Either/Or vs. Both/And

I was having a conversation with Mariellen, a fellow editor of WCTS?, about a piece of writing. She wanted to know if a suggestion I made was an either/or or both/and suggestion. I told her it was a both/and.

The next morning, while meditating, it occurred to me that I have spent much of my life in either/or thinking. The suggestion that came through in my meditation was, “Perhaps it would be better to spend more time in both/and thought and less time in either/or thought.”

I was immediately reminded of this diagram I used with clients when I was a therapist:

Most things in life are some play of opposites. Examples: black/white, love/hate, good/bad, male/female, joy/sorrow, stress/relaxation, peace/aggression, etc. When we get stuck in either/or thinking, we tend to end up in one opposite and either condemn or long for the other. For example, we might be focused on how stressed out we are and long for relaxation, or we might be so identified with our gender identity that we condemn the qualities of the other side.  In my own experience and observations, it seems to me that getting stuck in this kind of thinking is distressing. It divides us unnecessarily, both internally and externally. It can be useful, on a certain level of discernment, for us to examine the differences between states of mind & body, people, objects, and experiences. It helps us make skillful choices about where we want to be on the continuum. However, too much time spent in black and white thinking  causes us to miss that which unites opposites and robs us of balance and peace.

The secret is to rise above the play of opposites and see the balance which contains both. The bigger trick is to become the balance! We have every opposite within us. Life happens mostly in shades of gray along the continuum between opposites. Have you ever had a day that was entirely sad or entirely happy? If you watch any state of mind or feeling, you will notice it is always changing. Sometimes I can be crying and a few minutes later laughing. Just like my last couple of entries, I go from despair to peace and back again.  Yet, there is also a witnessing awareness that sees and holds all of it, that knows the real me exists beyond all opposites in a field of unity–the eye over the pyramid. When I can remember this, I get less caught up in black and white thinking and I’m automatically more open, tolerant, accepting, loving and peaceful.

Within all of us is the play of light and dark. It’s good to remember we can all be villains and heroes, sources of love and peace or hate and aggression. When I can remember this, I am more compassionate towards all of me and all of others.

I once created this mandala to illustrate this idea:

The caption reads: The play of light and dark is contained within a field of pure, loving awareness. The yin/yang symbolizes the play of the opposites. Within each opposite is the seed of the other side, represented by the black and white dots. This play of opposites exists within a field of pure, loving awareness.

Next time you catch yourself judging someone, try seeing yourself in them or seeing ways in which you are alike.  When you are stuck on one end of the continuum, try consciously shifting yourself towards the other side by experiencing the opposite. For example, if you are feeling sad, recall a time when you felt happy, feel it again in your body and heart. Notice what shifts. Playing on the continuum in these ways can lift your perspective and help you find balance.

Here are some examples of my either/or thoughts and how I play with shifting them to both/and:

  • It’s either perfect or it’s crap. My writing is a place where this one plays out all the time, but it can apply to anything I do. The both/and reframe: Parts of this are really good, most of it is mediocre, some of it is crap. Free from my rigid B&W assessment, I can then sift through a piece of writing, and decide what stays, what goes and what I can live with before I press the Publish button or send it to an editor.
  • We either agree 100% or we disagree 100%. The both/and reframe: There are things we mostly agree on, things we don’t really have an opinion about one way or another, and things we strongly disagree on. Most of it probably falls in the middle. With this reframe, I can calm my emotional intensity and seek common ground while having an exchange of differing opinions. I am more able to see when it is time to agree to disagree and move on to a neutral or agreeable topic. I’ve found this one particularly helpful in the current political climate!
  • You either love me totally or hate me totally. This either/or is the tyrant of many relationships, particularly of the romantic kind. For me it is fueled by my fear of abandonment. At its worst, it can cause me to either abandon myself to please another, or to pull back at the first sign of conflict and run for the door. The both/and reframe: You love some aspects of me, are neutral about most of me and hate some aspects of me. It is quite likely that none of this has anything to do with your love for me, which (hopefully) exists in the eye over the pyramid which sees all of me and loves me anyway! If this is not true, we probably need to have a look at our relationship…
  • I’m either pain free or I’m full of pain. Most days I have pain, so this either/or is particularly painful for me. The both/and reframe: Some parts of my body hurt, but most of it is pain free. Some parts hurt more than others and require some action on my part to alleviate my pain, like taking an ibuprofen or getting up to stretch and walk around. Most of the time, all that is needed is for me to notice the pain and be with it for a few minutes. During this time, I observe that it shifts and changes. The sensations are always moving like energy waves. I take time to notice all the places I don’t have pain (playing on the opposite side). Pretty soon the sensation of pain has calmed and I feel relief. The worst thing I can do is to close down around pain, fearing that it is taking all of me over. It never does that if I can pull up into that higher perspective of balance. I then notice there is a part of me that is beyond pain, that is one with that great field of pure, loving awareness.

I believe that who we truly are is beyond all form, thought, sensation, action. We are part of that field of pure, loving awareness. Maybe if we just remember that, all the rest of it will fall into place?

5 thoughts on “Either/Or vs. Both/And

  1. Marlene Williamson

    EXCELLENT! This is all very much my philosophy. I rarely see things as black or white……..good or bad. I pretty much see things as grey…….a little bit of both extremes. Your reference to the political climate was an apt one – I see pluses and minuses on both sides. I will not participate in a discussion with anyone who is extreme and unable to give ME the right to have an opinion differing from theirs. So, I very much appreciate your expressing your very intelligent and sensitive feelings about this subject.

    1. Rhonda Ashurst Post author

      Thank you Marlene. I’m happy this post resonated with you! I figured it would… Now is a particularly good time to notice that which unites all of us and to agree to disagree on differences of opinion.

  2. mariellen gilpin

    About looking for what I have in common with the person I disagree with: I think about my journey to come to forgiveness of my mother. I was especially angry because she sometimes chose impulsively, leaving me to deal with the often-excessive inconvenience her choices caused me. One day I figured out that I’d been taught as a very small child by well-meaning family members to “take care of poor Mommy.” I didn’t really have to take care of her when her choices were egregiously inconsiderate. But the real wake-up call happened when I realized I, too, was impulsive and inconsiderate sometimes; not as often, maybe, but impulsiveness was in both our gene pools. That realization has helped me move beyond the anger. Now I can remember the pain and frustration and say, “Yeah, it happened,” without having to dwell at length on the harms she did. Forgiving her remains a process, but it’s a process with a lot less pain and anger now.

    1. Rhonda Ashurst Post author

      A wonderful example of finding your way to forgiveness with your mother by seeing that all of her also lives within you. I think we each contain all possibilities within us and true balance and freedom comes when we are willing to be aware of it all–the shadow and the light. Then we become more compassionate and honest with both ourselves and others. For me, this is where the true healing begins. Our immediate family and partnerships are such a rich place to do this work! Thank you, Mariellen, for sharing.

      1. mariellen gilpin

        Ah yes, a mother-lode of challenges to become more compassionate and honest!! Fancy that!!

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