The Power of Paradox


Photo by Sam Schooler

Mindfulness practice is filled with paradoxical elements. A paradox is something that seems absurd or antithetical at first glance, but upon closer inspection, turns out to be true or somehow just works. I especially love this definition: A paradox is made up of contradictory-yet-interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time (Wikipedia). This could be the definition of life itself! 

We encounter all sorts of mundane paradoxes in daily living. It’s only when we slow down and pay attention that we begin to notice the apparent contradictions that are interwoven into the fabric of our lives. For example:

  • things aren’t always in practice how we predict they will be in theory – standing still for a long period of time is actually more tiring than walking
  • some things that seem bad or undesirable are actually good for us – our bodies are crawling with bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses that are essential to our good health
  • more of a good thing isn’t necessarily better – a little chocolate cake is delightful; too much over time can create a host of problems

The paradoxical is powerful – when we encounter it, we stop in our tracks and look closer. To some this unpredictability is frustrating, but to me it’s fascinating and freeing. Just like in Gunilla Norris’ poem, Paradox of Noise, there is deep place within me that loves it. This is likely part of what has drawn me to and sustained my mindfulness practice. In their article, Paradoxes of Mindfulness, Shauna Shapiro, Ronald Siegel and Kristin Neff state, “Because mindfulness is a subtle form of awareness that does not stem from rational cognitive thought, its practice often involves embracing contradictions in a way that transcends logic” (Shapiro, Seigel & Neff 2018). They outline four primary paradoxes – truths we discover through our mindfulness practice that seem unlikely before we begin the journey:

Acceptance vs. Change
The unexamined mind operates under the assumption that the things we count on and enjoy should last forever. Thus, we are crushed and disappointed when things inevitably change. We also assume we can always change things we don’t like or want. So, we are incredibly frustrated and demoralized when something unwanted happens that’s not in our control. However, through practice we begin to realize that the most profound and lasting change often comes through acceptance. The second order change that arises out of acceptance comes from a new way of seeing ourselves and the world that is cultivated though a mindfulness practice.

Escape vs. Engagement
We are strongly conditioned to believe that we should avoid what is aversive to us. This is because it’s evolutionarily advantageous for us to avoid harm. Yet, there are many situations in which avoidance only increases our suffering. For example, irrational fears and feelings of shame thrive and grow under the conditions of avoidance. In these types of situations, facing aversion with our full attention combined with a compassionate attitude can be incredibly liberating.

Effort vs. Non-Striving
The American spirit of true grit and never surrender teaches us that we make our own destinies. If we don’t like something, we should change it. If we want something, we should go get it – and then guard and protect it so we can keep it – or maybe find a way to get more of it. The unexamined mind operates under the assumption that we are in control. I remember the first time I experienced this particular paradox – I was test driving a biofeedback program that monitored heart rate variability (HRV) and I noticed that the harder I tried to influence it, the worse it got. It was only when I surrendered to and became curious about my present moment experience that my HRV increased, seemingly on its own with no interference by me.

Self-Focus vs. Non-Self
There are so many ways in which our mainstream culture in the US encourages us to cultivate a unique sense of individual identity. On the surface this certainly seems desirable. We think that if we cultivate and protect a sense of self, we will feel more centered and grounded. We will know who we are and our lives will be enriched. The problem is that this sense of self is a construction. Who we are really involves a dynamic, complex, and interconnected set of processes rather than a solid and fixed entity. So, when we inevitably encounter evidence or situations that challenge this constructed sense of self, we suffer an identity crisis. In addition, when we fail to understand our fundamental interdependence, we treat the world and other beings as if they have nothing to do with our personal wellbeing. A mindfulness practice gradually uncovers who we really are, underneath all the stories, beliefs, conditioning, and speculation.

I warmly invite you to join me on this journey of discovery. Together we will explore the surprising and awe invoking realms of paradox. Your mindfulness practice is the doorway and your personal experience is the guide – may we be open to whatever we find!

It is a paradox that we encounter so much internal noise
when we first try to sit in silence.
It is a paradox that experiencing pain releases pain.

It is a paradox that keeping still can lead us
so fully into life and being.

Our minds do not like paradoxes.  We want things
To be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety.
Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.

We each possess a deeper level of being, however,
which loves paradox.  It knows that summer is already
Growing like a seed in the depth of winter. It knows
that the moment we are born, we begin to die. It knows
that all of life shimmers, in shades of becoming–
that shadow and light are always together,
the visible mingled with the invisible.

When we sit in stillness we are profoundly active.
Keeping silent, we hear the roar of existence.
Through our willingness to be the one we are,
We become one with everything.

Gunilla Norris, Paradox of Noise

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