The Difference between a Problem and a Paradox

One of the most interesting, but at the same time hard to grasp, subjects that David Bohm wrote about, is inner conflict.

I talked about that in some earlier posts. The first one was a post called When the Mind is Trying to Escape the Awareness of Conflict, where it became clear that, according to Bohm, ignoring our inner conflict is the most important threat to creativity.

The next post was called Will Confusion Really be our Epitaph which I wrote after I started reading the book On Creativity. Somehow I sensed the importance of his observations and thoughts on the subject of inner conflict, and at the same time realised how common, but yet immensely difficult to handle, it is.

The third post was called How to Confront Inner Conflict Instead of Ignoring it, and it was about one sentence of Bohm, where he gives several examples of how we tend to ignore our inner conflicts. Examples that are so common and used by all of us all the time, without realising that we are doing it.

And now I was again reading in the book On Dialogue. I like the book a lot and wrote about the first chapter, On Communication, before in the post Dialogue as Creating something New Together. But this time I was especially struck by the chapter The Problem and the Paradox.

I feel like I could understand that on a deeper level now, after certain other views on the subject that I wrote about in my previous post called The Paradox of Civilization and the Shadow Carried by All.

In that post it became clear that, according to Carl Jung, the development of the collective has to go through the development of the individual. The development of the individual, independent of their native background, is of crucial importance. Of crucial importance for the individual itself, but also for the society as a whole. So with that in mind I read the chapter about The Problem and the Paradox again.

Careful Attention to the Paradox

The essence of that chapter is Bohm’s differentiation between the words ‘problem’ and ‘paradox’. He says that we often treat something as a problem and we want a solution. But some things, or even many things, especially those that have to do with the human psyche, are not a problem but a paradox. Which means they have no solution.

They have to be understood by paying very close attention. Or what he calls ‘sustained, serious, careful attention’. Not putting it forward, but stay with it. This goes for the individual psyche, but also for the total of society.

For ages, men have generally realized that thinking and feeling are commonly infected with greed, violence, self-deception, fear, aggressiveness, and other forms of reaction that lead to corruption and confusion. For the most part, however, all of this has been regarded as a problem, and thus men have sought to overcome or control the disorder in their own nature in countless ways. For example, all societies have instituted a set of punishments, aimed at frightening people into the right behavior, along with a set of rewards aimed at enticing them toward the same end. Because this has proved to be inadequate, men have further set up systems of morals and ethics, along with various religious notions, with the hope that these would enable people, of their own accord, to control their ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ thoughts and feelings. But this, too, has not really produced the desired result.

So people try to control wrong or evil thoughts and feelings. The wrong and evil thoughts of themselves, but also of others. Or maybe in many cases, especially those of others, because it is also in the human nature to experience the others as wrong and evil. We have the feeling that we ourselves are either good or otherwise very well capable of doing the ‘right’ thing instead of the wrong or evil. And so by rules, law, religion, morals and systems of ethics we try to control the behavior of ‘that evil other’.

But as became clear in the previous post, according to Carl Jung, it is not possible to ‘pump morality into a system’. And Bohm says something similar.

The inward work and the outward work go hand in hand. But it has to be kept in mind that through centuries of habit and conditioning, our prevailing tendency is now to suppose that ‘basically we ourselves are all right’ and that our difficulties generally have outward causes, which can be treated as problems. And even when we do see that we are not in order inwardly, our habit is to suppose that we can point fairly definitely to what is wrong or lacking in ourselves, as if this were something different from or independent of the activity of thinking in which we formulate the ‘problem’ of correcting what is in error.

The process of thought, with which we think about our personal and social problems, is conditioned. It is controlled by the content which it seems to be thinking about. So our thoughts influence our problems, but our problems in return influence our thoughts. So they can not really be free or honest.

We need a deep and intense awareness, one that goes beyond the intellectual analysis of our confused process of thought. An awareness that is capable of getting to the root of the conflicting assumptions, where the confusion begins.

Such awareness implies that we be ready to apprehend the many paradoxes that reveal themselves in our daily lives, in our larger-scale social relationships, and ultimately in the thinking and feeling that appear to constitute the ‘innermost self’ in each one of us.

So we need to give full attention to the ‘problems’ that arise. By doing that, we might see beyond the problem and see a bigger whole. See that the mind, because of its conditioning, is caught in paradox.

Understanding that might clear the view to see other patterns. Other patterns that can lead to a way out of the paradox.

The difference between a problem and a paradox

Image: source


  1. Hi Annemieke,
    ” those that have to do with the human psyche, are not a problem but a paradox. Which means they have no solution.”

    This is so true, I have realized this after many years of trying to solve every problem or challenge that came my way.

    take care…

    1. I used to do the same. I guess it is just a way of dealing with things, until at some point there is a certain problem that can never be solved. It just needs to be seen in a different context.

      1. Yes exactly, in a different context. So rather than treating for for example, a sense of inadequacy as a ‘problem’ to be removed or solved, we instead try to observe the underlying process that brings it about. Once that occurs, we see the sense of inadequacy within a new context, perhaps in a new awareness of its relationship to a memory of an experience of being made to feel small and inferior.

        So I suppose through this process we no longer simply experience the inadequacy, but we perceive the whole, as Bohm might say. We not only see the inadequacy, but we also see the whole that it is a part of, which of course includes that experience of being put down.

  2. Hello!
    thanks Justin Mazza & dear websiter
    ” those that have to do with the human psyche, are not a problem but a paradox. Which means they have no solution.”
    I am very agree with this sentence ,in my experiance I have a friend who is maddly interested & infatuated with other his male friend,the quality of their friendship is so strange for me ,he alway cry for his forgiveness rather than than person alway treat him so bad ,but since my dude Paradaox(not problem) is in the circle of Pychology so he can neither leave him or live him in peace ,so always they have this long period of fighting but never there is any end to it,

  3. sorry, but I like to intervene here again.
    When you look at a paradox and are seeing it as a problem it’s only a question of mind not of reality. Bohm said: “The mind, because of its conditioning, is caught in paradox.” and he is right. The problem is, you only “think”, you cannot decide.

    But there is a solution for a paradox outside the mind. Looking for the bigger picture means, see the truth of a paradox from different perspectives. When you are able to see both parts of a paradox as true (depending on perspective), YOU are in the powerpoint. You can decide, which perspective is right for you and YOU can choose.
    If you are still not able to decide, be aware it is from fear. Fear is an illusion, because the situation is in the future not in the here and now. You can easily overcome fear by love. So choose love, the love for yourself, because you can love somebody else only as much as you love yourself.

  4. What Bohm seems to be suggesting is somewhat similar to the Psychoanalytic notion that if you can raise a person’s consciousness to becoming aware of the origin of their sense of inadequacy for example, then they will essentially experience an insight into why they are susceptible to flattery, to use Bohm’s own example. But by treating the sense of inadequacy as a ‘problem’ to be removed, we perhaps fail to notice its origin, and instead are fixated more on simply removing the experience of inadequacy, rather than observing the process which underlies it. I suppose that treating something like a sense of inadequacy as a ‘problem’ is ‘problematic’ because as a problem, we may be more concerned about the result rather than the process. We just want a ‘quick fix’, something that will suddenly remove that perceived ‘problem’. In that sense I can see why Bohm says that treating psychological difficulties as problems actually tends to make them even more ‘problematic’!

    Does that make sense?

    1. That makes a lot of sense!

      I agree, just removing problems with a quick fix removes at the same time the possibility to get an insight into what is going on.

      Just to see the process would be very interesting.

  5. Wonderful. These “problems” tend to be very interesting and provocative when I’m not trying to get past them (solve them). Perhaps because of a lack of proprioception, thought seems to be stuck in a kind of “Chinese finger trap” (I’m not sure if you’re familiar with these little toys for kids?).

    When I encounter “my own” frustration, “my own” unpleasant state of mind, the deeply conditioned tendency is toward some subtle version of fight/flight. What I do seems rational on a certain level. In one subtle way or another I often try to disown the state of mind, try to rid myself of the unpleasant state by viewing it as an outside observer (an other).

    The present “I” (or voice) dissociates from the “me” in perhaps what seems like a positively oriented way of “turning over a new leaf” or “putting on a stiff upper lip.” But this positive approach is a subtle form of escape from the problematic state of mind. It creates a new self divided (artificially) from the old.

    And by creating this unconscious divide between the “I” (present) and the “me” (immediate past), a tear in the fabric of consciousness is perpetuated, which gives an inevitable circularity to pain and frustration. It’s as if thought is pulling to free itself from its own imagery, thereby trapping itself in its own pattern of thinking — like a Chinese finger trap.

    The very intention or desire to free oneself from a psychological problem creates the problem of the trap. In a Chinese finger trap a mere change in tactics (a willful release of effort) frees the finger. But changed tactics (new, willful solutions) don’t free the mind from the willful escape. It’s the trap itself.

    There’s something slapstick in this predicament, which is why I think Beckett captures it beautifully (and humorously). Proprioception is something like a rake handle/head collision with our own innocent error of thought trying to free itself from thought. It’s the proprioceptive discovery that “I” am setting the trap. And this discovery converts the problem into a beautiful clarity, into a resolved paradox: there is no trap for thought until the moment it tries to escape itself.

    You are drilling into the heart of what I’m driving at in my own blog: honing in on the “systemic error” at its moment of origin. We may need to be our own guinea pigs for this sort of work. And when this predicament is enjoyed rather than seen as an obstacle or source of personal frustration, then we’ve already toggled into a wider, more generous world.

    Because the absence of generosity that seems to be ruining our beautiful planet seems to stem from our inability to forgive ourselves for being rather stupid (if you don’t mind me putting it that way, I don’t mean it harshly. I mean it the way Beckett once commented — that Molloy and all that followed was possible the moment he “discovered [his] stupidity”). I’m enjoying your work very much.

  6. I like what you say, that we may need to be our own guinea pig for this sort of work. And if we can find a certain space to enjoy that instead of getting frustrated, it might indeed actually work.

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