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Hsiang Sheng: Polarity in the Hero’s Journey
by Reg Harris
Forty-five years ago, when I began studying Eastern philosophy, I became intrigued with Philosophical Taoism, a Chinese philosophy which originated about 550 B.C.E., roughly the same time as Buddhism emerged in India. Central to Taoist philosophy is the concept of Yin and Yang, the Taoist symbol for cosmic unity and balance symbolized by the taijitu symbol.
The taijitu illustrates the principle that opposites are not separate, opposing forces, but mutually-dependent, mutually-defining poles of a single system. Each force exists only in relationship to its opposite, each is “completed” by its opposite, and each gains life and expression through the patterns generated by the perpetual interplay with its opposite. This interrelationship is symbolized by the two halves of the diagram. The white creates and defines the black; the black creates and defines the white. Each figure can be perceived only against the background of the other. Take one away and the other ceases to exist.
Hsiang sheng: “dependent arising” or “inseparability”
The foundation of the interdependent nature of Yin and Yang is a relationship called hsiang sheng, which means “mutual arising,” “dependent arising,” or “inseparability” (Watts, 1977; Mair, 1990). Hsiang sheng tells us that one pole of a system (event, concept, etc.) cannot arise in isolation. Its complimentary pole must arise with it as the ground against which that pole is perceived. For example, when we perceive tallness, we must simultaneously perceive a background of shortness. We cannot create a goal without, at the same time, creating obstructions to that goal. Movement cannot exist except in relation to resistance or stillness. Inherent in a problem is its own solution. Focusing on good accentuates evil. Differentiation complements integration. Being and non-being arise from and with each other.
Though poles may appear as conflicting opposites, they are really connected. Their estrangement is an illusion created by our discriminating, categorizing intellects, which tend to attach us to the positive or pleasure-giving pole while repressing the negative or pain-producing pole. Thus, our discriminating mind creates the perception of polarity: “By the very act of focusing our attention on any one concept we create its opposite” (Capra, 1991 p. 145).
While the division or segregation created by discrimination is essential to survival in everyday life, it is not a fundamental reality of being (Capra, 1991). In the context of the journey, when we become fixated solely on our own understandings, we separate ourselves from the self-regulating process of our relationship with her world. Eventually, we are called on a journey to harmonize our understandings and with those of our culture, restoring balance to the two poles of our existence. As Alan Watts (1977) explains,
This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them…Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other (Watts, 1977, p. 21).
Psychological Implications of Dependent Arising
Hsiang sheng suggests interesting implications in psychology. For example, if we select from a whole experience (which is composed of many different elements) a single element that emphasizes what we like or acknowledge in ourselves, we must deselect (reject or repress) other elements of that experience that draw our attention to aspects of our personality we disown or reject. However, hsiang sheng tells us that the deselected experiences cannot just disappear. They are parts of the whole “who-I-am” system, our “personal gestalt,” and eventually, when the tension between the two poles of our self-perception is great enough, they will be synthesized, leading to growth and transformation.
Other psychological theories suggest that this same transformational potential is a fundamental characteristic of polar systems. Gestalt theory tells us that we perceive ourselves only against the ground of what we are not, so—paradoxically—what we are not is also a part of who we are and eventually it must be brought to awareness, articulated and harmonized. Repressing this recognition creates problems. In Jungian psychology, increasing the emphasis on positive aspects of our self causes a corresponding increase in the intensity of the balancing or Shadow aspects. In a healthy person, there is a dynamic tension and interplay between the ego and the shadow. When they work in harmony, psychic energy is freed, and the person feels energetic and unified (Hall & Nordby, 1973).
Buddhist philosophy, too, includes the concept that dependent arising is a key element in polar transformation. The Buddhist “Wheel of Life” (right), which is a metaphor for the different patterns of attachments that cause psychological problems, depicts six “realms.” Each realm contains two drawings, one symbolizing the nature of the problem inherent in that realm and the other a particular bodhisattva (enlightened teacher), representing the means for liberation from the problem.
…one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion…that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. …our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering (Epstein, 1995, p. 16).
Figure and Ground: The Paradox of Being
This mutuality leads us to a second important characteristic of hsiang sheng: the principle of figure and ground. This principle illustrates our perceptual tendency to separate whole figures from their backgrounds. As a result, we when perceive an image, it stands out in contrast to its background. That is, to exist the figure relies on a background of what it is not. For example, a tall figure appears tall only in relation to a ground of shortness, and shortness is short only because of its relationship to tallness. Take away the ground and the figure disappears. Remove shortness, for example, and everyone becomes tall, which means everyone is average, so tallness itself disappears. At a more existential level, “being” can exist only against a background of “non-being,” just as “thingness” can exist only in relationship to “nothingness.”
Because they are mutually arising, figure and ground exist interdependently, in dynamic relation to each other: “We are not aware of any figure — be it an image, sound, or tactile impression — except in relation to a background. . . . What we perceive is never a figure alone but a figure/ground relationship” (Watts, 1974, p. 19). Thus the nature of perception is to apprehend not just the figure, but the entire field or the figure-ground relationship. The relationship between the figure and the ground is the meaning. When we fight this natural process of perceiving the figure-ground relationships, we lose the creative tension that builds meaning in our lives. As Jung has said, “Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable-perhaps everything” (1963, p. 340).
In Gestalt therapy, this interplay between the figure and ground is critical to the health and viability of the self, on maintaining the elasticity of the figure/ground relationship, and it is, in the Gestalt view, the process of growth and maturation.
Synthesis: Creating new Meaning
This interplay between the polar aspects of the figure-ground system parallels the concept of synthesis as the process for growth and transformation (see “Hegel’s Dialectic”). In terms of our discussion, figure and ground are polar aspects (“thesis” and “antithesis”) of one reality, and it is the synthesis of the two (perception of the figure-ground relationship) that stimulates the construction of meaning and the process of growth and transformation. It is also the process that leads to what Campbell called the “transformation of consciousness” and our ability to fully understand all aspects of a challenge or situation.
We can see the importance of understanding the figure-ground relationship in the context of adolescent behavior. If a child is belligerent in school, for example, initially we might believe that the belligerent attitude is the problem. However, when we were to look at the ground, the life from which that behavior arises, we might see that the belligerence as a survival tactic in an abusive or repressive home life. In other words, the field and ground form the child’s gestalt that is the basis of his or her behavior.
Hsiang Sheng and the Hero’s Journey
In the context of the Hero’s Journey, the journey becomes the process of reconciling and synthesizing of this figure-ground relationship into a new perspective (a new level of consciousness). Often our Call to adventure is the awareness, perhaps subconsciously, that we have attached ourselves to a “figure” in our life and lost sight of the “ground” from which it arises. When we lose that greater perspective, we lose the ability to create meaning and purpose. By identifying with one aspect of our existence—our needs, our work, our fears—we throw our lives out of balance. The journey can be the process of restoring the field-ground relationship, releasing the dynamic energy that flows between those poles and restoring energy and meaning to life.
Capra, F. (1991). The Tao of physics (3rd ed.). Boston: Shambhala.
Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts without a thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. New York: BasicBooks.
Hall, C. S., & Nordby, V. J. (1973). A primer of Jungian psychology. New York: Penguin Books.
Jung, C. G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage.
Mair, V. (1990). Tao Te Ching. New York: Bantam.
Watts, A. (1977). Tao: The watercourse way. New York: Pantheon.