Polarity vs. Spectrum – Or – There Are No Opposites
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?