The Power Of Paradox

Nick Williams
7 min readNov 19, 2022
Image — wallpapercave.com

It’s very rare for us to see just how utterly inept and ham-fisted the thinking mind is when it comes to psychological matters, and in the absence of any insight in this regard we place an inordinate amount of trust in the thinking process to solve our psychological or emotional problems. What this ham-fistedness comes down to, more technically speaking, is the inability to recognise or in any way perceive a paradox when we come across it.

In everyday life this isn’t usually a problem for us, but when it’s the inner world we’re dealing with (instead of the outer) then we are inevitably going to get into trouble this way. We are going to get into trouble every time! There are many examples we could give here to demonstrate our inability to recognise a paradox when we see one — this ‘inability’ is what lies behind all our neurotic suffering, after all. Possibly the most essential example of our lack of comprehension with regard to psychological paradoxicality would be where we tried to de-escalate some upset that we have been through by some sort of helpful self-talk, by some sort of rational process — what we don’t see is that any fixing-type behaviour that we engage in here is only ever going to make matters worse. The problem isn’t the problem (when its neurosis we’re talking about), the problem is us trying to fix the problem!

This doesn’t make any sense at all to us in terms of our usual way of thinking but then again our usual way of thinking about things isn’t the right man for the job here. It’s entirely the wrong man for the job! ‘Desired separation floors forges a connection’, says Douglas Flemons. This isn’t ‘common sense’ because common sense says putting the effort into separating things will result in them being separated. The result of our sterling efforts will be separation, not connection, we say. This is true, in an obvious way, for objects that exist in the outside world, but when I try to separate myself from my unwanted feelings or thoughts then it works backwards on me. The more I try to help myself the more of a mess I get myself into, in other words…

If we don’t see this then when what we expect to happen (i.e. the desired separation) doesn’t happen then we panic and try harder, which makes the situation even more painful and even more claustrophobic. This makes it even less likely that we’ll be able to see what we doing wrong since the situation has become more pressurised with the result that we can no longer see anything straight. Instead of becoming more sensitive, more intelligent in what we’re doing (or not doing) we go in the opposite direction, which means that we are going to rely on deep-seated unexamined ‘reflex reactions’ instead. This means trying harder at doing the wrong thing, thereby creating a vicious circle for ourselves to get trapped in and who isn’t familiar with this sort of thing?

When we’re in trouble we cease to be sensitive about what’s going on (and staying present with it) and instead we allow ourselves to be stampeded into putting all our trust in mechanical (or ‘blind’) reflex-reactions. It’s as if we made the mistake of voting in a political party who completely trashed the economy, but who also (at the same time) managed to frighten us into thinking that only they can solve the problems that they themselves have created. The result of this is therefore that we vote them back into power again! This is exactly how it is with neurotic pain — neurosis is created by thought (which is to say, it comes into being as a result of our attempt to control the situation) and then we try to extricate ourselves from the mess with yet more thoughts, yet more control…

This is a case of ‘using the same thing to fix the problem that was responsible for creating it in the first place’. I have a hangover from drinking too much beer, and so I try to cure the hangover with yet more beer. The solution to the problem is also the cause of the problem. This sounds pretty stupid of course, but — stupid or not — this is what we do every time. We keep on relying on the instrument of thought to fix our mental or emotional pain because we don’t know what else to do. For this reason, it feels better to do it — even if it doesn’t work — rather than taking the chance of ‘doing nothing’. There is a sense of security that comes about as a result of doing something even if it’s not helping, and so we carry on trying to control the situation (we carry on trying to fix the problem) purely for the feeling of security that we get from this activity. The alternative — which is doing nothing and seeing what happens next — is just too frightening for us; we just can’t handle ‘the insecurity of doing nothing’…

This is just another way of saying that we are ‘addicted to control’ (and would rather carry on trying to control for this false sense of security that this gives us) even if our refusal to let go of the controlling is escalating our suffering. Again, who can say that they’re not familiar with this sort of thing? We might profess not to understand the sheer perversity of this ‘self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviour’, but if we were to look into it a bit we would discover that the cause for this apparently baffling perversity of ours is simply that we value security over everything else (even if there is — ultimately — no such thing as security). We value having a spurious sense of security about things (which comes from feeling that we are ‘in control’ when we’re not) over our own well-being. This is of course just another way of saying that we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t control, so even when our obsessive non-stop controlling is causing us great pain and misery we will carry on with it. We don’t know what it is we’re afraid of it’s true, but neither do we wish to find out!

Controlling has its place in the external world. That’s where it properly belongs — if we stuck with only trying to control things on the outside of us (and only well we really need to, as well) then everything will be fine. When we start trying to control ourselves however then this is different. When we start trying to control our own thoughts and feelings then we run slap bang into a whole world of trouble. This is a road that it’s all too easy to go down — it happens all by itself, just like a lorry with its brakes off rolling down a steep hill — but which never brings us anywhere good. Too much control (too much love of illusory security) brings us nothing but pure neurotic suffering. This neurotic suffering would have the result — ultimately — of curing us of our sickness, which is the sickness of setting the illusory sense of security over our actual well-being. This type of ‘mistake’ — if we can call it that — is ultimately self-curing because the pain that we are incurring in the vicious circle which is the neurotic struggle ultimately becomes more than we can bear.

Valuing an illusory sense of security over our actual well-being is the root cause of our suffering, not anything else. Unfortunately, as a ‘rational’ culture — which is to say as a culture which values rationality and control above all else — we’re not in a position to understand this. Instead of seeing our problems as being due to too much control, we see them as being the result of not enough control, which then drives us even further down the road of ‘self-inflicted suffering’, which is what the alchemists of old called the via erratum. The ‘path of error’ is the path we go down when we place all our trust in the thinking mind, even when this fundamental ‘lack of trust in the natural process’ clearly only ever makes our situation worse. It is the path we go down as a result of us being ‘much too clever for our own good’. ‘It’s not clever to be clever’, says G. I. Gurdjieff, but we’re far too sophisticated in ourselves to understand what he’s saying here.

Paradox, when we don’t see it but merely ‘enact it blindly’, teaches us something very important — it teaches us to stop doing what we’re doing. When we do see paradoxicality for what it is — and this isn’t an intellectual understanding — then we simply don’t go there. We don’t try to fix the problem that has been caused by our own fixing. This isn’t a ‘clever strategy’ on our part — it isn’t any sort of strategy at all. It’s far simpler than that — it’s actually too simple for us to ‘get’, in fact. ‘Not doing something’ simply means not doing it. It means ‘not doing’. It means Wu wei. We just stop controlling — we let go of our controlling and see what happens next. What could be simpler than this? A child can practice not doing with the greatest of ease (Wu wei, or not-doing, comes down to simply ‘being present’), but for us adults — with our overdeveloped rational minds — this is the most difficult thing in the world.

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