Confusion and Clarity and the In-between

by Modaser Shah

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Heinrich Racker, the well-known psychoanalyst from South America, notes in passing in a book that “clarity cannot be attained except through confusion,” a remarkable sentiment from a rather unexpected corner. Usually one expects this kind of insight from someone like Mullah Nasruddin, the Sufi character steeped both in wisdom and absurdity, in tragedy and comedy, in eminent sense and arrant nonsense, the high and the low and, one might add, the in-between. As critical it is to experience this in-between, it is hard. Most of us get stuck on one pole or the other, either  on the high or the low, either in wisdom or in absurdity, either in tragedy or in comedy, and so on.

Not so Nasruddin. He knows that the extremes coincide and join hands—indeed they must in the human heart. In between the lines of his counter-dogmatic stories is the message of the in-between. He may not talk about it but he constantly shows us the in-between, the path between opposites, the road between poles, the ladder between levels. Wittgenstein took a similar approach, so elegantly put in his Tractatus. He said that those who had understood his propositions would discard his book, just as someone who used a ladder to climb to a higher place doesn’t require the ladder any longer, implying that climber has understood that he hasn’t climbed anywhere; he remains where he started from, except that now he sees where he is.  The ladder is not needed. This is reminiscent of the saying attributed to Buddha: Dharma is to be used like a raft to get to the other shore. Thence, it needs to be discarded. Wittgenstein’s ladder or Buddha’s raft may be understood as one of the defense mechanisms of psychoanalysis, which were once crucial for survival but are still clung to tenaciously when  the threatening situations have receded into the background, and the need for a particular defense mechanism is  no longer there.

This brings to mind a story about Nasruddin. As he sat on a river bank, someone shouted to him from the opposite bank, “How do I get to the other side?” Nasruddin, ready as always, yelled back, “You are on the other side!” It is not known how the man took this answer and what he did with it. Did the answer help him? It is not possible to say. Did he feel helped? Probably not. But if he were ready to enter the in-between, then the Mullah would have become the teacher because, as goes the Sufi saying, when the student is ready, the teacher will be there. Points to ponder would have been: what if the other side is not the other side; what if there is no there; what if the there is here or, worse, neither here nor there?

Let us see if Proust can throw some light into this maze: “We do not receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one else can spare us.” (Zen Calendar, 2014, Workman Publishing, New York. Emphasis added.) And yet, according to Sufi and Zen tradition, at least for most of us, a guide or guidance is needed. Enter the Mullah, a confusing yet enlightening guide.

“Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.” This is a Chinese proverb quoted in 2500 Years of Wisdom by D W Brown. I have added the emphasis because I feel convinced the Mullah would have relished stressing the perhaps, which points to an in-between area. So, like Nasruddin, relish the confusion and savor clarity.

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Essay by Modaser Shah; photos by Ali Hammad

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