Paradox and Poetry


There is one I,


There are many,


There is no one,

Confusion dawns

As wisdom

The definition of a paradox is, “a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement which, when investigated, may prove to be well founded or true.”

When we think long enough we arrive at paradoxes. They make us want to check our premises again. They baffle us. When I arrive at a paradox I want to make a distinction that lessens the ‘contradictoriness.’ And being able to, I often do. The newly made division provides some assurance that logic hasn’t failed me. However, I go back “into the mind,” back into thinking.

But what if the point of a paradox isn’t to go back into thinking, but to be broken by absurdity, and opened to the unknown? There is a certain way that it feels to think you have everything “figured out,” to have everything “put in its place.” Yet it comes with a form of closed-mindedness. You’ve filled the room with furniture and haven’t left space for any new stuff to come in.

A good question or an inquiry ‘opens’ the mind, because attention begins looking for something that it doesn’t already have. It turns us to experience, not just to what we’ve stored in memory. In that moment of questioning there can be an inner silence and receptiveness to novelty. In a similar way, a paradox invites the mind to a natural, quiet stopping, as if the ground you were running on was hard pavement, and it suddenly turned to soft sand.

If we look at life from the perspective of where our attention is, then in thinking, attention is absorbed in the movements of mind. This has physical consequences in terms of forming neural pathways in the brain, and emotional consequences, as well. So when a paradox confronts us, and there are two roads, so to speak—one leading to more thinking, the other not—then the choice is substantial. Really, it’s a choice between the comfort of the known and journeying into the unknown, between two realms of experience.

One thing that puzzled me from the Harry Potter series was the inscription written on the Golden Snitch that Harry catches in his first Quidditch game. It was a paradox: “I open at the close.” Leaving aside what that means at the end of the series, it’s a statement that can describe how the mind works. It comes to the close of a line of reasoning, is faced with a paradox, and then has the opportunity to open to something new, to what is not known.

Another great text that makes use of paradox (in a slightly different league than Harry Potter) is the Tao te Ching. If what is truly awesome about the Tao te Ching can be explained, then it is some combination of mind-bending paradox and soul-nourishing poetry. The words were penned by someone who intimately knew the “quiet aliveness” in things. Thus, when you read it, attuned to that, the words become “bright.” In such a light we begin to find ourselves:

There are some things

that feed the soul of man

Things that are incredible



without impurity

But they are the kinds of things that vanish

with too much learning

When I arrive at paradox my mind can be filled with fear, anxiety, and dis-ease. It no longer believes that it “knows.” The poetry of the Tao is an antidote, in that it makes paradox seem like a place to rest rather than something to struggle with, as in martial arts when your sparring partner moves a joint to a sharp angle of pain, in one moment, and in the next moment relieves the pain through transition to a more natural position. It’s actually one seamless happening. Or it’s like the life of a wave of water as it forms a crest and “peaks,” and then collapses back into the ocean. The Tao reads like water moves.

…Paradox and poetry—two tickets to the “amazing show;” the music, magic and mystery of existence.

In everything

Mystery roars

like great flames

* * *

(Second block quote by D.R. Streeter, from his translation of the Tao te Ching. First and third blocks are the author’s… These ideas inspired by Adyashanti’s “Wholeness Beyond Belief.”)


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