Woman running into the ocean with a surfboard

The Double-Bind

Issue #413 – Monday, March 4, 2024

By Bill Harris

I’d like to introduce you to a meaningless, nonsensical and unsolvable problem.

Ironically, this problem is one that you have probably – endlessly, frustratingly – spent most of your life trying to solve. It’s called the Double Bind and it…

...runs rampant through our culture, in our religions, our relationships, our careers and even in our understanding of our own true nature.

The good news is, once you recognize it for what it is, you can begin to let go of needing, grasping and demanding that things be a certain way.

And, ironically, the moment you let go of the need (the attachment)...

...you clear the way and automatically attract the life you were born to live.

So what is this Double Bind?

It is a demand (a request, a requirement) to do something spontaneously and voluntarily.

For example:

Let’s say I require you to respect me. Respect is not something that can be required. It can only be earned. It comes spontaneously and voluntarily from those around you. Or not.

manager demanding respect from employees

The Double Bind is asking you to be “intentionally natural.” It can’t be done.

Here’s another one: “Act natural.” Riiiight. Have you heard (or felt) any of these other Double Binds?

  • Try not to think about it
  • Just relax
  • Let go
  • Love me
  • You must go on living
  • Stay gold, Pony Boy

Duality vs. Non-Duality

The hidden gift of the Double Bind is that – if you’re aware of it – it gives you the opportunity to experience non-duality.

Seeing ourselves as separate from everything else (duality), causes us to sort the world – and everything in it – into two piles: good and bad.

It becomes our goal to have as much from the “good” pile as we can get our hands on, and avoid as many things from the “bad” pile as humanly possible.

The thing is: The good doesn’t exist without the bad.

And it is the singular act of hanging on to the “good” results that causes all of our suffering.

All of it.

It behooves us then, to let go of our attachments to particular outcomes and invest in the process of life. Ironically, when you do this, you open yourself up to new possibilities and you begin to…

...automatically attract the things you want into your life.

So Double Binds can be very helpful, once we stop struggling against them.

When you take a Double Bind “being separate” to the limit, you get to the point where there is no alternative but to admit to yourself that it just cannot be true. You have a deep, experiential knowledge that…

...you are not separate from any other thing in the Universe.

Grasping and Clinging

Let’s dig deep into this idea of a separate you, because it’s very fascinating.

Spiritual masters traditionally work with seekers to get them to understand three tenets:

-They are not separate
-Everything is connected to everything else
-They are everything

The master knows the unreality of being a separate self. Thinking you are a separate self is the root cause of all suffering. The spiritual teacher looks at it this way:

It’s not that you are a separate self and you need to do something about being a separate self…

...but rather that the whole problem is bogus to begin with because it’s based on a hallucination, a conceptualization, that really isn’t true.

In order to really see this, you have to experience its truth. You need to be in a place where there is no other alternative but to experience it and believe it.

The method of the spiritual teacher is to force you to take being separate to the limit, so you get to the point where there is no alternative but to admit to yourself that it just cannot be true.

You may have heard of Zen koans. One such koan could be “Before you were conceived by your father and mother, what was your original nature?”

The teacher will say,

“Don’t give me concepts and ideas about who you are, I want to be shown."

“Don’t tell me about your social roles, or your ideas of yourself. I want to see the real you, the genuine you, right here, right now.”

This is like saying to someone, right now and on demand, “be sincere.” On demand, you’re supposed to be sincere, authentic, real, and natural.

How do you do that? Can you be sincere and natural on command? Is it sincere if you are doing it for someone, so they can see you being natural and sincere?

By definition, it can’t be.

The point in all this explanation is to help you let go of the you you’ve always thought you were, to stop clinging to an image of yourself, to see that you live in a universe in which nothing can be grasped. 

fingers of a rock climber grasping rock

Stop grasping, stop clinging—especially to this idea of yourself.

Here’s another way to describe the problem. When a teacher tells you that the cause of suffering is grasping, you say, “Teach me to stop grasping.” The teacher says, “Well, why do you want to stop grasping?

Isn’t wanting to stop grasping just a new form of grasping?

Aren’t you wanting to stop grasping because there’s something you want to get hold of?” You might feel that you’ll beat the game by being unattached, but being unattached is just an attachment to being unattached.

Do you see the problem, the bind of the double bind?

Separate & Whole

You might think that when something bad happens, if nobody is there to suffer over it, then it will be alright. You may want to get rid of your ego so nobody (no “you”) will be there to grieve.

This is only a new way of protecting the ego, protecting the image you have of yourself, protecting yourself from suffering. You’re really doing this because you want the separate you to be one-up on all of its problems.

When you do some personal growth or spiritual practice, it actually does seem you gain a great deal of control over what happens. You would see this in the Zen master, too. He is in control. He is unflappable.

He handles whatever happens easily and creates whatever he wants in life.

But he is not the actor, and he knows it. The actions happen, perhaps through his body, but there is no separate actor.

Remember that to chop the world up into separate things is entirely arbitrary. There are no intrinsically separate things. When we act as if there are separate things, it is a conceptual choice…

...and since society agrees on this conceptual choice, it becomes even more convincing.

Things are okay all by themselves, you have nothing to do with it or you have everything to do with it.

Even doing a spiritual practice, such a meditation, can be seen as an attachment to non-attachment. But does that mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater?

(See how that Double Bind snuck up on you again!)

Those who do a lot of spiritual practice attain a power that allows them to be more effective, happier, and more peaceful. The thing is not to stop doing your spiritual practice; not doing is no different than doing.

The thing to realize is that there is no separate you who is doing the spiritual practice.

The universe is doing the practice, through you.

Meditation calms the mind so it isn’t running all over the place. It allows you to see how your mind is creating the illusion of a separate self, along with creating all the other internal states and external results that seem to happen to the fictitious, separate you.

Meditation turns down the volume on the feeling of separation and creates increased awareness.

The reason the awakened person is so powerful is that he or she doesn’t buy into the idea that they are a separate self. They know that the universe is the doer, not them.

The wave on the ocean is not separate from the ocean. It rises up for a while, and then disappears back into the ocean. The ocean is doing the wave.

The 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, explains it this way: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

You can no more separate a drop from the wave, or the wave from the ocean, than you can separate yourself from All That Is.

You are not separate from your truest self. You never can be.

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Wise Words

Good morning, just completed Day 5. I’ve been sleeping so well it’s crazy. I used to wake up and toss and turn so much but for the last 4 days it’s been a deep sleep. I’ve also been unbelievably productive. I used to feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious nearly every day and now I simply face the day, resolute, calm and focused. I’m still skeptical that this will stick or that these changes are really due to this 14 minute track, but I have no other explanation.
~Vanessa R.
5-Day Challenge Participant

In Case You Missed It - Listen to It!

Check out our audio recording of the Mind Power essay:

By Bill Harris
February 12, 2024

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