The Wisdom of Paradox

We must reclaim our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself. And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we're capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves. We must dare again to dream the impossible and to romance the world, to feel and honour our kinship with all species and habitats, to embrace the troubling wisdom of paradox, and to shape ourselves into visionaries with the artistry to revitalise our enchanted and endangered world.

Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind

When I recently shared this quote on the More than Human Facebook page someone commented that the author’s suggestion that we must “embrace the troubling wisdom of paradox” could do with “a bit of unpacking”. I wholeheartedly agree. The paradoxical dimensions of our experience as humans are not easy to embrace. As I hope to explain in this blog, this is because paradox is not really accounted for in the worldview which the majority of us have come to accept.

I first came across the quote when I picked up Wild Mind a few days before a short but powerful vision quest I facilitated for myself in 2015 – an extraordinary experience I begin to describe in this post. The quote resonated with me because I was struggling to make sense of a bizarre experience I had had a few months earlier while I was in India of feeling some kind of psychic connection to a sweat lodge which was taking place 5000 miles away in Sussex. Afterwards I began to regard this event (which I describe here) as a liminal experience – a threshold  between one way of seeing the world and another. As I was reading the quote I did not know that a few days later I would spend a 24 hour period in liminal space, an experience full of strangeness and contradiction, synchronicity and a powerful psychic energy which blurred the boundaries of my ego to the extent that my sense of myself in relation to the more-than-human world shifted subtly but fundamentally.

Liminality: The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.

Wikipedia

paradox
Visual paradox: Waterfall by M.C. Escher

One aspect of Plotkin’s project is to establish a framework through which we can begin to understand this kind of experience. His premise, broadly summarised in the quote, is quite simple: by embracing rather than suppressing our innate wildness – the mad, irrational, fully embodied and emotional aspects of ourselves – we open ourselves up to the possibility of participating in an engagement with the world which is qualitatively different and potentially more meaningful than the everyday experiences we take for granted and which are more acceptable in a culture which champions scientific rationalism over every other way of perceiving reality. Which type of experience is more real – the rational experience or the wild/irrational/emotional experience? A better question might be, which experience is more meaningful or more valuable?

Of course the answers to these questions are entirely subjective. The scientific, materialist view of the world which we have largely internalised privileges objectivity over subjectivity. This is very much at the heart of the paradox which is at the core of the modern, human condition, as I will explain. Firstly however, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that a subjective interpretation of experience is somehow preferable to an objective one. It would be absurd to make such an attempt, given the technological and philosophical advances which objective science has bestowed upon our civilisation. My critique is primarily of the way we have come to unquestioningly privilege one way of seeing the world over others, particularly given that the absolute objectivity which empirical science makes claims to is often nothing of the kind and could more accurately be described as a very (very, very) objective form of subjectivity. As Carl Rogers explains…

Man lives essentially in his own personal and subjective world, and even his most objective functioning, in science, mathematic and the like, is the result of subjective purpose and subjective choice.1

Through an analysis of the history of modern science we can begin to see how dominant discourses in our society, shaped over centuries, have relegated the experiencing of feelings and emotions to a lesser domain. Emotions stop us from being objective, they’re irrational and difficult to control, they make a mess of the ordered view materialist science has of the world. So we apply our impressive capacity for rationality to the task of bringing these messy feelings under control and making sense of them. And why not? As science has proven again and again, the Cartesian dualism at the heart of the modern, scientific view of the world works extraordinarily well. Dualistic logic also provides an incredibly useful framework for making sense of ourselves. We are complicated beings and as our society becomes more complex, so do we. This has a profound influence on our experience of living. Cartesian logic helps to simplify things so they can be understood. Unfortunately, the experience of living is much more fuzzy and convoluted than Cartesian logic alone can take account of. Nonetheless we try to make sense of it using the tools we have learned (i.e. Cartesian logic) because, in the face of frightening uncertainty, these tools reassure us that it can be made sense of, that it can be reduced to a point where some kind of objective truth can be determined.

Fuzzy logic is a form of many-valued logic in which the truth values of variables may be any real number between 0 and 1. It is employed to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false. By contrast, in Boolean logic, the truth values of variables may only be the integer values 0 or 1.

Wikipedia

Given this situation it does seem logical to hold even more tightly onto a view of ourselves that simplifies the complexity, one which appears to smooth away the fuzzy edges and contradictions. However, any attempt to reduce our experience of ourselves in this fashion is likely to introduce a contradiction itself, between our thinking and our experiencing, which cannot be overcome. As a way of conceptualising this paradoxical experience, Ernesto Spinelli uses the term worlding to describe “the ongoing, ever shifting, linguistically elusive, process-like experience of being”2 and suggests we develop a worldview as an attempt to essentialise this process so that we can conceive it in a structural (i.e. logical) fashion.

How can we begin to reconcile this paradox? If, like Heidegger, we adopt an ontological position of plural realism3, one which posits that many different points of view can be simultaneously valid, then the act of accepting one view does not mean we have to reject the other. Heidegger did not reject the idea that the view of nature that objective science represents is valid, but was clear that this objective position is “only one way in which nature exhibits itself”4. By moving away from single track interpretations, we can move away from a belief in an ontology where there is a single truth and in so doing it may be possible to “bring into play a new emancipation of meaning in otherness rather than sameness” 5.

From this perspective it’s clear that the radically different way of experiencing the world which Plotkin believes we need to practice in order to “revitalise our enchanted and endangered world” does not contradict the perspective which objective science offers us. In ceremonies like vision quests and sweat lodges, it is simply a conscious choice we make to set aside for a time our carefully structured worldview in order to fully embrace our experience of worlding, temporarily inhabiting what Husserl calls the life-world (the world of our immediately lived experience, as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it, reality as it engages us before being analysed by our theories and our science) in order to peer beneath and beyond the self defeating patterns and stories which our unwitting acceptance of this objectivist perspective may perpetrate. While it may be easy to argue from a dualistic perspective that it is actually our very irrationality that is the cause of all of society’s ills (if only we were all more rational and weren’t so driven by our emotions we wouldn’t keep getting caught up in these destructive, self-defeating patterns), if we have the courage to set aside a dualistic way of seeing things suddenly this argument collapses. Perhaps civilisation has gone too far: maybe it is our suppression of our feelings and emotions in the name of scientific rationality which is to blame. The Cartesian mind/body split relegates our bodies (and thus the feelings we experience in our bodies) to the status of machines which are ruled by our brains. Unsurprisingly our bodies rebel against this enslavement and consequently paradox runs rampant.

What if our bodily experience of participating in a ceremony in which our feet are planted in the soil and we are asked to meditate on the experience of being a tree was powerful enough to cause us to choose to start take action to protect our rain forests from destruction? What place does our rationality have in such an experience?

References

  1. Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.
  2. Spinelli, E. (2007) Practising Existential Psychotherapy: The Relational World.
    London: Sage Publications. p.86.
  3. Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp.262-263.
  4. Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row. p.174.
  5. Van Deurzen-Smith, E. (1997) Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. London: Routledge. p.85.