“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)
When I was a 19 year old student with ‘know thyself’ in huge letters on my chemistry lever arch file, I was drawn to this quote. Now in my 40s, I am embodying it more and more, and felt inspired to write a blog post on non duality. For many people, black and white thinking is a key thinking error. We see things as dualities, this or that. We can be too quick to judge something or someone as ‘this’ or ‘that’ – good or bad, odd or normal, right or wrong, an idiot or wise, arrogant or compassionate. Our minds have a need to categorise, understand, control. By coming to a conclusion, making a decision or judgement about someone, we have a sense of control. Order is restored, we can relax. Or can we?
This type of thinking means that we feel anxious about shades of grey because that means we have to stay open to possibility or doubt, and we feel safer with a decision, one way or the other. This type of rigid thinking, causes people great stress; because the world is grey, not black and white. And, like it or not, we cannot control it. The desire for (and failure to) control, leads to illnesses such as autoimmune disease.
When Fitzgerald talks about ‘holding two opposing ideas in the mind’ – his is talking about non duality, letting go of opposites, moving towards ‘neither this or that’. When we do this it feels uncomfortable, we can ‘(lose) the ability to function’. This wise writer sensed this. If we work on tolerating opposites it feels uncomfortable – two opposing ideas held as both being ‘true’ takes a ‘bigger’ person – in that we need to get bigger, more expansive to hold that space. And, conversely, in holding that space, and the often highly uncomfortable feelings that go with it, increases our capacity, expands our resilience.
I will tell you a story. Last weekend I was on a workshop. It was a wonderful workshop but the teacher had a tendency to be a bit opinionated, strong, directive. And he was quick to make some dismissive judgements on big topics – yoga being one: ‘Yoga is good if you want a tight butt and a good body’. I felt angry: he was so wrong (and I was right!!). So, I spoke up and said so. He seemed irritated and suggested that I was too attached to my system of yoga, thereby ensued an exchange between us in front of the whole group of 30 plus people – all highly trained psychotherapists who knew all about projection, transference, countertransference and there we were playing out our ‘stuff’!
I felt anger/annoyance, a bit of fear (the entire room had stopped breathing!!) and curiosity. I sat there holding these powerful and uncomfortable emotions and felt a deep calmness too, and a gratitude of how differently I was dealing with this man (compared to similar situations in the past) and some opposing thoughts (‘is this guy a complete arse?’, should I be training with him?? or ‘is he ok, there is so much wisdom in what he is teaching, but what an arse! what just happened?’).
And I just sat with myself and held that space – with the difficult emotions and opposing ideas. I felt expansive, and calm too. And I held a possibility that if he was only 1 per cent or 5 per cent right, perhaps I have something to learn about myself.
At the end of that day, I wanted to connect with him and went over and we talked about the incident – and then he really listened as I told him what a big integrated system of yoga Satyananda yoga is – he said he would look into it. I felt heard. That was all I needed. He may not agree with me about the system, it doesn’t matter, this person had at least opened to listening. We worked together beautifully the next day! An old me, might have been so upset and angry I would have left the training. What a difference tolerating opposites makes!!
I think both him and I learnt a lot about ourselves that day. It is only in relationship with another, particularly a difficult or testing relationship, that we truly learn about ourselves, release our ‘programming’ from past events and traumas and move forwards on the path of freedom. But this only happens if we can learn to tolerate that space of non duality – or ‘neti neti’ as the Indians call it (not this, not that) – then we get bigger and consciousness expands, and we feel calmer and more resilient.