Mindfulness as Dialectic

Photo by Brandi Ibrao

Much about mindfulness feels paradoxical. It isn’t like a poultice we put directly on a wound in order to heal it – rather the practice indirectly reduces our suffering by changing over time our relationship to ourselves and the world we live in. The dissonance we feel around the apparent contradictions we encounter in life can cause much of our suffering when we are resistant to it. Taking a dialectical approach can help us open to all of life’s apparent contradictions.

Marsha Linehan defined dialectical as “a synthesis or integration of opposites”. In learning to welcome in the endless discrepancies and inconsistencies we encounter, with all the attending confusion and frustration, there is also the possibility of great flexibility and freedom. A thorough integration of mindfulness seems to require the acknowledgement of a number of paradoxes:

  • Avoidance/Grasping vs. Nonjudgmental Awareness Irrational fears and feelings of shame thrive and grow under conditions of avoidance and addictions and frustration thrive under conditions of grasping. When we’re mindful, rather than reacting out of our judgment related feeling tones by grasping or avoiding, we allow ourselves to notice and observe the present moment and accompanying states of mind. There may be a gentle form of “wanting” present (wanting to be happy, free from suffering, to benefit others) without attachment to outcome – rather than the grasping, craving, clinging we engage in on autopilot that cause us to become unbalanced when the outcome isn’t desirable.
  • Acceptance vs. Change – Mindfulness often involves compassionate presence plus acceptance before we make any active efforts at effecting change. It’s our relationship with reality that changes most profoundly with practice – and this paradoxically often results in the deepest kind of change. Through noticing the feeling tones that come along with our cognitive judgments we are able to step back from reacting out of emotional unbalance, grasping and aversion and unhelpful emotional-motivational feedback loops are weakened.
  • Self-Focus vs. Non-Self – By seeing through illusions and clearing away the confusion of our “constructed” self, a mindfulness practice gradually uncovers who we really are, underneath all the stories, beliefs, conditioning, and speculation. We begin to see ourselves as a dynamic, interconnected process, inseparable from others and our world.
  • Effort vs. Non-Striving – Sometimes our efforting gets in the way of our goals, like trying hard to fall asleep or relax. Another example is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. Greater HRV is correlated in the research with a number of health benefits. The harder one tries to exert influence over HRV, the worse it tends to get. Conversely, when we just observe and become curious about present moment experience, HRV increases seemingly on its own. Meditation is another situation in which non-striving is a more useful attitude to take.

While these paradoxes are commonly integrated through an attitude of acceptance and earned trust, a dialectical approach invites transformation through the welcoming and exploration of dissonance. A dialectic is a juxtaposition of opposites that helps us get unstuck from extremes. In the stillness of meditation we begin to see the complexities inherent in everything. We come to understand that, like a diamond, there are many facets to experience and everything must be welcomed into awareness, otherwise the picture is complete. Over time and with dedication, we learn we can hold many views at the same time and discover that truth lies somewhere in the balance, transcending the limitations of either extreme.

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


Sauer, S., Lynch, S., Walach, H., & Kohls, N. (2011). Dialectics of mindfulness: implications for western medicine. Philosophy, ethics, and humanities in medicine : PEHM, 6, 10.

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