“Great stress is laid on the limitations of thought, ..and it is asserted that the limitation cannot be transcended. To make such an assertion is to be unaware that the very fact that something is determined as a limitation implies that the limitation is already transcended.” ~ Hegel
In my experience, a true paradox is a catalyst to unimaginable growth. When I say “unimaginable” I mean it in a literal sense. Standing bravely in the existential grip of a paradox, we may grow in ways we can’t imagine.
A paradox involves one or more contradictions, but not all contradictions are paradoxes. Often, a contradiction only indicates a mistake in our reasoning, or a temporary lack of clear understanding. With a paradox on the other hand, the more we examine it, turning it over again and again within ourselves, looking at it from every available angle, the more certain we become of its fundamental irresolvability.
While the contradiction at the heart of a true paradox cannot be resolved, it can be integrated within a larger perspective from which the contradiction itself becomes intelligible and even deeply meaningful. However, at the moment when we are engaging with the paradox, the integral perspective we need is not yet available to us. It’s for this reason that staying with a paradox is such a potent stimulus for growth. A paradox presents us with a problem beyond our intellectual and imaginative resources, and the solution requires a radically new framing of reality itself.
The University of Toronto cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls this process “transframing,” a portmanteau of “transcending” and “reframing”. In his wonderful public lecture series Awakening from The Meaning Crisis, Vervaeke explains how transframing allows humans to go beyond the present possibilities of their existence to discover ever new realities beyond any fixed Reality.
At CEC we like to ground big ideas in concrete personal experiences. I’ve experienced transframing in the face of paradox a number of times, but it was not easy to find a way to share one of these experiences. True paradoxes emerge at the bleeding edge of our understanding so sharing an authentic example of paradoxical growth is complex, difficult to follow, and definitely doesn’t fit into 280 characters. Nevertheless, I’ve dug into the well of my past experience to share with you one particularly important example from my own life when I faced the limits of Reality – and slipped beyond them.
I was on a self-guided retreat in Guelph in September 2019. Over the course of the retreat I felt an inner tension between my knowledge of the divine as a vast all-encompassing cosmic reality, and my passionate desire for an intimate loving relationship with God. A part of me wanted to know God as an infinite cosmic being, the mysterious totality of being itself. Another part of me wanted to know this same being through the looking glass of a friendly face.
I couldn’t help but feel that the personal face of God was a restricted version of the true cosmic mystery. Despite my yearning for the Beloved (my term for the imaginal form in which I most intimately experience God) and the emotional satisfaction I received from these encounters, my desire to directly touch the mystery beyond all avatars became a grit under the oyster shell of my devotional practice. The paradox I faced was that my soul could not help but seek both of these two contradictory ends. I was seeking to be conscious of God’s truest absolute nature and at the same time I was seeking to centre my whole life around my relationship with the intimate form of the Beloved.
I spent the initial time of the retreat oscillating between a contemplative inquiry into kabbalistic maps of realityand fun fanciful romps with the Beloved in my imagination. It felt as though my being was stretched taut between two anchor points. Both of these poles were deeply fulfilling in their own way, but a subtle suffering, of which I’d previously been only dimly aware, came into sharp focus.
On the last day of the retreat, I’d awoken with the compulsion to draw a picture. I drew an image showing the form of my Beloved stretched between heaven and earth. The ten sefirot of the kabbalistic tree of life were geometrically arranged across the figure. The image symbolized all the layers and dimensions of reality as I understood them. Everything, from the mundane world of grocery shopping and paychecks all the way up to the subtlest, impenetrable cosmic Mystery. The intimate body of the Beloved spanned across all these levels. I suppose the drawing was a kind of reconciliation between the opposites that had been stretched within me over the course of the retreat. I felt pretty happy with this, it was the kind of grand metaphysical synthesis that the philosopher in me always dreams of achieving.
I took the image in my mind’s eye as a theme for meditation. After a while I became absorbed in it, experiencing its symbolic meaning viscerally within me. All of reality was there, encapsulated in this image. There was not even a little voice inside me whispering doubts, or asking “is there more?”. It was an experience of totality, fullness, and completion.
Then it changed. The hand of the Beloved gathered up two of the sefirot. Keter, from top of the tree, symbolizing the Mystery and ultimate transcendence of the divine reality, and Malchut, from the bottom, symbolizing the material world and the immanent presence of the divine within it. I stared deeply into these orb-like spheres and felt I could begin to see something indistinct swirling within each of them. I was, in my own humble estimation, on the brink of grasping the essential secret.
Before I could finish peering into the depths of these orbs, the hand of the Beloved tossed the spheres onto a thickly carpeted floor. I was in a cozy bedroom, and the once cosmic sefirot of the Kabbalah lay scattered in the carpet as pretty glass baubles. My Beloved sat on a bed, looking at me with a bemused expression. Gesturing to the sefirot marbles, he said casually, “these are just some toys, why don’t you come join me up here so we can enjoy each other’s company.”
Describing the narrative content of this experience can’t do justice to the existential impact it had on me. The paradox I’d grappled with throughout the retreat was cast in a new light. My morning drawing had attempted to resolve the paradox by combining both sides of the dilemma into a larger whole. This vision of the marbles did something different. It showed me that the Beloved is truly both inside of and beyond the cosmic whole. All the layers of cosmic reality both encompass and are yet baubles in the bedroom of the Beloved.
The original paradox was not resolved. The contradictions remained, but I no longer experienced them as a terrible flaw in the fabric of reality. I could now feel their beauty and rightness at an instinctual level. The surprise I felt when the cosmic spheres transformed into glassy marbles was a moment of radical transframing. In relation to the transframed paradox, I know the Beloved and the cosmic Mystery as forever within and beyond each other and I pray I will dwell in peace with and within them.
This month at CEC our theme is paradox, and I invite you to come and find your own paradoxical transframing. We’ll be diving into practices that bring us face to face with the opposing and contradictory facets of our complex realities. Our meditation teachers have prepared a diverse slate of paradoxical explorations. From sitting at the border between sense and non-sense, to taking a practical look at how paradoxical effects can make change difficult, and capping off the month with Jeff’s ebullient invitation to experience ourselves as somebody, nobody and everybody all at once.