Paradox

A central theme of practice has to be paradox. How to reconcile the spirit of the unconditional with pragmatic decision making? How does taking observer status in mindfulness practice lead to the deconstruction of it? What on earth is non-effort anyway? Why does wrong effort eventually bloom into surrender?

Eventually as I’ve nibbled away, some of these paradoxes have resolved themselves in a way that makes sense in an intelligible, but subtle way. For example, recognising that the more I relax into practice, the better it tends to get, was simply a recognition that I held a wrong view- that I needed to put in superhuman effort to reach the optimum, when in fact I was already the kind of person who strived too hard in practice anyway and also tended to get psychologically wound up. Half of them turned out to be based on stubborn ideas, both personal and more widely socially held, that needed to get deconstructed. After I realised, for example, that matching aggression with aggression only escalates the situation, I tried to become a lot more nonviolent, and was rewarded when I saw myself and others become more peaceful when I did. Even if that nonviolence was to simply leg it. These are the shallow-end, specific, pragmatic questions and so they tend to have fairly rational answers. While this is not hitting the unconditional directly on the head in my mind, it is helpful in an everyday way and is heading in the right direction.

Some of the paradoxes are at least partially satisfied in my mind when I look at them through models that encourage flexibility. These are often psychological perspectives and some kind of ‘third answer’ that steps out of the usual continuum, what Buddhists call the Middle Way. For instance, Shinzen Young likes to talk about ‘clarifying the self’ as ‘distinct but not separate’, which requires a different way of looking at the world: being able to hold two opposing views at once and recognising that they are perspectives, not mutually exclusive. I have a pet theory that contemplative practice is the continuing maturity of the person as they become less and less egocentric; from the concrete thinking of the child, through to the abstract thinking of the adult, and now the recognition of interdependence and dissolution of the sense of a permanent self that heralds another paradigm shift that is unthinkable to those who aren’t touching on it yet.

However, the deeper paradoxes remain there in ways that frustrate my ‘rational’ mind. Some of them have been resolved by a direct experience that is incredibly hard to describe in words but nevertheless illustrates vividly how perceptual shifts really show how paradox is delusive. A traditional formulation of nondual perception is ‘not unity, not separateness, not both and not neither’. What is left? The answer ‘nothing’ feeds back into the same frustration; no-thing would be ‘neither’. Experiences of duality are everyday- the subject/object distinction. Experiences of unity are traditional spiritual fare, as a person feels one with the universe, a sense of connection, profound interdependence, leading to more radical experiences of the subject-object binary collapsing. But then the Dzogchen-like philosophy kicks in, pointing out that the concept of unity requires the concept of separateness, and further down the rabbit hole we go as I look further for the truly nonconceptual. Once again, perhaps getting caught up in thought here, but I maintain there is a place for philosophy in teasing out where I’m being complacent in my practice.

Some paradoxes seem to have resolved themselves in that they simply cease to matter. ‘Not a problem’ is a phrase my teacher and I use a lot. The notion of ‘problems’ is worth thinking about, helping to chip away at the egocentricity of the delusions that every one of us silly buggers holds. A problem requires a person who thinks that the world should be a certain way. Without the perspective of a person, there can be no problems – stuff just goes on without judgement. In the same way, sometimes I’ve found opinions simply dropping. I no longer have a preference about certain subjects. Being hungry and tired is simply the product of having a body and having done a twelve-hour shift, not divine punishment or some kind of personal insult. The craving and aversion have gone out of being cold at a bus stop or someone not agreeing with me. I continue to have habitual reactions that behaviourally would signify ‘anger’, but increasingly the affective component simply isn’t there, which explains the idea of the reduction of ill-will.

Many paradoxes however, simply sit there in an existential cul-de-sac. Why do I long for personal revelation of God when I find that three letter word horrible simply for suggesting there’s something we can pin down as Him Upstairs? How can I feel the world needs redeeming, when at the same time I have had experiences that it is absolutely perfect as it is? What do I do if the world is in fact perfect? And very importantly, how come I can think one thing one moment and then have the utterly opposite opinion the next? If awakening keeps getting stripped of characteristics, what on earth is it?

I would suggest to anyone who is brawling with these ideas in their head to, at the very least, make some kind of resolution to accept that paradoxes exist for us. Another paradox in itself is my gut sense that they must be utterly accepted as being real and insurmountable, at the same time as feeling like they can all be transcended. A plainer way of putting that: stop fussing about getting everything right. I try not to worry; paradox is at the very least interesting, a goad to enquiry of the experiential kind once deduction proves unsatisfying and theoretical.