Overcoming Either/Or Thinking

Early hunter gatherers’ gods and goddesses symbolized the characteristics and experiences these first societies encountered in themselves, others, and nature. Their deities and ancestral spirits were a synthesis of projected emotions, beliefs, and relationship dynamics which they embellished in myths that taught how to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

Modern monotheistic religions share the qualities of projection and ethical guidance that originated with the earliest forms of spirituality. Unfortunately, however, monotheism emerged during a period of severe drought that led to starvation, violence, and civil strife. A preference for laws and social order increasingly overshadowed earlier humans’ focus on interdependency as the guiding principle of spirituality and growth. 

In many ways, we continue to perceive the world as it was conceived during the inception of monotheism. We are prone to inhabit our minds and bodies as if a hierarchy exists naturally within us — with cognition at the top and the most valued, where it is also responsible for controlling the lower strata of emotions and embodied awareness.

The resulting dichotomy between cognition (mind) and embodiment (body) — and their symbolic equivalents, masculine and feminine — may support greater control (at least for a while), but we are somehow less than what we could be if we instead invested in an integrated worldview — and had as much faith in natural laws as mental abstractions. Without the wisdom of interrelatedness and embodiment also guiding psychological and spiritual development, we risk behaving like perpetual adolescents trapped in either/or thinking, rejecting parts of ourselves (and others) we believe are ‘bad’ or threatening.

Developmental psychologists perceive either/or thinking as a stage of cognitive development we are expected to relinquish as we mature and become aware of the contingent and contextual character of most experiences. Paul Shepard observed:

“For the small child, a kind of bimodality of cognition is normal, a part of the beginnings of classifying and making categories, an essential step in the adult capacity to make abstractions. The world at first is an either/or place…. Getting stuck in the binary view strands the adult in a universe torn by a myriad of opposites and conflicts.”⁠1

The outcome of this “binary view” is a lifelong “struggle with existential problems that are normally the work of a few critical years in his second decade of life.”⁠2 

Prioritizing rules and abstractions over embodied wisdom creates a preference for one’s own mental representations, which also supports projecting ideas onto the world and creating reality from fantasies. The ability to devise entire ecosystems from mental representations is a defining trait of humankind, one often pointed to as evidence of human ingenuity. However, there is also the tendency to reduce nature to an object to be manipulated rather than a vital source for awareness and understanding of interdependency. 

When the innate capacities for emotional intuition and embodied awareness remain underdeveloped, fantasy and reality are easily confused. There is greater likelihood we believe our ideas about what is right and wrong — or good and evil —  are true of the world. Trusting in the veracity of one’s thoughts makes it easier to believe negative judgments we make about ourselves. Similarly, scapegoating gains power from the ability to abstract from real world complexity and ambiguity.

In contrast, early humans not only developed through their awareness of the interrelatedness of all life, they also had the advantage of nature as a way to modulate overwhelming emotions and troubling beliefs. According to Shepard: 

“The growth of self-identity requires coming to terms with the wild and uncontrollable within. Normally the child identifies frightening feelings and ideas with specific external objects. The sensed limitations of such objects aid his attempts to control his fears.”⁠3 

Without a sense of ourselves as interdependent with nature, we only have each other to work through our fears as we grow. It is now all too common to identify limits in an ‘other’ in terms of gender, sexual orientation, skin color, political party, etc. We use each other to create the complexity — and sometimes opposition — we seem to innately anticipate and need to fully mature.   

The myths and rituals of early hunter gatherer spirituality also supported integration of parts of the self fractured by crises and trauma. Spiritual practices guided people back to communal bonds and psychological wholeness, often with the help of an animal that acted as a spirit guide and protector. As one Mazatec Indian shaman described his role, “I am he who puts together” (Bellah, 2011, p. 135).

I believe by choosing recovery and committing to living an integrated life we recreate within ourselves the conditions on which an interdependent worldview depends. The wisdom gained by habitually acknowledging and integrating core organizers of experience — beliefs, emotions, the body, and the imaginal — resuscitates the embodied, emotional wisdom that supports living interdependently as human beings and with nature. When we prioritize an integrated experience of selfhood, we not only foster our own recovery, but also living with greater awareness of our connection to each other and Earth. 

Activities to ponder: Earlier in the Ambivalent Goddess project, the focus was on using different body-based techniques to support the regulation of emotions and the body. What would it be like for you to regularly use some of these methods to develop your capacity for embodied awareness? Try some of the techniques found in the Window of Tolerance Guide, and the posts on emotions and the body, throughout your day to support embodied awareness. 


1 Shepard, Paul. (1982). Nature and madness. Athens: University of Georgia Press, p. 29.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Ibid., 33.

Bellah, Robert N. 2011. Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).