“In Greek, paradox means literally ‘against opinion;’ that is, a paradox rubs against our accepted notions of reality.” A paradox could also be defined as a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true. For example, the paradox of change: “This world of energy is fluid, dynamic, resilient, changing, forever in motion. And yet it is also non-changing, still, quiet, eternal, and silent.” Most of us can believe in the ever-changing world but the equally true changeless perfect Creation—that is a bit more challenging.
Everything has changed and nothing has changed is the paradox of the paradigm shift. “Usually we manage to fully conceive or feel only one reality at a time: joy or pain, good or bad, dark or light, movement or stillness. The simultaneous presence of two opposites is difficult to endure, because it is illogical, and our mind, with its tendency to sort things out, finds it easier to choose just one of the two polarities at any given time: How can a person be both malicious and charitable at the same time? How is it possible to experience simultaneously both pleasure and pain? Yet life is full of surprising contradictions the rational mind cannot unravel. This is its richness.”
As we begin to understand the phenomenon of paradox, we can appreciate the importance of not deriving our identity from our mind, our intellect. As Piero Ferrucci points out in the preceding paragraph, paradox is “difficult to endure” for the intellect-driven and reactive false-self; the True self, on the other hand basks in the richness of Oneness and all of its iterations.
Another definition of paradox is “a situation in which two things that can’t be true at the same time are, in fact true at the same time.” Two such situations are:
- Nobody is responsible for his or her behavior.
- Everyone is responsible for his or her behavior.
We can hardly hold a person culpable for their behavior when they had no choice in the narrative that contains them or the identity derived from that context. And yet, we can celebrate the opportunity that we all have of choosing to respond to what is happening in our life and thereby take full responsibility for every behavior and thought that expresses what it means to be human.
Our false self has many strategies for avoiding responsibility and thereby often misses what could have been a much more satisfying and meaningful experience of life. An example of this is The Progress Paradox which is: even though over time things have gotten better, people feel worse. “For example: health care is better for more people on Earth than ever before; the incidence of armed conflict is declining worldwide; crime rates are dropping in urban America; smallpox, polio, and other fatal diseases have been eradicated; and one-third fewer people die of hunger than two decades ago. [Greg] Easterbook examines many sociological and psychological reasons for this paradox, but one seems vital to consider: Hopelessness lets us off the hook. It allows us to feel incapable of and unaccountable for meeting the tremendous challenges we do face.” Hopelessness becomes a defense mechanism and the opposite end of the continuum where self-reliance and the Point of Power Practice enable anyone who chooses to assume full responsibility for their behaviors.
Continuing our definition of paradox, we also encounter visual paradoxes such as a sign with these words at the bottom:
[Please Ignore This Notice]
In order to do it, you must not have done it. Our ability to laugh at life’s paradoxes reminds us of our underlying wholeness and perfection.
“In paradox, the seeming opposition of two things is seen as complementary. You must allow both sides. Activity has meaning only in relation to rest. It is good to win, and it also is good to lose. Freedom is fine, and so is bowing to authority. Without suffering, we would never know joy. Both sides must equally be accepted and honored.” Robert Johnson continues his profound insights into what are often called the “pairs of opposites.”
“Every human experience can be expressed in terms of paradox. Day is comprehensible only in contrast to night. Masculinity has relevance only in relation to femininity. Activity has meaning only in relation to rest.” And finally the toughest one to accept for many of us, life is given meaning only by death.
An interesting paradox involves the misunderstanding about the attainments of the spiritual elite such as saints, mystics and avatars including Jesus and Buddha. The attainment of nirvana and enlightenment is often thought to be complex and difficult. In truth it is simple and easy. In the context of P-B we will be forever excluded from attaining the simple present moment awareness that is and always was simply a matter of choice. Whenever we are tempted by the false self’s behaviors seeking security, power and sensation to default to our P-B conditioning we are at the “point of power.” It is our choice to react or respond at each such opportunity. Reaction is what we have been trained to do in the old P-B story and we then perpetuate our ignorance and suffering. Response is what our intuitive wisdom would have us do and we then enter the present moment free from all afflictive emotions feeling compassion and seeing the perfection of all of Creation and our own being. This is not brain surgery nor is it summiting Mt. Everest, but it does require a strong intention and commitment.
To accept paradox is to earn the right to unity.
The following is an example of how paradox can be resolved and therefore how the synthesis that produces wisdom works. A paradox in physics is that of subatomic particles which are both destructible and indestructible at the same time. This is because the high energies used in the collision process of banging them together creates more particles. The paradox comes, as all paradoxes do, from the paradigm that begs to be transcended. The old scientific paradigm is reductionism, i.e. that “objects” consist of indestructible basic building blocks. Atomic physics, however, has revealed that particles behave more like “dynamic patterns or processes; which involve a certain amount of energy appearing to us as their mass. In a collision process, the energy of the two colliding particles is redistributed to form a new pattern, and if it has been increased by a sufficient amount of kinetic energy, this new pattern may involve additional particles.” By accepting this paradox we can look deeply into the infinite possibilities of the never-ending process of creation.
The paradox of change and no change is an ancient one. Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, “[and] his universal principle was fire; a symbol for the continuous flow and change of all things.” Parmenides disagreed with his fellow Greek, “[and] considered changes we seem to perceive in the world as mere illusions of the senses.” As we know, Heraclitus was indeed “deceived” by his senses, the mistake of identifying with the “physical” and Parmenides was correct in intuiting that the world of form itself is an illusion supported by sensory input.
Another paradox in classic physics that has been resolved by Simple Reality involves matter and energy. “‘The subatomic particles,’ says Fritjof Capra, ‘are destructible and indestructible at the same time.’” At least they might appear to be. “All particles can be transmuted into other particles; they can be created from energy and can vanish into energy. The whole universe appears as a dynamic web of inseparable energy patterns.” Capra is speaking of P-A, the web of Oneness. All of creation is composed of the indestructible energy contained in particles as Capra has described in his book, The Tao of Physics.
Conflict to paradox to revelation; that is the divine progression.
In the context of religion we have some of our most profound insights (revelations) involving paradox. For example, we all appear to be separate individuals. “The consciousness of each one is distinct from God and from all others, and yet none are separated. The answer is that in matter, which is finite, they cannot [be separated]; but in Spirit, which is infinite, they can. With our present limited, three-dimensional [P-B] consciousness, we cannot see this; but intuitively [in the context of P-A] we can.”
Reiterating the principle that Emmet Fox stated above, Martin Buber also intuited the importance of a paradigm shift before we can avoid being confused by paradoxes. “Emanating from God are ten qualities and these come in twos which oppose each other like two colors, one of which is apparently in direct contrast to the other. But, seen with the true inner eye, they all form one simple unity.”
“The religious faculty is the art of taking the opposites and binding them back together again [Religion means to bind together again], surmounting the split that has been causing so much suffering. It helps us move from contradiction—that painful condition where things oppose each other—to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity.” With Robert Johnson we begin a series of insights, some in the context of religion and some supported by psychology.
“By definition, Christ himself is the intersection of the divine and the human. He is the prototype for the reconciliation of opposites and our guide out of the realm of conflict and duality.”
“Whenever you have a clash of opposites in your being and neither will give way to the other (the bush will not be consumed and the fire will not stop), you can be certain that God is present. We dislike this experience intensely and avoid it at any cost; and if we can endure it, the conflict-without-resolution is a direct experience of God.”
A change in worldview is therefore the prerequisite for resolving paradoxes as well as transcending illusion itself. The experience of life, if we are open to the truth, can bring us to the threshold of awakening. “[The] capacity for paradox is the measure of spiritual strength and the surest sign of maturity. To advance from opposition (always a quarrel) to paradox (always holy) is to make a leap of consciousness. That leap takes us through the chaos of middle age and gives a vista that enlightens the remaining years of life.”
It’s one of the paradoxes of spiritual practice:
we need a path to travel to where we already are.
Now we focus on the practice of resolving paradoxes which, not surprisingly, is the same process as learning to live in the present moment. In the short story by Herman Melville entitled Bartleby the Scrivener, Bartleby when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do always replies: “I choose not to.” Unfortunately, most people when reaching the point of choosing response over reaction and the opportunity to choose presence over unconsciousness give the “Bartleby response.”
To accept paradox is to earn the right to unity.
Mystics transcend the world of opposites and realize that good and bad, darkness and light, and pleasure and pain are two aspects of the same reality. All of these polar opposites then become synthesized into a unified whole, into Oneness itself. Living in the “real” world then becomes something of a dance where we seek to maintain a balance between the paradoxes that challenge our human conditioning and habits of thinking.
“But, if you can stand to live in paradox long enough, then a transformation takes place and a new consciousness is born. This occurs when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the ‘I’ desires.” Letting the “I,” the false self, make our choices for us only intensifies our dissatisfaction with life. We can always choose to not let that happen.
The most incomprehensible thing about the universe
is that it is comprehensible. Einstein
Hence, whenever a paradox is “synthesized” we are evolving toward a more profound realization of the principle of Oneness. The new paradigm of atomic physics transcended Newtonian classical physics and revealed that the existence of “solid objects” was an illusion. We now know that subatomic particles can be changed into other particles, moving from energy to matter and matter to energy in a dynamic web of interdependent, interrelated and never-ending patterns of matter and energy which is the very definition of Oneness.
Within the paradoxical appears reality.
Paradoxical statements result when we attempt to talk about Oneness. A statement that is not true from the perspective of P-B often will be true from the perspective of P-A. Such a paradox often means that we are experiencing a possible shift from P-B to P-A, the insight that enables us to experience Simple Reality.
Ken Wilber enters our discussion relating to P-B and P-A which many of us will find both delightful and challenging. “[Our] present environmental crisis is due primarily to a fractured worldview, a worldview that drastically separates mind and body, subject and object, culture and nature, thoughts and things, values and facts, spirit and matter, human and nonhuman; a worldview that is dualistic, mechanistic, atomistic, anthropocentric, and pathologically hierarchical—a worldview that in short, erroneously separates humans from, and often unnecessarily elevates humans above, the rest of the fabric of reality, a broken worldview that alienates men and women from the intricate web of patterns and relationships that constitute the very nature of life and Earth and cosmos.”
Wilber continues with what could be called “the meditation paradox.” “In other words, for developmental psychology, increasing development – increasing interiorization = increasing relative autonomy. In other words, the more one can go within, or the more one can introspect and reflect on one’s self, then the more detached from that self one can become, the more one can rise above that self’s limited perspective. By acting on the self interiorly, that self is decentered, and this allows, among many other things, the continuing expansion (decentering) of moral response from egocentric to sociocentric to worldcentric (integral-perspective). In short, the more one goes within, the more one goes beyond, and the more one can thus embrace a deeper identity [True self] with a wider perspective [Oneness].”
“It follows that meditation, as an antidote to egocentrism, would involve a substantial increase in capacity for truth disclosure, a clearing of the cobwebs of self-centric perception and an opening in which the Kosmos could more clearly manifest, and be seen, and be appreciated—for what it is and not for what it can do for me.”
We live lives in which we can experience both determinism and free will. In P-B we are unconscious of the false self, the shadow, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious and there is only the illusion of free will. Our lives are essentially predetermined by these influences that we are not aware of. In P-A, we experience genuine free will by our ability to choose response over reaction at the point of power. We are empowered by our ability to not identify with our mind, body or emotions or the sense of a separate “me.”
Wilber describes the paradox inherent in Simple Reality. “Reason generates paradoxical statements when it tries to grasp the absolute. It is true that reality is one, but equally true that it is many; it is transcendent, but also immanent; it is prior to this world, but it is not other to this world—and so on.”
Appearances are deceiving and a contradiction may appear to be present when it is only a paradox. Simple Reality calls for simplification, solitude and silence to support the very valuable “turning inward” process. The paradox here is that studies of mystics practicing a more contemplative life also “found themselves growing back toward others in a more contributing, helping, supporting way.” This paradox is obviously about the creation of compassion.
Society asks us to conform to the P-B narrative and tends not to support those of us seeking self-reliance which also involves expressing our uniqueness. To be autonomous and express our authentic P-A self, we will have to have the courage to choose an alternative story for ourselves. We are both mortal in the relative (P-B) sense and immortal in the Absolute (P-A) sense. We must then learn to be “in the world, but not of it.”
We also have the paradox of winning by giving up. Surrendering to what is brings victory since we enlist the infinite power of Simple Reality by “giving up” the illusory power of P-B. Jesus said “resist not evil.” Another modern mystic said: “To the men who can perfectly practice inaction, all things are possible.”
“It is through our ability to accept and live with these paradoxes and tolerate the ambiguities that go along with them, that we take the first step toward gaining access to the invisible world.”
One doesn’t go shopping to find the things one needs;
one goes shopping to need the things one finds.
No matter how successful we are at internalizing the experience of our encounter with paradox we can still succeed at the most important aspects of creating for ourselves a narrative of Oneness and an identity that over time is increasingly successful at choosing response over reaction. As our experience of our false self and its craving for plenty, pleasure and power grows we can increasingly avoid the habitual reactions. We will stop shopping as an avoidance reaction.
Enlightenment is always present and uncaused, that is to say, it is our natural state. Consciousness development like Insight Meditation and The Point of Power Practice can make it more likely to be realized. As Richard Baker Roshi put it, “Enlightenment is an accident; meditation makes you accident prone.”
“The most evolved individual [is] the one who ‘with his whole being sees Divinity in all existing things, and all existing things in Divinity.’ Here, then, we have all the paradoxes; concentrated, single-minded love for one being spreads out toward all beings; through hard discipline it discovers a boundless liberty; by directing itself at the most sublime and distant goal, it discovers that goal in the humblest and nearest of situations; stripping itself of all possessions, it grows immensely rich; foregoing the possibility of comprehension, it receives the most profound knowledge—the knowledge of the heart.”
References and notes are available for this article.
Also find a much more in-depth discussion of Simple Reality
on this blog and in published books by Roy Charles Henry.