Integrating Opposites II
This is a revised version of an earlier post.
We often experience the world as a struggle between competing opposites: conservative vs liberal, objective vs subjective, male vs female, right brain vs left brain, the inner life vs the outer life, the active vs the passive, and so on.
In the study and practise of Tai Chi I have observed a dynamic tension between opposing forces: advance and withdraw, rise and sink. After many years of diligent practise, you can master the rise without losing the sink or you can withdraw but remain a coiled spring prepared for the advance. Mastering integration ignites explosive power (Tai Chi is a martial art). It’s not a question of rise or sink, advance or retreat; it’s more a case of rise and sink both happening together so fast as to achieve integration. The interaction of opposites could best be described as a marriage, not a binary choice or a conflict but integration.
A simple practical example will serve to illustrate. First assume a firm stance, left foot forward right foot behind at a 45-degree angle leaving a channel in between. Allow a partner to put his/her hand in the middle of your chest, exerting gradual pressure with a view to pushing you over. Try to stop him/her from pushing you over. The immediate instinctive response is to resist, rise to meet or push back. Note how easy it is to knock you off balance. Now try a different strategy. The more your partner pushes the more you sink into the push, a very counterintuitive response. It might take some practise but you will begin to notice how immoveable you have become. You are relaxing into the push and absorbing the energy of it, ready to give it back. This is the power which arises from the integration of opposing forces. Alternatively, try pushing on a large tree or telephone pole as hard as you can. Then try it again while sinking into the push and note the difference. The tree or the pole may not budge much, but you can feel the strength in your push; moreover, the results are achieved with much less effort or strain. This accounts for the graceful effortless appearance of Tai Chi when the principles are internalized. Tai Chi integrates non-doing with doing. The Western mind has a hard time with the non-doing part. Chi is the lifeforce energy. The principle is — “energy follows intention.” The masters can exert great power with very little muscular effort by allowing the energy to do the work.
Practices, like Tai Chi, foster the mind, body, spirit connection. A flexible mind fosters a flexible body and a flexible body fosters a flexible mind in a continuous feedback loop. A flexible mind and body fosters a flexible, open and non-resistant spirit, one open and receptive to an expanded state of consciousness. The Tai Chi philosophy seems to be reflected in the New Testament passage, resist not one who is evil. The Tai Chi way is nonreactive. A constricted and contracted hose will not allow much water to flow.
Integration is the key but fundamentalists invariably identify with one pole or another creating an adversarial relationship between opposites. The totalitarian strategy of divide and conquer adds fuel to the fire.
From my office window, when spring arrives, I will survey a pleasant scene of forested hills, pastures slowly turning green, and below them, a vast expanse of wetland where ducks and geese are returning from their winter refuge. Soon our farm pond will come alive with tiny goslings and ducklings eagerly following their mothers. It’s a scene of perfect harmony which could not exist without a balance and reconciliation of opposites: death and decay vs renewal and rebirth. Neither should prevail over the other. Both work together for good and what we observe with pleasure is the outcome of integration. Likewise, the most beautiful paintings are a combination of light and dark.
In the latter part of my book, A Prison for the Mind, I identify postmodernism as a fundamentalist belief system, one which has become the prevailing orthodoxy of our time. One of the doctrines of this new religion is that there is no such thing as objective reality. This sets the philosophy on a collision course with Enlightenment principles – a worldview which asserts that there is an objective reality discoverable through reason and the scientific method. Enlightenment principles are summarily dismissed (by the extremists) as the product of a white male patriarchy, a view itself that’s overcome with bias. Here we see the battleground of the subjective (postmodernism) vs the objective (rationality). How can they be reconciled?
I didn’t get too far in my expose of postmodernism before I realized, yes, I too am a postmodernist; I only reject the counterfeit version, used wrongly for political purposes—to foster totalitarianism, censorship and societal subordination to a global technocracy. Nevertheless, we do not understand the world through reason alone and in this sense, I am a postmodernist. We have a left brain which is rational and a right brain which is artistic — the realm of the poet, the mystic, the musician and the painter. A whole person must function with both hemispheres without one dominating the other.
In the early part of my book, I identify personal experience (subjective) as the only thing we can know for sure and the inner journey as an avenue to certainty (very postmodern). Finding truth in the outer world is difficult because it’s like a carnival funhouse Hall of Mirrors. It’s hard to tell what is real and what is illusion. Observing the outer world, we are confused and unsure, and thus vulnerable to counterfeit offers of comforting certitude.
Here’s where I think the counterfeit version of postmodernism gets it wrong. I refer to a teaching story about a village of blind people trying to figure out what an elephant is. One holds the tail and says it’s a snake. Another holds the leg and says it’s a pillar, another holds the trunk and says it’s a hollow tube; but no one has the vantage point to see the whole elephant even with the use of scientific instruments. The extremists say there is no elephant. I say there is one but difficult to discover (difficult but not impossible). If there was no elephant, then nothing would be objective and therefore nothing in the outer world could be described as true or false. If nothing is true, then science has no place, there would be no such thing as a lie and research would be pointless (i.e., no truth to be found).
You can have your own subjective insights without imposing them on others or using them to ignore verifiable facts or lobbying to have your subjective perceptions enshrined in law. All these things the faux postmodernists attempt. Subjective and objective must walk hand in hand, recognizing their respective spheres of influence. A police officer might follow a hunch or rely on intuition (subjective) to solve a murder but a conviction can only be upheld by evidence gathered and proven in court. Many scientific breakthroughs began as dreams or flashes of insight but these must also be subjected to the rigours of the scientific method.
The great mathematician Ramanujan, from Madras India circa 1915, with almost no formal education, claimed that the Hindu goddess Namagiri would appear in his dreams, delivering mathematical insights, which he would write down when he awoke. He described one of them as follows:
While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.”
The Cambridge University mathematician Godfrey H. Hardy, who worked with Ramanujan, said that if mathematicians were rated on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, he himself would be worth 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80, and Srinivasa Ramanujan 100.
When Ramanujan first arrived at Cambridge he insisted that his mathematical insights just came to him or were dictated by God (subjective) but professor Hardy, recognizing his genius, worked with him to provide objective verification based on principles acceptable to the scientific community. This was a very fruitful partnership. The word genius comes from the Latin word of the same name, meaning, “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth” or “innate ability.”
We become much more effective as a result of integration and the world is more peaceful place without the either-or mindset of fundamentalism.
The amazing life of Ramanujan was made into a feature film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, which I highly recommend. (See Recommended Viewing section for movie trailer.) It is so inspiring to watch the two camps, the logical and the intuitive begin at odds but end in harmony. Reconciliation of opposites is needed now, more than ever.
(C) Adrian Charles Smith, 2021