Labels. Am I?


Martin Stepek


When we think of ourselves we often use labels. I’m Scottish, half-Polish, a teacher of mindfulness, a writer, a poet. All sorts of other labels. Father. Husband. Brother. Friend. Then there are the questions associated with certain labels.

Am I British? That’s a tough one for some Scots. I’m a British citizen for sure but do I feel British. Is that a label that sits like a familiar tee shirt on my back?

Am I a son? Sadly both my parents are dead. Does that mean my “son” label gets stripped from me, to be replaced by that word “orphan”? Son still sits well in my mind. Orphan feels alien to me.

My mother’s great-grandfather and his wife were both Irish, born in Ireland. But to complicate matters they were born at a time when Ireland was still part of Britain. All of the generations between the great-grandparents and my mother were couples who came from Irish backgrounds too, so does that mean my mum was Irish even though she, her parents, and all four of her grandparents were born in Scotland, albeit from Irish-descended families? And if that’s the case, does that mean I can add the label Irish, or half-Irish onto my list of words that identify me?




What my mind used to tell me was this: I’m a Scot with a Polish father and a Scottish mother. I was a Company Director, and yes a father, son, husband, and brother amongst other things.

In 1998 I started studying Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana Buddhist philosophies and practices from Tibet. One aspect of this was the twin idea of Universal Compassion and Universal Responsibility.

From this deepening vantage point, that I should perceive all that lives as equally deserving of my care and compassion, the decades-old labels that I had hitherto attached to myself – especially “Scottish” – began to loosen and slowly became more distant, less grasping within my mind. In its place came a wider sense that all things wish to live, to not be harmed, to thrive and live fulfilled lives.

As I pondered these changing perceptions of myself, I wrote about them in a three-part poem, called Three Calligraphies.


1. Polish Calligraphy

Blood finely painted over white cloth
etched in the soil by dying young men
suffering strewn on the aching page
resistance scrawled on the fabric of a flag
gliding like an eagle in the Slavic sun
an unfathomable part of my mindstream


2. Scots Calligraphy

Words painted over cloth
designed by antiquity for all our tomorrows
woes woven into fabric
complexity crafted in carved rock
in intricate calligraphy of wild Atlantic waves
an incomprehensible part of my bloodstream


3. Universal Calligraphy

Men gorged on vicious pride
trample over lands and ages
striking at everything that lives
purity pours luscious light on our wounds
vanquishes the darkness in our souls
this incomprehensible marvellous life stream



The practices of mindfulness were developed to help us liberate ourselves from unhelpful and inaccurate ways of seeing ourselves and the events happening inside us and around us. Our genetic impulses of fight or flight, of desire, familial and tribal loyalty, of fear and suspicion of “others”, and the subtle and not-so-subtle social, cultural and educational additions of layers of further skewed views of ourselves and our lives, all mashed together in our mind through time lead to who we are now, what Albert Einstein once famously called “a collection of prejudices”.

The Journal of the North Atlantic and Arctic (JONAA) is a much-needed entity in a human-dominated world that somehow or other focusses human interest on certain geographical areas and certain themes, while neglecting entirely other areas and themes. Thus JONAA, with its geographical emphasis on a much-ignored part of our world, fills a gap in our understanding of a part of the world that is as important and precious as all other parts. Like every part of the world it is unique, and being unique, it is priceless.

However it is not any more important than any other part of the world. As the remarkable English poet William Blake once put it, we need “to see a world in a grain of sand”. Everything matters. Why? Because everything is inter-connected and what happens to a grain of sand eventually affects each of us, and we need to be alive to that reality. Thus JONAA, In my opinion, whilst focussing on the geographical regions of such beautiful parts of the world including where I live here in Central Scotland, must do so from a philosophy of universal consideration and equality. When we consider what is right for the JONAA region we must do so from a point of view of how any actions we take may impact on other parts of the world, and on all other living things in all parts of the world, to the extent that our brilliant but still limited brains can manage.

Not only is this way of seeing morally robust, but I think in the long run will practically position JONAA and the region as far-sighted and inclusive, and in my view this is where humanity must be headed. We have seen enough of the destructiveness of narrow self-centred visions and strategies. We need minds that people have nurtured to be clearer in their thinking, calmer in their deliberations, more content in their view of being alive, and more and more compassionate towards all things that live and towards the planet we all thrive on. This, in my view is a mindful approach to life.

So back to labels. I recognise the “Scottish” label. I recognise my hesitant and instinctive dislike of applying the label “British” to myself. The recognition is a result of pure mindfulness, awareness of my self-perceptions. But my insights gained from such awareness rejects both the “Scottish” label and the dislike of “British”, and I accept neither label. The only label I aim to accept as legitimate in me is “Alive”, or as the Buddha, in response to the question “Who are you?” replied “I am awake.”. I hope one day we can all wake up from our narrow, restricting labels and see ourselves as much more than we can imagine today. 



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