What do you think when you see this image of a traffic light —showing STOP and GO simultaneously? I had never seen a traffic light hold two contradicting signals ever before until recently. It seemed a visual koan for life in the Valley – something you could meditate on and reflect upon endlessly. I loved it and immediately took a cell phone photo. All of a sudden a banal traffic light wasn’t so banal. I was interested to see the many meanings and possibilities people would unpack. I posted it on facebook and got brilliant and witty feedback from Shervin Pishevar, Blake Commagere, Francois De Villiers, Alexandra Siliezar, Anjelika Deogirikar, Hongbiao Chen and Silvia Console Battilana. Thanks guys. Because of this traffic light’s ambiguity, its meaning became infinite –not finite and binary. The light had broken the rules without even meaning to. It made me wonder about all of the places in our lives where we confine ourselves to EITHER / OR, to one or the other. Doing two opposites at the same time is simply not allowed. But why not?
This reminded me of a passage from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind – a book that is a must-read for all of us in Silicon Valley and beyond. It’s understandable why it is a favorite book of Steve Jobs and many other execs who “think different.”
Here’s the passage:
Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture. When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent. After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding. Some people may say that our mind or soul exists forever, and it is only our physical body which dies. But this is not exactly right, because both mind and body have their end. But at the same time it is also true that they exist eternally. And even though we say mind and body, they are actually two sides of one coin. This is the right understanding. So when we take this posture it symbolizes this truth.
-Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
So the traffic light is a great symbol of the oneness of duality. Perhaps it is an enlightened light. I love the energy of the bright green man striding forward urging us to spring ahead and the tension with the bold hand stopping us in our tracks. If we freeze (as Shervin suggests) then we will be entering into a state of energized calm – moving in stillness – poised for change, which in Silicon Valley is definitely a good thing.
But the meanings are infinite. And the most important one is what you are thinking – right NOW!
How would you respond if you saw this traffic light?