I’ve been thinking a lot lately about zero and one. They bring us more than we could ever imagine, but also a lot less.
In Daniel Goleman’s fascinating book, The Meditative Mind, he suggests that all forms of meditation either boil down to zero or one. In the zero camp are those types of meditation that aim to evoke a state of emptiness, or void. In the one camp are the types of meditation that aim to create a state of unity, or (obviously) oneness. When you give those two states serious consideration, it turns out that they’re very different. In oneness everything comes together, and in emptiness everything disappears. Oneness is an experience of complete presence, and emptiness is an experience of complete absence.
Zero and one are also the purveyors of our current digital age. All computer code, no matter how complex, is built upon a foundation of zeros and ones. This is called binary processing, and signifies that at any point in a computer program, only two choices can be made. These choices are always labeled as zero and one. Almost every electronic machine or device that we use today – not just computers but also phones, TV’s, cameras, cars, garage door openers, and even some toasters – relies upon thousands of alternating zeros and ones in order to function.
With both meditation and digital programming, it’s the distinction between zero and one that makes all the difference. The idea is that everything must be represented as either zero or one, but not both.
But that leads to a crucial question: can any object or experience ever be both? Can consciousness arise as void and unity? Can we ever choose zero and one?
To answer this question we have to go beyond the realm of conventional, linear thinking. In that realm, 0 + 1 = 1. We bring these two opposites together and end up obliterating half the equation. One remains, but zero is gone. However, using a more expansive method of calculation in which zero and one can combine and create something completely different, we arrive at the following equation:
0 + 1 = Paradox.
From a paradoxical perspective, an experience doesn’t have to be just either/or, it can also be both/and. Existence can be grasped as simultaneously empty and unified. A memory can be felt as simultaneously bitter and sweet. These paradoxical wholes cannot be reduced beyond their complete expression. In other words, when you take away the one or the zero, the paradox is destroyed. This can also be understood through the following equation:
Paradox – 0 or 1 = 0 or 1.
And there we are, back in the land of the linear.
The reason that paradox is so important is that it’s the mark of all wisdom. When we think in terms of either/or, we’re lost. Such thinking leads to false distinctions and destructive oversimplification. A person, community or nation built upon either/or leads to isolation, war, and environmental destruction. When we think in terms of both/and, however, it becomes possible to change, grow, and mutually thrive.
To take this out of the abstract and into your everyday experience, try the following for a week: Every time your mind labels or judges something as this, spend an additional few moments determining how it could also be that. The “unloving” mother who caused so much pain in your life may also be the “loving” mother who’s own wounds stunted her ability to share how she truly felt. The insensitive “asshole” who just cut you off in traffic could also be the “saint” who’s racing to the hospital with a heart attack victim in the back seat. The “stupid” politician with a viewpoint completely the opposite of yours may also be “astute” in considering aspects of the debate you’ve never considered.
Sometimes, this may seem impossible. “No!” your whole being may protest. “That politician is only this, never that, and thinking otherwise is just some kind of spiritual game.” Yet such zero-one thinking ignores that the only sustainable way forward through any conflict comes from finding common ground. On common ground, everyone, paradoxically, is both/and. Murderers may also be vegans. Racists may also be philanthropists. The most ruthless boss in the world may be a teddy bear with his own grandchildren.
Embracing paradox isn’t about condoning misbehavior, or lying down like lambs when we need to protect ourselves from those who mean us harm. Instead, it’s about understanding that in order to cultivate wholeness we first must be able to see wholeness. Any solution to a problem that reduces its components to zeroes and ones is partial at best and almost certainly damaging in the long run.
If all of us pledged allegiance to both/and, rather than to any particular flag, the current world would be coming together synergistically rather than splintering apart cataclysmically. And remember, from a both/and perspective, we’d all still get to identify with our own nation (or family, neighborhood, religion, ideology, etc.) No one would have to give up anything, except a reliance on binary thinking.
To sum up, existence is both empty and whole, and every aspect of existence, even the most minute, is reflective of this paradox. Nothing is ever only a zero or a one, black or white. But nothing’s ever just “gray” either, since that denotes a muted or neutral quality. In the land of paradox, both black and white are replaced by the full, glorious spectrum of light.
There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “If it fits on a bumper sticker it isn’t going to solve anything.” That’s true, but it’s also false. Why? Because there’s another bumper sticker that reads, “Just another day in paradox.”