Reflections on the paradox of meaning
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Welcome to this twenty-first reflection on In Fragments — this week exploring the final eponymous episode in the series, a ritual to conjure a creation myth using lake water and linestones. You can view it here:
Meaning is the gift and trap of human life. It gives us hope and purpose, and fills our days with beauty and significance. But held too tightly, it can also be a source of delusion, frustration, and suffering. The boundary between sensitivity and psychosis is not always clear — or as Joseph Campbell put it: The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight. Is meaning “really there” or do we only imagine it? Is the world a sentient being, speaking to us through the language of symbols, or is it just the pattern-seeking mind playing its usual tricks once again? Do we find meaning, or do we make it? What if we get to decide?
There is a lake in the Adirondacks called Paradox Lake. When I’m traveling between Vermont and New York, I like to stop there and swim in its waters, because the idea of swimming through a paradox feels poetic to me. In the center of the lake, there is a small island, with a few pine trees, a fire circle, and some low flat rocks where you can sit in the sun. Each spring, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains flows into Schroon River, which is the lake’s usual outlet. Because of the sudden increase in water, the outlet is temporarily forced to flow in reverse, filling up the lake with new water. This phenomenon of “water running backwards” is said to be the origin of the lake’s peculiar name.
The word “paradox” is a direct derivation of the Latin word paradoxum: a statement seemingly absurd and yet actually true. The absurdity of a paradox comes from combining two ideas that appear to contradict one another, leading to an endless back and forth between this and that, creating a loop of confusion. This kind of binary black-and-white thinking is endemic to our world today, a world that’s become overly convinced of its own apparent reality, producing all kinds of intractable conflict. The only way to resolve a paradox is to see its conflicting ideas as both being true — in other words, to escape the dichotomous terms of the question.
The tradition of Zen Koans (i.e. “mind-breakers”) uses the power of paradox to point the practitioner beyond the limits of rational thought, as illustrated by this, perhaps my favorite Koan of all:
Question: There is a goose trapped inside a bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle without hurting the goose or breaking the bottle?
Answer: Oops! It’s out!
The answer is absurd, but so is the question. They make us wonder: how many problems in our lives are problems of our own creation? If we could move beyond our attachment to old stories, conventional logic, and rational thought, what new solutions might suddenly become available?
I love this particular Koan not only because it’s funny, but also because my nickname as a little boy was The Goose. I don’t know why my parents chose to give me that name (my sister received the far more conventional Princess), but in any case, I was always called The Goose.
When I turned thirty, I began a daily ritual of taking a photo and writing a short story each day, and posting them online each night before going to sleep. I continued this practice for 440 days, ending with a photo of thirty geese flying into the woods of High Acres Farm, along with the caption: Hard to see what comes next.
Now, twelve years later, completing In Fragments, I wonder if the paradox of High Acres Farm in my life has finally been resolved. Through these twenty-one rituals, I sense that my relationship with this place has finally come of age, as I’ve landed here on terms of my own. Over the last seven years, I’ve passed through the crucibles of grief, glass, depression, identity, alcohol, fear, and inheritance, finally building a new energy grid here on our land to power its future.
I like to think of it all as the story of The Goose and The Bottle.
This final ritual explores the paradoxical perception of meaning through linestone particles glimpsed through a microscope. As the small and specific appears universal, we wonder once again: is what we think we see really there, or do we only imagine it?
Oops! It’s out!