The Buddha said we suffer because we cling to our desires, and it’s true. I’m always clinging to the past or future, what I wished had happened or what I hope will happen. It’s terrible. So I’ve tried to just live in the here and now, to enjoy every moment and accept what is, without clinging to anything. In fact, I’ve tried and tried, but my unhealthy habit of clinging hasn’t gone away. One friend said it’s a life’s work and told me not to give up, but another said, Look at you clinging to nonclinging,’ which I realize is absurd. So I don’t know. I want to not cling. I want to cling to not clinging. It’s confusing.

Is clinging to desires healthy, or unhealthy? Maybe you’re over this old question, the one that set Buddhism, Lutheranism, and other religions on their course through human history. Whatever your opinion of clinging, the course a question like this takes as it works its way through us is itself quite fascinating.

Notice that the question identifies a state: to cling, as in cling. Notice that in saying, cling, I’m splitting my personality, being both the guy who clings and the guy outside, looking at my own clinging.

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People talk about their behavioral states all the time. Still, such personality-splitting statements have driven thinkers to distraction for millennia, because it’s through them that we can produce (actually, we can’t help but produce) paradoxical statements that don’t compute — undecidables, they’re called — that throw into question all our logical methods.

The oldest is the liar’s paradox: I am now lying. If it’s interpreted as an outsider observing something’s state, it’s like looking at a green car and saying, That car is green. Telling the truth about a green car’s color doesn’t change its color. But observing that am now lying is quite different. An outside observer objectively describing a statement as a lie flips the statement’s truth value: If it’s true that you’re now lying, then it’s false that you’re now lying. It’s as though, just as you called a green car green, it turned red.

If, instead, the statement I am now lying is a confession uttered from inside the state, it starts out untrue, which means it’s not a lie after all. It’s as though, just as you called the now-red car red, it turned green again.

I shouldn’t cling is another such self-referential paradox, as is It’s wrong to be judgmental, I should never be negative, I should always be flexible, and other such popular yet loopy admonishments. If clinging to your desires is unhealthy, you should stop it, in which case you should cling to a new desire to not cling anymore, which is a new kind of clinging, which you should stop, in which case you’ll end up clinging more. Damned if you do, twice damned if you don’t — twice damned because, having flipped the implications of the statement twice, you begin to realize you’re stuck in a loop (though, as we’ll see below, being twice damned can be a blessing in disguise).

The liar’s paradox, identified by Epimenides in the 6th century BCE has been debated ever since. Most of that time, it was seen as a peculiarity, a novelty of language, but gradually it became clear that it isn’t just about liars — it is about any statement that influences how the statement is read. It even shows up in basic math, for example, when you try to find the square root of negative one. The two x’s (x times x equals negative one) refer to each other, but the references of the two x’s won’t hold still. Whatever number you pick to fill one of the x’s changes the number you have to pick for the other x. Self-referential loops are everywhere. They paralyze Excel spreadsheets. In computer programming, they’re the primary source of crashes and lockups.

As academics began to realize that these paradoxes are a fundamental problem, they tried to design a new system of logic that avoids them.

href=””>Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead thought they had found a way to do it, a complete and universal logic that was airtight because it prevented all such self-reference. It did so by expelling them — making them, in effect, out of bounds. But then Kurt Gödel (pronounced girdle, as in the device that holds confusing stuff in) proved that you couldn’t do that: If you put them outside the logical system, your system ends up depending on stuff outside it, which makes it not universal; and furthermore, if you try to build a system that encompasses the paradoxes, it will never be complete.

Gödel’s argument was an astonishing blow to logic and science. It proved that you could never come up with a complete, universal logical system, because any system you built would depend on assumptions made outside the system one level up. And, twice damned, there is no ultimate level where you would finally have girdled it all.

Since Gödel, the trick to managing these paradoxes has been to acknowledge that logic can’t all be accomplished at a single level of analysis. There are logical levels, and sometimes you have to uplevel in order to make sense of a paradox. To get a sense of what uplevel means, let’s go back to the Buddhist paradox. How does one solve it?

In practice, we don’t. Most of us just forget about it. We go watch TV or whatever. Some of us come up with pat answers we claim to live by, even though we don’t. We say, I’ve learned not to cling and just look the other way when we cling, or, if accused of clinging, we say, No, that’s not clinging — that’s pressing for what’s right or some other such rhetorical bait and switch. That approach can lead to all sorts of hair-splitting, subtle, squirrelly distinctions between clinging and pressing for what’s right. These are popular solutions that avoid upleveling.

Upleveling is noticing the bind, getting above it, and looking at its pattern. An example would be saying, Wait, I’m in a loop here. Rather than continuing to toggle back and forth like this, I need to look at the toggle mechanism. What is it? Something inside me switches clinging on and off. What is clinging, then? It’s garbage — no, wait, that’s the loop again, because it’s garbage, and then it’s not garbage. So, what is clinging, really? It’s some behavior that either evolved in me or was learned somehow. If I acquired it, it must have been good for something. So, what is it ever good for? It was certainly not good for me during that miserable year after Susan dumped me. What a waste. To think of the opportunities I turned down clinging to Susan, only to realize what a turkey she was after all. But, then, what about when I clung to my goal of finishing college? I’m glad I did that. Or clung to my desire to learn to play accordion, or win Mary’s heart? So, really, is clinging good, or bad? The answer depends on what I cling to; it depends on some factor a notch up from just trying to come up with some universal should’ about clinging.

Up a notch from the mind-toggling question, Clinging: saintly or evil? we find that clinging is an adaptation, a functional tool. Are tools right, or wrong? Are they saintly, or evil? Is a monkey wrench right, or wrong? It’s right for fixing toilets; it’s wrong for fixing glasses.

One more exercise in upleveling: One could say that trying to figure out whether a tool is good or bad is itself a stupid waste of time. Then why do we do it? Why do you continue to encounter people stuck in these cling-to-not-clinging loops, talking about what the Buddha or Deepak Chopra said?

Debating the merits of a tool is already thinking it up a notch from where we do most of our living. Most of the time, we use a tool unconsciously. The monkey wrench is an extension of the plumber’s hand; it’s simply assumed, ignored, and deployed until it fails to work. Only then would you look down and see it there and say, Hmm, this monkey wrench isn’t working. Something’s amiss with it. Maybe there’s a better tool, or maybe I’m using it wrong. That observation brings your attention to the tool, thereby enabling you to adjust something about it or how you use it.

Here’s where being twice damned becomes a blessing: Some tools require more attention than that, particularly the ones that will save you in the right contexts and ruin you in the wrong ones. Like clinging. With such tools, there are times when you really need to uplevel — not just modify their use, but also recognize the real dos and don’ts about them. To really put your attention on the tool, curse it strenuously and say, This tool is horrible. There must be a better way. It’s ruining me! That attitude will really get you swinging back and forth in the loop, obsessed with the sin of using it and the way you can’t stop using it, either.

When the third patriarch of Zen Buddhism said, Enlightenment is easy if you don’t have any preferences, I bet he didn’t meant it literally I think it’s a tease designed to get us hooked to a stupid loop about whether preferences are good or bad. Only when you’re thoroughly rutted in a loop do you notice your preferences. Only if you get bounced back and forth on a red-light, green-light paradox like that one (I prefer not to have preferences. No, wait, I mean I don’t have a preference about that preference. No, wait, I do. . .) does its peevish circularity sink in, forcing you to think it up a notch. Buddhism’s greatest contribution has been to give us these sticky little loops that get us wondering about how we use our natural tools.

The irony is that most people you find reciting Buddhist ideas are in the midst of their looping, stuck in the paradox, trying to solve it without upleveling, trying to come up with a flat, comprehensive universal rule that you should or shouldn’t cling. Buddhism gets you swinging, but if you listen to aspiring Buddhists too long, you’ll stay stuck at the tool-loving/tool-hating level.

This article and the last draw upon ideas first framed by Gregory Bateson in his book Steps to an ecology of mind (1972) and in particular an article called The logical categories of learning and communication. Click on the article title to download an audio file of that article.