June 17, 2014 § 12 Comments
“So alienated from ourselves are we that when we encounter our own souls in the psychedelic dimension, we mistake it for a UFO. This is serious alienation folks, I think we have to get back into the inner jeweled realm and make ourselves at home there.” ~ Terence McKenna
“In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe; therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe. We are enfolded in the universe.” ~ David Bohm
In “The Art Of Seeing: Third Eye Perception & The Mystical Gaze,” I explored the phenomenon of inner visions experienced in meditation, such as mandalas and other “third eye” phenomena. The “third” or “inner” eye has been called a gateway to other dimensions, a personal portal leading into esoteric visionary realms.
“The Art of Seeing” received one of our largest, most in-depth reader responses. The comments section is filled with shared accounts from readers of their adventures in inner space.
There were a lot of fascinating similarities. The most common reports were of geometric patterns, and of perceiving blue, purple or magenta swirls—often taking the form of tunnels, passageways, vortexes or, as one reader described it, a golden hallway. There was a common theme of sensing it to be some kind of inner portal.
While Eastern mystical traditions have described the existence of the third eye, the energy body & chakra system for ages, the direct perception of these fields is a pioneering study. At this point, anecdotal sharing affirms that ours are not isolated experiences, but contact with a genuine dimension of reality.
Which raises the question: what is the nature of that reality?
Quantum physicists, philosophers, cosmologists & psychonauts alike have all observed a holographic potential to the nature of reality.
A hologram contains the whole within the part. Not only is this true of our bodies—one cell, of course, contains our whole genetic blueprint—but the natural world is made up of recurring patterns, which repeat on every scale, from micro to macro, known as fractals. We observe the same formations, such as the Fibonacci Spiral, shown below, in both the macro universe & on the micro (sub-atomic) level.
Below, a microscopic image of a bacterial colony structure demonstrates fractal qualities:
In one experiment, or “chaos game,” numbers are randomly generated & then placed on a grid.
Within a few dozen repetitions, the shape we would recognize as a perfect fern will emerge from the abstract math. This is because Nature, in Her elegance, follows the simplest & most efficient possible path.
“Many things previously called chaos are now known to follow subtle fractal laws of behavior.
“So many things turned out to be fractal, that the word “chaos” itself (in operational science) has been redefined as ‘following inherently unpredictable yet generally deterministic rules, based on nonlinear iterative equations.’ Fractals are unpredictable in specific details, yet deterministic when viewed as a total pattern…” (Fractal Patterns in Nature)
Fractal-like formations are often reported during both mediative visions and psychedelic journeying.
In an interview for “New Realities,” Alan Steinfeld asks visionary artist Alex Grey about his use of grids in his inter-dimensional, metaphysically themed paintings. “It comes from seeing the grid work in meditation and on psychedelic voyages,” replies Grey, “and it seems to be related to one’s perceptions and projections. ‘Theologue’ [shown below] is a recounting, an experience of witnessing a grid work that was emanating from my own awareness.
Continues Grey: “I was a node in the sourcing of the web and felt so expansive I was beyond my sourcing it. I could see it projecting from my awareness. Since we are all projecting it, it is a part of all of us. It is an aspect of our being.
“The grid is not a manifestation of the conceptual mind, but of transcendental wisdom mind.”
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great God there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number.
“There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of the these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in it’s polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite.”
The jeweled net is an excellent description of a hologram, as each jewel contains an image of all the others.
In 1982, a team of researchers lead by Alain Aspect, discovered that subatomic particles, such as electrons, are able to instantaneously communicate with one another, regardless of how much space separated them.
This discovery, known as quantum entanglement, violates Einstein’s long-held tenant that no communication can travel faster than the speed of life, and is tantamount to breaking the time barrier.
The fact that grid work, geometric forms & fractal imagery is regularly experienced by psychonauts from varying backgrounds suggests a Matrix-like possibility to the nature of reality.
After all, nothing is solid, the micro contains the macro & mathematics makes up the fundamental expressions of our world.
“We live in a fractal world of extraordinary beauty, full of information” notes metaphysical author & clairvoyant Stuarte Wilde. “But the sight of it is denied to us, at first anyway. To see is to be able to perceive the geometric reality that makes up your body and all of nature, and to see the angelic and the celestial heavens, as well as be more aware of the dangers of the hell worlds and the dark fractals people fire.
“We are inside complex geometric formula that describe our health, abundance, moods, creativity, our psychology…but mostly they describe our energy and vitality, or a lack of it. This sea of energy around us dictates what happens to us in 3-D; it shapes our fate, just as fractals dictate the shape of a fern leaf.”
What are your pieces to the puzzle?
March 31, 2014 § 29 Comments
“Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent & incomplete.” ~ Leonard Koren
“Wabi is the beauty that springs from the creative energy that flows in all things, animate or not. It’s a beauty that, like nature itself, can appear with dark and light, sad and joyful, rough and gentle.” ~ Makoto Ueda
“Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed.” ~ Joe Hefferon
The term Wabi-Sabi represents a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that embraces authenticity over perfection.
Characterized by asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity—modesty & intimacy—wabi-sabi values natural objects & processes as emblems of our transitory existence. Rust, woodgrain, freckles—the texture of life.
Developed in the 15th century in reaction to the lavish, ostentatious ornamentation of the aristocracy, wabi-sabi centers around three principals: “nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished.”
“The initial inspiration for wabi-sabi’s metaphysical, spiritual, and moral principles come from ideas about simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality found in Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism,” notes Leonard Koren (“Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.“)
Though the concept of wabi-sabi is vast & elusive, most agree the closest Western translation is “rustic.”
“Wabi” refers to stark, transient beauty, while “sabi” denotes the poetry of natural patina & aging, with undertones of yūgen—profound grace and subtlety. Age, damage & natural processes are not seen as flaws, but as deepening & enriching an object’s beauty & profundity.
It is not only natural process that wabi-sabi celebrates, but subtlety & suggestion.
“Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest,” details Robyn Griggs Lawrence, “the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree …. the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time…”
Intentionality is key.
“Wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly,” adds Lawrence. “Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it’s clear they don’t harbor bugs or grime. One senses that they’ve survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they’ve been so well cared for throughout the years.”
To find beauty in imperfection is not intuitive to the Western mind.
Not only have we been raised in a consumeristic culture that values the new & the flawless over the old & the damaged—from objects to people, an obsession fed by airbrush-heavy advertisers—but our entire Western worldview is based on the ancient Greek philosophies of symmetry, proportion & idealized beauty. Not acceptance of what is, but glorification of what could be.
Wabi-sabi finds beauty & value in what is.
It is, Lawrence notes, “everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed.
“Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.” (“Wabi-Sabi: The Art of Imperfection.”)
In this modern age we find ourselves increasingly alienated from the real.
The texture of life is more & more digitized. We are programmed to seek newer, sleeker, faster technologies—bombarded with images of younger, smoother, more mannequin-like faces as the height of beauty.
It is a ripe time to recall & explore the ancient wisdom of wabi-sabi.
As Billie Mobayed famously noted: “When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”
In an age when broken things are sooner thrown away than honored for their history we can apply this beautiful concept to ourselves.
Though our hearts may bare metaphorical fractures, in the light of our acceptance & reverence, we fill its fissures with gold. For what is more valuable than experience?
Through the wisdom of wabi-sabi we can again begin to appreciate the texture of life—as expressed through human authenticity & natural process.
Perfection has a hallow ring next to the real.
*If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: “Authenticity & The False Self”
September 26, 2013 § 21 Comments
“Why do we describe a distraught person as being ‘beside himself’? Because the ancients believed that soul and body could part, and that under great emotional stress the soul would actually leave the body. When this happened a person was ‘beside himself.'” ~ Dictionary of Word Origins
Our language is rife with references to what has traditionally been described by shamanic cultures as ‘soul loss’ — “Nobody’s home,” we might say of an empty-eyed co-worker. Or, in a funk ourselves: “I feel like a part of me is missing.” Popular songs site it casually — I don’t know where my soul is / I don’t know where my home is (Nelly Furtado, “I’m Like A Bird”).
Yet, these expressions are so common, we often use them as descriptors without fully investigating their implication.
“Few of us live as fully as we could. When we become aware of this, we want to recover the intensity of life, and the intimacy, that we once enjoyed…We want to come home more fully to ourselves and to the people we love.”
Many turn to the shamanic arts for language and methodology which address our collective angst with a soulfulness lacking in modern lexicon.
“The re-emergence in the late twentieth century of shamanism — with its lively and concrete notion of soul — seems to be a response to a very depressing cultural reality,” notes Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule. “In the past six or seven hundred years we have undergone a consciousness-shift of 180 degrees. Formerly soul was our primary reality. Now we have only a body and a rational ego.
“The material conditions of our lives have improved immeasurably, but we’ve lost the imaginal and transcendent scope that belongs to the reality of soul. In a situation like this, it is often the depressives among us who are the most realistic regarding the impoverishment of our human existence.” (“Depression & Soul-Loss.”)
According to modern writers on the ancient subject, soul loss accounts for depression, anxiety, a sense of alienation, incompleteness and disconnection, a feeling of being “spaced out,” or “sleepwalking” through life. Extreme cases include coma, psychosis, fugue states and dissociative identity disorders.
Interestingly, the concept that a vital aspect of the self flees or retreats during experiences of extreme pain or disturbance is an idea shared by shamanism and psychotherapy alike. Psychotherapy calls it “disassociation,” shamanism calls it “soul loss.” The purpose in both cases is self-protection.
Modern shamanic healers explain that we all lose bits and pieces of our soul, or vital essence, as we go through life.
The cause doesn’t have to be something as monumental as an accident or as extreme as abuse. It can be as simple as a small child’s sensitivity to their parents’ psychic tension or continued arguing. Little by little, parts of ourselves withdraw and become seemingly lost to us.
Rejected elements of the personality are banished from conscious awareness — Jung’s concept of the psyche’s “Shadow” aspect. This is done unconsciously, to ease the cognitive dissonance of harboring seemingly conflicting or ambiguous feelings; what modern psychology calls “compartmentalization” and repression.
Denied aspects — such as repressed sadness, anger, inner child or libidinous impulses — are effectively exiled. But they do not disappear. They continue to exist “underground,” as it were, in the subterranean caves of the psyche, causing emotional alienation, discomfort and disconnection from self.
The good news is that excavation of these buried aspects — and a renewal of their accompanying vital forces — is always possible, and the focus of psychotherapy and shamanic healing alike.
“An aspect of the infinite soul fleeing under duress is a state everyone has at some point experienced, regardless of terminology or ideology applied,” comments Kelley Harrell in her Huffington Post article, “The New Treatise on Soul Retrieval.”
The most common approach of neo-shamans is to echo the ancient model of shaman-as-guide in the netherworlds of psyche/non-ordinary reality. As pioneering anthropologist Mircea Eliade wrote in his now classic text “Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”:
“Only the shaman can undertake a cure of this kind. For only he ‘sees’ the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it, in ecstasy, and return it to its body….Everything that concerns the soul and its adventure, here on earth and in the beyond, is the exclusive province of the shaman.”
However! A fascinating synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic soul retrieval has been in the works over the past several decades. A growing number of healers are shifting the agency from themselves to their patients.
Practicing psychotherapist & shamanic healer Selena Whittle attributes the modernized soul retrieval method to her mentor Ross Bishop. Upon his return from studying with teachers in India, Australia, and South America, Bishop transformed the Soul Retrieval process into a method that could be embraced by the Western mind and heart by making a simple shift in the roles of Shaman and the healing recipient.
“In this contemporary method of Soul Retrieval,” relates Whittle, “the essential elements of the process are the same. There is a shamanic journey into the inner world where the wounded part of the self is identified, healed and brought back; however, the client does the work and is guided by the Shaman. The client takes the shamanic journey. The client identifies the part of the self that is wounded. The client builds a relationship with that part of the self, heals it, then brings it back for integration.
“The Shaman guides the client every step of the way, helping the client navigate the internal world of the psyche, guiding the client in the potent words or actions that are needed to build the relationship with the fragmented aspect of the self, to heal it and to bring it back. The shamanic journey becomes a shared experience, the Soul Retrieval a shared healing intervention.”
But let me initiate you right here and now into a simple yet profound method, which you can practice in the comfort of your home.
1. Create your inner sanctum.
Visualize anything from an ornate temple to a simple spot by a running brook. The important part is that the setting has identifiable features, which can be recreated, and that the space makes you feel empowered, centered, safe and calm. Mentally construct as many details — sights, sounds and smells — as possible. Lie back, get comfortable and spend some time really making your inner sanctuary come to life behind closed eyes. (*The bath, with some low light, candles, calming scents and salts, is an excellent place to do soul work.)
2. Call in the missing soul part.
Decide which aspect you are going to reach out to before settling in by first looking at the problem areas in your life. For example, if you are having issues with anxiety, call in “the one who feels anxious.” If you are dealing with addiction, call in “the one who is addicted.”
If you are a visual person, the rejected aspect will likely take form in your mind’s eye. If you are not, you may simply get a feeling or “thought package” of insight — though visualization is encouraged with this particular method.
3. Reach out, reassure, & connect.
Remember, these inner aspects are in hiding because they have been wounded, ridiculed, banished, frightened. They are like scared children — who have not developed beyond the age at which they fled — and must be reached out to accordingly. So it’s important to access & project a sense of deep compassion towards them if you’re to inspire their trust.
Tell them you wish to discuss their unmet needs.
These rejected aspects, which you may have deemed bad, difficult, or unacceptable, actually have legitimate needs, which — as they are not being met by you, their guardian — are being substituted with unhealthy behavior. The coping mechanism employed by the exiled aspect, however far from your ideal, is truly its best effort with the tools at hand.
Explain mentally to your exiled aspect that you are here to increase communication between their awareness and your conscious personality. Remind them you both have the same goal of wellbeing and wholeness, because ultimately, you are one being. Any sense of isolation and disconnection has been a fear-driven illusion based on pain and misunderstanding. Now you are calling home your missing parts. If they have felt unloved, give them the love they crave. You have all the power. Use it.
These injured aspects have a long history of feeling unsafe in the presence of the too often accusatory and judgmental conscious mind. As a result, they will often cloak themselves in guarded energy, which can have a menacing impression. This is not the true aspect, but a self-protective mask.
Like any vulnerable creature attempting to seem stronger than it feels, this protective presentation may take the form of something frightening. Practitioners refer to this as “entity” presence, which denotes fear-based energy that isn’t yours but is being used by the wounded inner aspect like armor.
This same goal can be achieved by the inner aspect through opposite means, by presenting an overly “goody-two-shoes” image (“See? I’m perfectly fine. Not hurt at all.”)
So it is necessary to gently test and question the initial appearance of the invited aspect by asking if it is an entity. In your sacred space the aspect can not lie. Even if it says “No” with its mouth, it’s shape may shift or the eyes may flicker, telling a different story and betraying its true nature.
It should be noted that simply because an image is disturbing does not automatically make it false “entity” energy. It can just as easily be the symbolic representation of the feeling-state of the soul part—it may feel, and thus present as, bruised, starved, beaten-up or neglected.
Keep probing its authenticity gently until you feel it has lain down its defenses and actually offered its true, vulnerable self at which point reach out and initiate a compassionate dialogue. A good place to start is by asking how you can help.
If the answer is simple and true, you know it’s the soul part speaking. If the reply is too convoluted or complex, it’s an entity-energy defense, or your cerebral analysis kicking in; start over and await the answer without assumption, projecting compassion.
5. Identify Source of Disconnection, Correct Misunderstanding
Once assured of the fragmented aspect’s authenticity, ask it to show you at what age it became separated. It may show you a particular scene or instance. Ask how this situation made the soul part feel. What was the message it received? Usually, something in the “Not good enough” category will surface. As with small children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce or general unhappiness, the impression of unworthiness will invariably be based on a misinterpretation of events. With compassion, correct this misunderstanding. The fragmented aspect needs to hear it is worthy of love. Bring it home by embracing this exiled aspect of yourself; give it the love and acceptance it has been hereto denied.
6. Stay connected afterwards.
The goal is to continue the newly forged relationship beyond your inner journey into your everyday life, eventually forming a full integration between the formerly exiled piece and your conscious awareness. Check in with the newly rediscovered aspect throughout the days following your journey. How does he or she feel? Are you meeting the needs discussed with more awareness?
What makes this method different from, and often more effective than, regular “talk therapy” is the willingness to surrender conscious mind constructs to the wild and telling symbolism of the subconscious. In this way cerebral analysis is transcended and the beating heart of true experience touched.
What may read as hokey can be extremely powerful in a real-time, step by step process. After all, these are the parts of self from which we are always running, from whose pain we so often seek distraction. Giving them back their voice, and gracing their needs with our attention, can be a life-changing integration.
Ultimately, whether you regard this excercise as symbolic or literal doesn’t matter. As French poet Baudelaire said, this world is a “forest of symbols.”
The inner fragmentation experienced by so many in this modern time mirrors the compartmentalization tendencies of society itself.
“The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society which is split into different nations, races, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments — in ourselves, in our environment and in our society — are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, ecological and cultural crisis.” ~ Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics)
In a so-called civilized world, which so often dismisses the idea of soul and then complains of feeling empty, soul retrieval — reclaiming personal wholeness — is a heroic act.
April 2, 2013 § 37 Comments
“No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
“To be nobody but myself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else—means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting. ~ e.e. cummings
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – C.G. Jung
In 1944 Helen Deutsch—notably, the first psychoanalyst to specialize in women’s psychology—coined the term the “as if” self.
This concept was expanded upon and called the “false self” by D. W. Wincott in 1960. “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance,” Wincott noted, “overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being.” (“Our Need for Others.”)
The idea of a false personality construct being distinct from one’s essential, authentic nature dates back over 3000 years: in the Bahgavad Gita, Ego (or Ahamkara) is described as the body-identified sense of self which is disconnected from the true soul.
“According to the Gita,” notes Ramnath Subramanian “there is a fundamental difference between ‘real’ ego and what it defines as the ‘false’ ego. Real ego is our very essence, the consciousness that makes us aware and awake to reality. The false ego is a false identity crafted to preserve the sense of being the most significant and the most important all the time. In short, it is a narcissistic search for being loved, validated and appreciated.(“The Bhagavad Gita and the Problem of the Ego,” Huffington Post.)”
“We all need an ability to mask or control our baser emotions so that we don’t blurt them out inappropriately where they can get us into trouble,” explains Dr. Tain Dayton in “Creating a False Self: Learning to Live a Lie.” “The real danger lies not in creating a mask or false self, we all do that somewhat. The danger lies in mistaking the false or idealized self for the true self.
“A false self because it is an unconscious defense, can stifle the growth of a conscious, authentic self. It’s the false self that strategizes and develops strength, confidence and acceptance. And the true, conscious self gets suffocated and sent into hiding.”
One surefire way to distinguish one’s core center from the egoic personality structure or false self is meditation, in which we cultivate what has been called “the witnessing self.” Meditation asks the practitioner to become conscious of when one is thinking, which really just means becoming aware of when one is talking to oneself internally.
In our everyday Western life, a constant inner monologue for us has become like breathing. We identify with our thoughts to the point where the statement “I am not my thoughts,” however factually correct, feels somewhat radical when taken to heart.
Yet the meditation practitioner soon finds moments, however fleeting, when the inner dialogue is stilled and mental silence is achieved. Anyone who has ever experienced this will tell you that this moment feels very much like making contact with one’s true being—which, according to mystical traditions the world over, it is.
“Based on the philosophy of [the ancient Hindu texts] the Upanishads,” details Neera Kashyap in “Personal Growth & The Witnessing Mind,” [we are taught] that if we could witness our thoughts and emotions, we would discover that what is witnessed is not our essential nature, but an ever-changing flux of our mind’s desires and tendencies.
“By practicing witness consciousness, we can distance ourselves from our chameleon-like mental tendencies. [This way] we observe our world, but simultaneously also absorb the detachment, power and impartiality of our anchor, the witnessing mind.
“Anchored, we observe,” continues Neera. “Anchored, we inquire into the origins of our thoughts and emotions, and the problems that arise from them. Anchored, we see them rise, take form, and ultimately merge into the witness. The thoughts, emotions, and problems are transformed, by their mergence in the silence and peace of the witness.”
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
“This verse from the Upanishad,” notes Neera Kashyap, “sums up the secret of abiding happiness, in our lives. We enjoy the fullness of life, yet simultaneously witness this participation silently. This seems essential, when we consider the next verse of this Upanishad, in which the imagery is further developed.
“The active bird is overcome by sadness at her unceasing and unwise partaking of life. However, when she beholds on the same tree the eternal power and glory of the other bird, the witnessing spirit, she is freed from sorrow. For she sees that between herself and the other bird, there is a fundamental identity.”
Wincott prescribed what he called “play”—anything that brings out spontaneous aliveness, from art to sports to meaningful conversation—as a way to revive contact with the authentic self.
“When we’re self-accepting,” elaborates Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. in “Evolution of the Self, “we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem-able’ parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification.
“We can recognize our weaknesses, limitations, and foibles, but this awareness in no way interferes with our ability to fully accept ourselves…Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating self-acceptance requires that we develop more self-compassion.”
It can be hard in a world that values success, perfection and positivity to accept our failures, flaws and darkness, but ultimately, in order to touch the authenticity within ourselves we seek—ironically!—-accepting the aspects of ourselves which we like least is the first step to unleashing that part we like best.
What are your thoughts on authenticity, identity and the false self?
February 8, 2012 § 27 Comments
“To offer the leadership and vision our times require as individuals, professionals, change agents in any domain, and even as spiritual leaders, wisdom dictates we move beyond unconscious polarization – not just intellectually, but in the very words we speak and the actions we take.” ~ Ragini Elizabeth Michaels
“[T]he thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
“To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” ~ Jianzhi Sengcan
If one extreme presents itself, such as a predator, it’s logical to put as much space between you and that danger as possible, to go the opposite direction. It makes sense to label the saber tooth tiger “unsafe” and the cave where he can’t reach you “safe.” In situations so basic, locations which are “somewhat safe” are ineffective to ponder.
But we no longer live in an age where this kind of thinking serves us. In fact, the cognitive distortion brought on by viewing a complex world through the simplistic lens of “this or that,” “all or nothing,” “either/or,” can harm relationships, diminish well-being and limit our overall understanding of the world. In viewing a multi-faceted situation through a binary lens we are bound to miss essential details.
In the modern era the ability to perceive nuance, ambiguity and paradox is considered the height of cognitive vitality. Finding balance between seemingly contradictory elements is believed by many to be the road to inner peace.
Language itself promotes dualistic thinking. ‘Difficult’ and ‘easy’ define each other. What would ‘calm’ mean without ‘anxious?’ ‘Up’ makes ‘down’ distinguishable.
Even the simplest, most everyday question — “How are you?” — pressures us to pick a side. If, for whatever combination of reasons, our focus happens to be on the pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling aspects of our lives that day, we will likely answer, “good!”
If, for whatever combination of reasons, our attention has been brought to the difficult, frustrating, undesirable aspects of our lives, we may say the social equivalent of “bad” (“not so good,” “seen better days,” etc.)
Yet, our lives at all times contain both pleasant and challenging aspects. What has changed, more often than not, on the days we say “good” from the “I’ve had better” days is simply our focus.
Middle ground responses will likely provoke an interpretation veering towards the negative. For instance responding with a shrug, “So-so,” “I’m okay,” or the unlikely but far more accurate, “I’m both good and bad,” will be read as unspecific and inspire detail pressing. The most honest answer (“I am”) would be considered highly uninformative.
“While we speak to the unity and harmony of the whole as our desired goal,” writes Ragini Elizabeth Michaels in her article “Managing a Paradoxical Life,” “our language itself too often reveals an unconscious choice of one pole of a polar pair as more important, or more right, than the other – spiritual over material, peace over conflict, trust over doubt, unity over diversity, harmony over discord.”
A false dilemma (also called a false dichotomy, or black-and-white thinking) is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options. (“It wasn’t medicine that cured Mrs. X, so it must be a miracle.”)
Marked by a logical leap and the oversimplification of a more complex matter, a false dichotomy may be presented intentionally, in order to manipulate a perspective (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us,”) or unintentionally, due to an assumption (“He wouldn’t do that if he loved me.”)
Social systems reinforce this kind of polarized thinking. For example, if you want to identify with a political party of any influence in the United States you have two choices: either you can identify as pro-peace, pro-gay, pro-tax, pro-regulation, pro-choice and anti-gun or pro-military, anti-gay, anti-tax, pro-free market, pro-life and pro-gun.
What if you are pro-gay, pro-free market, anti-tax, pro-life, pro-peace and pro-gun? Too bad. Pick a side or your vote yields no power. Cultural splitting such as this encourages people to think in unnecessarily polarized terms.
In structuralism (the sociological study of cultural context) dividing the world into two opposing categories, known as binary opposition, is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language (for example, we need the idea of “evil” in order to conceive of the concept of “good.”)
But others (post-structuralists in particular) argue that such binary opposition is often value-laden and ethnocentric.
French philospher Jacques Derrida agrees that binary oppositions often marks “a violent hierarchy” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” For instance, in the West, the idea of presence occupies a position of dominance over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take presence away.
In this way, binary language can be linked with hierarchy and oppression. For instance, male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence, and therefor seen as a loss.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t just hurt ourselves, but also the relationships we try to build with other people. When we view the world in strict and over-simplistic terms, we are less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests,” notes psychology writer Steven Handel.
“We lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. We’re always going to be lacking something if we’re trying to measure ourselves on some black-and-white scale where x is good and y is not good. We’re never going to be able to be completely x. It doesn’t happen, because we’re human – we’re unfinished – and we’re not simple.”
“A black and white viewpoint often creates artificial ‘needs’ in our life that lead to disappointment and depression,” continues Handel, adding that the cognitive-based psychotherapist Albert Ellis called one example of this ‘musterbation.’ “This is our tendency to think that we must have something, or we must do something, or life must be a certain way – or it will be awful.
“Black and white thinking doesn’t open us up to the possibility that even if life doesn’t work out exactly the way we think it should, we can still find happiness.”
Ragini Elizabeth Michaels agrees: “We may think that by eradicating the pole we don’t want, we are creating a non-dual universe, or ‘fixing the problem.’ We may believe that the dilemma, or duality itself, with its conflicts and tensions, will then somehow disappear. Or worse yet, we may begin to perceive the spiritual as the solution to the problems of the material world – which, paradoxically, it is and it is not.
“In contrast, depolarizing the mind frees us to perceive war and peace, anger and compassion, freedom and responsibility, and even duality and non-duality, as partners, and to perceive the friction or tension between them as creativity in disguise. This shift in perception changes everything.”
German philosopher Hegel saw history as a merging of opposites, creating progress: one viewpoint (the Thesis) merges with another, seemingly polar, viewpoint (the Anti-Thesis,) creating a new entity altogether, the Synthesis. This process is known in philosophy as the Hagelian Dialectic. For Hegel, dialectic tension is inherently creative and capable of union.
Great thinkers have always embraced paradox — looking past black and white simplification into a world where seemingly contradictory forces can co-exist. Kierkegaard said:
“…one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”
In Asian philosophy, the concept of yin yang (referred to in the West as “yin and yang”) describes how seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn. Yin yang are not opposing forces but complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole.
Paradox is the heart and soul of Zen philosophy. As Lau-Tzu said, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty…Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped… seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception…You can’t understand it, but you can be it. The Tao is beyond is and is not…”
Next time you find yourself feeling anxious over some perceived reality, take note. Are you making a logical leap that if X is true, then so must Y? Are you boxing yourself or someone else into an all-or-nothing false dilemma, considering only two alternatives where there are many? Ignoring seemingly contradictory aspects in order to create the illusion of a more manageable whole? In the end, the dualistic world view is not more manageable. It is more prone to distortion.
Am I saying to abandon discernment? On the contrary! By releasing preconceived dualistic notions we open ourselves to perceive a greater spectrum.
So take off those black and white glasses and behold the multi-colored world!