Not Either/Or but Both

10.21.10 | Category: Asymmetry, Unexpected

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?

4 Comments so far

  1. Vlasta Diamant

    Since I haven’t seen this image on Facebook, it urges me to vent my associations here. A “pedestrian” interpretation: stop before you go, like “think before you speak/act”, unlike the presently competing politicians, and many would-be leaders, or: cross at your own judgment (peril)! On a more ethereal or a “double-sided” level, it reminds one of i-ching or Delphic-Pythian prophesies, that allow for an open and opposite interpretation. The conundrum is that in the world of action, we have to choose either/or. Only by not choosing can we embrace both options, although one could interpret the “non-choosing” as a choice. Has all this been thought and said already?

  2. Drue

    Thanks Vlasta for your thoughtful comment. No it hadn’t!

  3. Eric

    I see the contradiction of technology telling me what to do, and a symbol of the fallacy that information equates to wisdom.

    We’re deluged with information in a world where education has little to do with learning and wisdom.

    And we don’t realize we’ve become entrenched in this massive consumption engine called our economy that today is fueled largely by technology. Technology is stimulating, and we continue to need to feed off new technology because now we are immersed in it, an ambient level of white noise that demands further stimulation to keep us satiated. The high-tech industry now exists largely to perpetuate itself, with only the occasional jewel of genuinely useful technology dropping out en route to the highest returns on investment.

    We also don’t realize that this stimulation does not help us learn. In fact, we’ve somehow been convinced of exactly the opposite – that technology does help us learn. Everywhere you look, you see ads and people telling us how educational the toys and the video games we buy are, and parents using flash cards to drill relatively useless concepts and words into infants, and corporations that make computers pushing laptops into classrooms.

    The rampant boredom in our society is a testament to the failure of these concepts. Our children get bored, and we leap to put a Wii or Gameboy (educational of course) in their hands. We don’t realize that boredom is a natural level of anxiety that causes us to get up and go outside and ride our bikes and play. Or to build something. Or to find fascination in the little details around us. And each time that happens, we learn to think or create or do. So instead of learning these things, we cripple our children by taking away that process, and instead pacify them with passive stimulation.

    Instead of getting smarter, we’re actually getting dumber as a society. Just look at the number of street signs at your average busy intersection, or the number of warning and instructional signs in an airline bathroom. This traffic light is a perfect symbol of all this Koyaanisqatsi.

  4. B.L. Ochman

    lately, these happen all over NYC. mundane explanation: most likely the result of budget cuts that result in no maintenance for the lights.

    But when I tried to take a cellphone photo, i got nothing but a black rectangle. So there may be many dimensions to these lights, none of which would appear to have much to do with crossing the street.

    My advice: reflect on the meaning from either side of the street. :>)

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