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The Double Binds of Everyday Life

Everything we do to grow our economy disrupts the environment.

Watching Nora Bateson's new film about her famed father's work, An Ecology of Mind, I was reminded of the concept of the double bind—an idea that has been central to family therapy since its earliest days. Originally, the double bind referred to a no-win kind of communication that Gregory Bateson and his colleagues believed was a contributing factor in schizophrenia. One example of double bind communication is a mother giving her child the message: "Be spontaneous." If the child then acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother's direction. It's a no-win situation for the child. If a child is subjected to this kind of communication over a long period of time, it's easy to see how he could become confused.

A Zen story is a good illustration of the double bind and also of a unique solution. A Zen master says to his pupils: "If you say this stick is real, I will beat you. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you." There seems to be no way out. One pupil, however, found a solution by changing the level of communication. He walked up to the teacher, grabbed the stick, and broke it.

The double bind is applicable not only to psychology and Zen teachings. It is also relevant to two situations in today's world: the global double bind and the social double bind. The global double bind is this: On the one hand, we want to preserve our natural environment. On the other hand, everything we do to grow our economy and preserve our standard of living disrupts the natural environment and our relationship with it. Bateson suggests that we must raise our consciousness and learn to think in new ways to escape from the ecological double bind. As Einstein said: "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Like the monk in the Zen story, we must elevate our thinking to a new level and take action to prevent environmental disaster.

The social double bind is voiced in An Ecology of Mind by California Governor Jerry Brown, who says that we now find ourselves in a situation of social inequality. The proposed solution is to grow the economy. However, the result of growing the economy is more inequality: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Somehow we must break out of the level of consciousness that contains this contradiction. Bateson argues that we must question authority and mainstream thought patterns in order to think ourselves out of this pathological situation. Although her film predates the Wall Street protests, those activists' attempts to raise our consciousness about the social double bind represent an important first step along the road to a healthier society. By changing the field from words to action, the protesters throw light on the contradictions in our society's way of thinking.

Gregory Bateson believed that human beings act in ways that are destructive to fragile ecological systems because we do not see the interdependencies between natural systems and our own lives. The same holds true for why we act in destructive ways toward other human beings.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.