Dualistic and Holistic Thinking

by Barbara Martin

in Creativity

When you think about your creativity, do you think holistically? Or do you reflexively distinguish between, for example, being process-oriented or product-oriented? Do you split personal work from commercial work? Pit disciplined work against the flow of creativity? These are the kinds of dreaded polar opposites or dualistic thoughts Eric Maisel highlights in his self-improvement book, Coaching the Artist Within.

Picking Sides: All or Nothing
You most likely label many paired opposites or dualities in your work — we all do it. How about practice vs. performance? Art vs. graphic art? Fiction vs. non-fiction? Serious music vs. pop?

We contrast these in our minds, sure, but the real question is: Which side do you tend to favor, and when do you favor it?

Dualistic Thinking is an Excuse
Dualistic thinking arbitrarily imposes limits on what we will consider doing, or not doing. We rule out options based on this kind of stark, exclusionary, yes-no thinking.

Often, we hide behind this type of dualistic thinking as a way to avoid doing what we need to do — and it can cause us to block. We slant our thinking as a way to avoid taking what we probably know is the next right step for our work. Be honest. Don’t you have some favorite knee-jerk responses? I can just hear you.

“Oh, I can’t do that, it’s too ——!”
“Oh, I don’t work like that, it’s too ——–!”

But is that always the best response?

Holistic Thinking: Putting Yin and Yang Together
What if we could consider both halves of each pair instead of just one side? Maisel frames this according to the Taoist yin and yang, with the goal of learning to honor both sides of the issue by choosing to apply whichever is needed. In this way, we focus on what benefits our project most at any given moment — rather than on categorically ruling out options.

Granted, you may accentuate one side or the other depending on the stage of your project. But if you can recognize the utility of both sides and come to a thoughtful compromise, if you address both qualities in a conscious and deliberate way, then you have a better chance of moving forward and taking the next right step.

By thinking holistically, by accepting that both aspects of each duality are in fact always available to us, we can take that all important next right step more consistently and with less struggle.

What Does My Project Need Now?
When you find yourself struggling with a dualistic situation, when you find yourself anxiously looking at two sides of a dualistic pair, it’s helpful to rephrase the question.

Instead of asking, “Should I write fiction or non-fiction?” Maisel suggests you might ask, “What shall I write today?” Instead of, “Should I do research or should I write today?” you might ask, “What does the book need today?”

A New Mantra for Creative People
When we think in a more holistic way, we satisfy or honor both sides of each dualistic pair for the benefit of our creative work. To this end, Maisel suggests this mantra:

“I am whole, and I do what’s necessary.”

Switch that Thought: Dualistic to Holistic Thinking
This kind of thinking is such a tough habit to break. See if you can catch yourself engaging in dualistic thinking. Do you find yourself thinking in yes-no format as a way to avoid doing something you know you should be doing? How do you frame your choices? Is there a way you can combine the yin and the yang, or stretch yourself to think more holistically about the issue?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eileen June 5, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Oooh, this reminds me of the idea that what we most despise often has the most to teach us (or something like that.) What if we explored the exact opposite of our instincts?

Christine Martell June 11, 2009 at 8:52 am

I’m just starting to see how I have learned to segment my thinking, only using my creative skills in arenas where they have been deemed acceptable. Just realizing I have not only segmented my spaces, but also my approaches, and my systems (or lack of since artists have to break rules- at least in our stereotypical moments.

The artist rebel in me is being held down and held back by these businessperson stereotypes and imagined rules. Only acceptable to be an artist in certain contained spaces.

Intellectually I don’t believe any of this, what you are saying is so true! Yet, if I am honest and look at my behavior over the last decade, I am guilty as charged. Yikes…..

Brian Tyson July 31, 2011 at 9:57 pm

I think we are wired for dualistic thinking. How can we give meaning to “up” without simultaneously thinking “down?” And, to push it further, it is necessary to be able to smell a sewer in order to appreciate a rose. Your “holistic” example itself remains fundamentally “dualistic”; which is why, no doubt, you say, “When we think in a ‘more holistic’ way, we satisfy or honor ‘both sides’ of each dualistic pair for the benefit of our creative work (my inverted commas.) “More” holistic, and “both sides” imply a continuation of the dualism, and a suggestion that we should work towards the reconciliation of both parts–which acknowledges that, like any ideal, such reconciliation is, by definition, impossible of achievement.

Barbara Martin July 31, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Yes! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Sometimes I wish we could just embrace the infinite possibility and not worry about a continuum. But if we did that I suppose we would lose all sense of context and become unmoored — would that render us aimless and at a loss, or simply free? :)

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