Chapter 8

“Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life” (Tao Te Ching 76).

Contents: Introduction - Norms in Society - Education – Plasticity - Elastic Thinking - Categorical Thinking and Essentialism - Perspectivism - Relativism and Complementarity - Taiji and Qigong - Spontaneity - Laughing Meditation – A Joke - Summary - References


We encounter rigidity in many forms: rocks, bones, thoughts, mind-sets, conceptual frameworks, hierarchies, beliefs, religious dogma, etiquette, behavioural norms, ideology, fundamentalism, etc. And we find flexibility in soil and water surrounding the rocks, muscles attached to ligaments and bones, feelings softening thoughts, mind-sets, conceptual frameworks and hierarchies, genuine experiences rendering beliefs, religious dogma, etiquette, behavioural norms, ideology and perhaps even fundamentalism more fluid. Nonetheless, rigidity is often more dominant in mainstream science and society and harsh consequences abound: unresolved conflict, destructive clashes, injustice, war and crime, fear, suffering, alienation, frustration, loss of harmony, dis-ease, etc.

In the alternative culture we may find more softness and flexibility. Many rigid ideas may have been dropped, but only to a point, and new rigidities may have been adopted. Hence rigidity is a widespread plague.

Now I do not want to suggest that we should have only softness and flexibility. How could we stand up and walk without rigid bones? How could a tree attain great height without the rigidity of the wood? How could society function without some rules and laws? We do indeed need some rigidity, but it has to be balanced by flexibility.

The problem in our society is that there is too much rigidity and not enough flexibility. It seems a problem of imbalance. As we have seen in other chapters of this book: too much emphasis on concepts of the outer circle of the mandala of this book and too little on those of the inner circle. And this imbalance leads to disease, and eventually destruction and death because of the loss of resilience and flexibility.

When we look at a tree, we can see that even in the most rigid structures such as the trunk and the branches, there is at least some flexibility. The tree may bend down under the burden of heavy snow; but when the snow has melted, it may return to its original position or close to it. If you saw the movie
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you may remember the scene where the older man and young woman fight each other in the bamboo groove. They ride up and down on the extremely flexible bamboo. One reason why bamboo is so flexible is because its stems are hollow. This hollowness or emptiness in the centre confers greater strength and flexibility than mere solidity. I shall return to this theme later on. But first let us look more closely at rigidity in mainstream society and science.

flexible bamboo

Norms in Society

In our society we have many laws, rules, regulations, behavioural norms, etiquette, political correctness, etc. In other words: many do’s and don’t do’s. Many norms are not clearly spelled out in the form of laws or regulations, but nonetheless they are often rigidly followed by the majority of people. For example, it seems allright to talk to a stranger about the weather, but usually it would be considered inappropriate to ask her what she thinks is the purpose of life or whether life has a purpose at all, although this kind of question could lead to a much more gratifying interaction than talk about the weather. One can, of course, meet people who break these rules, people who can be spontaneous and refreshing. However, the vast majority of people are unable to do this and feel uncomfortable when others break the rules and patterns. As a result life becomes monotonous, dull and superficial. Why are many people so rigid, so lacking in spontaneity and flexibility? Education plays an important role in this.


In our society education seems, to a great extent, indoctrination, conditioning and brainwashing. Parents and teachers often just pass on their own rigid way of being to innocent children and young people. They do it consciously or, more often, subconsciously. As a result rigidity is perpetuated. Young people, especially teenagers, can feel the harm that is being done to them and my revolt. Unfortunately, such a revolt often involves an opposition that may be equally rigid. Thus, rigidity becomes a vicious circle.

It would be good to be reminded of the literal meaning of education which is “to bring out”, that is, to bring out the enormous potential of young people and people at any age. What so-called educators often do is just the opposite: they stuff their students with rigid ideas and a rigid way of being. Of course, discussion is usually encouraged in schools and universities. Students are even told to be critical and questioning. However, the questioning usually does not touch the deepest foundation of our cultural and scientific rigidity. Concepts of the outer circle of the mandala of this book are usually taken for granted. Thus, Aristotelian either/or logic, mechanism, reductionism, competition, Darwinian thinking, gene-centered thinking, the lawfulness of nature and other basic assumptions are usually accepted without questioning and alternatives often are not even considered. As a result
the vast majority of pupils and students are indoctrinated predominantly in outer circle thinking. Those who study medicine carry this indoctrination with them into their medical education and practice. No wonder then that the majority of medical doctors still take the materialistic, mechanistic worldview for granted and often are instrumental in suppressing and distorting useful holistic approaches of alternative medicine that involve inner circle concepts such as wholeness and flexibility (see the above mandala).

In spite of this widespread rigidity, we can see some signs of change. For example, an increasing number of people are becoming aware of the limitations of mainstream medicine and therefore turn to alternative medicine. There are even some medical doctors who practice alternative medicine or are open to it. And at an increasing number of universities at least one course on alternative medicine is offered to students in medical school. Let us hope that this trend continues, but at the same time let us not overlook how the conservative medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, and governments use their power to work against the practice of alternative medicine. Lanctôt (1995) called them the medical mafia. Nonetheless, some deeply engrained tenets are questioned by at least some people.


Medical researchers and biologists have been increasingly impressed by the flexibility of biological systems. They usually refer to it as plasticity. Even the brain that for a long time has been considered fixed after a relatively young age, is now considered plastic until old age (see, for example, Doidge 2007). As a result of the recognition of this neuroplasticity, we are now on the verge of curing illnesses that before seemed incurable (Doidge 2015).


Elastic Thinking

Our ways of thinking also need to be plastic or elastic. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the Dadaist Hans Richter emphasized the importance of elastic thinking, which is not locked into a rigid framework. Unfortunately elastic thinking does not seem to be practiced to a great extent. The predominant way of thinking remains caught in rigid categories, which may create conflict, violence, and war (see also Chapter 3).

Categorical Thinking and Essentialism

Categorical thinking is often coupled with
essentialism, which means something is assumed to be either this or that, essentially this or that. In my own field, plant morphology, the vast majority of my colleagues reduce the manifoldness of plant structures in plants such as flowering plants to three basic categories: root, stem and leaf. No exceptions are allowed. Even if, for example, a structure appears intermediate between a stem and a leaf, it is rigidly forced into either the stem or the leaf category. Even if it does not resemble a typical stem or a leaf, it has to be essentially either one or the other. This kind of thinking is perpetuated through most textbooks, although there is much evidence to the contrary (see, for example, Sattler 1994, Rutishauser and Isler 2001, Rutishauser 2016; see also Chapter 3 of this book).

The same kind of rigid categorical thinking seems widespread in other sciences and everyday life. Many people ask categorically whether someone is a theist or atheist, capitalist or socialist, good or bad, honest or dishonest, for or against us. And the list goes on endlessly. There are, of course, people who can be more flexible, allowing for subtle nuances, seeing a grain of truth in something that others would call essentially false. But these people seem to be in a minority. Most people, it seems, have at least some deep-rooted issues where they want to have a yes or no answer.

And in many instances categorical thinking may be appropriate, if we are aware of its limitations. I also use categories and appreciate their usefulness. However,
categorical thinking becomes destructive when it is rigidly enforced in situations where it appears inappropriate. And such situations abound since we live in a fuzzy world, in a world that is not predominantly black and white.

When we force everything that does not fit into categories, we do violence to the situation or the people involved. Thus, categorical thinking supports violence and destruction. Think, for example, of a friend whom you considered a good person. Suddenly, he does something that hurts you deeply. How do you look at him then? As someone who is essentially good, but can be hurtful? Or, as it happens so often, as someone who appeared to be good, but turns out to be an essentially bad person? These are, of course not the only alternatives. You don’t have to be an essentialist. You can be more flexible, admitting that in the flux of life many things can happen and that a rigid dichotomy of good and bad seems too simplistic.

What happens between friends may also happen between various kinds of groups, organizations and nations. For example, nations may support each other in a friendly manner. Something happens and suddenly there is total condemnation and perhaps even war. Therefore I consider categorical thinking dangerous, especially when coupled with essentialism. In the worst case it may lead to violence and even war. Apart from such extremes that are not rare, categorical thinking may be destructive in many subtle ways. We have to examine our thinking and ask ourselves whether our categorical thinking may at times be harmful to others, our environment, and ourselves.

One last remark on categorical thinking. I have made a distinction between the categories of rigidity and flexibility. However, I do not consider these categories mutually exclusive. I do not believe that anything I encounter must be either essentially rigid or flexible. I recognize that there may be a gradation from extreme rigidity to extreme flexibility. For this reason I did not say that mainstream society and science are essentially rigid. I recognize that they appear too rigid in many ways, but we can also find flexibility to some extent here and there. Furthermore, mainstream society and science are not rigidly separate from alternative culture and holistic science that tend to be more flexible but may also be rigid to some extent. In general, I do not see the inner and outer circles of the mandala of this book as mutually exclusive. They seem to form a continuum and each one may include the other one to some extent as Yin and Yang include one another (see


Perspectivism allows us to look at the world and ourselves from different perspectives
(see, for example, Diem-Lane 2016). Thus, instead of being locked into one perspective and believing that it is the absolute truth, we can shift from one perspective to others that provide additional views and insights not obtainable from the original perspective. Let me illustrate this by an analogy with a mountain that is steep at one side and gently sloping at the opposite side. If we look at this mountain only at the side where it is steep, we will conclude that it is a steep mountain. However, if we change the perspective and look at the other side, we can see that the mountain is not essentially steep, but has a steep and gently sloping side. Still other perspectives will give us additional views of the mountain. Therefore, the more perspectives we take, the better we will know the mountain.

The same applies to other situations including our thinking. An essentialist looks at the world and himself only from one point of view. Thus he obtains only one perspective. He may not even recognize that his point of view is a point of view, a perspective. He may think that he has the ultimate answer and that is it. Obviously he deprives himself of a richer experience of the world and himself. But he may be so locked into his point of view that he cannot shift to another perspective. And thus he may continue to rigidly defend his perspective. In contrast, someone who practices perspectivism can easily shift from one point of view to another. He or she has flexibility. And as a result, (s)he can have a greatly enriched experience.

In short, an essentialist or categorical person who is locked into his or her perspective appears rather rigid and static, whereas a perspectivist who can shift from one perspective to another appears flexible and dynamic (see also Chapter 7).

Relativism and Complementarity

Perspectivism allows us to appreciate relativism. Why? Because no single perspective is absolute. Each perspective appears relative to the viewpoint that is taken. There may be perspectives that provide a broader view than others, but they remain relative. For example, an aerial view of the mountain I referred to above may reveal both the steep and the gently sloping side of the mountain. Therefore it provides a more comprehensive perspective than the view from either side of the mountain. However, it may not give the detail that the other two views provide. Therefore, the other two views are not totally superseded by the aerial view.

As I pointed out in the
Introduction, different perspectives, even contradictory ones, complement each other because together they provide a more comprehensive picture than each one alone. Thus, the outer and inner circle concepts of the mandala of this book complement each other. I think that the inner circle concepts provide a more comprehensive view of reality and therefore are closer to reality than the outer circle concepts. However, the outer circle concepts are also useful and may reveal aspects of reality that the inner
circle concepts do not deliver.

Whichever way one looks at the relative adequacy of inner and outer circle concepts - and this may also vary from one concept pair to another - inner and outer circle concepts complement each other.
Thus, for example, rigidity and flexibility complement each other. But if there is too much rigidity as in mainstream society and science, the harmonious balance may be disturbed or destroyed.

Taiji and Qigong

The practice of Taiji and Qigong can loosen rigidity by creating more flexibility and balance. Taiji and Qigong thus can contribute to greater health and deeper insight. They can also be a meditation and instill harmony with the universe.

Taiji (Tai Chi) means “supreme ultimate”. When practiced correctly, it can reflect the oneness of microcosm, the self, and the macrocosm, the universe.

Qigong means “working and playing with Qi [chi, the life force] refining inner resources” (Jahnke, 2002: IIX). It “is not really just an exercise; it can become a powerful way of being” (ibid. VII). Its highest form involves spontaneous flow that entails flexibility.


Spontaneity happens when the uncontrived self is in harmony with its surroundings, the world, the universe, that is, when self and world or universe are one. It can arise only when exaggerated rigidities do not interfere with inborn naturalness. For this reason, it is often easier for children to be spontaneous. Adults, unless they have retained a child-like innocence, have to unlearn rigid learning in order to become spontaneous again. And this seems difficult for many people.

Spontaneity arises out of the centre of the mandala of this book because it arises out of the fullness of emptiness unimpeded by the thinking mind
. (Contrary to Western thinking, according to Buddhism, emptiness (meaning boundlessness) is also fullness). There is a story of a centipede that was asked how he could coordinate the harmonious movement of so many legs. When he started thinking about it, he couldn’t walk any more and fell to the side. However, without the interference of thought, he could move spontaneously. Humans need to think, of course, but not all the time. We also need to transcend the limitations of the thinking mind (see also Grigg (1994) on Spontaneity, pp. 289-302).

Spontaneity in drawing

Spontaneity happens by itself; it cannot be brought about by thought and will. Nonetheless, we can prepare the ground for the seed of spontaneity to sprout by itself. The preparation involves ridding ourselves of exaggerated rigidity. And how do we do this? One way is contemplation and meditation. A complementary way is to take the world and ourselves less seriously and laugh. Laughing loosens rigidities. Laugh madly for a while and then be still. You will be surprised how much more relaxed, energized and harmonious you will feel. So to end this chapter on rigidity and flexibility I propose a Laughing Meditation.

Laughing Meditation

Often the easiest way to laugh is in a group. The leader starts laughing and then the group inevitably will join him or her because laughing seems infectious. This may go on for any length of time, 10, 20, 30 minutes or longer. Then lie down, close your eyes and be still. You will feel the transformation.

If you cannot join a laughing group, you can also laugh alone. For example, after waking up in the morning and stretching, begin to laugh for a few minutes. Laugh intensely. At first it may be forced, but gradually it may become more spontaneous. You will be surprised how this will change your whole day. People who normally look grim, may smile at you and many other things may happen to you and the people around you. But don’t expect it to happen. Just be spontaneous.

Laughing, like dancing, seems a natural way to open the door to no-mind because if you laugh and really laugh, if you go totally into the laughing, thinking stops. You cannot laugh intensely and think at the same time. Laughing and thinking exclude each other. And for this and other reasons laughing seems liberating. It allows us to transcend the thinking mind without any effort. It allows us to enter the centre of the mandala of this book from which spontaneity can arise.

laughing can be beneficial for our health. But don’t laugh with an agenda, if you can avoid it. Unless you can witness it, an agenda may subvert meditation that can happen during and after the laughing.

A Joke

Osho (1999: 344) told the following joke:

Two tramps are lying on adjacent benches. One of them is reading an old newspaper.
“It says here in a health report that you can exercise over one hundred muscles when you laugh.”
“That’s typical, “ replies his friend, “those health nuts take the fun out of everything.”


Both rigidity and flexibility seem necessary. However, instead of a healthy balance between the two, we often find too much rigidity. In our society many people seem prisoners of rigid norms and this rigidity is reinforced by a more or less rigid educational system. In science rigidity is reinforced by categorical thinking that is often coupled with essentialism, which means something is either this or that, essentially this or that. Nonetheless, at least some rigid tenets are being revised. For example, contrary to the rigid belief that the brain cannot change after a relatively young age, it is now recognized that the brain may change until old age. In other words, a considerable flexibility of the brain, referred to as neuroplasticity, is finally recognized and as a result we may be able to cure diseases that because of the rigid belief in the fixity of the brain in adulthood were incurable. In general, recognizing different perspectives that complement one another (that is, perspectivism, relativism and complementarity) can be liberating and enriching to a great extent for science, society, and our personal lives and relationships. The practice of Qigong (ch’i-kung) and/or Taiji (t’ai-chi) can render us flexible. Spontaneity overcomes too much rigidity. And laughing that can also become a meditation involves spontaneity and flexibility.


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Grigg, R. 1994. The Tao of Zen. Boston: Tuttle.

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Lanctôt, G. 1995. The Medical Mafia. Miami, FL: Here’s the Key Inc.

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Rutishauser, R. and Isler, B. 2001. Developmental genetics and morphological evolution of flowering plants, especially bladderworts (Utricularia): Fuzzy Arberian Morphology complements Classical Morphology. Annals of Botany 88:1173-2002.

Sattler, R. 1994. Homology, homeosis, and process morphology in plants. In B.K.
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Tao Te Ching. 1988.
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Preface (including the Table of Contents) and Introduction of this book.

Next Chapter:
Chapter 9: Variability and Invariance

Preceding Chapter:
Chapter 7: Dynamics and Statics/Dynamics