This month we are talking Dialectical Thinking, which I know sounds boring AF. I’m assuming you’re here though, because you are interested in and committed to expanding your consciousness and optimizing your mental and emotional wellbeing. If that’s the case, you’re going to love dialectical thinking.
Why are dialectics, and the philosophical ‘study of truths and opinions’, important and beneficial? It will relieve mental tension, improve relationships and improve your problem solving and innovative abilities.
Take it from me, 90% of the time that I am struggling with something it is because I am not being dialectical and my mind is rigid and closed. Whether I’m having relationship problems, getting stuck moving towards my goals, or simply railing at the world’s problems, my rigid and non-dialectical thinking is usually at the root of it.
Dialectical thinking is taught in one of the best (in my opinion 😉 evidence-based forms of therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Linehan, 1993). Check out my blog ‘DBT – How To Be a Human’ for more info on this. Dialectics is taught because many of our problems arise in the mind and how we are perceiving or thinking about things.
Before we get into more deets about dialectical thinking and behavior, let me warn you: Your ego will HATE dialectics. Mine sure does. Remember, ego’s aren’t bad, they are simply the part of us that defends us from the world, the part of us we ‘show’ as our identities, that shields us and holds protective mechanisms. We are not our egos, we are much more than that. And our egos like to think they KNOW the singular truths about reality.
Of course, ‘I ALWAYS have the ultimate truth’, right? Haha… I jest.
But think about it, from the time we are in elementary school we are taught to have the ‘right’ answer. It’s reinforced with praise, rewards, grades and status. Being ‘wrong’ is shamed and shunned. So from the very start, we are shaped AWAY from dialectical thinking which views the whole of reality and contains multitudinous perspectives.
The problem in this is that we then tend to polarize into ‘all or nothing’ and ‘absolute’ thinking, into rigid extremes, believing that reality is EITHER this OR that…. Rather than BOTH this AND that which is more reflective of the totality of existence.
We are each viewing the world from our own eyes, there are many perspectives. Dialectics teaches that the truth is ever-evolving and changing, and that even polar opposite ideas can both be valid at the same time.
Why is perspective important? And what about plain facts, don’t they count as something?
Mindfulness Practice, which I teach comprehensively in my course “Modern Mindfulness” teaches us to observe ‘just the facts’ of reality. What we can sense with our 5-senses, without adding anything additional to the picture.
The practice of Dialectics gives us context for the Whole of reality, and humans like context. We have an existential nature and for most of history have been trying to figure shit out. Research shows that people who find ‘meaning’ in their hardships are more resilient. So if we can have a broad context for our experiences (dialectical thinking) we will gain more resiliency when life gets tough.
Dialectics is related to the study of quantum physics, which explores the smallest particles of matter. Physicists have moved away from the theory of a ‘physical’ and mechanical universe, and have discovered in fact that everything is energy. Quantum Field Theory asserts that all of reality arises from a quantum field of energy that is expansive, ever moving & changing. Think of existence as a ‘web’ of energy. So even though your coffee cup appears separate from the table it’s sitting on, they are both entirely connected by photons, electrons and other energy particles… arising from the same exact substance.
Dialectics teaches us that wholeness and interconnectivity best represents reality, rather than separateness and isolation. You can easily see the benefit in that.
Let’s take this concept into the mind and our thinking patterns. Think of the last argument you had with someone (including yourself). My guess is that there was a clash of opinions. Dialectical thinking is about expanding your perception, in order to see where the opposite perspective also has validity or can be understandable. Two opposing things can both be valid.
Take this ancient Indian parable of blind men examining an elephant as an example:
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
Which man had truth? They all did. Despite very opposing understandings.
Practicing Dialectics requires finding synthesis between extremes or polarities. Let’s look at a few examples:
Independence vs. Dependence
Doing vs. Being
Consistency vs. Inconsistency
(These are just 3 examples of an infinite number… when you start practicing dialectical thinking you start noticing these polarities all around you and my course ‘Modern Mindfulness’ explores this at a much deeper level)
Any of the above things can be polarized into, and if we polarize into any of them problems will start to arise. At the same time, each of these things mentioned above have value… until taken to the extreme.
Dialectical practice would be finding the ‘Middle Way’ which Buddhism refers to as one of the paths to enlightenment. Practicing BOTH Independence & Dependence, Doing & Being, Consistency & Inconsistency. See where this is going? It’s about practicing balance in our thinking and actions.
You can see where polarization becomes problematic by just looking at politics for one moment, or many other areas of society where people ‘dig in’ to their singular perspective and become incapable of acknowledging anything different. See where non-dialectical thinking is a complete STOPPER to problem solving or innovation?
In fact, the practice of Dialectics is used to literally end wars. Check out the book ‘Making Peace’ by George Mitchell where he talks about the long, drawn out process of peace negotiations between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Validating multiple perspectives and acknowledging some truth on all sides is critical to relationship development.
While you may not be doing conflict negotiations on the front lines of a literal war, consider where this may be useful for internal conflict with yourself or conflict you face with others. It is an invaluable skill.
Remember teeter totters on the playground? When we are polarized into one view point or way of behaving, the teeter totter is touching the ground on one end. The practice of finding balance between opposites is not static. You will never be perfectly in balance for long, and it’s normal to wobble back and forth. The goal of dialectical practice is to find balance MORE OFTEN and reduce the drastic tension of extreme polarization and absolute thinking.
When you notice you are being too dependent on others, take steps to increase your independence a bit more. When you notice you are polarizing into just ‘being’ and not getting anything done, take steps to move more towards ‘doing’ and bring present moment awareness (mindful being) into your actions of doing.
Another way to start practicing dialectics is to try to eliminate ‘Yes, But’ from your vocabulary. The word ‘but’ is a door closer, it goes against anything that was just said. ‘Yes, that’s a good idea, but this one is better.’ Instead try ‘Yes, AND’ which leaves more opening for both perspectives to be valid at the same time.
In closing, you are a dynamic Being full of opposing forces and facets…and you are whole in your infinite complexity. As is the world. We cannot expect reality to be easily defined in a singular way, and the sooner we can see it as the complex, contradictory Whole that it is, the sooner we can ease into life with more flexibility. The better we are at having open and innovative minds, at collaborating with others and negotiating problems.
If you’re wanting to learn more specifically how you can bring this practice into your life, check out my course ‘Modern Mindfulness’ to download this new operating system alongside a comprehensive Mindfulness practice (they are peas in a pod).
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!