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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Primacy of Paradox and an intervening Primer on Paradox

Handelman and Shulman (1997) tell us that “Indic cosmology is imbued with playful properties of ludic paradox” (p. 37)—try saying that three times fast! As previously proffered, play, provides the motive for creation, answering the elusive cosmic question “Why Bother?” Lila, by providing this motive, "embeds the metamessage 'this is play' both at a high level of cosmic organization and deep within the cosmos, the location of its first movement” (Handelman and Shulman, p. 48). Play’s peak position thus proceeds to permeate and pervade the entire evolving fluid universe. Through paradox, play gets the cosmic ball rolling.

Before we begin, I have got this crafty idea for you to try, to get some hands on experience with paradox. Remember the red and green paper chain links that we used to make in school at Christmas time, that is for those of you who had art programs in schools before they were gutted by budget cuts, and Christmas carols had not yet been banished by the politically correct. Here is one with a twist, which D. L. Miller describes and illustrates paradox hands on. [For those of you without the time or the inclination to do-it- yourself, you can just look at the picture]

Cut a piece of paper about 1-1/2 inches wide and 10 inches long. On one side write the words “once upon a time there was a story which began” and on the other side write the same thing upside down, so the onces are at the same end. Then twist the strip of paper once and staple. You will now have a möbius strip which continually says “once upon a time there was a story which began once upon a time there was a story which began…” you get the picture. Now you have your very own paper paradox.

Primer on Paradox—Going Around in Circles

The paradox that gets this ball rolling is known as a self-referential paradox. The paradox is called self-referential because it refers to itself, whereas ordinary sentences refer to something outside of themselves. Self-referential sentences get stuck and keep going around in circles. Goswami in Self Aware Universe (1993) playfully illustrates these ideas in an imaginal dialogue with some of the patriarchs of paradox: Bateson, Hoffstadter and Escher. Bateson (1990) writes about this kind of paradox in his article “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” where he discussed the notion of paradox and its relation to play at length, and also its relation to schizophrenia and double binds. Paradoxes can be confusing and make you a bit crazy sometimes. Bateson finds a way out of paradox through the metamessage “this is play” (Handelman & Shulman, 1997).

Bateson originally talks about animals playing, especially dogs. When dogs play, they nip at each other, which is a bite that isn’t a bite. By sending the meta-message “this is play” through different body language, a frame or context is created in which to view the behavior so that the other dog can respond accordingly. Bateson notes that: 1) invocation of play creates a boundary between play and not play, 2) the boundary is paradoxical, and 3) the same invocation overcomes the paradox created enabling the passage into play. (Handelman and Shulman, 1997). The “this is play” meta-message, creates a frame, which in turn creates the paradox of the frame and also makes a choice, and thus overrides the paradox opening the way into play. Rather complicated, if you ask me. Handelman and Shulman remark that Bateson did not address the interior features of ludic worlds and how these realities are put together, but was able to jump out of the paradox through this meta-message.

A self-referential paradox is also known as a “tangled hierarchy,” or a “strange loop” (probably because it gets your brain all tangled up and you begin to feel strange and a little loopy). A well-known visual example is Escher’s drawing of the two hands drawing each other. The crafty little möbius strip is another strange loop as well. Handelman and Shulman (1997) explain more about paradox:

The paradox is generated because each alternative exists at the same level of abstraction, where each is given the same value as the other and lacks the capability to dominate or cancel the other. Ironically, the very conjunction and interaction of these contradictory alternatives makes this kind of paradox a nexus of potential crossing between levels of abstraction or between alternative realities. (p. 41)

The meta-message in the case of the Escher drawing, is to look at things at the next level up and realize that Escher drew the whole thing. As we will see below, Escher in this case is akin to Absolute Consciousness, the way out of the paradox, the level where everything comes together. In a self-referential paradox, the subject turns into the object, which turns into the subject, which turns back into the object, thus collapsing these distinctions, a seemingly impassable trap.

The means of a paradox are always its ends as it turns endlessly in and upon itself. Phrased in terms of change, this kind of paradox transforms itself continually, its structure is also its process, and its process its very structure . . . . Playing on the Latin term for mirror, speculum, Colie adds that a self-referential paradox is “literally speculative, its meanings infinitely mirrored, infinitely reflected in each other.” This is an infinite regress, but also an imaginative search of the parameters of the in-between conditions of boundariness—that is of being, in between . . . . Just as a paradox bounds itself off and closes itself in, so, too, it has the potential to open itself, to become a nexus of passage, of crossing through the impassable. Paradox may function as a gateway . . . . The paradox is not only full of movement but is, in fact, made up wholly and only through movement . . . . Its being is always a becoming . . . . and it is conducive to spherical thinking, rather than to linear thought. (Handelman & Shulman, 1997, p. 42)

Goswami (1993) says that the self arises because of a veil, and prevents us from seeing through the system logically, thus the self is the discontinuity created when consciousness collapses the quantum wave, or the infinite oscillation in the liar’s paradox or the looping around the möbius strip, or the hands that keep drawing each other that keep us from seeing through the veil. Shiva’s dice game, as we will see shortly, is a such a self-referential paradox or “strange loop.” But first let us finish up where we left off.

Primary Paradox at Play

At long last, we return to the scene of the crime. Let us get back to the primacy of paradox, now that we are more familiar with the notion of self-referential paradoxes. Handelman and Shulman (1997), whose alias for Absolute Consciousness, is the Cosmic Self, point out that a paradox of self-reference was embedded in the initial movement, the very first moment of differentiation within the homogenous cosmic Self. Through that movement of lila, the Cosmic Self became to other to itself and thus paradox makes its appearance at the very beginning. Before this happened, Absolute Consciousness was “IT,”—“the whole enchilada," encompassing everything. Handelman and Shulman explicate that there were no discontinuities or gaps anywhere. There was extreme density of being, but also a lack of self-awareness; unreflexive, because there was no otherness. Since there was no discontinuity, time and space did not exist. And all of a sudden, through this initial movement, this self-referential paradox of self becoming self and other at the same time, a gap formed and God basically began to turn inside out, expanding and externalizing, fragmenting and separating Himself. By dividing into self and other, a gap in the density of being between self and other was created. This was the creation of self-alienation, of fragmentation and estrangement from self, of the distancing from self and, so, knowing oneself as otherwise, because this was inherent in the creation of other from self, self from other. But even more than this, play (and its derivative, the game) is the medium of division in this cosmos, the medium of separation, of fragmentation and alienation, as we will soon see with Shiva.

Oops. In this way, play created the first boundary, between self and other. Play is also a passage through this paradoxical boundary. Handelman and Shulman (1997) explain: “Every invocation of play activates the impassable yet fluid boundary that is passed through. Every invocation of play activates premises of self-transformation. Every invocation of play puts things in motion” (p. 43). The paradoxical boundary is not the same as a normal boundary. With normal boundaries, you have got the whole "excluded middle" thing going on, separate alternatives in either/or fashion. With self-referential paradoxical boundaries, we have the "both/and, neither/nor kind of negative capability crossing between different realities" boundary (p. 43).

The good news is that since everything is play from the beginning, Absolute Consciousness remains on some level in its whole, undifferentiated, undivided state, and only at lowers level do the distinctions "come into play." The higher level encompasses the lower levels and thus the lower levels, through an opposite movement of internalizing and contracting or retracting back into the higher level, lose their distinctions and fold or absorb back into the higher level of undifferentiated holism.


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