This morning, out walking, I paused to enjoy a small fountain, bubbling quietly in someone’s back yard. From the walking path, the fountain was only partially visible -- through the branches of a blue spruce -- which made it all the more lovely.
I’d been gazing at the fountain/tree for maybe thirty seconds, when my attention was drawn by a flicker – a pulse of light in the periphery of my visual field. I glanced in that direction, to a small lantern, ten feet or so to the right of the fountain. I felt certain that it had indeed been the lantern that had flashed – yet its light was no longer on, which for an instant felt very strange.
What had happened – I soon deduced – was that the lantern’s turning-off (since it was now dawn, & its light no longer needed) had, through it’s change of state, captured my attention. In other words, what had, from my side, turned the lantern “on” – i.e. had birthed it into existence as an object within my perception – had been, from its own side, a turning “off.” The flicker that I had seen, out of the corner of my eye, was something like a residue, or an echo – the very last moment of being “on” that somehow was still perceivable, right at the moment of its being turned “off.”
At any rate, it was one of those excellent Zen-koan type of moments: confusion opening a portal into a giddy-joyful, paradoxical kind of knowing. Was the lantern on or off? Both? Or neither? I would say: both and neither … (but maybe that’s only because I decided, later that day, that “both and neither” would be a good title for an essay).
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If someone were to sponsor a competition for the design of a planet-Earth flag, I would, for sure, submit the Taoist yin-yang symbol, as an emblem of relating with joyful sanity to pairs-of-opposites. Each time we gazed with devotion upon our planetary insignia, we could be pledging allegiance to the knowing that pairs of opposites exist – only and always – interdependently, in relation to each other, and that each always contains within itself the essence of the other.
This would include, for example, physical characteristics: big/small, long/short, young/old, beautiful/ugly, fat/skinny.
As well as moral attributions: right/wrong, good/bad, victim/tyrant, saint/sinner.
Directional distinctions: up/down, front/back, inside/outside, right/left.
And the biggies: attraction/repulsion, existence/non-existence, presence/absence, birth/death, self/other.
Posturing & In-Dependency
The way these pairs of opposites function is that one half has no meaning whatsoever – perceptually, cognitively or experientially – without the other half as its (conscious or unconscious) point of reference.
Why does this matter? Because we humans tend to spend a lot of time positioning ourselves: creating separate “me’s” and then positioning these “me’s” in relation to “others” – comparing and contrasting in terms of all sorts of categories, i.e. pairs of opposites. In other words, we invest a lot of energy in the placing of ourselves here rather than there – or in wishing ourselves to be there instead of here.
This habit/impulse is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Yet it seems to me that it can be engaged in, in more or less skillful ways -- which brings us back to our new planetary flag. This dance of choosing positions, striking a posture and then dissolving it, etc. can, potentially, be a playful, joyous manifestation of our creative impulses. It can express the insight represented visually in the yin-yang symbol: that each side only exists in relation to, and actually contains, its opposite. We can then allow the categories, the positions, and our “selves” to be what they necessarily are: fluid and relational.
A Dance Of Mutual Enhancement
Such a view makes all the difference in the world in terms of how we relate to the “others” (including past and future versions of our “selves”) who are currently occupying the “opposite” positions. Does our “success” depend upon someone else’s “failure”? Does our being “good” require someone else’s being “bad”?
At a purely linguistic level, the concept of “success” does indeed depend upon the concept of “failure”; as does the concept of “good” depend upon the concept of “bad.” They are interdependent, and because they are interdependent, it’s never an either/or situation. Either both are present, or neither is.
Yet to the extent that we develop and maintain a flexible mind -- in allegiance with the insights of our new yin-yang flag -- we can dance with these pairs of opposites in a way that is both individually empowering and mutually beneficial; which allows for each of us to be improving our individual circumstances, while at the same time remaining rooted in a paradigm of cooperation instead of competition. How does this work?