The Power of Paradox on the Spiritual Path


The spiritual seeker who believes the journey is a path from awakening to mastery eventually comes to a point where they feel like they’re trapped in a labyrinth from which there is no escape. Time is not linear; growth happens in cycles; and there is no light without darkness.

As someone who has walked the path for well over a decade, I have encountered many others on the path who awaken spiritually and then, after some time, begin to wonder if the state of unconditional love and peace they tasted will ever return. They measure themselves by who they think they should be after years of meditation, prayer, mantra, or some other practice, and they feel disappointed that they are somehow not yet self-realized.

power of paradox on spiritual pathImage by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

Part of the problem lies in the very linear thinking that guides such intrepid travelers of the soul. They’re still trapped in a binary logic, where transcendence lies in reaching a particular state of consciousness where duality, pain, and ego are remnants of the past. Instead, the answer lies in escaping that kind of logic by looking instead to paradox and how our minds can (try to) hold two competing or mutually exclusive states at the same time. We must accept that we are healing while also already whole, we are transcendent while still trapped in duality, and we are never done awakening.

In my new book, Endless Awakening: Time, Paradox, and the Path to Enlightenment, I explore several key paradoxes and how they offer the spiritual seeker a way through some of the impasses we all meet while on our journey. In what follows, I touch on some of the most fundamental paradoxes.

The Paradox of Resistance & Change

One of the most basic paradoxes that shape our lives is our relationship to change. We resist making changes yet we also want our lives to be different. We are in a constant push-pull with change. We want something in our lives to change or be different, but then we get anxious if that change takes place. If we fear too much and refuse to change, then we often end up regretting not embracing that change.

A similar paradox shapes how we behave when we want changes to take place. We think erroneously that we need to force the world around us to be different. Yet when we push for change, we may find that the world around us pushes back and resists our efforts. We create, by prodding and cajoling and powering our way through life, the very resistance that keeps us in check. When we soften and relax around our efforts to change, the change can happen on its own.

One area where this is most apparent is our relationship to our emotions. For example, you are probably already familiar with the idea that the deeper you go into pain, the lighter it feels. The more you feel, the more you heal. Similarly, when you stop resisting, the feeling shifts. The same is true of trying to arrive at some state of being: When you soften and release the grasping energy of desire, of trying to better yourself in some way, you may find that you already embody the state you were trying to reach.

The Paradox of Connection

Another major paradox relates to how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. It’s a spiritual tenet that we each have a particular perspective or framework for seeing the world; our beliefs shape how the world appears to us. But our perception is not all that is – we will never see the world in its entirety.

This is especially true when it comes to other people. Everyone we encounter is a reflection of our perception, mirroring our ourselves back to us. But if you are mirroring me, I must also remember that is not all of who you are – it is simply all of you that I can perceive. At the same time, I will never know you fully and completely. In this way, we are both mirrors and mysteries to each other.

A similar push-pull dynamic underlies how we seek to connect with each other. We seek community and connection while also craving identity and difference. We want to belong to a collective but not fall into conformity. We oscillate between oneness and separation. In time, we may come to accept that we are like leaves on a tree, each unique, but likewise part of a single creation larger than ourselves.

The Paradoxes of Time

One of the great paradoxes is our relationship to time. We often see ourselves as being both bound by and beyond time itself – a timeless soul in a mortal body. You are a story, made of words, labels, and events, some of your choosing, some not of your choosing. Yet you are also an infinite being, beyond all labels, something that never quite feels adequately captured in words. In this way, each of us is a version of God trapped in an hourglass.

Our very experience of time is itself paradoxical. We are only capable of experiencing the present moment. Our consciousness is aware from moment to moment, and the past and the future are mental creations.

Yet we never see the present moment as it really is. The world we experience mirrors our past experiences; our consciousness is molded from prior present moments. We see the world with old eyes.

We can learn to see more of the world, and to see it differently, by slowing down and opening ourselves up to new ideas and concepts. We can let go of the filters and blinders that limit our vision. Yet we inevitably come back into the version of the present we can perceive, knowing that it is not all there is. So too will we fall back into ruminating about the past or fretting about the future. All of this activity, of jumping from the present to the past or the future, takes place while the arrow of time moves forward, toward an inevitable and unpredictable time of death. Time is fixed and unavoidable, mutable, and non-existent all at once.

These are paradoxes of life from which we do not escape. It is when we embrace them that they no longer feel like paradoxes. Instead, we come to embrace our contradictions – still healing yet already whole, resisting and striving for change – so that can embrace the ultimate truth that, no matter where we are on our journey, we are already who we were meant to be.

An earlier version of this article was published on on October 11, 2022. This version has been substantially revised and supplemented.


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