Updated: Mar 9, 2022
"The wise person knows that everything is difficult, therefore nothing is difficult."
"Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism." -Edward Abbey
How often do you find yourself using all-or-nothing thinking? For example: Either the world is this way, or it doesn't make sense at all. Either they love me completely, or they don't love me at all. Either this form of ________ (belief, exercise, diet, etc.) is the best, or no good at all. Either success is a certainty, or I won't even bother trying. This type of perfectionistic thinking runs rampant nowadays and it creates a tremendous amount of anxiety in areas of ambiguity. In areas of paradox. In situations where there is more than one correct answer. When we are looking for definitive answers, we will be drawn to the sources that exhibit the most confidence even though they may be false. What if, in the place of answers we were ok with asking more questions? See what I did there?
One of the central pieces of writing from ancient China is a small collection of poems by Lao Tau called the Tao Te Ching. Ironically, this tiny book contains multitudes of valuable lessons, most of them enigmatic and counterintuitive. Eastern philosophy as a whole is rich with such paradoxical statements that hold true when examined closely. Does this mean that the underlying nature of the world is in fact a paradox? Perhaps. You see it everywhere when you begin looking. Life is made richer by the knowledge of death. We know joy through experiencing loss. Success comes after suffering failure. Living in harmony with these contradictions lies at the heart of keeping a level head when life throws us curve balls.
Contradictions often occur when two extremes of a dichotomous relationship coexist side by side. When examined alone, each side of an opposite-pair forms a partial truth about the nature of reality. A simple (or not so simple) example of this is the concept of Yin and Yang. Both energies exist and are important, but they must always be maintained in appropriate balance in nature. If there is an excess of Yang, then it converts into its opposite, Yin, and vice versa. You see this in the cycling of predator-prey relationships. The balance of population growth and infectious disease. You see it in human psychology and politics. A constant wave of ups and downs. 'Good' and 'bad' are constantly fluctuating relative to one another and are just part of the same over-aching process. The words and meanings that we assign to those words are what ultimately frustrate us. It is as Hamlet said, "There is noting either good or bad but thinking makes it so."
So what is the benefit of "embracing paradox" and how do we get there. The first step if self-knowledge. Knowing our preferences and tendencies better allows us to know our biases and possible attachments to extremes. The second step is keeping a constant awareness that we were all beginners once and probably still are. Reactivating the beginner's mind allows us to let go of any attachments (at least momentarily) to consider new possibilities. Whenever we feel frustrated, anxious, or threatened, we must endeavor to become more curious. Instead of sticking to dogma and old patterning we must remain open. When we want to harden we must yield. This change will be difficult at first but continue to practice and it will become second nature. Embracing paradox will give you clarity beyond measure. Enjoy the ride.