The Dynamic of Polarities
“The Darkness and the Light meet inside of me,
And they dance me into life, set me free, set me free.
They dance me into life, set me free.”
(Green Song book, p. __)
This lyric from a Libby Rodriguez chant is a “zipper” song – one can substitute any polarities one wishes. I find it very powerful for meditation or worship.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” says Ecclesiastes in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. While agreeing with the overarching sentiment, I do question there being a time for “hate.” We could think in terms of hating the sin and not the sinner. But Buddhists would say that as violence breeds violence, so hatred, whatever the justification, breeds hatred. Nevertheless, this ancient wisdom saying catches something important. Not only is a flowing dance of contrasting polarities a central aspect of the rhythm of life, but each aspect of such polarities is appropriate in its “season.”
The things we tend to resist – one could say our demons -- have very different, even opposite, faces. What are you most afraid of? Losing love --or living it? Being alone or being intimate? Endings, or new beginnings? Helplessness or power? Taking risks, or being stuck in the same place? Abandonment -- or attraction? Chaos or stifling order? Anger or tenderness? Isolation or vulnerability? Suffering -- or ecstasy? Many of these apparent opposites are in fact complementary polarities, though by culture, temperament, and inclination we may privilege one over the other. Even those appearing negative at first glance often have a life-affirming side to them in the right circumstances. Possibly even hatred, although for me the jury is still out on that one!
Jay Michaelson would agree that broadening the human qualities our consciousness can access results in greater aliveness. He reflects upon the classic Greek contrast of Apollonian and Dionysian modes:
We are not meant to choose sides between these two polarities of human experience. Both are capable of holiness, as well as of idolatry, and both exist in every spiritual tradition of which I am aware. The joy of living is to experience the full range of human life, from delicate French cuisine and wine to pizza and beer, formal dance to a freestyle frolic. There is a wide range of faces to the Divine, and the more we expand the range of those faces, the less idolatrous our images of God become, and the more delight enters into our lives. To deprive the soul of human experience is an impoverishment of the life you have been given. (God in Your Body:122)
Much of my writing and has grown from the concept that while at some level Reality is unified, reality as we encounter it in our lives is a rich complexity woven from diverse and dynamic interdependent polarities. In dancing between them, we deepen our encounter with Spirit and experience more fully what it means to be human.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, sees the very complexity of our being as the product of a dancing polarity of psychological processes: “Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies.” (Flow:41)
Polarities in this context are quite different from “dualisms.” In the West, we have tended to structure our thought dualistically, in terms of opposites that completely exclude one another. One is almost always considered more desirable than the other. Dualisms describe reality as either/or, while polarities describe a dynamically interconnected both/and. Dualism in the West most commonly brings to mind the philosophy of Descartes, with his certainty that material matter and spirit had nothing in common with each other.
The Romantic backlash against Rationalism included an interest in polarities as an antidote to a Cartesian world. New discoveries about electricity and magnetic attraction, with their polar natures, had caught the popular as well as the scholarly imagination. Emerson, Coleridge, and many other poetic philosophers, including D.H. Lawrence later on, embraced a vision of reality as animated by complementary polarities. A commentator on Lawrence writes: “Lawrence. . . is not content with mere recognition of the existence of opposites. For him the great problem of both life and knowledge always was to grasp the relation between the opposites in such a way that one could see them as aspects of a whole and thereby avoid falling into a dualism that sundered the unity of life.” (Montgomery, The Visionary D.H. Lawrence: Beyond Philosophy and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 14)
My exploration of dynamic polarities began with Taoism and with the work of Carl Jung. Then I discovered that Jung is considered a Taoist by some of his most influential followers, interviewed by David Rosen for The Tao of Jung. As one explained, Jung “was Taoist, and today people don’t realize that his psychology of opposites is virtually the same as Taoism.” (ToJ:xxi). Hegel, Heidegger. Buber, Whitehead and other thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were also influenced by the Taoist texts that were beginning to reach the West, finding ideas that resonated with the way they experienced their own world. (J.J. Clarke, The Tao of the West). Their was limited, but it was sufficient to nudge their own view of the world out of the ruts of Western assumptions and inspire them to new and more open perspectives.understanding of Taoism
A number of psychologists and psychoanalysts have built upon Jung’s work with polarities, especially as applied to personality theory. Social scientists have also explored the dynamics of polarities in social networks and conflict situations. Especially useful is the concept of “polarity management” as an alternative way to address differences when core values are involved.