Recognizing Dualistic Thinking
As with anything, the first step in changing our way of life or way of thinking is becoming aware of it. So, as a mental exercise, try asking yourself, ‘When have I felt that I was locked in a mental battle, or was in a state of such severe indecision and ambivalence that I could not make even the slightest movement forward?’ Did it seem like the ‘flow,’ the ability to act, think and create effortlessly, was blocked? Did it seem as if there were two inexorable forces clashing in your psyche, like Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology?
Perhaps it was around a career choice, where the practical side of your psyche was at war with your dreamer and idealistic side. One voice commands you to be reasonable and grounded like an old-fashioned elementary school teacher who abhors risk, raising fears of poverty and failure, scolds you with criticism that you are not really that good of an artist, or writer, or healer, or musician, or actor, or designer to make a living. And the other side of your dichotomy, with equal passion, argues that you will die if you do not at least try to live the dream, to manifest the gifts you were given, the chance ‘to follow your bliss,’ and to give humanity something unique and precious from your own creativity.
What psychology has found, and coaching as well, is that these internal conflicts are predicated on dualistic beliefs about reality. Unfortunately, most modern psychology, and most coaching, omits to clearly identify the process of dualistic thinking as a fundamental characteristic of the ego mind, and that emerging from this way of thinking is a form of spiritual practice. This may be because in order to really see dualistic thinking, we have to have the ability to step outside of it and look back from a non-dual, witness consciousness. Unfortunately, most modern psychologists do not have that skill.
Non-dualistic problem solving is a spiritual practice because it involves the meditative disciplines of mindfulness (becoming aware of the internal conflicts in the first place), attentiveness and self-observation (practices to engage a witness consciousness observing how the conflicts are playing out in our heads), and calm-abiding, (or shamata meditation), where we are able to still the mind to such a degree that a more holistic, yin/yang way of perception begins to dawn in our psyches.
This is where we experience, effortlessly, a non-dual, golden mean realization — we see that real wisdom is about balancing apparent opposites, and that if we are willing to look at the big picture, with immense patience and non-attachment, we can see that our apparent conflict is just that, apparent, non-real, and only a product of a lower level of cognitive awareness.
What Balance Begins to Look Like
When we are able to be far more patient and gentle with ourselves, when we are able to see the big picture, and quiet the screaming, whining voice of the lower ego, then we can begin to see that our wisdom mind is fully capable of helping us resolve the tension we are under.
In our example of a major dilemma around what path to take in one’s career, a dilemma I see every day in my psychotherapy practice, and in my own circle of friends and family, the individual needs to find their own way to a more balanced and holistic understanding, but certain universal principles will emerge. For example, in this apparent conflict between the idealistic and practical sides of the young person’s career choice, resolution will undoubtedly require a slowing down of the analytical mental process and a profound deepening of self-awareness — an exercise that cannot take place while the dualistic mind is furiously bouncing back and forth between “good and evil”, “black and white”, “selfish and moralistic” arguments and points of view.
We need to slow down and ask deeper questions that probe the underlying belief systems. The cognitive fallacies of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are a good place to begin, such as Black and White Thinking. Perhaps we need to ask if there is actual evidence for one’s capacity to tolerate the hardships of the artistic career choice, or for one’s creative abilities, or for family or community support for the creative path, or for the person’s internal grit and ability to tolerate simple living conditions, rejection and criticism, and so on.
And on the other hand, another line of questioning could explore, slowly and gently, what is so wrong about the more mainstream career path, in a corporation or agency or school or what have you. Perhaps the young person needs a gestation period of maturation before leaping into the void of being a starving artist. Perhaps they are forgetting that they have multiple dimensions in their psyche, and they may have just as strong desires to have a family, a house, security and some amount of power in the marketplace. Perhaps they could see their artistic passions as an avocation and not a vocation, or as a second career, or even a hobby in retirement.
Once we have created a more gentle, we could even say, diplomatic, dialogue between the two opposing arguments, we can then introduce the idea that the psyche’s natural desire for balance could lead to a wise and compassionate solution. What often emerges when a yin/yang balance has been achieved, and the person is able to hear the constructive, informative, and kind voices of both sides of the coin, is that a decision emerges from a place where all levels of awareness have aligned: physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and spiritual. Naturally, we can agree that to embark on a career choice is a serious decision, and to have the best success we really do want to have all of our resources lined up together. We get in touch with our physical side — do we have the health, the energy, the money, the time, the environment to support our movement in a given direction? We get in touch with our emotional realm — do we have the ‘heart’ for it, does it make us happy, do we look for kindred spirits to join us in the journey, does it make us sing with happiness?
And so on for the other realms we want to align, ethically, intellectually, spiritually. It is beyond the scope of this short paper to fully explore all of them, but it should be clear that without a state of mental balance, the right decision is difficult to arrive at, and the need to summon and align all of our faculties harder still.
Let’s look at a case study, only slightly adapted from a real life example in my private practice. We have a client, let’s call him Peter, who finds himself enmeshed in an internal, dualistic conflict, in this case, a struggle between his desire to ask for a pay raise, and his fear of angering his supervisor. In the conflict-based perception of reality, the client feels paralyzed because he feels ‘damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. . .’
On one hand, Peter feels that if he doesn’t ask for a pay raise he will continue to simply tread water, and remain in a passive mode, projecting the image of an employee with no ambition, who is timid and unable to assert their rights to recognition. On the other side, Peter may doubt himself, doubt that he actually earned the raise/promotion (which is its own subjective evaluation), and that he will come across as too aggressive and pushy, appearing to be only out for himself, egocentric, not a team player, and overweening in his ambition.
Thus the dichotomy is born and the very nature of this sort of dualistic thinking tends to freeze us, inhibiting action, immobilizing us in endless cycles of frustration and self-recrimination, or in cycles of jumping from one decision to another, too fast and too aggressively, only to be left behind or even fired for lacking social skills and cooperation. There are many ways that this type of thinking hampers us, and these are only some. And so Peter finds himself on the ‘horns of a dilemma.’
Techniques for Encouraging a Non-Dual Approach to Problem Solving and Goal Setting
What would a Daoist, non-dualistic metaphysics teach us about this ‘conflict’, and how does it inform this Power Tool? First, we could ask Peter to explore this internal dialogue and even draw it out on a peace of paper, one side being the arguments for, and the other side the arguments against. We would ask if this endless back-and-forth, lose-lose analysis is helping. We might ask if he or she has ever resolved a mental conflict in a different way, through seeing the value that both sides offer. We could ask him if he was ever able to raise the internal conflict to a positive balance, where both sides of the argument support one another.
Or we can suggest to Peter that there is another way to think about the struggle they are in, and that we brainstorm together what other ways exist to think about it. We might help him to role play the two sides of the conflict, having each ‘character’ or voice try to persuade the other to come over to their side, in a way similar to the “empty chair” work of Gestalt Psychology. This process can be helpful in illuminating the absurdity of one pole arguing for dominance over the other.
In Daoism, where the conflict is perceptual and not real, as it is true in other non-dualistic schools of thought, such as Advaita Vedanta, Yogacharya Buddhism, and even in The Golden Mean of Aristotle, we need to look for the hidden balance that is behind every apparent conflict, identify it, name it, and then value the creative and dynamic tension between the two poles. Let’s look more closely at Peter’s case. If we remove any moralistic, competitive, or oppositional thinking about his dilemma, we can see that a healthy and positive dichotomy exists between the two poles of tension.
On one side, let’s call it the yang side, Peter has a healthy desire to grow and fulfill his potential at work, and if he has been doing his very best, meeting his responsibilities at work, then he should be recognized for that achievement. Moreover, it may be healthy for his own self-esteem and assertiveness to go ahead and ask for that raise, mindful that everyone gets nervous in this sort of situation.
On the other side, the yin side, Peter’s own intrinsic and innate sense of fairness and honesty can be brought into play, where Peter probably knows that he has to earn the pay raise and be able to justify it. Perhaps he needs to seek feedback from his supervisor and other colleagues on how he is performing, request more challenging assignments, and reaffirm that he is willing to stretch himself with greater responsibilities.
In order to gain input on how well he is getting along with others, he could conduct his own 360º emotional intelligence survey, knowing that being a team player is often crucial to advancement in the business environment. When we achieve this state of balanced thinking, when we are willing to objectively see both sides of the coin, impartially and coolly, like the blind goddess weighing the scales of justice, something releases in our psyche and we feel lighter and more focused. It is as if our own higher intelligence has been waiting for us to become wiser.
Naturally this approach might seem foreign to Peter, both in concept and application, as all of us raised in Western society are inducted into a highly competitive and confrontational way of being and living. Again, I would suggest using this Power Tool with people already familiar with mindfulness, integral psychology, Eastern philosophy, or something similar. If they have some theoretical and spiritual background, but have not yet been introduced to a non-dualistic problem solving approach, then naturally the coach would ask the client’s permission to introduce the model and to help him get acquainted with this new way of thinking.
Daily Application And Collateral Benefits
At a deeper level of proficiency, this Power Tool can be helpful for the client who wishes to gain a meta-cognition about themselves and their desires in life. This would take the Power Tool into the realm of Transformational Coaching. Here, worldly goals can be understood as having a relative value in that they can help a person function more easily, creating more time, space and positive effect in their lives and on the people around them.
By engaging with this way of thinking, and with the Power Tool on a daily basis, adopting a non-dual understanding of the conflict, we help ourselves see that perhaps there is a ‘higher,’ more conflict-free, or ‘karma-free’ way of understanding decision making and problem solving from a spiritual point of view. With clients, we can help them see that there is nothing wrong with fulfilling one’s potential, that it is natural to want to grow and function at one’s highest level of ability.
Rather than seeing apparent conflicts as a duel between warring parts of our psyches, one side questioning our motives, and the other questioning our laziness or fear of engagement, we could reframe the discussion by seeing that both sides of this yin/yang balance have something positive to offer. One is the ethical need to be aware of our motives and self-monitor ourselves for any shadow material, and the other is the human need to fulfill our potential,
what in Daoism they call the action of non-action.
Even with very high functioning clients, who want to take on more of the role of leaders in their communities or organizations, we can suggest they frame the challenge in a non-dual way of thought: on one side, the community needs a leader to help guide the organization, and this in turn serves the greater Good; and on the other side, one can make an internal commitment to service. This concept of service from the non-dualistic point of view means to not let the trappings of the position —whatever they may be — the public persona, the power of decision making, the salary, the aggrandizement, etc., affect one too deeply. We can help clients witness these temptations, distractions, and attachments, and to let them go. This is the art of action without acting from the lower ego.
Work on Goals Become More Effortless, and We Become More Compassionate
Naturally, this is a way of life predicated on the client wanting to live from a non-dualistic perspective, and wanting to be free from the trappings of the lower ego. But for those who are willing and able to engage the coaching process at this level there are great rewards.
First, is the discovery that when we act from a non-dual, balanced place, when the two sides of the psychic balance are evenly weighted, we feel more at ease in our moral universe. It is as if our conscience, or our higher nature, responds to this way of acting and being and makes us feel happy.
Two, in the long run it requires much less effort, and we are more energized for the task at hand. By calling on a higher level of wisdom, that non-dual way of looking at ourselves and our actions-in-the-world, we free ourselves from the tremendous ‘effort’ we usually expend trying to reach our goals. Many coaches have pointed this out, with many different images and metaphors, like the classic one of helping the client see that, in the final analysis, the journey is the goal, because the present moment is really all we have, it is reality.
And three, problem solving, goal setting, and achieving from a non-dualistic perspective not only increases our wisdom, it also increases our compassion. When we see that we torture ourselves in our conflicts, by setting one part of our psyche against another, or relentlessly criticizing ourselves that we are not enough right now, and that only when we achieve our goals will we amount to anything, then we will find the truth in the saying that we are our own worst enemies.
When we become aware, as we say in Buddhism, of our ‘ignorance,’ of this fundamental process of the psyche and how it leads to suffering, then we can start to step out of the internal conflicts. The final benefit of non-dual problem solving and goal setting is the ability to see that everything is in balance, and that when we act from this balanced state of mind, then even our perceptions of the world change, and everything and everyone begins to look more beautiful. This is a goal we would all like to reach one day.