The Taoist Secret Of Embracing Paradoxes Of Life
When I was studying Philosophy as an undergraduate, I remember spending many hours and days trying to digest Ancient Greek Philosophy, particularly an academic topic called the pre-Socratic Philosophers. These ancient philosophers such as Miletus, Zeno, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and many others were mostly concerned about the nature of stuff and Cosmology but somehow these guys came up with a lot of mind-boggling paradoxes.
It was through these ancient thinkers that I first got acquainted with the paradoxes of life, the universe and reality.
Enter the Tao Te Ching
However it was many years later until I truly appreciated and understood how true wisdom and understanding comes from embracing the paradoxes of life. This appreciation came to me through reading the 2000-year-old Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is without any doubt the most important single-authored book in history. Short and cryptic at times, its eighty verses are the crystallization of pure wisdom and insight. Reading the Tao Te Ching was a breakthrough in my life—a kind of opening to a new level of understanding.
Lao Tzu’s wisdom goes deep to unravel the mysteries of the Tao or ‘The Way’ – the path that leads the sage within us to fulfillment, abundance, happiness and an effortless life. This wisdom is very often conveyed through paradoxes or seemingly paradoxical thinking. Yet these paradoxes are not meant to be intellectual push-ups or brain-teasers, but rather to transcend beyond the mind and allow insight about the true nature of things and ourselves.
According to Lao Tzu, the wise (or the sage) embraces the paradoxes of life – or rather, embraces the paradoxical nature of reality – because by doing so one goes beyond the trappings of the mind and the illusions of the ego.
But what are paradoxes exactly and why is it a good thing to embrace them in our practical day-to-day life? Well put crudely a paradox is a sentence which includes two or more seemingly irreconcilable concepts, for example opposites like dark and light, soft and hard, wet and dry. When we try to read and understand a paradox with our left-brain logical thinking and with our conventional understanding of how the world usually works, we end up at a loss. We would fail to grasp the hidden, deeper meaning inside the paradoxical sentence, which often is meant to actually help us leap outside this logical and conventional thinking. So this is one very important use of paradoxical thinking in philosophical thought. They are like a high jump poles that allow us to leap beyond our limited view of the world and acquaint us with some deeper meanings of life.
To give a simplistic example, imagine I tell a child that she needs to be like water, which is both soft and hard at the same time, penetrable yet contained, gentle yet can carve through rock, etc. Perhaps this would sound quite paradoxical for a child since she is still learning the idea of opposites in the world and that they are what they are – opposites. So how can they both be properties of the same thing? Yet for a grown-up, who has a wider experiential viewpoint, the idea is less paradoxical and he or she can appreciate the subtle truth in the sentence.
The second verse and paradoxical unity
A good example of this is the second verse from the Tao Te Ching – a verse which I am quoting in full below because it is explicitly about why we should live with and embrace what Lao Tzu refers to as ‘Paradoxical Unity’.
NOTE: The Tao Te Ching has been interpreted by scholars and translators throughout the years and there exists a good number of these translations which have different undertones and overtones. I am quoting from Wayne Dyer’s book “Change your Thoughts, Change your Life” which I believe is one of the most inspiring books in the personal development world. A must read.
“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty,
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good because there is evil
Being and non-being produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy.
Long is defined by short, the high by the low,
Before and after go along with each other.
So the sage lives openly with apparent duality
and paradoxical unity.
The sage can act without effort
and teach without words.
Nurturing things without processing them,
he works but not for rewards;
he competes but not for results.
When the work is done, it is forgotten.
This is why it lasts forever.”
The second verse of the Tao Te Ching is still relevant—perhaps more relevant now—to our present day society. We live in a world in which we are programmed with a belief system that works with duality and judgment. All our thinking is embedded in duality and judgment. Pain or pleasure, pleasant or unpleasant, sage or risky, soft or hard and so on. We judge or label a person or life situation with any of these preconceived ideas.
The problem of duality and judgment
However this duality and judgment often brings with it problems and limitations. It makes us pigeon-hole things according to ideas we have already formed about similar things or situations. Now, when things do not fit in our pigeon-holes we feel disconcerted, in conflict with ourselves and the world and sometimes at a loss about what to make of it.
The lesson from this verse is that we have to first transcend beyond the apparent duality and embrace the paradoxical unity of everything. Duality is just a mind construct—a default in our program, so to speak. Seeing beyond this dualistic view of the world and more importantly, embracing it in our living, we bring with it peace, clarity and a deeper understanding and acceptance in our lives. When we do this we can ‘act without effort’ and nurture things without needing to process them. Seeing beyond the limits of apparent duality will allow us to flow with nature and rise beyond inner conflict. This is the key principle behind Taoism.
PRACTICE: I recommend that you try to incorporate this idea in your daily life through observation and witnessing. Try to be an observer and witness of how you perceive duality in life. For example, try to catch yourself passing a judgment or labeling something even when they are just thoughts and not expressed verbally. Stop for a few seconds and think why you are judging a person or situation as being so and so. You will find that one reason is that you have a preconceived idea of how someone or something should be. Another reason comes from the idea of duality – ugly and beautiful, cool and uncool, coward and adventurous, and so on. We don’t often see duality thinking because it is deeply rooted, so just by observing it we can be impartial witnesses of how this way of seeing things arises. The more you observe yourself and others, the more you start naturally transcending beyond this duality thinking. The result? Openness, wisdom, clarity and inner peace.
Living without goals: A modern-day paradox?
Another thing to mention is that we are goal-oriented creatures. We believe that everything we do has to take us somewhere or make us achieve something. But what Lao Tzu is telling us is that because the sage can live beyond duality and judgment then he or she works for no rewards and competes but without seeking results.
This of course seems paradoxical to people living in modern-day society because everyone is used to working hard and competing to achieve some end or be better than others. It is inconceivable that people put effort without seeking a reward of some sort. But again this is the thinking that Lao Tzu is inviting us to go beyond—if we are to seek harmony with ourselves and the world. Paradoxical as it may sound, it is possible to work for no rewards or results because the type of work that Lao Tzu points at comes from living out our inner passion and being in harmony with ourselves rather than following an idea, goal or belief handed down to us by society.
Since we would have seen beyond the apparent duality and embraced the paradoxical unity, our way of thinking changes and widens. We are no longer enslaved by goals that are not authentically ours. We flow in harmony with our true nature and hence we are more prone to succeed because we are not driven by external goals (at least not only) but rather from our own inner nature.
PRACTICE: Take some time to list some of the goals you have or are working on. Could be long-term or short-term goals. Try to make an honest assessment of why you are following those goals. Is it because they are a want or a need? Is it because society (your family, peers, authorities) see this as successful or is it because you think it is your personal success or something that is aligned with your life passion? Try to just observe the difference between these type of goals and how they have affected you in the past. What gave you the greatest fulfillment, happiness and feeling of being ‘there’?
Paradoxes of life: A final comment
It takes some time to process this idea Lao Tzu has tried to convey more than two-thousand years ago but it is an idea that it is important to be open to.
If we are to truly move beyond our limitation and conflicts then we first have to start seeing things differently. Rather then seeing life in terms of opposites and contradictions, we come to be at one with the paradoxes of life, the paradox of unity and non-duality (pun unintended!).