To fall prey to “dualistic thinking” is to see the world in terms of opposites like good versus bad, or true versus false, or happy versus sad, in a way that makes us blind to subtlety, ambiguity, and complexity. In this sense, dualistic thinking is a distortion that hinders comprehension. But are dualities always harmful? Is it always bad to categorize reality according to a binary framework, or does the badness come from the particular categories we use? 

If rich versus poor, smart versus dumb, cool versus uncool are old, tired categories that perpetuate prejudice, are there other categories that might be as useful and eye-opening as these particular ones are confining? Perhaps the problem with dualistic thinking is not that it simplifies reality by using so few categories – only two – but that the particular categories at play are so familiar and overworn that they limit us to thinking what we already think. If we shake up our categories and use the same kind of “dualistic thinking” with these new categories, maybe we’ll learn something useful.

Here are six binary frameworks that can help us see familiar things in new ways:

  • Songwriting educator Pat Pattison suggests thinking about the lines in a song, or the elements in any piece of art, as either “stable” or “unstable.” Does a particular element create a feeling of resolution and balance, or does it add tension, uncertainty, and suspense? When trying to understand how a piece of art works, you can learn a lot just by noting whether each component is stable or unstable.

  • Does it spark joy or not? Marie Kondo built a decluttering empire based on this way of categorizing the objects in our lives. It reframes the choice of whether to keep an object as a question about how the object makes us feel. Some of us may be familiar enough with this idea by now that it may come off as cliché. But we’ve only heard about it because at one time, it struck enough people as non-cliché that they kept talking about it!

  • Am I thinking or breathing? This simple question provides a sturdy foundation for meditation. If you’re breathing, keep doing it. If you’re thinking, say “That’s thinking,” and switch over to breathing. I thank Thomas Deneuville for introducing me to this framework.

  • Am I OK or not OK? A lot of times when we’re stressed out, it’s because we’re acting as though we’re “not OK” but if we stop to think about it we might realize that we’re actually OK.

  • Does this action increase or decrease my probability of completing the project I’m working on? Assuming I take this action, are the odds of completion going up or are the odds of completion going down? If I want to complete the project, all I have to do is keep choosing the actions that increase the odds. I wrote an essay about this here.

  • Am I choosing embodiment or disembodiment right now? Taking a shower – that’s embodiment. Going for a walk – that’s embodiment. Worrying – that’s disembodiment. Scrolling through social media posts – that’s disembodiment. How many times today did I choose disembodiment and how many times did I choose embodiment?

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