The Play of Paradox

by Christopher Lovejoy on May 27, 2012

The list of paradoxes on Wikipedia is astonishingly long and varied.

If you think that paradox is mostly about statements, propositions, and conclusions that seem to contradict each other, you would be right, but I’m more interested in exploring apparent inconsistencies in character, where a person, situation, or action carries seemingly contradictory qualities.

For me, the most interesting paradox of all arises at the nexus of soul and spirit: while the heart of my soul is quite content with letting it be, the soul of my spirit is quite intent on making it so.

I invite you to take a moment to absorb the import of this paradox before reading further.

Paradoxical Intentions

Have you or anyone you know ever experienced a full-blown obsession or compulsion? By setting a paradoxical intention, you can bring unwanted or unwelcome thoughts and habits to light.

For example, if you feel anxious about falling asleep, you might make a game of setting the intention to stay awake for as long as you can, shortcircuiting the anticipatory anxiety that prevents sleep.

If you experience anxiety around perspiring too much, you might make a game of setting the intention to perspire freely, to perspire much, or to perspire more than you’ve ever perspired in your life.

I sometimes wake up early, feeling preoccupied. When I feel anxious about getting back to sleep, I make a game of setting the intention to remain mindfully aware and alert for as long as I can.

Invariably, this makes me drowsy and more prone to falling asleep.

A paradoxical intention moves us more deeply into anxiety, helps us to realize how unreasonable it is, reducing its intensity, and alleviating or removing the obsession or compulsion that it fuels.

Sitting with Paradox

An encounter with paradox can sometimes appear as an unwelcome stop along the way. I mean, who would knowingly and willingly invite confusion and uncertainty?

To be sure, clarity and certainty keep us moving forward, with blessed assurance, leading us faithfully to ever more clarity and certainty, at least until rigidity and obstinacy begin to intrude.

And therein lies a clue to the value of paradox: it thwarts utter clarity and certainty, serving to keep us loose and flexible and free of rigid patterns of thought, feeling, behavior, and conduct.

I can’t stop thinking about … I can’t stop feeling …

I absolutely must have this … I absolutely must do this …

I should have said this … I should have done that …

Under no circumstances should I say or do this …

Obsession, compulsion, obligation – all can be subject to a caring and critical eye.

Many obsessions, compulsions, and obligations, however, are so conditioned and ingrained that they defy easy scrutiny; they’re easy to ignore and deny, making them hard to dismiss.

In this light, paradox, however subtle, reminds us that any long-term commitment to absolute clarity and certainty is not only illusory, it borders on the delusional, in danger of becoming fanatical.

Certainly, a cultivated feeling of invincibility can go a long way towards moving us forward with grace, ease, and speed. I feel good when I’m in the flow, where nothing can stop me or slow me down.

There comes a time, however, when something occurs that cuts me down to size. I might not even be aware of it immediately, but if I invite the soul to contemplate its source, it soon becomes apparent.

If I’m feeling inspired to accomplish a task that requires some time to complete, and if I’m feeling motivated to complete it, but then hit a brick wall, I might not understand that I need a rest – a pause in the action to recoup my energy, collect my thoughts, introduce a new angle, or consult a guide.

Beneath the apparent inconsistency lies the presence of unity, with the promise of resolution, acting through paradox, allowing for the influence of grace and the appearance of mystery.

With a nod to paradox, I welcome a confluence of two conflicting influences as complementary.

Growing with Paradox

And then there’s Obligation, with a capital O, whose sacrificial character, whose very fixedness, is an open invitation to all manner of conflict with our very real need for embodied pleasure.

I might entertain a forbidden desire that stands in conflict with a personal obligation, but resolve the apparent conflict by weaving an elaborate fantasy; by writing a song, a poem, or a story; by bringing it to light over a cup of tea with a close friend or intimate; or by crafting a work of art through any one or more of the many visual and performance media that allows free and easy expression.

Growing with paradox, I give way to the sincerity of my intentions, and as I give space to the tension created, I allow apparent inconsistencies to be resolved with greater ease or speed.

When I identify two apparently conflicting urges or impulses, and stay with them long enough, not jumping from one to the other, I invite important insights that serve them both.

I embrace paradox, moving beyond myself into unity and harmony within myself.


This post is the eighteenth in a series that began here.

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