One of these great paradoxical ideas is the distinction between the natural and the artificial. An instance of this paradox is the puzzle of the role of practice in Buddhism. After all, the essential nature of our mind is already the same as that of the Buddha. If we could just let our natural mind express itself without the interference of artificial concepts, we would be enlightened! On the other hand, all that conceptual confusion is deeply habitual. Letting go of a habit most often takes dedicated persistent effort.
Even in the midst of a session of meditation, one confronts the paradox. The foundation of meditation is shamatha, a calm mind. To some degree shamatha is cultivated by relaxing, by letting go. On the other hand, one needs to maintain awareness, mindfulness, and the diligent persistence to continue to let go, i.e. to catch and correct the habit of grasping. Is meditation natural or artificial? Meditation becomes deeper through the interplay of these paradoxical poles, rather than through the resolution of the paradox with some formulaic answer.
In the arts one confronts this tangle. There is the fresh inspiration of one’s engagement with the world, with one’s muse, with one’s deeper self. But somehow this inspiration needs to be refined through practice, the cultivation of one’s craft.
In economics, the notion of a market is caught up in this paradox. The idea of a free market is an attempt to resolve the paradox through the pole of naturalness. But of course any market is structured by implicit or explicit rules. The rules themselves, in turn, may appear at times natural, at other times artificial. The paradox unfolds at level after level.
Should we be frightened by the Ebola epidemic? On the one hand, our society is naturally structured in a way that should be able to respond effectively to such an epidemic. On the other hand, perhaps an essential component of that natural structure is actually our fear which triggers our determination to pay close attention and take whatever action is necessary to respond effectively.
Should confidence in our ability to respond to a situation conflict with our determination to act in response to that situation? I remember being worried about finding a decent job, back when I was leaving school. Some of my friends told me that I shouldn’t be concerned because my skills and character would be sufficient to connect me with work. Ah, but concern and worry are part of my character! I get things done because I worry about the consequences of not getting them done. Whether I get things done naturally or artificially, I propose that it is a matter of perspective.
Not understanding that the basic nature of things is paradoxical, we can become paralyzed by the puzzle of whether our actions are natural or artificial, or we can become trapped in unreflective patterns. If we can learn to dance with the poles of the paradox, we can deepen the level of our actions to make a profound difference in our own lives and in our communities.