Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Coexistance of Opposites

According to biblical stories, the creation of this existence was the recognition of opposites. Symbolically, in the Garden of Eden, Eve finally recognized that she was different from Adam and separate from God. Prior to this realization, there was no good or bad; all things were good. With the recognition of opposites came the feelings of fear and guilt because the reality of opposites inevitably leads to judgment. Honesty is good. Lying is bad. Generosity is good. Greediness is bad.

This view of the world is too simplistic. No human being can be entirely honest all the time. Since self-preservation is required, there is at least the presence of greed within all generous people. Greed is defined as the excessive desire for possessions or wealth. Yet, what is excessive? It is always relative to another person’s economic situation. All people with wealth would be considered greedy by the poor people who live in Indonesia. A wealthy person may buy a million dollar house and give $100 million to charity. Is this person greedy or generous? Couldn’t happiness be achieved with a $200,000 house? Or with no house at all?

Our reality consists as a balance of opposites. Every brave person still feels fear. Bravery only requires the recognition that something is more important than the fear. The emotions stimulated by fear are channeled into a desire to be strong. Brave people realize that the benefits of conquering fear lead to a life that is filled challenge and victory, even at the expense of danger and destruction. Or as the old saying goes, “The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.”

Even the definition of an element is relative to its opposite. In the North Pole, 60 degrees may feel hot while 60 degrees is cold at the equator. Are there any absolute opposites that exist in this world? Extremes can usually be defined as an opposite. For example, someone whose height is seven feet is currently considered tall. The majority defines the attribute. If everyone were seven feet tall, the height would not be classified as tall.

As stated in A Brief History of Western Philosophy, Socrates concluded that “If two things are opposites, each of them comes into being from the other. If someone goes to sleep, she must have been awake. If someone wakes up, he must have been asleep. Again, if A becomes greater than B, then A must have been less than B. If A becomes better than B, then A must have been worse than B. Thus, these opposites, greater and less, plus better and worse, just like sleeping and waking, come into being from each other. But death and life are opposites, and the same must hold true here also. Those who die, obviously enough, are those who have been living; should we not conclude that dying in its turn is followed by living?”

Joseph Campbell relates a similar story of life coming from death. He says, “It’s amazing: one after another, you discover these gods who are at once of death and of generation. The death god, Ghede, of the Haitian Voodoo tradition, is also the sex god. The Egyptian god Osiris was the judge and lord of the dead, and the lord of the regeneration of life. It is a basic theme – that which dies is born. You have to have death in order to have life.”

According to Eastern philosophy, opposites continually flow into each other and in every element lies a portion of its opposite. According to Lama Govinda: “The relationship of form and emptiness cannot be conceived as a state of mutually exclusive opposites, but only as two aspects of the same reality, which coexist and are in continual cooperation.”

It is actually the presence of the opposite that brings about change. For instance, in every peaceful situation, there is the presence of turmoil. The turmoil, if erupted, will lead to a movement toward war. In war, there is always the desire for peace, which leads us back to a peaceful environment. If there were no turmoil in a peaceful environment, a state of complacency could develop. If there were no desire for peace during wartime, a continual state of war would be perpetuated. Opposites also coexist in nature. In the center of a brutal hurricane is perfect peace in the eye of the storm. There are painful thorns that protect a beautiful and delicate rose. Spectacular rainbows are created by the coexistence of the sun and the rain.

Often it is impossible to appreciate an attribute without experiencing its opposite. For example, it may be difficult to appreciate love without an understanding of the pain that comes from an absence of love. If everyone experienced love from every individual on the planet, the emotion could be taken for granted. Love becomes expected rather than appreciated. If we experienced perfect weather every day, inevitably, we would take it for granted. Appreciating a nice day would be difficult because every day is nice. People who live in colder climates appreciate the beginning of Spring because they have just endured a difficult Winter. The contrast in temperature is the impetus that leads to the appreciation.

Even the most basic actions may be withdrawn to invoke an appreciation. For instance, I used to take it for granted that I would sleep every night. I had been sleeping since I was born. Then unexpectedly, I was unable to sleep for three days straight and it was the most horrendous three days of my life. I was unable to function normally and I felt mentally unbalanced. Since that period, I have learned to appreciate the ability to sleep. Encountering its opposite caused me to appreciate its presence. We often suffer when we are faced with negative circumstances. However, we can view the suffering as an opportunity to appreciate its opposite.

Change can be resisted but it will always occur. One attribute is always flowing towards its opposite. When we reach the lowest point of despair, the only certainty is that the flow of life will move us to a better situation. It is also unwise to be extremely comfortable during periods of prosperity because inevitably, movement in the other direction is ensured. During difficult times, we can get caught in a downward spiral of negativity by believing that the direction we are moving is permanent. Yet the only certainty is that the negativity will turn around. Everything in life is impermanent; our only mistake in judgment is assuming that impermanence is actually permanent. Life itself is not permanent. We can fight the flow of life by forcing movement in one direction or another but then we are flowing against the natural cyclical movement of life. Sometimes it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel but darkness and light coexist. In fact, darkness cannot even be defined if there were no light since darkness is the absence of light and light immediately dispels the perception of darkness. The darkness is still there, it is only obscured by the light. In every dark moment, there is an element of light that if sparked can lead us to the other direction.

In every bad situation, there is good. If we focus on the positive, the focus itself will switch the flow of movement in the right direction. An independent consultant once remarked, “I could never understand why there was always too much business at once or no business at all. It almost seemed like a single contract signing after a period of inactivity started the movement in the other direction. I’ve had to adjust my expectations to be prepared for business prosperity or a period of complete inactivity. No matter how hard I try to change this flow, it inevitably returns.”

Since opposites cannot be defined as good or bad and since there is continual flow from one extreme to the other, we need to be comfortable within the balance of competing forces. When external events bring us down, we need to have faith that negative events eventually turn into positive events. Often people find that at the moment of failure comes a period of success. The only individuals who find themselves in trouble are the ones who refuse to believe that failures are temporary. We can convince ourselves that we are unsuccessful, which reduces our self-esteem and causes us to lose faith in ourselves. It is not the negative event that causes failure. The destruction is rooted in the change in self-perception. It takes great faith in the balance of life to assume that negative events will turn positive. The movement toward the opposite force requires a focus on the smallest positive element during a storm. By channeling efforts toward the positive, we give power to the spark that can bring about our transformation.

After a brutal murder or tragedy, the first question is, “if there is a God, how could he have allowed this tragedy to occur?” We questioned the existence of a positive universal force after the Holocaust and after the September 11th tragedy. How can a God that is good allow such evil to happen? We place judgments on catastrophes. They are indisputably negative. Yet what if the tragedy is necessary to spark a universal flow toward the positive? Didn’t the McCarthy “witch hunts” cause us to appreciate the value of the First Amendment? Without the Holocaust, would genocide and ethnic cleansing become a way of life in many parts of the world? Would our focus on human rights be diminished if they had not been severely violated during World War II? Without these atrocities, in the future one race might have been able to declare superiority and slowly convince others that inferior members of the planet be eradicated. In turn, the horror of the Holocaust may ensure that a massive alienation of differences will never be tolerated.

We assume that tragedies are negative because we also assume that death is negative. Yet, what if death is not really negative at all? What if it is only a transformation that brings us back to our “home” that is filled with absolute love and compassion? If death were actually positive, then what we perceive as negativity is just an illusion. The negativity of death is clearly the suffering endured by the people who are left behind. The pain of loss is objectively “bad.” Yet this observation assumes that pain is also negative because it hurts. What if pain is necessary for spiritual growth? What if pain is really a gift that we don’t understand or appreciate while we experience it? If pain is not really negative and death is not really negative then it is hard to judge the reason for a particular atrocity. We may not have the whole story because we will never know the events on the timelines that never occurred.

The coexistence of opposites means that every negative event carries the elements of something positive. Pain, if endured, will transcend to pleasure and pleasure is never permanent. A belief in the cyclical movement of the universe means that we cannot be caught in a downward spiral without finding paradise at a later time.

However, we can fight the natural flow of opposites by holding onto the negativity and by refusing to allow its transformation. Our perceptions create our reality. We can see negativity in every positive event and we can ignore the positive that is imbedded in the negative. Many people believe that wealth is simply positive. Yet, wealth can lead to greed, a misuse of power or selfishness. We define material success as positive by ignoring the negative attributes that can follow.

We defined the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles as positive without understanding the pain that was hidden beneath the surface. We learned to love the vulnerability of a princess who appeared to be perfect. The coexistence of weakness and strength made her lovable. We relate to the extremes of an unhappy princess because it more closely resembles reality. As soon as Princess Diana achieved the ability to love unconditionally, we lost the expression of her beauty and compassion when she died. Fairytales cannot exist in real life because nothing remains positive forever. No one can live happily ever after because it assumes that the positive can continue without encountering its negative. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage if we define perfection as perpetual happiness. Every marriage or love affair will face the cyclical nature of the good and the bad.

The perception of good and bad are simply labels that may not represent reality at all. We believe it is positive to be a famous movie star while they suffer the fate of a complete loss of privacy and continual criticism. Fame is always fleeting and there is the continual fear that its end may be near. Will our next accomplishment always be better than our last? It‘s easy to judge predicaments that we don’t understand. Everyone else’s life can appear better than our own if we fail to appreciate the positive attributes that we already have. It’s hard to appreciate good health until we are faced with illness. We focus on the negative attribute that is monopolizing our attention and forget that its opposite is also its natural evolution.

We need to understand that the transcendence from “good” to “bad” brings about the ultimate balance in the universe. Our life is continually about flow from one extreme to the other – from life to death – from poverty to wealth – from sickness to health, and from pain to pleasure. Depression fades and the euphoria of love turns into tears. The tears then dissolve into an entity that has transformed – just like a caterpillar evolves from the immovable “mush” of a cocoon to the flight of a beautiful butterfly. That is the true transformation of life -- the impermanence of our current circumstances. Faith helps us make the journey from one opposite to the other. If we can go with the flow of life without forcing our own insecurities and fears to affect the final outcome, we may find that there is beauty in pain and that the hard times we endure are only preparing us for the pleasure that lies ahead.

From Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

When people see things as beautiful,

Other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

Other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master

Acts without doing anything

And teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

Things disappear and she lets them go.

She has but doesn’t possess,

Acts but doesn’t expect.

When her work is done, she forgets it.

That is why it lasts forever.

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