Ten Thousand Things   Leave a comment

One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking.  It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  It’s good or it’s bad.  You’re young or you’re old.  Hot or cold.  1% or 99%.  And so on.  Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”

We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products.  WordPress asks for tags and categories.  If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses.  Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.

Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries.  Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines:  one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life.  Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them,  deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.

  Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics.  As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind.  Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind.  When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles.  Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*

We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness.  “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end;  the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless.  What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three.  As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world.  The key is not to stop at two if we want to create.  Move on to three.

Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog.  He notes that

… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises.  But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.

Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.”  This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.

This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.

Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it.  It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for

… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking.  As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity.  The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”

But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom.  To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation  months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon.  “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought.  “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain.  Binary alert!  I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.

One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.”  Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole.  So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation.  The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them.  (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)

“Both-and” works like this.  “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true.  Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more.  This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to!  (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)

Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it.  “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well.  And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways.  Come walk with me, and with them.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.

Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.


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