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November 01, 2016 Tuesday 07:21:31 PM IST

Paradoxical thinking skills

Creative Living

Paradoxes are apparently contradictory facts consisting of mutually exclusive elements. They also signify greater and overarching truths of science, religion and life at the same time. They often lead us from the superficial to something more fundamental.


Paradoxes of science

Modern science is under the spell of paradoxes. Light was once considered as waves of energy. As waves they cannot be located simultaneously and precisely. Many important phenomena related to light, like interference, diffraction and polarization can be explained in this light. But the modern science suggests that light also consists of particles (quanta) of energy. Photons (quanta of light) can be estimated and their effects can be clearly predicted. An exclusive proof for this fact fetched Albert Einstein the Nobel Prize in 1921. He discovered that when light falls on certain materials, fixed amount of light energy is converted to the electrical energy, the so called photoelectric effect. Thus light is both particle and wave, a paradox of science!


Michael Faraday also made similar observation with electricity. He found that as electricity passes through conducting wires, moves the magnets placed near to it. From this foundational observation he designed the electric motors. He wanted to see what happens when electrodes move in a magnetic field. He found that electricity is produced in the process, which led him to the invention of electric generators. Today we understand electricity and magnetism are but two sides of the same coin, owing to the path-breaking and paradoxical thinking of Michael Faraday. Apparently opposite realities leads to more fundamental principle of science!


Paradoxes of religion

Elegant philosophies and spiritual teachings are often riddled with paradoxes. Listen to Jesus of Nazarethwhen he says: “Those who hold on to their life will lose it; but those who forsake it will gain it (Mt. 16:25)”. “ ”Losing life to gain it! Is it not a paradox! But it is the most intimate truth of life! Take, for example, a seed. To remain intact for a seed would mean that it never germinates. It just remains a museum piece. It will not bring forth the life enshrined within it. To germinate means to undergo a planned decay. This allows the traces of new life hidden in it to flourish. To enter to a new phase of life, one would necessarily be able to germinate as a seed.


It is paradoxical to observe that religious fanatics in fact destroy their own religion, which they want to protect by hook or by crook. Listen to Jesus of Nazareth who showers abuses on the so called “protectors of religion” of his times (Mt. 23). Pharisees were those who followed the Rules of Moses literally. They even adorned them with the codes of Moses, bearing them in their forehead! Jesus was up in arms against them. He even suggested that they will never enjoy the deeper religious experience, which he termed the Kingdom of Heaven/God. Even the sinners, prostitutes and even the so called gentiles will enter this kingdom, but Pharisees! An apparent paradox! However it teaches a deeper spiritual truth. Those who grow arrogant and fanatic about their own religion will simultaneously violate more fundamental tenets of their own religion, which liberates one for freedom and happiness! Thus so called protectors of practices of religion turn to be killers of the very spirit of religion!


This shall be the framework from which we may evaluate what happens in the religious-political spheres of India today. Fanatics are in fact honest people. They really want to protect their religion from downfall. But in the process they inadvertently kill the newness that their own religion has brought forth. The fanatic followers of religions are prepared to even kill their so called enemies and in the process becoming enemies of the same religion they choose to protect. When a Hindu fanatic grows intolerant and kills the critics of the religion, together s/he kills the true spirit of Hinduism, which is nothing but tolerance towards diverse views and spiritual paths.


When a Muslim fanatic attempts “to save their persecuted brethren” resorting to terrorist methods, in the process they violate the message of mercy that the prophet Mohammed preached. Similarly, when a Christian fanatic kills their enemies, they bump into the basic precept of their own religion, the love of enemies. It will be a challenging task of the followers of religion to protect their religion without killing its spirit! Fanaticism cannot serve a tool for the purpose!


Paradoxes of life

Humans are spirit-in-the-world. Human reality is the word-incarnate. There exist polarities between the spirit and the word and between word and reality. They create dichotomies, lacunas and clefts between human thoughts, words and deeds. What you desire to do may not be what you truly practice. The gap between the ideals and the realities of life persists till the end of one’s life. In this sense, humans are more “becoming” than being a “being”. S/he can be better called “human becoming” instead of “human being”. Paradoxes are part and parcel of human lives. In their book “Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit from Your Contradictions” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997), Jerry Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler give numerous examples for personal paradoxes of different categories of people, which contribute to their success in life. Successful athletes, executive business leaders, political leaders, etc. falls in this category. Take for example, Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the globe today. Why does he remain the fastest sprinter? He is the fastest since he could best relax while sprinting! A contradiction in terms, it may appear. But it is closer to the reality to explain the mysteries behind his successful sprinting: the successful sprinters are adorned with the diametrically opposite qualities to simultaneously engage and disengage themselves during the act of running. Their ability to quickly accelerate depends radically on their ability to concentrate or relax perfectly!


Bill Gates of Microsoft Inc. is known as one of the most successful CEOs, the world has ever seen. Analysts find that his personality is a cocktail of the opposite trends: He is charming and at the same time capable f huge fits of anger. He is extremely humble and at the same time extremely arrogant. He sits over huge fortunes and at the same time well-known philanthropist. In the narrow sense of the word, he cannot be described as a “consistent” person. He is rather a sign of successful contradictions! So is Bill Clinton, the ex-president of United States of America: He is bold but coward, sincere but calculating, loyal and infidel at the same time! Those who make their life in the face of contradictions of life are successful and those who break their life under the weight of own inner contradictions are the losers!


Fletcher and Olwyler pursue to develop methods to realize personal paradoxes and help describe them by developing corresponding oxymorons, completely describing your inner conflicts and tensions you struggle with facilitate a shift in self-perception and finally rating your success with a Fletcher Pendulum, description of which is beyond the scope of this short article.


Paradoxical Thinking

Human intelligence is said to have eight associated skills: Judgment, perception, reason, intuition, imagination, logic, memory and paradox. Among them “paradox” is often the most underdeveloped skill for  many. People generally consider paradoxical thinking is illogical thinking and hence childish. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggests, the first grade intelligence is characterized by the ability to hold two opposite ideas in mind and at the same time still retain the ability to function.


Derm Barrett develops the concept of paradoxical thinking in his book “The Paradox Process: Creative business solutions, where you least expect to find them” (AMACOM, 1997). He identifies three major types of paradoxical thinking, Contrarian thinking, Janusian thinking and Hegelian thinking, respectively. Contrarian thinking happens when “a) You conceive of doing something opposite; b) You think of replacing something by its opposite, whether that thing is a belief, a value, an idea or an object; c) you entertain the thought that your opponent is right and you are wrong, or just assume that an opposite point of view might be worth looking at. “ Janusian thinking is “bringing two opposites together in your mind, holding them there together at the same time, considering their relationships, similarities, pros and cons, and interplay, and then creating something new and useful. Hegelian Thinking is “when you visualize how to fuse, combine, mingle, integrate or synthesize two opposites to produce a third entity,” an example being newspaper photographs consisting of black and white dots that through their interplay produce a cohesive picture. A mastery of Contrarian, Jenusian and Hegelian thinking makes you masters of paradoxical thinking. This is in tune with the philosophies of Laozi, the philosopher and poet of ancient China and other oriental teachers.


Children are born paradoxical thinkers. They allow themselves to venture into the truly imaginative realms of problem solving. During schooling years they are formally introduced to the logical or linear thinking. In the process the creative thinking skills are mostly “educated out” of them during this period! It is high time to reclaim the skills of paradoxical thinking at schools.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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