Life is full of situations of paradox. Consider for example this Bible verse: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:14-16) In the world, but not of the world – that is paradox.
Here is another one: “Peace, the Hebrew shalom, means wholeness and completeness. Peace is not when all agree, for this is impossible. It is the ability to realise that all the various perspectives, even if contradictory, are only partial perspectives of the whole picture. The truth is greater than the sum of those parts. The path to paradise is really paradox and we need to make peace with the apparent conflict. One perspective can never be the be-all and end-all for understanding the ultimate truth and therefore should not be taken too seriously – though it is partial accurate view of reality. From a higher perspective, it will realized that there were no contradictions, but rather different perspectives of one complete truth.” (Quote based on The Secret Life of God: Discovering the Divine Within You, Rabbi David Aaron, Shambala Publications, Boston, 2004, p. 130)
Spirituality is about being big enough to embrace paradox:
- We need to be detached, but we need to be fully here and now in the drama of life.
- We need to be self-disciplined, yet act spontaneously.
- We need to make our own effort, but also to realize that in some ways we do nothing.
- We need to differentiate good from bad, yet go beyond both.
- We need to think in new spiritual ways, yet to know that all thoughts are just concepts.
- We need to cultivate compassion and relieve suffering, but also to understand that everything is perfect just the way it is.
Waves on the Ocean
All of the above dilemmas and examples of paradox stem from one great dilemma. We experience ourselves as separate bodies and personalities, but we are also indivisible parts of the Whole. Superficially we are individual waves which rise and fall on the one great ocean of Being, which is our deeper identity.
Following a spiritual path is an ongoing process of attempting to resolve the great paradox of being a part of an indivisible Whole. How can this be done? The word paradox itself gives us a clue, coming as it does from the Greek para dokien – “beyond thought”. The dilemma cannot be resolved by thinking about it. It is resolved in a profound acceptance of the fact that this is the way things are. A wave doesn’t worry about being the ocean. It just is.
The Impersonal and the Personal Aspect of Ourselves
The spiritual path and enlightenment is a sacred marriage between the impersonal and personal aspects of ourselves.
It is living as spirit made flesh – incarnated spirit soul made in divine image and individualized human being.
It is about being in the world, but not of it.
It is experiencing both com-union (“with union”) and com-passion (“with passion”).
As the impersonal I, we experience communion with all that is in an all-embracing and interconnected Oneness.
As the personal me, we reach out with unconditional compassion to all the other separate beings confused and suffering in this strange world.
Consider the metaphor of life being like a movie – to be in the world but not of it. Balance being the detached impersonal consciousness that witnesses life and also an engaged participant of the unfolding drama in the here and now. Like watching a movie, enter into the illusion while retaining a tacit (unspoken, implicit, inferred, implied, unstated) understanding that you are actually only the observer and no one is in reality living and dying. Then you will be able to appreciate fully the drama without being overcome by it.
This is similar to the state of mind the saints and sages encourage us to adopt in relation to life. Most of us are so identified with the hero of our movie – the ego – that we need to concentrate on practices that cultivate detachment. Yet this can lead to a cold indifference – so we need also to enter into the tragicomedy of it all with heroic compassion in the face of life’s suffering and a healthy sense of humor.
Engaged detachment allows one to step in and out of life as required. When life is rich, you can enjoy it without reservation, but when it becomes too painful, you can remind yourself that the “wicked witch” is only a passing fantasy that can in reality never touch you.
Fundamentally, the spiritual search is not motivated by the desire to be enlightened or merge with God. These sophisticated conceptual descriptions are much later accretions around a more primal pressure. The root motivation for becoming a spiritual seeker is that we simply need to feel good about life and death.
We all know that living can be a frightening, lonely, painful, grief-stricken ordeal. In the face of this, we desperately need to feel that in some way we are essentially safe. We need to know that our joys and suffering have real meaning. Spirituality answers these needs. It frees us from the deep anxieties caused by believing ourselves to be isolated egos.
It connects us to an immense benevolence that permeates creation, an unconditional compassion that beats the pulse of life, that Great Mystery that in reality we are. Those who dare to look beyond the limits of their habitual horizons and glimpse the infinite goodness that is God are forever reassured that all is well.
Timothy Freke, Encyclopedia of Spirituality: Information and Inspiration to Transform Your Life (Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 2000).
Header image: Carlos Sotelo