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Polar opposites express cosmic harmony
by Reg Harris
When I was teaching, I often had students who wore patches, necklaces or other ornaments displaying the ancient Chinese symbol of the yin-yang or taijitu. The first time this happened in a class, I would take a few minutes to introduce and explore the yin-yang and the concept of cosmic duality and harmony which it represents.
Because they had seen it so often, students were usually interested in the symbol and its meaning. Moreover, once they understood that complementary polar opposites form a single “system” and the tension created by the interaction of these forces within the system, we were able to use the yin-yang concept to explore polar relationships in literature, film and our own lives.
Cosmic duality and balance
The taijitu, commonly known as the yin-yang, is the Taoist symbol for cosmic unity and balance. It expresses the concept 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.
The yin-yang is composed of five elements: a circle, two tear-shaped “opposites,” and two dots within these opposites. The circle is symbolic of the universe, of totality and completeness. We can see this circle-as-whole archetype in images as varied as the mandala and the ouroboros (right).
Within the circle are two “opposing” forces, yin and yang. Yin, the dark half, is associated with femininity, the negative, moisture, passivity, north, shadow, even numbers, cold and the earth. Yang, the light half, is associated with masculinity, positive, dryness, action, the south, warmth and the sun.
Yin and yang swirl around each other. Each in turn grows to its fullest expression (its largest size, filling half of the circle), and then naturally give rise to the “seed” of its opposite, the dot of the opposite color. These dots express the mutual dependence of the two poles, each striving for “completion” in the other. In a sense, it is like a plant growing to its fullest expression, flowering, producing a seed and dying, allowing the seed to continue the process of creating life.
In Chinese philosophy, the interplay between yin and yang creates the dynamic tension that creates the universe. The natural flow created by this movement is called the Tao, and in Taosim, one’s goal is to put oneself into harmony with this flow.
Implications of the Yin-Yang
The yin-yang expresses many important concepts. Perhaps the most important is the relative nature of all things. Darkness, for example, can exist only in relationship to light. Good is defined and shaped by bad, and vice versa. Tall is only tall when there is short. (If everyone were tall, no one would be tall.)
The principle of the relativity of all things tells us that we can’t have one pole without the other. Even just acknowledging one pole implies its opposite. To speak of up, we must imply its opposite, down. To speak of being, we must also acknowledge non- being. In Chinese, this truth–that opposites arise automatically and naturally from each other–is called hsiang shen, or “mutually arising.” In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes,
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
So being and non-being create each other,
Difficult and easy produce each other.
Long and short arise from the contrast of one with the other.
High and low depend on each other for definition.
Musical notes become harmonious
through their relationship to one another.
Before and after
follow each other
Explicit duality, implicit unity
Hsiang shen occurs because what appear to be opposites are really just two poles of the same reality, like the poles of a magnet. They cannot be separated because they are not individual forces, but rather two aspects of one force or system. This is a difficult concept for the western mind, which has learned that opposites are in conflict with each other: good battles evil, light battles darkness.
In our American culture, for example, liberal and conservative are seen as separate, dramatically opposite views rather than just two ends of a spectrum of views: complementary poles that create and define each other. Because of this narrow view, cooperation is virtually impossible. If we viewed liberal and conservative as opposite poles of one system, we would realize, first, that we are all part of one system and, second, that there is a whole spectrum of views between the extremes and many points upon which agreement could be reached and progress made.
Yin-yang tells us that these polar opposites are eternally connected because to elicit one means to elicit the entire system, and thus both poles. They are created by each other and defined by each other: darkness is created by absence of light, evil is the absence of good. In his book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts calls this “an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.”
On a more abstract level, this concept suggests that things which we have traditionally viewed as separate may actually be one system. For example, one cannot be an observer (that which observes) without an object (that which is observed), nor can an object exist without an observer. The observer, by the conditions of her observation, defines the object observed, and the object defines the observer by forcing her to take a position from which to observe. (Consider how this applies in quantum physics.)
One might also say that a question is shaped as much by the answer sought as the answer is determined by the question. In a similar sense, I do not exist outside the context of my experiences, and my experiences cannot exist without me. We define our experiences and our experiences define us. Each produces and fulfills the other. In a journey context, I am my journey, and my journey is me.
Yin-Yang and polarity in literature
We can even apply the principles of yin-yang and polarity to characters, conflict and plot in literature. An example would be Hamlet and Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Prince Hamlet is the man of thought without action; Laertes is the man of action without thought. Through their contrast, they define each other, and when they fight in the final scene, their struggle is the physical enactment of the perpetual movement of Yin and Yang as they neutralize each other to restore balance and harmony, in this case through Fortenbras, who is a man of both thought and action.
Even King Hamlet and Claudius express a yin-yang relationship. Claudius is the evil manipulator, while King Hamlet is the pure idealist. Furthermore, Prince Hamlet is perplexed by the paradox that good and evil can coexist in one being (his mother).
Another example comes to us in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. George and Lennie are polar opposites, both in size and intellect. However, as Lennie says, “I got you and you got me,” and so they are one system whose poles are constantly pulling at each other, giving the relationship life and meaning. Another yin-yang relationship in Of Mice and Men exists between Slim and Curley.
The concept of “mutually arising opposites” also tells us that when a system falls out of balance, when one pole becomes bloated or too powerful, it produces the seed of its opposite (the dot of contrasting color in the Yin-Yang). This seed is, in a sense, the seed of the bloated pole’s own destruction. That is, when a force has reached its fullest expression, it carries within that expression an element which causes its own demise. For example, when a government that relies on control reaches fullest expression (absolute control), it spawns a revolution, which generates anarchy, the polar opposite of central control.
In literature, one illustration of this concept is occurs in Romeo and Juliet. The children of the opposing poles (the opposing dots within the yin and the yang) fall in love and, ironically, bring about the death of the animosity between their families. As Prince Escalus states at play’s end, “heaven finds means to kill your love with hate.” And it is their love, blooming out of the families’ hatred, which ends the fighting.
We see this concept in many psychological systems. In Jungian psychology, for example, we see the tension between the conscious ego and the unconscious shadow. We project our shadow onto others and into our relationships. Eventually the shadow, like the contrasting seed, demands expression, and drags the ego kicking and screaming into a new stage of harmony.
Yin-Yang as Hero’s Journey
One could make the case that, in our own lives, the movement of the Yin-Yang, the tension within the “me/experience” system, is the mechanism of the Hero’s Journey. We move along in our lives until we reach a point of major imbalance, of “untenable tension.” At that point, the “seed of the opposite” arises as our call to adventure, our call to seek change, to restore harmony and balance to the system that is our life.
Copyright © 2012 by Reg Harris. Updated 2015. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article or any part thereof in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Posting this article or any part thereof to the Internet in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and strictly prohibited. For permission to use, please contact Reg Harris.