And since you’ve presented it as “the Paleo diet for the mind” I’m all in! As always, thanks so much for sharing your insights :)

  • Speedbird

    Beautifully written.

    “When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.” Was just reading that recently in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind :)

  • I love the concept that most of these labels are approximate abstractions — states of mind are not binary. Rather, they are emergent properties of multiple factors — the properties themselves are “complex”. We are something only insofar as we act in a *general* way. I’ve read somewhere sexual orientation is a complex emergence of several processes in the brain. A school of fish moves somewhere but every fish may move in slightly different directions. So using the labels to simplify language and operations in society is useful. But just as useful is the understanding of the complex roots of those terms.

  • nice post until the end. I’m right. NO you’re not. lose your ego bro.

  • James, this could be a radical, fun — maybe even scary — exercise. Love it.
    ~signed, “You.”

  • Doing what you suggest is: A fine, fun and fruitful exercise.
    After you do this exercise you’re left.
    I’m right!
    Fun, clever and useful.

  • The ending is perfect. Those who can’t see the irony are idiots…one thing you can’t erase.

    • kyle eropkin

      You think that someone is an idiot for not understanding that. This makes you ignorant. You really just missed the whole idea of that little excerpt. By dividing “idiots” from “intelligent” people. Maybe instead of using your cleverness to criticize people use it to teach them.

  • Okay, so I am me, no label, no boxes to fit into or expectations to fulfill…..but here is my question: Why am I me, and not someone else?

    The “me” floats around…even my dog is a “me”….but why or what determines why I am me and for instance why I am not my dog?

    • Maybe there’s no answer. Ultimately, our brains want to be useful. Its like the guy who raises his hand always in the meeting and says, “I can do that” because he wants to appear useful. But some things might not have conscious answers that are conveniently packaged inside of words.

      • btw: Your post also inspired me look up the lyrics to “Imagine” even though I know them by heart. I like reading the written words because they feel good.

        Your blog is like that.
        Enjoy your day.

    • Andrew Gibson

      “Why am I me, and not someone else?” – Is there a difference?

      • Yes. The differences are our experiences.

      • Yes. The difference is in our experiences.

  • Divan

    Your post and that photo reminds me of this website: http://labl.us/ I ordered one of the shirts a couple of years ago, and it has been a great conversation starter.

  • I agree that we should not let labels limit and control our thinking about ourselves and others, but I also think labels are useful at times when making important practical decisions.
    For example, when picking a school for your child, labels help you narrow down your options. e.g: Are you Jewish/Black/a genius/a dwarf? Yes. Do you need a Jewish/Black/a genius/dwarf school? No (or perhaps you might answer yes). But do you want your kid to be the only Jewish/Black/a genius/dwarf kid in their class? No (or maybe yes, if you believe that it will toughen them up :)). And then you can start narrowing down the school options… with the help of a few more labels.
    These kinds of labels are helpful in many other practical decisions we need to make in life: where to live, who to marry, etc. I don’t think we need to be totally controlled by labels, but they have practical value when used sensibly. They are just short-hand for identifying key factors that are truly important to our identity.

  • J

    I am Nigerian

    • AmaChefe

      Same here! So James why did you ask?

      • Because the UN says your country is the “happiest” country on the planet.

  • J

    Labels like most things are neither good nor bad.. our use or misuse instead casts light on our perspective.. who we really are. I totally get your aversion for labels being someone who also is pro-openness but realize it is our way of understanding the world around us. It gives identity, description ultimately purpose. I greater admire your work but realize even freedom has its limits.

  • Awesome photo!

    • Vishy

      Completely agree

  • Bill

    I LOVE this one, James!

  • Ivalee9

    Long time reader, first time commenter – I love it, the best post ever!

  • Rose Eliff

    What a fun and thought-provoking exercise to play with! Instead of the divisiveness of labels separating each of us into neat little categories, if we all lost our labels, we get closer to embracing oneness. Like some have commented, some labels are useful (I prefer not to accidentally walk into the Men’s restroom), and some help us form community witih like-minded souls (yogis, architects, grandparents), but the exercise is still useful and thought-provoking.

  • liberranter

    Ah,yes, labels. NOTHING is more satisfying than being someone who is difficult or impossible to pigeonhole. It used to bother me earlier in life, but now, whenever someone tells me “I would never have assumed that about you,” or “I can’t for the life of me imagine how you could do/be/like [whatever],” it gives me a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. Not fitting into anyone’s demographic box but one’s own is a unique form of power, one of the strongest statements of self-ownership one could make.

  • Satish Avhad

    Good One. Though i will try to be a smart ass here and say if all these labels are moved, emotions are left, if emotions are removed I am left. If I am removed existence ~ is left. I’m right.

  • Yanos

    Hear beer. Peel away the pompous pontifications in this vapid rant, and you get to … nothing. But are you centered? I’d admit the possibility, as often sewers are very well centered.

  • i want an audio version read by denzel washington

  • A Fan


  • mrkkk

    Yes you are, this one is awesome, I think when you erase lables, you expand your boundaries, physically/mentally/spiritually bravo!

  • Daniel

    Of course you are not anything but a human being. To say you are”Jewish” or “Muslim” etc. is merely an mental association with an imaginary group. This does not mean that the group or the association therewith is unimportant. However, both are merely arbitrary, and attributable to happenstance. You are Jewish because your parents imagine they are Jewish, thus, you imagine you’re a Jew. You’re a Harvard grad because you had the wherewith all granted by happenstance to be able to attend. All associations are equally arbitrary, and have the same quality as all arbitrary things, namely, that the are easily changed or eliminated. Am I an American? I can renounce my US citizenship, and apply to obtain Canadian citizenship. All associations (aka labels) are similarly arbitrary.

  • I’m neither left nor right. I just am. :-)

  • Kelly

    A great way to experience this is to travel out of the country. When you are no longer in the culture and society that we have come to know and often times blindly float along in- you find out very quickly who you really are. In India, it was meaningless that I was a VP in healthcare. In China, it was meaningless that I was a Libertarian or eat lo-carb and don’t want rice! Labeling and creating ourselves with these external things although grounding at times- is ultimately always confining and limiting.
    Get out of the country if you can- mind expanding, label-stripping- go somewhere where you are no one- then see who you really are.

  • labels separate us, erasing them brings us closer as one. this is sometimes uncomfortable for people (errrr me :)) but it is such a great practice. thanks for the reminder james.

  • Grammar Police

    You’re not your. I’m a grammar elitist. Don’t think I can erase that label. Love your work.

  • I’m alive, i couldn’t erase that from my list
    …happy new year…if i would have erased that i would have been dead

  • Pato Ribeiro

    Fascinating. I love this exercise.Thank you James! Happy new day, everday!

  • This is why snakes shed their skin, it’s liberating and promotes new growth. Thank you.

  • theolg

    “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” Fight Club

  • Vibhanshu Vb Sharma

    Keep staying with me. All the time. How ?

  • Erasing my “brother” label took me into a sudden shock.

  • humanist is my last label, and it is not just a label for me.