“He who stands on tiptoes does not stand firm. He who stretches his legs does not walk easily. Thus he who displays himself does not shine. He who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged. He who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him.”
– Lao Zi
In “The Way Of The Sage”, I talk at length about a contra-perennial philosophy.
Part of that philosophy is non-excess in thought or action.
That non-excess can be found in:
- Aristotle’s Golden Mean
- The Middle Path or Majjhima Paṭipada of The Buddha
- Confucius’s Doctrine Of The Mean
This type of moderation also calls for a type of dialectical thinking, rather than absolutist thinking.
The founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana or Northern Buddhism, Nagarjuna was a strong proponent of this type of dialectical or even “quantum” thinking.
His Mulamadhyamakakarika was an early milestone in relativistic thought.
The Way Of Dialectics
The way of dialectics is one of the great contributions to philosophy that marked a huge leap forward in the maturity of philosophical thought.
It’s simply as follows:
“Reversion is the movement of the way. Weakness is the function of the way”
– Lao Zi
Reversion is the inter-relation between opposites in one sense (The state of being opposite).
It’s also the unity of opposites in another sense (The state of transformation).
It can be symbolized by the taiji, in which two forces known as yin and yang are always inter-dependent and interacting at the same time.
The way of dialectics lies in the movement and function of The Way itself.
Things are inclined to reverse to their opposites in a constantly changing process.
- Everything is doomed to roll downhill once it reaches the top.
- Things that are too high fall down more easily
- Things that are to clean stain easily
- Songs that are too pretentious have fewer listeners
- Reputations that are too high fall short of reality
All of these possibilities conform with the concept of “inevitable reversal to the extreme”.
The way of dialectics is also reflected in the idea that “Have-substance” (You) brings advantage while “Have-empty” (Wu) creates usefulness.
- Like the hole in a wheel
- The empty space in a bowl
- The inside of a room
- Like spokes around the empty hub of a wheel
- Like the clay used to shape a bowl
- Like the doors and windows that are cut out to form a room
These two aspects are seemingly opposite.
Being counter-parts, they help complete each other.
Therefore they remain inseparable and inter-dependent.
This reminds us of the importance of the in-concrete dimensions of things, which we tend to neglect.
At it’s simplest form, dialectical thinking for a warrior is the shift from an absolutist “it is” to a relativistic “it both is and isn’t”.
Systems theory teaches us that in any closed system, the agent with the most flexibility in terms of response to stimuli eventually dominates the system.
What that means is that the more flexible you are in terms of how you respond to things – the more likely you are to come out on top.
That kind of spontaneity in response to the needs of the situation at hand can be developed and trained.
What Else Could It Mean?
One of the simplest examples of developing flexibility in thinking is simply asking yourself – “What else could it mean?”.
In any situation, but especially in situations which provoke a severe emotional reaction in you, or in which you become very agitated – this simple question can be a game changer.
As mentioned before – all perspectives are partial and incomplete, and more often than not our initial opinions or assessments of situations, especially confrontational situations are often dead wrong.
Take the man who comes home after a hard day’s work at a job he hates to a wife who’s in a bad mood and arguing with him.
The initial, gut-level reaction to this could range from “I’m not appreciated at home” to far more dangerous ideas.
Acting on those first impressions without any critical thought can and often does lead to irreversible problems and a narrower range of choices.
Take a deep breath…
Ask yourself – “What else could it mean?”…
Nine times out of ten, you’ll find that your initial limbic/stress system driven assessment was completely wrong, and that if you had responded based upon that first impression – you would have created even more serious or dangerous problems for yourself.
When it comes to inter-personal conflict, resource competition, wars of ideology, etc. it’s just the same.
Sometimes it’s useful to trust your initial instincts.
Usually it’s better to think things through, and expose yourself to a wider range of possibilities for “why”, and by doing so expand your range of options.
This is the most simple level of non-reflexive thinking, and it’s both the easiest to train and probably the most useful for most people.
It’s a habit that you have to develop.
Maybe you have to carry around a note to yourself…
Maybe you need a WWJD? Type of bracelet…
Or you could just keep practicing until it becomes natural…
Anytime you feel extreme or polar emotions arising in yourself – step back.
Ask yourself – “What else could it mean…?”