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Polarity vs. Spectrum – Or – There Are No Opposites

May 26, 2010

Aloha! No, I haven’t been in Hawaii, just offline. And I like that Aloha means both hello and good-bye, since that’s very apropo to this post.

As I mentioned earlier this year, I’ve been rekindling my interest in symbology and mystic symbolism, and planning to write a series on those topics here. It’s become a bit overwhelming though – so much information that I have been unsure where to start. However, in the last week, I’ve come across a lot of material that has reminded me of the principle of polarity, and the ubiquitous role this idea plays in both occult and spiritual traditions, so I decided to start there.

Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang Symbol

Here’s the principle of polarity in a nutshell: At the level of mind, and (quote-unquote) physical reality, all phenomena is defined in relation to its opposite. How do we understand the idea of hot without cold? Hard without soft? Heavy without light? We can’t. For example, there is no essential ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ – no absolute temperature that can be said to be universally hot or universally cold. If it is freezing outside, and you walk into a house that is 80 degrees farenheit, it will feel warm to you. If it is 100 degrees outside, and you walk into an 80 degree room, it will feel cool. To a polar bear, 60 degrees is always going to feel warm, while to a gecko it is always going to feel cold.

Sri Yantra

4 triangles point upwards, representing Shiva or the Masculine, while 5 triangles point downwards, representing Shakti or the Feminine.

You get the idea. Hot and cold are not opposites. They are different points on a spectrum of experience we might call ‘temperature’. The same is true for hard and soft, heavy and light, and every other opposite you can think of (try it.) Even gender, that elusive and much-debated idea, is a spectrum. I am not just talking about gender as a social construct either – in recent decades, as hormone research has evolved, medical science has discovered there is a much wider variation in hormonal balances within the human species than previously thought, and ‘male’ and ‘female’ are far from absolute biological categories. (And as for the social construct of gender, I have a long-standing draft post on that one sitting in my blog queu, based on my to-date experience raising boy-girl twins, who seem determined to prove the fallacy of every gender-based stereotype I’ve ever known.)

All this might just seem like interesting philosophical pondering, but the principle of polarity is really at the heart of all the occult arts (and I use ‘occult’ to mean any energy-based practice or field of study.) Energy healing, martial arts, magick, seeing/divination – all of them are focused on understanding the balance and relationship between energies, and in some cases in transmuting them within a spectrum. Here’s some examples:

  • Circle with Dot

    Circle with Dot: Found in some Hindu and Buddhist symbol systems as well as some Western Mystery traditions such as Freemasonry. The Circle represents the feminine and the dot the masculine.

    While traditional allopathic western medicine focuses on finding the ’cause’ of a particular problem and eradicating it,  holistic healing practices revolve around identifying imbalances of naturally occurring energies and restoring equilibrium – shifting energies on a spectrum, rather than approaching some as ‘normal’ and others as ‘illness’.

  • In the highest expressions of martial arts, you use your opponent’s own energy and momentum to throw them off -balance, rather than simply pitting your own force directly against theirs in a head-to-head opposition.
  • In all the physical energy traditions – whether healing, martial, yogic, dance or others – ultimately mind and body themselves are understood as different vibrations on the same spectrum, not opposites. This is what I was really trying to get at in my The Body as Mandala post. And of course the circle in a dot symbol on the right is the foundation for every mandala, whatever the tradition.
  • Seeing and divination systems revolve around understanding the relationship between polar energies, and the movement and play between them, such as ‘opposite’ signs and opposition transits in astrology.
  • Magick, and any form of energetic alchemy, rests almost entirely on this principle of polarity, in that the focus is on shifting energies on a spectrum from one end to the other. You can transmute hot to cold or heavy to light, but not hot to light or heavy to cold. These are the rules behind transformation, transmutation.
Sun Moon

Sun Moon - Day/Night, Light/Dark, Sight/Shadow

What really is the value of contemplating polarity in our own lives though? It’s in truly knowing that even light and dark are not opposites, they are different expressions of the same source energy. That means in us, in our own awareness. We are so conditioned to judge everything as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, most of all ourselves, and every part of ourselves. And unfortunately, every spiritual idea from morality to the law of attraction gets trapped in this tendency. All too often we just end up judging every thought, emotion, intention and action we have or perform as positive or negative, worthy or unworthy, spiritual or not spiritual. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? And beyond a certain point doesn’t really get us anywhere.

YabYum - Tantric Union

Tibetan Buddhist painting of Guhyasamāja and Adhiprajna in Yab-Yum union.

Breaking out of this trap is the essence of the Tanric traditions (which gave rise to the yab/yum imagery to the right.) Yes, some Tantric traditions are filled with esoteric sexual practices and visualizations, and that’s the part that usually grabs people’s attention, but really, tantra is about working with both light and shadow – not seeking to exorcise or repress the latter in favor of the former. Light and shadow, nirvana and samsara, yang and yin, yab and yum, male and female – it’s all different points on the spectrum of existence, it’s all different expressions of enlightenment.

What’s lately come be called the ‘non-dual’ traditions, Advaita/Vedanta/Zen, come at this from a slightly different angle – let’s just blow through duality, through subject and object, entirely. That’s what koans are, if they can be said to be anything – the sound of one hand clapping, the tree falling in the forest. They are meant to trigger direct realization, not philosophical knowledge, of non-dual source. Ditto for ‘who am i?’ and ‘what is it that lives or dies?’ Don’t try to answer them, just contemplate.

What people often complain about when reading some of this is that it doesn’t offer any guidance for living. What do you do with it? What’s its relevance to our daily lives? Knowing hot and cold are relative will not prevent us from getting burned if we plunge our hand in boiling water. But it isn’t about living at one ‘level’ or another, the relative or the absolute. That’s just creating another duality. Live in the knowledge, the awareness, of both. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

So that’s what’s been on my mind. How about yours?


25 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2010 9:20 pm

    I’ve missed you! We are so on the same wavelength: I just posted my first blog post in over a month yesterday.

    Such rich information here, Lisa! You explain your ideas in such a clear manner!

    “… even light and dark are not opposites, they are different expressions of the same source energy” – this phrase alone explained nonduality in such a brilliant way that I now get it, whereas before, I only guessed at understanding it. Your voice is so valuable in this worldwide conversation!

    On another note, I just had a rather odd experience: While I was reading the bullet point on energetic alchemy and the shifting of energies from one point on the spectrum to the other, the color on that little sun image below it changed! At first, I thought it was a flash image that changed the inner blue section gradually from light to dark blue, but as you well know, it’s just a fixed image. I had my own private demonstration of transmutation right here on your page!!

    Glad to have your sharing your thoughts with us once again!


  2. May 27, 2010 12:34 am

    Hey, I’ve been offline for a while, too, and just posted a new article. And mine is about non-polarity, too. We are synchronizing!

    I think many of us are dipping into this world of non-duality, but still haven’t got the real hang of it. It’s so different. It’s okay — we can take time to understand this new world.

  3. May 27, 2010 2:55 am

    Alexis – well, I can’t take credit for your transmutation experience, but I’m glad it all resonates. And it’s always interesting how so many bloggers that are linked together often end up writing about similar things at the same time, even when they haven’t been in constant contact. I have noticed this before. The web is really this reflection of larger consciousness in this way, and of the themes and threads that are emerging in and through us all.

    Akemi – Yes, see my note to Alexis above on sychronization! I was talking to someone earlier about my own (unplanned) break, and she mentioned the astrological transits going on. As for non-duality, I wasn’t really planning on this post going in that direction, I was more connected to the whole polarity/spectrum thing within occult practices, but it just naturally morphed into that. I can’t say that non-duality is really ‘new’ to me – in terms of teachings and teachers it’s been a big part of my journey in this lifetime. But there are certainly a lot of new (i.e. new to me) teachers that I have recently connected with that are transmitting it in a fresh way, and that’s very powerful.

  4. May 27, 2010 3:32 am

    Great post! And such an important point you make about opposites being on a spectrum. This is what so many people need to hear right now. When we feel like we are on opposite sides of an issue, it seems like there is no bridge for us to cross to ever come together. But if we view it as a spectrum with a slider then coming together does not seem so difficult. I see so much duality in our world and how sometimes the powers that be push us in that direction so that we won’t come together. I’m speaking about the political world and the media. We are all labeled according to our beliefs on one issue– you are a liberal! You are a conservative! And so on. But if we shift our thinking to allow for a spectrum, I think that changes the conversation completely and allows for the possibility of coming together in a united purpose. That’s just my two cents. Thanks for this post! :>)


  5. May 27, 2010 4:07 am

    Hi Lisa

    It’s impossible to argue against polarities on the phenomenal level. That’s why we have a mystical level, which is the physical world’s polar opposite. It’s at the mystical level that this whole notion of nonduality, or oneness, emerges. You can see the oneness in the symbols you’ve used.

    The circle/dot symbol looks like a sperm on an ovum. The yin yang symbol resembles two sperm circling an egg. The great feminine circle encircles all and all is One.

    Yab-yum points more to the spectrum you mentioned, and makes me laugh! The word itself sounds funny and the image is hilarious. I can see how tantra could shake you up and wake you up to other possibilites. I’d like to know more about the tantric traditions. They sound like fun.

    Great article and glad you’re back.

  6. May 27, 2010 5:11 am

    Melinda – you bring up another direction this could have gone – the roots of compassion. How we ‘otherize’ people or groups that are different from us in one way, or disagree with us on one set of issues, and end up creating a polarity that mostly just feeds our ego. We are very tribal at some level. Compassion is what naturally arises when that dissolves. And it is so necessary right now. This is one of the attributes of the ‘kali yuga’ or Hindu ‘end of days’ period – the solidification of this energy, the energy that polarizes.

    Brenda – I would love to write more on Tantra, maybe I will. If this image made you laugh I will have to find one I once saw of a Hindu temple in India with hundreds of little copulating statues. That one will really tickle your fancy. As for the phenomenal and the mystic being polar opposites -seeing through those two, or the common heart of them, is really non-duality I would say.They are a spectrum themselves.

  7. May 27, 2010 6:21 am

    This is all so interesting! I’m going to have to read it a couple of times to let it saturate my mind.

  8. May 27, 2010 6:18 pm

    Welcome back!

    I’ve seen the temples in India you mention with copulating figures, somewhat incongruous in a culture that today is very conservative. There was a time in India when tantra-like philosophy was commonplace, at least in the aristocratic and priestly classes. Sex was a form of worship, and an avenue to the divine. Some of sculptures might even be shocking today, even by western standards, depicting oral sex, homosexuality, bestiality, group sex and so on. There is nothing new under the sun. There is a tantric culture today in India which practices cannibalism. The idea is full acceptance of all phenomenal experience, without judging it good or bad, so as to transcend.

  9. May 27, 2010 8:46 pm

    Hi Sarah – don’t read this stuff too much it might give you a headache! But I’m glad you found it interesting:-)

    Kaushik – yes, that’s not the tantra I am most familiar with! But I had read about some of these sects, and here in the West there’s a variety of ‘sex manuals’ on the market that have co-opted the word ‘tantra’ also. So it’s a loaded word at this point. It’s funny – Pema Chodron in fact teaches within a Tantric tradition, and she is a celibate nun with a strong emphasis on mindfulness and compassion. But the connection is acceptance – acceptance of all phenomena that arises within us, instead of repression, judgment or pushing away. Then we can work with it, face ourselves. I know you know this as you write beautifully about it all the time, in your own words.

  10. May 28, 2010 2:09 am

    Oh wow, Lisa! This is an awesome post. You’ve hit it on the nail: “It’s in truly knowing that even light and dark are not opposites, they are different expressions of the same source energy.” Thumbs up!

  11. May 28, 2010 4:49 am

    Thanks for this Lisa. Yes, I think it is worthwhile understanding yin and yang for sure, it has opened my mind and made me not so reactionary.
    And nothing is good or bad, it just is; and it sits somewhere on a spectrum of yin and yang 🙂
    I see that 2 extreme points from each other on a continuum are often going to be opposing in nature, but of course they are part of the same thing – front and back, can’t have one without the other etc,etc and all the other principles of universal order and yin/yang.
    But yes, it is interesting that our consciousness in the Western world has been raised in a ‘dualistic’ philosophy or ethos if you like. Dualistic thinking of judging anything as good and bad leads to wars I’m sure of it and fear, lots of fear.

  12. May 28, 2010 5:34 am

    Hello Lisa,

    Welcome back to the blogosphere; taking a break from the internet is a discipline not so easy to follow. 😀

    I like this: “We are so conditioned to judge everything as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, most of all ourselves, and every part of ourselves.”

    Whenever I read or hear any “truths” I say to myself, “Whose truth?” As you say it is all relative and the absolute. All is welcome!

  13. May 28, 2010 8:58 am

    it’s what i find frustrating with a lot of the newer spiritual approaches, such as law of attraction. i do understand why our world is THERE at this time, but i so want to shout, you’re missing the rest!

    i read so much on blogs, about wishing, and setting goals, and hoping, and basically bringing Light into their lives. as a shadow worker, i’m definitely not popular. it’s much more fun to cast forth wishes then to stick our hands into murky waters, not knowing what’s underneath.

    wonderful clarity as always, would love a follow-up, but you probably have so much you want to write about!

  14. May 28, 2010 5:00 pm

    Lisa, wonderful topic and thought process here. I appreciate it and you bringing it forth. I agree, and it reminds me of conversations about ego vs. spirit, that one is bad and one is good. In actuality, it is ALL a part of who we are and who we are unfolding to be.

    I am re-reading the Estes book, “Women Who Run with the Wolves” and listening to her online event for her new book, “The Dangerous Old Woman.” She speaks of this, in fact, and makes clear (Jungian perspective) how the ego can be retrained to serve the soul. I loved that when I heard it. I have often said that I believe my ego is here in service of the soul … that by its very presence (and messages) I can exercise the power of choice and re-orient myself toward Spirit (or virtues like Love, Peace, Patience, etc.). Therefore, the ego is not a bad thing but just part of me and I can wisen up and learn how to have a different relationship with it, one of a “higher” nature.

    As always, you trigger wonderful thoughts in us! Thank you, and be well! xo

  15. May 28, 2010 7:29 pm

    Evelyn – thanks

    Ruth – It’s interesting about Western vs. Eastern thinking, I think it applies in some areas (healing. martial arts etc.) but not in others. The East has not had any fewer wars for example. So at a certain level the type of dualistic thinking that fuels that kind of conflict is just a human tendency, not cultural. That’s how I think of it anyway – which is probably why I think of the spiritual process of moving through that as a universal human process.

  16. May 28, 2010 7:33 pm

    Miruh- nice to hear from you. Yes, I remember this coming up on the post I did on truth quotes. I realized some people that commented really did not like the idea of ‘truth’ as they thought of it in terms of applying some universal truth for everyone. I think ‘whose truth?’ is more helpful to us, thinking of the spiritual process as unfolding our own truth.

    Mon – Yes, I recently came across a great quote on shadows and shadow work that I was meaning to send to you, I will try and remember to do so. I think the stuff you wrote about Chiron is so interesting in this regard too, I want to delve into that more…

  17. May 28, 2010 7:40 pm

    Jan – I know, this word ‘ego’ has become so problematic. These phrases ‘dissolving the ego’ or ‘seeing through the ego’, etc., that I myself find helpful and useful, can be troublesome for people. The phrase I have used sometimes is ‘functional ego’, or Gangaji uses the phrase ‘ego in service to’, which is very like the Jungian phrase you mentioned. I think these terms are just ways of talking, and the ‘ego’ refers to different things for different people. Basically, what do we need to see through in order to know ourselves as Love/Truth/Source? And labeling those things as ‘bad’ is not helpful, or ‘skillful means’ in Buddhist terms. Looking at them and seeing through them, and transmuting them, is perhaps a better way of discussing it. This is what tantra and this idea of debunking the good/evil polarity, means to me.

    So good to have these discussions with all of you again!

  18. May 28, 2010 10:31 pm

    Excellent post, Lisa. It’s a good thing I bumped into your post. I’m going to write about this topic in the future, and it seems that you gave me some great ideas to focus on.

    Anyway, if you’ll ask me, I use the law of polarity to reconcile paradoxes. That’s what the Buddha did when he formulated the middle path, and basically what quantum physicists have also done when they came up with the wave-particle duality. It’s just like placing the same bet on two opposing teams – no matter who wins, you’ll get all your money back. lol

  19. May 28, 2010 10:50 pm

    I agree, it’s human tendency, apologies, should have put human consciousness full stop. I suppose when I say Western I’m using industrialisation as a benchmark. But of course the same thing has happened out East too. Universal patterns … and it can’t have happened any other way …

  20. May 29, 2010 3:46 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    I too, have been away…I’ve missed your posts. : -)

    This is in sync with the learning and integrating taken place in my life. I appreciate the wisdom here as it births a comprehension style easily attained.


  21. May 29, 2010 4:32 pm

    Ryhen – excellent! I love both these examples you brought up – the Buddha’s middle way and particle wave physics. This is why I love your posts – that you incorporate science and spiritual traditions. I look forward to your own writing on polarity.

    Ruth – don’t apologize, I didn’t mean to imply I disagreed:-) I think this East/West difference is clearly there in some areas, especially when you look at the healing and spiritual traditions that have come out of each set of cultures. And the industrialization patterns that you mention, which unfortunately we’ve now ‘exported’. But then on another level we all get trapped in dual thinking, beyond what is necessary to just live. It’s a trap of our own making, but part of the human experience, it seems.

    Carla – thanks, I’ll get caught up with your own writings soon, glad you’re back too.

  22. June 1, 2010 7:25 am

    “…they aren’t mutually exclusive.” Therein lies the rub. The mind is there to categorise, figure out, and sort reality. It grapples with mutually exclusive yet simultaneously occurring realities. The mind will never figure it all out; it will only ever interpret, and that is the fun of the game.

  23. June 1, 2010 4:59 pm

    Suzanne – good to hear from you! “The mind will never figure it all out; it will only ever interpret”- I like this word ‘interpret’, we interpret based on the ‘data’ we have.

  24. Anonymous permalink
    September 24, 2012 2:09 pm

    Thank you so much for writing : )


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