What Is The Tetralemma And Why Should I Care?

The Tetralemma is like yoga for the mind.

What Is The Tetralemma And Why Should I Care?
Photo by Fakurian Design / Unsplash

Reprogram Your Mind With This Ancient Technique

When I’m losing my mind, the Tetralemma is where I turn. This little formula has saved my ass on numerous occasions. It’s a tranquilizer when I’m raging. It’s an arm around my shoulders when I’m doubtful. It’s the forest when I’m stuck in the trees. It even prevents me from making impulse purchases on Amazon, when I can remember to use it.

A Revolution With Two Names

In the West, it's known as the Tetralemma: 'the four corners'. (As opposed to the more common dilemma: two corners.) In the east it's known as the catuskoti. Scholars like Graham Priest aren't sure exactly where the term came from. We know it probably dates back to the time of Buddha; over 2500 years ago. Outside of that, we really aren’t sure. The answer has been “lost to the mists of time” according to Priest .

Regardless, it gets its name from the fact that offers up 4 logical possibilities. According to the Tetralemma something can be:

  1. True.
  2. False.
  3. Both. (True And False.)
  4. Neither. (True Nor False.)

The first time I was exposed to this by a friend, my head spun. I remember feeling angry and dismissive. I thought it was woo-woo nonsense. How can something be true AND not true? How can something be NEITHER true, nor false?

A Practical Example

In order to experience the power of this technique for yourself, take a moment and imagine the following scenario:

  1. Your inner critic is telling you that you're a failure because you failed to achieve a particular creative goal. Perhaps you just finished a painting, which you enjoyed making, but after a lacklustre reception from your peers you're frustrated and have deemed the painting a failure.
  2. At this point, the black and white thinker assigns themselves two options. The painting is either a failure or it isn't. This is called splitting: an inability to perceive someone or something as both good and bad simultaneously.
  3. However, using the Tetralemma, we can introduce a bit of nuance to our lives. Rather than label the painting a failure or a success against arbitrary criteria, one might pass the statement through the four corners of Tetralemma. Analyse the statement four separate time. As if it were: 1) True, 2) False, 3) Neither, and 4) Both.

In practice, after taking a deep breath, one might ask:

  1. "In what way is this painting a failure?
  2. Then the inverse: "In what way is this painting a success?"
  3. Then: "In what way is this painting both a failure and a success?"
  4. Then: "In what way is this painting neither a failure nor a success?"

In my experience number four is where the magic happens and our perception of reality is stretched. This is the question that burrows down to the essence of an object. Possible answers might be:

  • It's covered in lots of color.
  • The paint is thick on the canvas.
  • The canvas is made from cotton.
  • It's heavy in my hands.

These are mere descriptions of what it is, stripped from utility, judgement or Truth™ and replaced with observation and mindful awareness about its physical characteristics and its most fundamental relationship to the world around it.

A Second Example

Just in case that felt a bit woo-woo for you, let's apply it to something that might feel a bit more practical: a disagreement between two people. Imagine for a moment that you're a graphic designer and a client has missed an important meeting you spent weeks preparing for.

At this point our old heuristic begins murmuring in our ear:

  • "They're such a shitty client."
  • "See. They don't care about you."
  • "They're so irresponsible."

Choose whichever judgement resonates the loudest and pass it through the Tetralemma to disarm your emotions and regain control of your psyche.

For example: They're such a shitty client.

  1. In what way is this true?
  2. False?
  3. Both?
  4. Neither?

Run the example for yourself and hopefully, with a bit of practice, you'll start to become aware of why this technique is so powerful.

risc csir
Photo by . liane . / Unsplash

Life Is Shades Of Grey

As children, we think in binary terms. This or that. Yes or no. All or nothing. In Cognitive Behavioral Thinking, this type of thinking is called: "black and white" or "all-and-nothing" thinking and is widely regarded as a cognitive distortion: any type of disruption to your thinking that produces self-limiting or self-damaging outcomes.

For example: we often view people as entirely good or entirely bad. They are a Good Person™ because they held the door. He is a Bad Person™ because he pulled out while the light was red. This heuristic saves our brain time. However, without granularity and context, a heuristic can stream-roll nuance and lead us towards damaging patterns of thought.

Generally speaking, black and white thinking is classified as a pre-adolescent system of thought. In other words, a mode of thinking we use when we don't know any better. When we're young and trying to grasp the world around us. The Dunning-Kruger effect, where we vastly overestimate our own knowledge and certainty, has its roots in this type of thinking. We strip away complexity and reduce things to yes/no decisions. There is power and utility in doing this. Our brains gravitate towards these time-saving/energy-saving modes of thought for a reason. However, there comes a moment in our development where we're presented with an opportunity to evolve our thinking.

Thrive In Wicked Environments

Aristotelean logic forms the backbone of modern thought in the West. We've used this type of thinking to create technological marvels like the computer and the internet. However, when applied to more complex environments things break down. Particularly in what psychologist Robert Hogarth might call "wicked" learning environments, where goals and an objective sense of Truth™ are unclear or in question. Where rules are in flux. Where quick, decisive feedback is not always possible.

The majority of life falls into this category. Outside of chess, routine programming, and simple mathematics, these binary modes of thinking are too reductive. Too clean. Too simple. These “wicked” (ie. complex) environments are those where the Tetralemma shines brightest. The Tetralemma is an effective way to shed your blinders and reintroduce all the complexity, doubt, and layers of information our brain naturally tends to filter out.

For Buddhists, this technique is nothing new. In fact, according to Graham, the “four corners” of truth were table stakes for the last 2500 years. This movement greatly influenced, perhaps directly, the Skeptics of Ancient Greece; most notably Pyrrhonism. However, in the end Aristotelean logic won the day and, at least in the west, this once foundational approach to life has been lost to the sands of time.

But perhaps now is the time to revisit it.

The Tetralemma will radically alter the landscape of your life. If you can deal with the cognitive dissonance that follows from holding two truths in your head at once, here are just a few transformations you might experience:

  1. Conflict will be reduced since you'll be less entrenched in your own opinions and the sense of an ultimate, objective Truth™ will disappear.
  2. You may become more curious about your environment and begin to understand that there's so much you've yet to learn. (ie. An excellent cure for the Dunning-Kruger effect and remaining humble.)
  3. You will be able to see topics and positions from angles you otherwise never would have imagined. Your thinking will be more nuanced, considered, tempered, and (hopefully) less corrupted by bias.

For more on the Tetralemma check out Graham’s paper: The Logic the Catuskoti in Comparative Philosophy.

If you enjoyed this feel free to check out my weekly mailing list. Once a week I write about productivity, mindset, PKM, and lifestyle design. Join using this link to get access to my free 5-minute audio course: Mindset Medicine.