Tuesday, May 25, 2010


In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig's memorable philosophical inquiry into values, the narrator is often perplexed by the obstinate refusal of people to see what is right before their eyes: 
The truth knocks on your door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away.  Puzzling.
The problem, I believe, is that the truth itself of often puzzling.  It offers the promise of something we seek -- for example, living in harmony with the universe -- but it then recommends a path that usually makes no sense, at least at first glance, to our logic-oriented brains. Suggest to someone that the greatest among us should be a servant or slave to others, as Jesus recommended, and you will likely encounter a stare of disbelief.

As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, "the words of truth are always paradoxical."  We may be attracted to a noble idea of the truth, but our egos usually reject what the truth calls upon us to do.  Many people, for example, profess to be Christians -- but how many are willing to act in accordance with the paradoxical teachings of Jesus?  Who is willing to lose his or her life in order to find it? Who is willing to love the enemy, pray for those who spitefully use us, turn the other cheek when assaulted, and rejoice when others revile or persecute us?  And what would the elite of our society think if the first really became last and the last became first?

Many profess to be followers of the Tao, but who is willing to act in accordance with the teachings of Lao Tzu (left) in the Tao Te Ching? Who is willing to yield to force, rather than respond in kind?  Is anyone willing to empty himself or herself in order to become full?  Willing to give up everything in order to gain everything?  Willing to allow the death of one's self in order to be born again into a higher consciousness? 

And what about the noble truths of Buddhism?  How many followers or admirers of Buddhism are willing to relinquish the cravings and desires that underpin all suffering?  How many are willing to abstain from harmful conduct, including gossip and other harmful speech?  How many are willing to resist any act, including war, that involves the taking of a life?

My point here is not to take a moral, political, or religious position on what we should or should not be doing with our lives.  It is understood, I hope, that such positions are off limits in this online journal.  What I do want to emphasize, however, is that spiritual truths are seldom comfortable, because they usually call upon us to do something that is counter-intuitive, at least initially.  Indeed, the truth to which we are drawn often seems inherently contradictory, and therein, of course, lies the paradox.

Many withdraw from the truth at the first hint of paradox. For thousands of years, however, the great teachers of wisdom have repeatedly told us that the things we most desire -- love, peace, happiness, and true security -- can only be discovered by actions that, paradoxically, seem inconsistent with those objectives. The question that always remains, however, is whether we have the courage to press through the walls of fear that surround our lives.

My decision to post something on the relationship between truth and paradox was precipitated several days ago by the rediscovery of a passage from T.S. Eliot's great poem, The Four Quartets.  That passage is set forth below, together with some other relevant observations by Anthony De Mello, Lao Tzu, Mother Teresa, Carl Rogers, C.K. Chesterton, Jack London, and Madeleine D'Engle.  Read and enjoy.

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
  You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
  You must go by the way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
  You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
  You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

                           T.S. Eliot
                           The Four Quartets

All mystics . . . no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion -- are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well.  Though everything is a mess, all is well.  Strange paradox, to be sure.  But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.  They are having a nightmare.

                       Anthony De Mello

           If you want to become full,
           let yourself be empty.
           If you want to be reborn,
           let yourself die.
           If you want to be given everything,
           give everything up.

                      Lao Tzu
                      Tao Te Ching

I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
                        Mother Teresa

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
                        Carl Rogers

The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.
                         C.K. Chesterton

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise.  And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive . . .

                          Jack London
                          The Call of the Wild

The world of science lives fairly comfortably with paradox.  We know that light is a wave, and also that light is a particle.  The discoveries made in the infinitely small world of particle physics indicate randomness and chance, and I do not find it any more difficult to live with the paradox of a universe of randomness and chance and a universe of pattern and purpose than I do with light as a wave and light as a particle.  Living with contradiction is nothing new to the human being.
                          Madeleine D'Engle
                          Two-Part Invention


  1. A very thoughtful and stimulating post, George. The quotes are all very fitting for the topic of truth vs paradox, or truth as paradox. The Rogers quote "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change" was new to me and strikes me as quite true. I look forward to mining that insight for everything it is worth.

    I also liked the Madeleine D'Engle observation and especially appreciate the emphasis on science being comfortable with uncertainty, randomness, mystery. Often people think that scientists only believe in and pursue unshakeable absolute etruths, but for me at the heart of the scientific method is a deep commitment to living with mystery and wonder, with a focus more on asking every more sophisticated questions than finding "truth".

    I could go on and on, but I will spare you. Like I said, a thought provoking post and one that will stay on mind for a few days. This seems to be the norm with your blog.

  2. Lorenzo,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and generous comments. Paradox is a difficult thing to get one's mind around, and it is especially challenging to find a way of discussing the subject without adding to the confusion. On a personal level, however, I simply do not know how one can advance in the direction of the great truths unless paradox is understood and confronted.

  3. this a pretty substantive post-- from many different ways of thinking but all saying basically the same thing-- and so many quotes-- I especially love T.S. Eliot..

  4. Donna,

    I hope the post is substantive without being too heavy. I think this blog is going to be like any other conversation -- sometimes light, sometimes serious. It will probably represent what is going on in my world at any given time. It just so happens that this week I was re-reading Eliot, and his brilliant passage from "The Four Quartets" forced me to think more about truth and paradox.

  5. Very richly poetic and accompanied by lovely images.
    Thank you for visiting my blog so regularly. I see you leave your footprints in the sand!
    Have a wonderful day!

  6. Thanks for your lovely comment, Sandra. Have a great day yourself!