“Living categorically” might well be one of the most pervasive and under diagnosed psychological disorders in existence. Like all psychoses, this disorder is assigned to those who have “lost contact with reality” (see psychosis). It’s when people mistake a category for something unique and then act as if their view is true. For example, the categorical term “orange” replaces the luscious, mouth-watering aspects of smelling a citrus scent, tasting a tangy sweetness, the puckering of one’s cheeks, etc. Loss of lived experience—missing out on the fullness of living—is the most common, tragic result. On an intermediate level of harm, a unique individual will get lumped into categories of gender, age, intelligence, wealth, etc. It prevents a balanced evaluation of his or her unique abilities, personality, skills, motivations, etc. At its harmful extreme, it may even produce Josef Stalin’s view of murder in which he stated, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
To understand the degree to which someone (not you, of course) might suffer from this delusion, please answer “True” or “False” to each of the following questions.
- Races of humans exist.
- The picture (below) is a pipe.
- The word “cup” defines a specific object.
- You can say what pain feels like.
Answer key: The more questions that are answered “True” the worse the affliction.
For those who answered “True” to any of these questions, there is hope. The treatment is called mindfulness. At the beginning, you might not like it, believing it too difficult, too boring, or that it will make you stupid. But, it’s the tried and true cure for this affliction. The treatment regimen is simple. Mindfulness is just staying attentive to your direct experience, the seeing, smelling, tasting, etc. of what comes to you through your senses (sensory-perceptual experience) at all times. Alternatively, you can just stop entertaining any ruminative thoughts—those that reoccur time and again. Most allow it to keep going mistakenly believing it’s a helpful way to handle problems. Only after a bit of mindfulness practice do people see they were wrong.
Mindfulness reintroduces us to immediate experience, which is nonconceptual—without concepts and thoughts. It’s how we know the world before we think about it. As for practicing mindfulness, most people initially hate the part about not entertaining any ruminative thought. However, repeating the same thought, causes anxiety, distracts from attentiveness, doesn’t add to your understanding, and likely blocks creative thoughts from breaking through into consciousness. Should a continuing business tax problem be solved using the same technique used last time? Might a fresh, creative approach be useful? Can you have a good, informative conversation with someone when your attention is diverted to the running commentary in your head?
Mindfulness cures the psychosis of “living categorically” because, in Gunaratana’s view, “Words are devised by the symbolic levels of the mind, and they describe those realities with which symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to symbols.” He goes on, “The fact that this process lies above and beyond words does not make it unreal—quite the reverse. Mindfulness is the reality that gives rise to words—the words that follow are simply pale shadows of reality.” (Gunaratana, B. (2002). Mindfulness in Plain English. p. 137.)
The world in which we live first comes to us through our senses. We intelligently process this information, without needing to resort to thinking. We all process perceptual (experiential) information for most of what we do, like stopping our car at a light, pulling covers over ourselves when the sleeping gets too cold, deciding just where a picture looks best on the wall, and realizing an insight that pops fully formed into consciousness. Such information is not altered by transformation into concepts/ thoughts. It’s prior to thought—experiential, non-conceptual. This is the world of mindfulness that Gunaratana writes about.
In contrast, when experience is transformed into concepts and those concepts are taken as truthful, chronically useful representations of reality, the psychosis of “living categorically” re-arises. In such a state, word categories, though they are transformations of directly informative experience, are mistakenly believed as true. Consider what’s truer. That spiders are harmful or deadly so one should be fearful of them all or that they are benign, 8-legged bugs that sometimes appear in the house. How have you stereotyped certain situations, like heights or flying, or foods? How have others stereotyped you? Don’t phobias arise when thoughts don’t match reality? Isn’t the same mechanism at play for many of the other anxieties, like flying and public speaking? How do thoughts relate to low self-esteem or the need to compensate by achieving wealth? Isn’t your identity more the felt experience that’s always been with you than your job or your race or your gender? Is creativity enhanced or impaired when the mind is clear of thought?
To begin to reintroduce you to a more truthful reality, I’ll answer a question posed above. Let’s take the one about the cup. A cup is a category, not a specific object. This cup on my desk, for instance, is a specific entity within the general category of cups. It has a specific colorings, shapes, dimensions, etc. It’s not exactly like any other cup. No one can identify this unique cup through words, even by adding many descriptive modifiers. Further, like all specific things, it cannot be named. No one can say a word about the smell of coffee, the color blue or the feeling of painfulness to someone who never had the sense of smell, vision or pain. Forgetting or ignorance of this fact is likely the origin of the psychosis under discussion here.
As for the questions above, the one about the pipe should have been easy to get correct since the painter, Magritte, wrote in French “This is not a pipe” right at the top. He reminds us that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s a representation or symbol of a pipe. Further, this picture does not represent the word “pipe” as it’s used in the sense of a category, either. The word, too, only represents a category of objects not a unique one. Any and every unique pipe, of course, cannot be verbally expressed.
The question about race highlights the depth of the injuriousness of the diagnosis. Uniqueness and creativity become unappreciated and trivialized when the psychosis of “living categorically” becomes full blown. Boundaries to skin color and geographic origins of ethnicity really don’t exist. Those with this psychosis use the word “race” only to artificially categorize people who each are, in fact, completely unique—not a group.
At their core, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based everything (MBE) all treat this psychosis because they return us to reality. It’s the one untransformed into words. The one in which everything and everyone is rightly, and inexpressibly unique. How does MBE reduce stress? Mindfulness provides a re-introduction back to a more truthful reality. Stress and anxiety may be caused by the difference between the categories in which you see the world and how it really and uniquely exists. If so, the mental process of all cognitive psychological psychotherapies, which challenge one’s thoughts about the world, may basically work through a similar mechanism.
Happiness, success, and creativity may all increase when one lives closer to the truth of what we experience directly. This way of living, in closer contact with reality, may be helpful for minimizing all of the numerous, harmful biases caused by the psychosis of living categorically. Wouldn’t it be nice to be rid of them?
About Steven Pashko, Ph.D.
Steven Pashko is a research clinician who studies treatment effectiveness and the value of health and healthcare. With a background in psychology (license), CNS pharmacology (doctorate), and meditation (completed more than 52 intensive, week-long retreats) he conducts research and speaks about well-being.
Disclaimer: This article neither describes a formally recognized psychological diagnosis nor is it a substitute for a psychological diagnosis or treatment. If you are in need of either, please contact a local licensed psychologist.