The western mind is highly trained in rational, dualistic thinking, a lineage that traces itself all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Dualistic thinking is about comparison, differentiation, and splitting apart; in essence, it views the world as either this or that. It is an extremely important quality—one that underlies modern science and all the awesome, life-enhancing discoveries it has bequeathed us. But dualistic thinking is not the way only way to make sense of the world. And when it is applied to everything, we tend to run into problems.
Some things in life truly are either-or, but many are both-and. Ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism understand and teach the paradoxical nature of reality. They develop a non-dual mind. Here are a few examples from my own life where I was taught to think in a dualistic, either-or mentality, but the truth is much more of a non-dual, both-and nature.
- Hard work and rest.
- Self-discipline and self-compassion.
- Solitude and community.
- Mind and body.
- You are enough right now and you can get better.
- Happiness and sadness.
- Strength and flexibility.
In all of these instances, using an either-or lens to view the world is an over-simplification that misses the point (at best) or is harmful (at worst).
If, like me, you are accustomed to dualistic thinking then non-dual thinking is challenging, especially at first. Holding two seemingly opposite concepts at the same time can make your mind feel like it is going to explode! But it is worth practicing nonetheless. You can get better and more comfortable with non-dual thinking over time. When you are quick to view things as contrary pause and ask yourself: Might these actually be complements? Might both be true at once? When you default to an either-or model of how you should feel (e.g,. happy or sad) pause and remind yourself that you can actually feel both on the same day, in the same hour, and even at the same time (an incredibly freeing realization).
Make no mistake, the point here is not to completely discard dualistic thinking! It is a hugely important quality—one that helped us to discover sanitation and vaccines, and that tells us to stop at a red light and move through a green. The point is simply to be aware of its limitations and understand that some phenomena call for an entirely different, non-dual mind. Sometimes this or that gets you where you need to go. But other times you’d be better of following the path of this and that.
(For related reads see: Emotional Flexibility – How to Hold *Everything* at Once, You Are Enough Right Now – Freedom and Self-Improvement, and Quit Being So Hard On Yourself – Self-Compassion and Peak Performance)