Skip to content

Beyond Black and White: The Spectrum of Life’s Distinctions

  • 8 min read

You can look at the world from many different levels of distinction.

And at every level, the world looks different.

You can look at your arm and say “Oh, that’s my arm.”

Or you can look a bit closer.  And notice your arm is made up of skin, hairs, pores, …

You could zoom in some more and distinguish cells, bacteria… Nerves, water, protein…

And in theory, you could continue to make more distinctions in what you see.  Until you saw a bunch of subatomic particles dancing and forgot that you were looking at you arm.

You could also go in the other direction.

Not seeing an arm, but a body.  

If you make even less distinctions, you may not see a body, but a room with things in it (including you.

And so on.  Until you look at the same thing, with such a low amount of distinctions that the planet earth as a whole, starts to look as small as those subatomic particles that make up your arm.

But unless we were having an acid trip together, why would I bother to tell you this?

How Your Distinctions Create Your Experience

Our experience of life is largely determined by the amount of distinctions we make in each moment.

Here’s how that works:

If you would make no distinction between the different objects in your environment, you wouldn’t know which of them are food, or tools, or toys.

You would just think “oh look, there’s the environment”

Some moments, the environment might magically feed you (it would be someone who cares about you, but you wouldn’t see them as distinct), other moments it wouldn’t. And if in those moments you were hungry, you would feel helpless.

Now imagine that you would make even less distinctions.

That you wouldn’t distinguish between the environment and yourself.  Now you could no longer think “look, there’s the environment”.  You couldn’t even think the word “there”, because that word arises from the distinction.  All you could think is “Oh, I am…”

If you lacked this distinction while in the middle of a warzone, you might think “Oh, I am pain and suffering.” And if you lacked it in the middle of an orgy, you might think “Oh, it seems like I am pleasure and horniness.”

Unless of course, you also didn’t have the distinction between “pleasure” and “pain”.  In which case, you’d feel the same in both scenarios.

That example was probably a bit far away from how your typical Wednesday goes (or maybe not, who knows).  So let’s give another example:


The smaller your vocabulary is, the less distinctions you have.  So you’ll need to interpret the world, using words as broad brush strokes.

For example:  

“I feel good.”

“Ice cream is bad.  Salad is better.”

But when your vocabulary increases, your level of distinction goes up.  And this increases the nuance of the experiences you are able to have.

Suddenly, instead of just feeling “good” , you are able to experience the subtitle difference in feelings like:

Joy, Awe, Amusement, Gratitude, Ecstacy, Enthusiasm, Serenity, Delight, and so on.

You can now taste the subtle differences in each of them, the way a sommelier tastes differences in each wine, where other people just conclude “this wine’s good, that other one’s bad.”

Suddenly, you can say “Ice cream is better for pleasure, salad is better for vitamins & fiber”.

Now you get to enjoy your ice cream AND your salad, in contexts appropriate for each.

How Distinctions Create Freedom & Possibilities

If you take any skill that you want to learn.  You’ll notice that your level of competence increases along with your level of distinctions.

Let’s take dancing for example.

Initially, you may learn to dance with a few basic distinctions:

“Move my arm to the right, move my hip to the left.”

Then you may make the distinction of rhythm: “How fast do I move my arm?  How does the movement sync up with the music?”

Over time, you may think “What are the phases of the arm movement, and how does each separate phase coincide with the music?”

As you grow more proficient, all kinds of distinctions may start to appear:

  • Is the movement hard or soft?
  • Is it jerky or smooth?
  • Sassy or sensual?
  • Grounded or floaty?
  • Where is my center of gravity in each part of the movement?
  • Which story is this movement telling?  
  • Which emotion is it expressing?

The more of these distinctions you’re able to make, the more you’ll be able to improve those subtle aspects of your dancing.

At the same time, you’ll also have to be able to choose not to make them. So that you can actually get into the flow the dance, instead of spending your time thinking about all the distinctions.

But if you never make a distinction in the first place, you don’t have the possibility of choosing what to do with it.

If you didn’t make the distinction between hard and soft movement for example, you might forever be unable to dance softly.

So your ability to make these distinctions can determine your progression in the skill.

Such distinctions can be made in all basic “life skills”, “people skills”, “happiness skills”, “practical skill”..

And your proficiency in them will be limited by the amount of distinctions you made throughout the years..

Let’s say your car breaks down. If all you ever see is “broken car”, you can never fix it.

But if you look at the car and make distinctions between the parts, now possibilities open up. You can identify which part of the car is broken.

Of course if you go too deep, and start looking at the atoms that make up the car, you will lose a lot of time thinking about them without actually fixing it (this is what happens to people who philosophize too much, they use too many distinctions for the task at hand).

The trick is to give yourself access to as many distinctions as possible, and then determine the appropriate amount for the situation at hand.

Using Distinctions to Improve Mental Health & Relationships

Here’s some examples of distinctions you can add, to improve in these areas:

  • Criticism of my behavior isn’t criticism of me
  • Feedback on the work I delivered, is not feedback on my capabilities
  • My memory of an event is not the event itself
  • Disagreement with my opinions, is not disagreement with me
  • My interpretation of your words, are not your words
  • Rejection of having a specific relationship type with me, is not rejection of me
  • People not loving me is not the same as me being unlovable
  • Someone loving me is not the same as someone behaving lovingly
  • Make a distinction between a person and their role.  For example, when talking to your boss, the cops, a customer service representative, …  Do you relate to them as a function or a person?  Huge difference in how the conversation will go.

Here’s some examples of how making less distinctions can improve our wellbeing our ability to connect with others:

  • Remove the distinction between “good” and “bad” emotions → now they’re just emotions
  • Remove the distinctions between “migrants” and “locals” → now wey’re all just “inhabitants”, and associated prejudices disappear
  • So many sexual orientations nowadays, which one am I?  None.  When I remove the distinction “orientation”, I’m just a person and I feel what I feel whenever I feel it.
  • Remove the distinction between “having a business” and “being an employee”
  • Remove the distinction between “convenient” and “inconvenient” timing.  Now things just happen when they do, without any baggage.
  • Remove the distinction between “left” and “right” politics, to remove your biases when considering political proposals or messages
  • Remove the distinction between “productivity” and “rest”, now you can rest at times when it would be more productive than “producing”.

These are just a selection of many possible ideas for you to play with.  None of these are superior for every single situation.  

But the key is to always remember that you are the one making the distinctions.

You can control how many distinctions you choose to see in each moment.

Feel stuck?  Take a piece of paper and try to add 20 distinctions about the situation that you didn’t have before.

Feel overwhelmed?  Zoom out.  Look at things holistically and ask “Where was I overthinking this? “

Think of it like changing the resolution on a picture:  More details makes you see more, less detail makes it easier to store and process.

The distinction that you are the one who chooses how much data you will work with in a given moment, is in itself one of the most liberating ones you can make.

If you enjoyed this free article, please consider leaving a tip.

For personalized guidance tailored to your specific situation, go here (subject to availability).