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John Tsilimparis

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Breaking Out of Black and White Thinking

Posted: 09/24/11 12:30 PM ET

Throughout our lives, we often inspire undue stress and anxiety by viewing our existence with a "dualistic mind." We create a world of private duality, a world that is limited to fixed or black and white thinking. We do this because it gives us a (false) sense of security and control over life's uncertainties. The dualistic mind tricks us into thinking we have this "life" thing figured out, and we don't have to struggle and search anymore. And that feels good -- but only temporarily.

The truth is this all-or-nothing mentality actually narrows our vision and creates insecurity. For example, the dualistic mind impels us to judge ourselves as:

right or wrong
good or bad
strong or weak
smart or stupid
success or failure

This type of thinking colors all of our experiences and pressures us to live in the irrational realm of extremes. But the color that infrequently exists in the dualistic mind is the "gray." The unflinching dualistic mind has no balance in its thought process. It is all one-sided and usually very inflexible.

The fact is life does not work that way. Life is actually full of subtle balance and varying degrees in every area of being human. In fact, there are really very few situations that are not. Therefore, we must remember that all circumstance is neutral and nothing is set in stone because everything is negotiable (assuming that we understand that this does not include harming anyone in any way shape or form and/or breaking the laws of society).

A good example of how important it is to generate the balanced gray areas of thinking is to look up to our solar system. One of the ways planet Earth sustains life and keeps us all alive is its ability to sustain liquid water. As we know, without water all living things would die, and new living things could not grow. The earth's location in our solar system in juxtaposition to the sun is perfectly situated in what is called the Goldilocks Zone. The Goldilocks Zone or the Green Belt is the orbital position that produces the right temperate and habitable conditions to sustain life. If Earth was closer to its neighbor toward the sun, Venus, liquid water would evaporate because the planet would get too hot. If the earth was closer to its neighbor away from the sun, Mars, liquid water would freeze because the planet would get too cold.

Let's say Earth was a dualistic planet about its place in the solar system and would often stray toward Venus or Mars. It would struggle to maintain habitable conditions. It could become a hot and turbulent celestial body with little consistency or a frozen wasteland. Life on this planet may then not survive. But somehow, by the grace of a gravitational pull that keeps it balanced in the Goldilocks Zone, it remains for now in the gray area of its orbit.

So when we as humans can find or create our own Goldilocks Zone -- and we need to create it ourselves because we don't have the benefit of a powerful sun keeping us in a gravitational orbit -- we manage our lives better. We generate the more favorable conditions to live well by not falling victim to the dualistic thinking that sends us to irrational extremes. As mentioned, it is human nature to go astray from the "zone" by entertaining dualistic appraisals of ourselves and the world as right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak, etc. Like the Earth, we need to stay in constant vigilance of our cognitive positioning and remain rational by looking for the balance in any situation of life.

Philosopher Alan Watts said it best about the dualistic mind: "Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations."

Be Reflective, Not Reactive

As we discussed, rising above our dualistic mind means learning to identify our cognitive positions as rational or irrational, as balanced or imbalanced. In time, we acquire the healthy coping skill of being more reflective than reactive -- we learn to access our Goldilocks Zone. If we are reflective during life's difficult times, and we can use this new way of thinking, we are less apt to react negatively, and we decrease the probability of wandering off into extreme thinking, which can cause more distress.

For many, being reflective instead of reactive in these situations will feel like a leap of faith at first. But it means learning how to nurture the flexibility of our ego, that maybe we don't have the answers to everything, and that life is not so black and white. There is nothing wrong with occasionally dwelling in the inquiry of the unknown instead of the restrictive bounds of the concrete.

Let's look closer: If we do believe that our destiny is in a sense pre-ordained, and there isn't any more room for search and discovery, we will react negatively when things do change (and they always do) because our tightly bolted view of life is threatened. We will become reactive because the right or wrong, the good or bad that defines our lives and the lives of others is compromised. At this moment, we cannot be reflective and cannot find our Goldilocks Zone, because we are unaware that it exists. We will feel lost, as if we have dropped our compass in a vast and hostile jungle with no sense of direction.

An example of this frightening loss of direction is that we may feel like a doomed airplane pilot flying at night whose altitude indicators are malfunctioning. Without his indicators and without visual reference, he suffers what is called "spatial disorientation." Spatial disorientation is a condition in which an aircraft pilot's perception of direction and altitude does not agree with reality. He cannot locate his altitude position in relationship to the ground or the sea below him because he has lost his ability to assess what is up and what is down. Subsequently, he crashes.

Tools for Coping with Undue Stress -- Balance Your Dualistic Mind

Ask yourself:

  • Am I thinking in terms of extremes (black and white thinking)?
  • Am I reacting emotionally when things don't look right?
  • Am I judging myself as strong or weak? Smart or stupid?
  • Am I over-monitoring my decisions as right or wrong? Good or bad?
  • Am I looking for too much certainty in a world full of uncertainty?

Replacement Thoughts -- The 5-Minute Rule

Take five minutes to respond differently after you identify a dualistic thought:

  • I will locate the balanced gray area of any stressful situation that is presented to me.
  • I will give up needing to be right and accept that all circumstance is neutral.
  • I will be more reflective than reactive.
  • I will sit in the anxiety and accept the subtle balance and varying degrees of life.
  • I will accept that I cannot have certainty about most things right now.