I saw a woman being interviewed about her opinion of Trump and Obama. She felt quite strongly that one was the devil and the other a saint. The interviewer asked why and she gave some simple reasons. Then the interviewer proposed, “What if I showed you evidence that would disprove your reasons?”
She responded, “Nothing you can say will change my mind. I don’t need any evidence to know what’s true.” Have you ever felt this way about a person or issue?
It’s very enticing to think in black and white terms. We like the unambiguousness of it. It’s comfortable and easy to be able to say with conviction, “This man is good, that man is bad,” or “Chemical pesticides are wrong, natural ones are right,” or “Pain is bad, pleasure is good.”
When we choose a fixed stance, it seems our work is over. There’s no need to sort through the facts. There’s no need to navigate the discomfort of possibly being wrong, or the discomfort of allowing for multiple points of view. There’s no need to stretch. The only work left to do is convince others who don’t share our point of view that they’re wrong.
Every fixed point of view bolsters the ego. Each time we marry our identity to a position, we form a more rigid sense of who we are (and aren’t). Even though there’s a certain kind of peace in choosing a fixed stance, there’s also an innate conflict. We feel compelled to block out or reject any experience or information that doesn’t fit with our position. This fragments us, restricts our freedom, and prevents an authentic, unmanipulated experience of life.
I’m as attracted to polarized positions as the next guy, but I’ve seen too many times that they’re not good for me – or my relationships. Besides the various forms of personal suffering that black-and-white thinking causes, it’s a major impediment to creating community, solving big problems, and fixing the social divisions that make our country so disunited.
For those interested in recovering from this habit, a willingness to be wrong is a good start – yet, it’s often a difficult concession for us because there’s some truth to our position. It’s usually less painful – and closer to the truth – to recognize that we’re not wrong, we’re just not entirely right. That is, we’re focused on a thin sliver of reality and mistake that to be the whole.
It’s like the old parable about the blind men feeling the different parts of an elephant and describing what kind of animal it is. One feels the elephant’s trunk and says, “This animal is like a thick snake.” Another, who is touching the elephant’s ear, disagrees: “No, it’s more like a fan.” One touches its leg and says an elephant must be like the trunk of a tree. Another touches the tail and says elephants are like a piece of rope.
When we practice openness and humility, we discover a greater need for the word and. Is the truth this way or that way? The answer is almost always YES. This way and that way. Both.
This practice asks us to stretch in order to make room for a reality that’s broader than we thought – and stretching can be uncomfortable – but it also brings peace through the recognition that we don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, and therefore we can let ourselves off the hook of needing to know everything.
I’d like to explore polarized positions on two subjects that are near and dear to my heart – managing the wayward mind and managing pain.
When it comes to managing the mind, the most common polarized positions I encounter are: (1) We should exert discipline over the mind, learn to control it, more intentionally choose the contents of our thoughts, perhaps even stop its meanderings entirely. (2) The mind is an incessant stream of chattering that doesn’t need to be controlled or judged; freedom comes from witnessing it impartially, noticing how it works, learning not to automatically give our attention to its content (thoughts), and ultimately transcending it.
Which is right? In my opinion this is a perfect time for the word and. It doesn’t need to be one or the other. Both are valid and true. It is possible to stop thinking. We can make the mind more peaceful, we can think more optimistic thoughts. AND without attempting to modify the way we think, we can learn to witness the mind, to be unmoved by violent or fearful thoughts, and to let awareness itself begin to displace the ego as the driver of this life.
When it comes to managing pain, two opposing positions I encounter are: (1) Get rid of it. Pain sucks and rarely has a useful purpose. (2) Pain is an opportunity – to expand, to be empowered, to know ourselves, to heal old wounds, etc. If we get rid of it without exploring it, we may miss an important chance to grow and heal.
Which is right? What should we do? AND to the rescue! When I began constructing my online course, Live Pain Free, I started by making a long list of all the strategies I could think of for eliminating pain. Then I thought of the people I’ve known who weren’t able to get rid of their pain – because, for instance, it was due to an inoperable tumor pressing on a nerve – but were able to achieve freedom despite the constant presence of pain. I thought of patients who have used their pain as an impetus for unraveling trauma and years of unhealthy patterning. And I also thought of patients in pain who were angry, depressed, or fearful, who became lighthearted and joyful as soon as we stopped the pain. In the end, I chose to dedicate a significant portion of the course to viewpoint #2 above – that is, helping people to heal and feel free regardless of whether or not pain is present.
The same goes for managing painful thoughts and emotions. When Briana and I were writing Freedom, a workbook to help people move through these thoughts and feelings more smoothly, we asked ourselves do we want people to simply release them and get on with their day or do we want to help them understand the deeper roots of these thoughts and feelings so they can know themselves and heal more deeply? I’ve heard cognitive behavioral therapists make a strong case for the former, saying, “You simply need to learn to modify your thoughts – and your relationship to them – as they come up. We don’t need to talk about your childhood.” A Freudian psychoanalyst would probably say the opposite.
For us, the answer again was both. Sometimes – especially if we’re currently scheduled to be doing something other than self-maintenance – there isn’t time or space to do the deeper processing, and we just need a quick and efficient way to release infringing thoughts and emotions. But it’s also worth making the time to delve into the bigger, more fundamental work, because if we can heal our deepest wounds we’re likely to have a great reduction in disturbing thoughts and the need to manage them.
In what ways do you tend to think in black-and-white terms?
Where has your thinking been polarized?
How has your identity been shaped by your positions?
How do you feel when you have a fixed position about something or someone? Can you perceive both the appealing feeling of “rightness” (or even self-righteousness) and the edgy feeling that comes from an inability to allow for opposing viewpoints?
What comes up when you consider opening yourself to opposing points of view? Can you feel the stretch of it? Can you also feel the relief that would come from relinquishing the need to have the answers or to be right?
Wishing you peace, perspective, and lots of ANDs,