The Bamboo Paradox:
The limits of human flexibility in a cruel world
A critique of Extreme Stoicism in its modern form, and some truths about how to be optimally strong and flexible, if you want to be happy, healthy and realistically successful
By Dr Jim Byrne. And Renata Taylor-Byrne
At the age of thirty-four years, I woke up, for the first time. I became aware of the fact that I was living a life that didn’t really work for me – which had never really worked in a remotely satisfactory way. At that point, I began to seek wisdom – to examine my life – and to explore better ways of living a fuller, more satisfying life.
Perhaps you can relate to this situation.
Perhaps your own life does not really work for you, in a fully satisfactory way.
And perhaps it’s time to find out why; and what you could do about it.
In this book, I want to share some of the fruits of waking up, and taking responsibility for the direction of my life. What I will tell you about is my journey – shared with my wonderful wife, Renata Taylor-Byrne – towards wisdom and happiness; physical health and emotional well-being.
This is a book about how to take care of yourself in a difficult world; so you can be happy and healthy, successful and (relatively, realistically) wealthy. Your physical height, weight, muscle bulk and so on, are not the most important determinants of your ability to be strong in the face of life’s difficult challenges. And neither is your IQ, or your academic credentials.
In many ways, your ephemeral mind – supported by a well-rested and nourished body – and a determination to be happy and successful – is the best measure of your potential for resilient coping with the unavoidably stressful challenges you inevitably will face. Physical strength alone will not help here. And neither will IQ, academic qualifications or innate cunning!
So what will help? Today we are bombarded by lots of (good and bad) ideas about how to make it. One of these, which needs to be looked at more closely, is the metaphor which says we should learn to be like a bamboo plant – supple, pliable, and adapting to the high winds of adversity.
Nobody could deny that the humble bamboo is often the thinnest plant in the forest or jungle when a tropical storm hits; but it is often the only plant left standing when the storm is over.
According to the ‘received wisdom’, if you develop some bamboo-like flexibility, you can become as strong and resilient as you need to be, even if you are thin and light and less tall than the average person.
This is how the qualities of bamboo are conceptualized by one business-person:
“Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that even in the most difficult times… your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. Take putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly”. (Ping Fu: ‘Bend, Not Break: A life in two worlds’).
I will take a closer look at that quotation later. In the meantime, I want to address its implications, taking it at face value. Like a bamboo, it seems to suggest, you can learn to bend in strong winds of change or challenge; and to sway in the frequent breezes of trial and tribulation. You can develop a solid foundation, but one which allows you to stay flexible, and to respond to the forces that assail you with a judo-like yielding and returning. Bend in harmony with the forces around you, without resisting rigidly, and thus avoid being broken. Go with the flow, when the flow is irresistible; but swim against the tide if you need to, when the tide is not too powerful. Eventually, the forces around you may grow tired, and you will be fresh and ready to move forward, when resistance is at its lowest.
Bruce Lee is on record as supporting this perspective: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo … survives by bending with the wind”.
And, beyond what those commentators have said, common sense seems to suggest that, to be like the bamboo, you must not just be well informed about how to use your mind – like an ancient philosopher – but also you must be well fed, well rested, happily related to at least one significant other person; and rooted in some kind of family, social group and/or community. You need to be involved and rooted in your home community, but free to take whatever individual action you need to take, so long as it is moral and legal.
This may be what Jodi Picoult had in mind when she wrote that, “The human capacity for burden is like bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance”.
Of course there are flaws in each of those quotations above – limitations and exaggerations – (which would eventually lead us into paradox, or self-contradicting beliefs and actions. I will explore some aspects of that paradox in this Preface; and return to this problem in Chapter 17).
But the common sense argument seems to be that we should celebrate the near perfect combination of strength and flexibility to be found in bamboo, and that therefore we should try to emulate that strength and flexibility in our own difficult lives – when appropriate – as individual human beings.
The first major limitation of comparing ourselves with bamboo is this: In western science, the world is divided into three major classes: animal, vegetable and mineral. Clearly, bamboo belongs to one of those classes (vegetable) while humans belong to another (the animal).
Bamboo is rooted to the spot, while humans, and other animals, move around the world.
To build a bridge from the vegetable world of bamboo, to the animal world of human individuals, let me introduce a transitional entity – a little duck in an endless sea.
Donald C. Babcock has written about a little duck – “something pretty special” – which is out on the ocean; cuddling down in the swells; and riding the waves. Out beyond the surf by one hundred feet[i].
The Atlantic is heaving mightily, producing huge rises and falls; and the little duck is part of that rise and fall.
Indeed, the duck is resting while the Atlantic does all the heaving.
Babcock considers that the duck has some physical sense or realization of the size of the ocean which is surging up beneath him, and then dropping him down again, many feet each time.
“… the duck reposes in the immediate, as if it were infinity – which (of course) it is”, writes Babcock.
Babcock sees this as a profoundly wise attitude on the part of the duck; and he questions whether or not you and I, humans, have as much wisdom in dealing with the great waves that threaten to buffet our own lives!
This little duck is meant to illustrate the ‘bamboo qualities’ of a little animal. It is meant to illustrate harmony and balance, as well as strength and flexibility – and a certain amount of detachment from unreasonable levels of fear.
But next, we have to make the final migration from bamboo, via the little duck, to a real human individual. To do that, I would like to present a little case study:
About fifteen years ago, I (as a counsellor) was contacted via the telephone system by a young man (let us call him Shami – not his real name!), phoning from New York City. He was involved in a relationship with an American woman, and it was not going well; so he wanted couples therapy from me. Shami had been born in India. His parents were well-educated and relatively wealthy. He father was a hospital doctor in Mumbai (not the real location!), where the family lived; and his mother was a research scientist who specialized in the biochemistry of common diseases for a pharmaceutical company.
My initial response was to try to get Shami to work on his beliefs and attitudes towards women in general, and his partner in particular. This seemed to be somewhat helpful, but after three sessions he disappeared.
Months later, he contacted me again. This time his partner had left him, and so I helped him to cope with the grief of losing her; and his shame about not being able to hold down a stable relationship.
Then he disappeared again, for a couple of years. When next he contacted me, he had a new girlfriend, and they were dating a couple of nights per week. They’d met a couple of months back, but already conflict had emerged in their relationship. I tried to dig a bit deeper into Shami’s background, to see what was driving his inability to get along with a female partner.
Shami had had an unhappy childhood, because his parents were always working; and he was raised by a nanny and fed by a maid. He hated his father with a vengeance, and he was cold towards his (cold) mother.
This new dating relationship was the fifth or sixth unsuccessful relationship he’d been in, since arriving in America, about eight years earlier. I began to explore his relationship problems more deeply, and traced his problems back to how his mother and father related to each other: which was to say, badly. And also how his mother in particular related to him (coldly). His father had been even more absent (and remote) than his mother.
When Shami was about eighteen years old, he’d decided to study in America, and after graduating, he got a job as a computer programmer. He was what I now know to be ‘a Responsible Workaholic’ – which is a variety of ‘personality adaptation’ – and he tended to sit at his computer, in his New York employer’s office, from seven o’clock each morning until seven o’clock each evening, wrestling with difficult programming problems.
He popped out of his office and had a burger for lunch; and again for his evening meal, around five o’clock. He worked six days a week, and spent most of Sunday in bed.
He never did any physical exercise; got less than six hours sleep each night, and sometimes a lot less; drank too much alcohol and coffee; and generally was living a very unbalanced life.
I suggested that he clean up his diet, since his junk food diet was making him angry with his female partner. (See Taylor-Byrne and Byrne, 2017)[ii]. But he said he’d have to walk six blocks to find any outlet that sold salad or other healthy options; and we wasn’t able to spare the time and energy for such a ‘long walk’. And, besides, he like burgers, and did not see that diet was a real contributor to his relationship problems.
I tried to get him to do some regular physical exercise, which would reduce his anxiety and jealousy, which seemed to be driving much of his couple-conflict, but he could not be persuaded that it was important to do so.
Shami then disappeared again, and I didn’t hear from him for another couple of years.
The next time I heard from him, he had been medically evacuated from New York to Mumbai; was living in his parent’s pool house, at the bottom of their garden; and sleeping sixteen hours every day. He had been diagnosed with ME and chronic fatigue syndrome; and with painful myalgia in his neck and right shoulder, which reduced him to tears when it was at its worst. Pain-killing medication only reduced the pain to a small degree.
His parents – a medical doctor and a medical scientist – had failed to find any way to help him. So he phoned me once more.
I tried to help him to get to the bottom of his problems, by focusing on his sedentary lifestyle; his very poor diet; his inadequate amount of regular nightly sleep; and his apparent inability to relax. Plus his childhood relationships with his parents: especially his murderous anger towards his father.
But he didn’t want me to play that role. He wanted me simply to help him with his mental attitude towards his problems, rather than helping him to cure his problems. He wanted me to help him to be even more Stoical than he currently was. This caused a falling out between is, because I did not enjoy being used like a verbal or philosophical sticking-plaster.
Shami was a good illustration of what is wrong with some aspects of the three quotes presented above about bamboo. Let me illustrate what I mean:
Jodi Picoult’s quote refers to “the human capacity for burden” – and that can be taken to extremes, which is what Shami did. The human capacity to tolerate burdens should never be taken to extremes. We need to find the middle way between under-working and over-working. (There are, of course, exploitative forces in the world today which would like to persuade you that over-working is impossible! My response to that lie is this: “Look at the damage Shami did to himself by overworking!”)
Bruce Lee’s quote seems to be beyond reproach. However, note the phrase “bending with the wind”. It is important to bend with the wind – some but not all of the time. If you, as a human being, encounter a ‘wind’ that is too strong to be easily or healthily endured, then you have a responsibility to get out of that wind – to get the hell out of any such excessive wind! This is the beginning of awareness of the bamboo paradox. You can try to take flexibility too far, but your body may well break if your mind does not spot the unendurable nature of some of your new burdens!
Many years ago, Charles Handy pointed to the problem of staying in stressful situations for too long, until we become ‘cooked’, or broken, mentally and/or physically, by stress and strain. He used the analogy of a frog and boiling water. If you place a frog in a pan of cold water, or lukewarm water, it is happily stay there; whereas if the temperature is too high, it will jump out. On the other hand, if you place it in a pan of cool water, and then heat that water slowly, the frog will stay in the pan until it is cooked to death! Beware this frog-like capacity to allow yourself to be cooked to death by stress and strain!
Ping Fu’s quote contains three contentious points, from my perspective:
Number 1: The idea that bamboo – and by extension – human beings, are “…capable of adapting to any circumstance”. This is not true. It is obviously not true of a human, because it did not work for Shami, who is undoubtedly a human. It is not true for a human, because there are legions of burned out teachers spewed out by the education system in the UK (and probably many other countries also; and many other professions, like medicine!). It is not even true of bamboo. If you pour petrol (petroleum gas) over a bamboo tree, and ignite it, the tree will be destroyed. If you pour nitric acid around its roots, you will destroy it! Humans should not try to adapt to “any and every circumstance”. Shami should have had more sense. He should have listened to the Hawaiian concept of ‘pono’, or balance! He wrecked his health by failing to achieve balance in his life.
When I teach the concept of pono to my clients, I always emphasize that they should seek to base their daily life on 8 hours of work; 8 hours rest; and 8 hours of play, except sometimes. Eight hours in bed each night, in a dark, cool room, with no TVs or computers or mobile phones. And lots of time spent with friends, family, and others, enjoying social connection.
Number 2: Ping Fu asserts that resilience means “…the ability to bounce back even in the most difficult times.” But if you look up a definition of resilience in a popular dictionary, you might get a subtly different meaning, such as this: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” There is clearly a distinction to be made between Ping Fu’s statement (“even in the most difficult times”); and my dictionary’s definition (of the capacity to recover quickly “from difficulties”). And a definition that I found online cited two examples of resilient entities:
(a) “…the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”. And:
But please note, with regard to example (a) above, the two qualifiers in italic typeface: ‘often’, and ‘so many’. This means that is it not the case that all British institutions can always be resilient enough to survive in all situations. And similarly, you should not expect to always be resilient enough to survive in all the situations that the world may impose upon you. Sometimes you have to beat a sensible retreat! But Ping Fu does not understand these qualifiers, as she implies that we humans have the ability to bounce back “even in the most difficult circumstances”, without exception. But exceptions have to be acknowledged. What Ping Fu should have said is this: “…we humans (often) have the ability to bounce back, even in (so many of) the most difficult circumstances”. Remember the exceptions. Remember Shami! Remember the boiled frog!
And, with regard to example (b) above – nylon. Nylon will not bounce back from being burned, or dropped into a vat of acid. And human beings will not bounce back from six days a week of sitting on their arses in front of computer screens; and/or eating junk food on a frequent or regular basis; and/or getting insufficient sleep on a regular or frequent basis! Those kinds of lifestyle factors will wreck their health and happiness.
Number 3: Ping Fu is wrong to assert that “…your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances”. This is an expression of the kind of Extreme Stoical philosophy of life which asserts that “people are not upset by what happens to them, but rather by the attitude they adopt towards what happens to them”. I will show in a later chapter of this book – where I critique extreme Stoicism – that this is a baseless claim. People are upset by what happens to them; and your ability to thrive depends, ultimately, on how well rested you are, on a regular basis; how well-nourished you are by a healthy diet; how well your body is exercised; and how well connected you are to other people; in addition to your attitude towards what happens to you; and so on. It is not all in the mind; and it is not all about attitude. Attitude is important, but so also is the health of the body.
We live in a world in which there are dark forces that wish us to forget that we are fleshy bodies, with physical and mental needs; and physical and mental limitations; and not mere cogs in the wheels of somebody else’s financial or technological empire.
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) has played into this narrative, and given it philosophical support, by promoting a form of Extreme Stoicism in the name of therapy and wisdom, which it patently is not. (General Cognitive Behaviour Therapy [CBT] also supports this agenda, but to a lesser degree, or in a less obvious way!)
Before Shami had originally contacted me, he had seen an REBT therapist for couples-therapy; and he’d read a few REBT books, by Dr Albert Ellis; and he was strongly committed to being an REBT ‘tough guy’! His therapist, and Albert Ellis’s books, had taught him to “…stay in uncomfortable situations until you become comfortable with them, and then decide whether or not to leave!” But this was disastrous advice for Shami, which cost him his health, happiness and his very future as an active human being in the social world.
Although I was strongly influence by Albert Ellis’s system of REBT, I did not advise my couple-clients to “stay in uncomfortable situations”. I told them that my priority was the happiness of both partners, and not the maintenance of the relationship. And, as it happened, my very first client as an REBT coach/counsellor was a forty-five year old man who was on permanent night-shift work in a textile factory. I knew this was bad for his health, and so I helped him to negotiate a way off nights and onto the day shift. I also helped him to negotiate a better wage and conditions with his employers; and I tried my best to help him and his partner to improve their relationship (without putting the continuance of the relationship above the happiness of both partners!)
Albert Ellis’s philosophy of life was defective in many ways. (See my critique of REBT)[iii]. But one of the worst elements turned out to be his approach to what he called ‘high frustration tolerance’ – which I would now call ‘resilience’ in the face of difficulties.
Ellis’s solution was to adopt this belief: “I certainly can stand it!” And “it” could be anything, up to, but not including, one’s own death!
(But Shami demonstrated that we humans cannot stand anything, up to, but not including, our own death!)
And the unaddressed questions in Ellis’s Extreme Stoical philosophy of life are these:
- “Is it safe to try to stand it, or to go on enduring it?”
- “Is it sensible to try to stand it?”
- “Do I have to stand it, or could I get out?” And:
- “Should I stay, or should I get out?”
It was not safe for Shami to stay in his rotten job! It was not sensible for Shami to stay in his oppressive employment! He did not have to stand it, since he could have got into something less oppressive (at least in theory)! And, with the benefit of hindsight, he must be able to see that he should have got out when he could!
In this book, I will review the research that we have done on the limits of human endurance, and the determinants of that endurance, as well as our philosophy of life, which will help you to optimize your strength and flexibility, while at the same time taking care of your health and happiness.
I will look at effective approaches and ineffective approaches to:
– and philosophies of life.
I will teach you the middle way between extremes in all five of those areas of lifestyle self-management
Initially, I will introduce some key concepts and skills from moderate Stoic philosophy. This is intended to help you to know how to be ‘reasonably flexible’, as opposed to being ‘excessively flexible’.
Then I will outline some of the ways in which you could get fooled by some of the extreme elements of Stoicism, and/or Buddhism, which are reminiscent of some of the errors in the three quotations about bamboo, shown above.
That is to say, Extreme Stoicism encourages its adherents to behave as if they were lumps of wood, which cannot be hurt or harmed by anybody or anything.
Then I will outline my own Nine Windows model, which shows nine ways of reframing adversities, so that you can remain calm and centred and grounded in many of the difficult situations that you will most likely face in the future. These nine windows are strongly influenced by moderate ideas from Stoicism and Buddhism.
I will also summarize your needs for the right kind of nutrition, and effective approaches to sleep, exercise and relaxation.
And then I will return to the human-bamboo paradox, and link it to western stress management research.
Without this kind of information, how can you hope to achieve balance (pono) in your life?
And without this information, you may well fall foul of the bamboo paradox, and end your life like Shami – broken, bedridden and weighed down by physical pain and emotional gloom, because of trying to be too flexible in a madly cruel world!
Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, Hebden Bridge,
[i] Babcock, D.C (2003) ‘The little duck’. Quoted in Josh Baran (ed) 365 Nirvana Here and Now: Living every moment in enlightenment. London: Element. Page 157.
[ii] Taylor-Byrne, R.E. and Byrne, J.W. (2017) How to control your anger, anxiety and depression, using nutrition and physical activity. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Publications.
[iii] Byrne, J. (2019) A Major Critique of REBT: Revealing the many errors in the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Publications.
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Doctor of Counselling,