It is exceedingly difficult for us here in the West to understand ambivalence or accept its reality in the fabric of our lives. The concept does not fit within Aristotelian logic, which is still the cornerstone for how we see the world. Ambivalence is having conflicting, simultaneous thoughts or feelings about a person, event, or thing.
For example, you might love and hate someone at the same time, or regret a loved one’s death yet be relieved, or feel afraid and bold as you start your first day of work. These paradoxes are difficult for us to accept. The common solution for the Westerner is to choose to recognize the preferred alternative and bury the other into the unconscious. We miss out on the rich tapestry of life and the complexity of emotions by negating the existence of ambivalence. Eastern philosophy relies on dialectics, which allows one to accept paradox and ambivalence as a natural part of life.
We will list the Aristotelian maxims, which although created thousands of years ago still define how we think and feel today. There are three maxims. The first is called the ‘Law of Identity’, which says that A is A. The second is the ‘Law of Noncontradiction’, which says that A is not non-A. The third is the ‘Law of Excluded Middle’, which says that any X is either A or non-A.
This might seem complicated but it is actually quite simple. He is really saying the same thing in all three maxims, which is that a thing can only be that one thing and cannot simultaneously be something else. It’s funny to think about how this decision on how the world works by a philosopher from Ancient Greece still holds a profound impact on the minds of billions of people. It keeps us from being able to consciously recognize the paradoxes in our own lives that would create more richness of experience and a fuller picture of our relationships.
How do we explain what dialectics are? I think the best way to do so is to transcend the notion of this or that, and instead look at all experiences as on a continuum where a customary thought or feeling is actually just one of the two extremes on that continuum. Let’s go back to the question of simultaneous love and hate for a person. Stuck in the framework of Aristotle we are at a dead end before we start. However, if we view love and hate as on the continuum of emotional connection and engagement with another person we are freed to see that they are just two extremes of this same experience. When I feel truly connected I can feel both, even at the same time.
It can be uncomfortable to allow paradox into your life because there is a sense of feeling rudderless or as if the floor has been taken out beneath you. It ultimately frees you to see your life and relationships more completely. Repressed material always comes back to negatively color our lives. Next time you are sure you have had a thought or emotion that is customary in the West like happiness, gratitude, love, or anything else you can think of, automatically say to yourself that you are feeling the opposite too. There is a part of me that is sad, a part of me that is thankless, a part of me that is hateful. As strange as it sounds you will almost surely find a grain of truth. Feelings of happiness have to come to an end, so a little bit of sadness makes sense. Feeling gratitude usually means being in a down position to someone else, so there can be some bitterness in this experience. Feeling love means fully connecting to another person which sometimes elicits conflict.