Self-Development Is A Paradox We Should Experience


The world over, there are myriad ways people have found to self-develop. Some call it enlightenment, others individuation, others self-actualization (to name a few). A common theme in these process is to become “better” – moving towards a state where you are happier or more at peace or more productive – whatever the definition of “better” means.

The confusing part is, just about all the schools of self-development have wonderful insights into the human condition. Add to this the wisdom of different individuals and you’ll be hard pressed to find any substantial consistency across the gamut of processes that can help you be a “better” person. In some cases we can see explicit contradictions across the “schools”.

For example, how do we reconcile “just sit” (e.g. Zen) with “stagnation is death”? How can we see that “honesty is the best policy” and “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? Now of course, it’s easy to find opposing philosophies between different philosophies. But for those of us not willing to accept that there is only one school of thought that has the answers, how can we reconcile seemingly paradoxical wisdoms that we find equally compelling?

As you read on, let me ask a question that you can just have sit in the background: why do we think that life/wisdom is meant to be consistent?

The system I attend to most is Carl Jung’s process of Individuation. I started out by reading Jung and then expanded into the post-Jungians. I’ve also been in Jungian Analysis for three years now and I’ve found the process has helped me become more self-aware and less controlled by the unconscious process in my mind.

To put Jung’s massive body of work into a sentence, individuation is a process where your ego and your shadow become less influential in your life and your true Self can be expressed. I’m sure there will be many people who’ll want an expanded definition or one with a different emphasis, but that’s the nature of simplifications. I won’t spend any more time talking about this, but sufficed to say, it’s a never-ending process of self-discovery that aims to bring more contentment and self-actualisation into your life.

This process, like many of the self-development paths can revolve around teachings that are paradoxical. Statements like ‘you have to let go to keep something’ or ‘those that don’t understand know the most’ or ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ come to mind. There are many others – some better than these. These paradoxical statements can be seen in parallel to the contradictions I talk about above. Similar to contradictory philosophical teachings, I believe that these types of paradoxes can be understood and you even find answers that reconcile apparently opposed views.

The point, however, relates to the question I asked above: what if the point of experiencing contradictions or paradoxes is not to answer them, but to experience what comes in the face of a paradox?

The paradox most present for me in the idea of self-development occurs around what we do after we discover more about ourselves. If, as many schools suggest, the first step in self-development is self-awareness, then what do we do with that self-awareness? If, for example, I realise that I’m damaged because I can’t engage well emotionally, do I:

  1. Try to be “more myself” and respond by accepting my individuality and move on with life, perhaps putting my good analytical skills to use, or do I;
  2. Try to get to be a more balanced and well-rounded person by developing those parts that are damaged (e.g. my emotional intelligence)?

Seemingly, it’d be impossible to do both. But more to the point, why are we even looking for a way to reconcile them? Why do we have this need for an answer? I think this is what’s behind the great philosophical paradoxes: they’re not presented as a challenge to work out the correct answer, they’re presented to open up a psychological space to develop a tolerance for uncertainty.

Paradoxical philosophies are a parallel scripts to our lives, to the contradictions present in our own desires and fears. It’s not enough to simply memorise philosophies, or to be able to answer the intellectual challenges they bring. To self-develop, to get closer to greater understanding or enlightenment, we have to live it and have the experience of being paradoxical.

In life, this opportunity is presented to us almost daily – we’ve just become so good at finding ways to resolve the contradictions to escape the tension/anxiety/uncertainty they create.

Today, I really wanted 16 pieces of sushi for lunch. I also want not to put on weight. The automatic thing for me to do is to try and find a solution to get both. Can I have the sushi now and work out later? Can I have a big lunch but a small dinner? Or is the answer to do the disciplined thing and only have the seaweed salad?

Finding a solution is certainly required unless I want to stand outside the sushi place for the rest of my life. But I’d like to draw attention to the immediate and automatic need to rush over the experience of having opposing desires. It’s almost pathological.

This is where the analogous philosophical paradoxes can be useful – especially in the context of self-development. Instead of trying to find meaning or answers to the opposing things within us, spend time seeing them as concurrent things. Instead of saying “I want kids but I love my independence” try “I want kids and I love my independence”. See what develops. Instead of “I’m afraid of being hurt but I want to give my heart away” try “I’m afraid of being hurt and I want to give my heart away”. Instead of “I agree with your logic but it still doesn’t feel right” try “I agree with your logic and it doesn’t feel right”… It might be interesting to see what develops by simply accepting that a person’s normal state of being is paradoxical.

image – Cora Alvarez