The Crucible of Contradiction

What do you do when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? Impossible choices drive us over the edges of carefully laid plans and predictable lives into the creative fire of invention. In this crucible of contradiction, opposing forces meld to form something new.

We’re living through a highly unpredictable time. Many will be experiencing an identity crisis, questioning who they are and what they really want from life. Perhaps, you're now asking deeper existential questions. How do I do something more meaningful with my life? How do I make a positive contribution to my small part of the universe? Yet, as soon as we ask those questions, the fearful ego also raises its head. The idea of a more enlightened life is all very well but what about the practical things: mortgage, bills, kids?

This is where we need a safe, strong container – a vessel that allows the transformation to take place. A healthy ego is critical to growth. We cannot become who we truly are without a healthy ego. All true spiritual paths deal with how to dissolve the ego, this small sense of self. However, we do not over overcome the ego by making it our enemy. “We need to be somebody before we can be nobody” to quote Jack Engler, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who studied under vipassana teachers such as Dipa Ma.

Heroism could be redefined as the ability to stand paradox. It is a time when the ego can do no more and must wait for that which is greater than itself. “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” It is a period of highly conscious waiting.  All leaps forward in personal development come through the courage to hold ourselves in the tension of opposites.

“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” William Blake

´╗┐So how do we synthesise opposites?

Sometimes two irreconcilable opposites will drive us to distraction. It’s supposed to. The balance of equal and opposing forces is the most powerful creative process in the world. How do we become strong yet sensitive, masculine and feminine, rational and intuitive, structured and spontaneous, light and shade? The problem begins when we identify exclusively with one pole or quality at the expense of the other. For example, we praise structure and deny spontaneity or extol the rational and mock the irrational. Oscillation is common.

Take someone whose interest alternates between enlightenment and financial success. They take lots of workshops on personal growth, find the material world distasteful and decides to sell everything and live in an ashram. They then find the aesthetic life is also lacking and with no job, connections or home, they have a long road back to the middle way.

Or take the businessman who spends the first half of his life accumulating wealth as a symbol of success only to find himself utterly empty at mid-life. Made it. Now what? Typical mid-life crises stuff. And, its all shadow work.

Reconciling material and spiritual

Of course, all of these opposites are not mutually exclusive. I struggled to reconcile the material and the spiritual, trying to hold the middle way. After experiencing stream-entry during my 5th vipassana retreat in 2017, all I wanted was to go and live in a forest by myself. Integration was difficult.

Stream-entry, or sotapanna in Pali, is the first of four stages of enlightenment in Buddhism. Sotapanna is an experience of pure awareness, anatta or no self. The belief in a permanent ego falls away. There is no doubt whatsoever of the impermanence of the ego or the power of the mind to reach altered states of consciousness through one’s own effort of right concentration and right living. Its an experience of a mini-death in a way. Although the concept of a self, Juliette completely dissolved, there was an utter aliveness and presence that I cannot express. I truly understood that we are nothing and everything.

The answer to my own dilemma of whether I should live a monastic life came in a dream.

18/12/17 Two weeks after returning from my vipassana retreat, I dreamt that I was talking to a group of guides about the fence around my garden. The mesh was quite large and I want to change it for finer mesh. I wanted privacy. But the people in my dream say ‘no’, it needs to stay as it is so others could see how I was changing.

For an extrovert, this desire to live a secluded life was extraordinary. Of course, I stayed in mainstream society. But it wasn’t easy. How are we to hold these difficult tensions? If we can stay with conflicting thoughts and feelings long enough, these polar opposites will teach each other something. It is the point of intersection, the mandorla that produces insight, something new beyond win/lose or compromise.


A mandorla is the almond-shaped segment made when two circles overlap. Mandorla is the Italian word for almond. It is a symbol that was used during medieval Christianity. The mandorla reminds us that we will experience the yin and yang opposites of life: rational and intuitive, masculine and feminine, heaven and earth, etc. When we encounter these conflicts, the mandorla suggests that we reconcile the opposites. In connecting with the deepest level of Self, we learn to incorporate opposites in our personality.

The solution to any paradox is to remain conscious of both poles but identify with neither. When you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, practice holding both sides of the issue. The mandorla begins the healing of the split.

Exercise: Working with a mandorla

To work with a mandorla, take three pieces of paper. Draw a circle on two of them and inside each of the circles, describe the opposing sides of your dilemma. When you’ve fully articulated both sides, take the third piece of paper and draw two intersecting circles. The point of intersection of these circles is the mandorla. Something magical happens in this space. Like oxygen and hydrogen, two elements come together to form a completely new compound, water.

If you have patience, a way forward will present itself that you could never have anticipated. Often this process will take you into unchartered territory, even challenge your identity. It requires trust in the unknown and therefore giving up control. Something we all find very difficult to do.

Another approach is to draw a symbol representing each polarity. Symbolism is the language of the soul. Represent each side of your problem symbolically. Grab some coloured pens and let your imagination just go with an image. Then put both pieces of paper down in front of you and meditate on integrating the two. Allow a new image to appear. Don’t worry if nothing comes to mind initially. Soul work takes incubation.

In your drawings, you may achieve only the tiniest sliver of a mandorla initially. But if you return often enough to your mandorla, this new perspective will bring new energy into your personality and bring surprising changes in your outer world.

The power of paradox

We can only understand the power of paradox from a higher perspective. Our life is made of flowers and garbage at the same time as Thich Nhat Hanh says. We need to accept both. It takes a fundamental shift in awareness. "To stay loyal to paradox is to earn the right to unity." Robert Johnson.

We cannot extol “spirituality” and condemn sensuality or vice versa. Especially in times like these. We live in a disembodied culture. The pursuit of wealth with little appreciation for matters of the heart, soul and planet has dire consequences and we’re drowning in the mess of it all.

We cannot deal with the darker forces that threaten our eco-system and society until we’ve had it out with our own dark nature. And, if we haven’t developed a strong enough ego, a healthy sense of self, we won’t be able to stand strongly enough in our own individuality to be in relationship with these darker forces. We will either dissociate from them or become possessed by them. Neither are healthy.

Contradictions are the soul of humanity. When we truly live in both worlds, "the light" and "the dark" are no longer experienced as opposites. And we need to remember that darkness and light are illusions; what lies beneath is nothing but Being or Pure Awareness. Those who can hold themselves in the crucible of their contradictions become most human. In going to their uncharted edges, they truly learn how to live and therefore lead.

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