Practicing With Paradox

I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.

There is an expression from the Zen tradition, “Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This refers to the image of a carpenter carrying a wide wooden board on his or her shoulder. The board blocks and limits vision, allowing the carpenter to see only one side of things. This expression is meant to caution us from thinking we see fully and clearly, when we see only partially. We are all board-carrying fellows. We usually just see the world from our ordinary, habitual viewpoint and neglect the mysterious, the profound, the obvious. If we don’t know or acknowledge that our viewpoint is limited, we will find it virtually impossible to gain the insight that allows us to respond in new, more successful ways. To become aware of our limitations, to achieve the insights we crave, we need to wake up.

Accepting the power of paradox is one of life’s ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time.

Paradox means many things and can be worked with and utilized in our lives in many ways. Many Zen stories embody or are steeped in paradox, and I use them often in my work, as I do in this book. Yet paradox can also simply be a startling, peculiar, playful, or unexpected observation that challenges our habitual way of thinking. It is asking, “What is this rhinoceros doing in my office?” It is the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson observing that spaceship Earth is so well designed that we have no idea we are on one. Here we are, hurtling through space at a million miles per hour with no need for seatbelts, plenty of room in coach, and excellent food. Imagine. Paradox is anytime you hear that whisper in your ear, “Wake up, the world is extraordinary. This life you take for granted isn’t what you think!”

(From Know Yourself, Forget Yourself)