The Play of Paradox
Life is rarely, if ever, an either/or equation. In principle and in practice, life is full of contradiction—paradox. It is a balancing act between competing tensions that vie for our time, our energy, and our attention, trying desperately to convince us that we must choose one over the other.
We are faced with these dilemmas every day. Should we spend more time with our family or building a career? Should we experiment and take risks or do things the way they have always been done? Do our children need more freedom or more control? Should we move away from home or stay close to our loved ones? Is it better to collaborate or to compete? Manage or mentor? Go it alone or get support? Be generous or draw boundaries? Stay quiet or fight back?
According to ancient traditions, tensions are not only a natural part of life—they are life. The dynamic tension of opposites is exactly what gives birth to and sustains the ever-changing and ever-evolving elements of our universe. The interaction of opposites—symbolized in the swirling black-and-white circle of the T’ai Chi—exemplifies the universal principle that without one part of the pair, the other cannot exist.
Both sides of the picture complete the circle of wholeness. We must have both day and night, masculine and feminine, movement and stillness, right brain and left brain, the details and the big picture, focus and flexibility. Without the dynamic interplay between these powerful pairs, there is only stagnation, decay, and eventually death. Creative tension, or what I call the play of paradox, is absolutely essential for life and growth.
The Golden Thread
What is paradox? A paradox involves two elements, truths, principles, or perspectives that seem contradictory but are both true. “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times,” “all good leaders are servants,” and “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know” are all paradoxes. Much of the mystery and meaning, the comedy and tragedy of life are based on paradox. Its most ardent champions are scientists (who are still trying to solve the paradoxes of physics), comedians (who make a living pointing out life’s everyday inconsistencies), and mystics, who believe we can glimpse the spiritual world while walking in the physical, the greatest paradox of all.
The sages of East and West speak often of what it is like to be caught inside a paradox. They describe it in ways that challenge us to move beyond our narrow thinking. They tell us that life’s competing tensions are not contradictory but complementary, not mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive. Life, they say, is not a matter of this or that, but a matter of this and that.
Paradox is woven like a golden thread through the world’s spiritual traditions. Saint Francis, for instance, pointed to paradox when he said, “It is in giving that we receive, . . . and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” The Buddha told his students that taking refuge in the sangha (the community) was vital to their spiritual growth, but he also cryptically advised, “Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” Lao Tze, the Chinese sage and founder of Taoism, taught, “To be empty is to be full. . . . To have little is to possess,” and Jesus warned, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Were these great teachers just confused? Did someone make a mistake when they translated their words? Not at all. In the writings and in the lives of the wise ones, paradox permeates. In fact, one of the major lessons they have come to teach us is that we cannot ignore or chase away the tension of opposites,because that is how the universe operates. The Sufi mystic Rumi summed it up when he said that God “teaches by means of opposites so that you will have two wings to fly, not one.”
Paradoxes are here to stay. We cannot run from them; we can only embrace them and become one with them. For, in reality, the apparent opposites are two sides of the same coin that are meant to reside in harmony.
The principle of paradox is nondenominational. No matter what background we come from or tradition we espouse, we will confront it. Our job, say the sages, is to learn to flow with the cadences of life as the universe asks us to bring first one and then the other side of the paradox to the fore in our lives at the right time and the right place. As an enlightened pundit once said, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
Creating Breakthroughs, Not Breakdowns
What happens when we don’t embrace both sides of the paradox? Rather than creating breakthroughs, we create breakdowns. If we refuse to honor our physical needs, our body may shut down and send us to a hospital bed so that we are forced to listen. If, on the other hand, we give all of our attention to our material needs and don’t nourish our spirit, our soul begins to ache and we may fall into depression without realizing why. In short, when we are out of balance, we become lopsided. It’s like sitting at one end of a seesaw that suddenly flops down when our playmate runs off and leaves us alone; we hit bottom because there is nothing on the other side to create movement.
I believe that the greatest cause of stress is our inability to recognize and participate in the play of paradox. What often keeps us stuck on one side of the paradox or the other are the myths we have been taught and grown comfortable with. We don’t even know that they are myths because we automatically accept them as true. They are based on assumptions we have made about the way the world works, and, like straitjackets, they prevent us from turning around to see the other side of the equation. They make us believe that we have no other options.
When we get out of balance, life sends its messengers—in the form of circumstances, people, and events—to help us get back into balance. It is human nature, of course, to want to run in the other direction, even to “kill” the messengers, so we don’t have to hear the message. But that never works. The messengers just keep on coming until we stop and listen and accept their invitation to dance.
This book explores one of the many paradoxes of life—the paradox of giving and receiving. We are called to master the delicate dance of giving and receiving in virtually every area of our lives. You’ll meet it when you deal with issues of abundance, self-worth, health, relationships, career, and uncovering what your real gifts are, to name just a few. At its core, the paradox of giving and receiving deals with the overriding issue that challenges so many of us: How do I balance what others need with what I need? In order to give to others, do I really need to give up myself?
At the outset, I should make it clear that honoring yourself is not about pampering yourself. And it’s not about turning your back on those who need you. The issues surrounding giving and receiving are deeper. Much deeper. By honoring yourself, you are respecting, appreciating, and giving birth to your best self so you can give creatively—and abundantly—in ways that honor others.
While modern society is ill-equipped to bring us back into balance, the sages of East and West are experts. Throughout these pages, you will discover their practical, and often surprising, advice for mastering the inner art of giving and receiving. You will learn to recognize the myths that have held you hostage—myths that, like blinders, keep you from living a life filled with possibility and passion. You’ll learn what it means to celebrate your gifts and greatness as you explore the inner dynamics behind giving with the heart rather than the head, setting boundaries, being honest about the unhealthy people in your life, using your feelings to stay true to yourself, finding your own voice, and honoring endings. Most importantly, you’ll learn the steps for staying in balance. For when you learn the steps, you can perform the dance—and that’s when the magic begins.
Getting Back in Rhythm
We’re all in dance class, learning to master one move or another. We’re all students of life, learning new ways to move in harmony with the cadences of life’s ever-changing music. In our own ways, we’re all teachers, too, as we share with others what we are learning. And, yes, it’s paradoxically true that we do often teach what we most need to learn. With all the topics I’ve taken up for the books I’ve worked on, I have found this to be the case, and this one is no different. I am learning every day what it means to honor myself, my best self.
Depending on the day and the dance, I still stumble and get out of sync. I still have to stop, take a few deep breaths, and get back in step with the rhythm of the music. But I’m learning, and that’s what counts to those incredibly patient instructors who coax and sometimes drag me onto the dance floor. I’m certain that I will get better at the dance as I practice, but I also know that I will always be learning. I will always be mastering new steps for honoring and celebrating my gifts.
So, in true paradoxical style, you could say that I wrote this book for you and for me. In part, it reflects my own journey and the discoveries I felt were so valuable that I had to share them with you. No book has all the answers or can teach you all the moves, but I hope this one will help you make more sense of life’s twists and turns. I hope it will show you how to keep your step a little lighter when life sweeps you off your feet. And I hope it will help you smile and relax a bit more so you can simply enjoy the dance.
Copyright © 2009 Patricia Spadaro