Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. – Rumi

It is often said in spiritual teachings that we live in a world of duality. When duality refers to two attributes of a similar category, seemingly in opposition, that occupy extreme positions on a single spectrum or pole, we can instead use the term ‘polarity’.

Polarity is one of the defining qualities of the limited, relative world of space-time that we inhabit. Nothing that we can perceive with the senses is eternal, infinite, or whole. Sense objects are always temporary, finite, and partial in the sense that they are a part of the whole of creation. As they come into being and form an identity, they take on specific qualities which are subject to the law of polarity, which states that every attribute in the manifest world has an equal and opposite attribute. All of creation is sustained through the balanced tension of opposing forces. Each of these forces is paired with a complementary force. Since nature does not permit contradictions on the material level – for example, it is impossible for something to be both hot and cold at the same time – everything exists at one end of a polar pair, or somewhere in the middle, but not both simultaneously. While matter obeys the law of non-contradiction, consciousness transcends matter, and can include and accept seemingly contradictory information.

We can ask of all things: does it have an opposite? If so, it belongs to the world of polarity – the human world – not to God or Spirit. The difference between polarity and God is that God does not take sides, and does not inhabit solely one end of a polarity. God includes all opposites and transcends all polarities. It is beyond questions of good and evil, beyond us and them, beyond better and worse, beyond higher and lower, beyond A and non-A. It is imminent in all and transcends all.

Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency. – Aristotle

Polarity on the personal level

Polarity is one of the major reasons why we find it extremely difficult to find lasting satisfaction and happiness in life.It is common for us to stake our preferences on one end a given polarity (e.g. liberal-conservative, western-eastern) and reject the opposite. In doing so, we reject a great deal of the wisdom and power to which we would otherwise have access. We also sew the seeds of conflict by taking positions and setting up an ‘us-them’ polarity in which the opposite pole is seen as the enemy. Illness and suffering come from identifying with one end of a polar pair, while healing for us as individuals, as communities and as a world, is experienced through the harmonization and restoration of balance between polar forces, finding value even in the ‘polar ends’ which we normally denigrate.

Every moment, every experience that we encounter is a mix of many attributes, some of which we find pleasurable and others not. It is my observation that those which seem to please us and which we constantly seek out (and easily become addicted to) are those that balance the existing polarities in our individual human body-mind. Male-female is one such polarity, one of the fundamental ones for humans, leading us to chase the complementary sex. Polarity is also at the root of all attraction; the object of our attraction is the thing we believe will balance our polarities.

Peace comes from the harmonization of opposites, recognizing that opposites are not in opposition, but complementary. This does not mean eliminating extremes, but keeping them in balance. This is the great secret of life, and if you have a sense of humour, the great comedy: all that which appears to be in conflict and opposition on one level is in fact united at a higher level. This is illustrated beautifully through games. All kinds of games – board games, computer games, chess, war games and so on – pit us against one another in competition. There is the illusion of conflict between two or more sides at one level, all the while we are aware that it’s all part of a play, and we are all players who are not really in conflict at a higher level. This is the beauty of paradox.

Through learning and growth, we may begin to reintegrate all the aspects of ourselves that we had previously repressed or projected. As we welcome and integrate these divergent characteristics into ourselves, our (limited) identity is undermined and we become a mix of contradictory elements. This is actually not a bad thing, to be self-contradictory. It means that you have transcended the need to be self-contained, consistent in the sense of a single person. You are now consistent but at a higher level of magnification – i.e. you have expanded the definition of ‘self’ with which you identify, and consequently, your new completeness includes paradoxes and contradictions at lower levels. As Ramana Maharshi and many others have said, one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is: who am I? Most of the problems we encounter arise from identification with the smaller self, divided, partial, separate. As we disidentify with the small self and identify with the higher Self (i.e. Spirit), the paradoxes are resolved and polarities transcended.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman

What are some of the polarities on the human level?

  • male – female
  • work – rest
  • activity – rest
  • agitated – calm
  • agressive – passive
  • hot – cold
  • hard – soft
  • production – consumption
  • giving – receiving
  • expansion – contraction
  • serious – playful
  • expressive – silent
  • disciplined – indulgent
  • exclusive – inclusive

Let’s explore in detail a few of the primary polarities that are found in our world.

Critical – Accepting 

What most people want from their relationships is to be accepted unconditionally and completely, as they are now, without having to change anything. Yet we all have goals we would like to achieve, ways we would like to grow, learn and improve our lives, and for this we need teachers and we need to dedicate ourselves through our work. Acceptance gives us warm fuzzy feelings in the short term but if taken too far retards our progress and personal development. A critical eye, one attuned to fine details, less tolerant of generalizations and mistakes, is very useful if what we want is to achieve high quality results and make progress. In other words, as the demand for quality increases, the margin of error grows narrower. The further up the mountain we climb, the narrower the path. The more we learn, the stricter the teacher must become if we are to continue along the path. The solution is to embrace the paradox; to realize that we (as Self) are already perfect in every moment, yet on the human level we can achieve the appearance of improvement.

Order – Chaos

Orderly systems, such as railroads, military hierarchies, school curricula, corporate divisions of labour, and practice regimens not only structure experience, they also build and sustain power. They are effective in realizing predictable and repetitive outcomes, and in creating value. However, too much order can kill creativity and stifle the human spirit, and can even lead to tyranny and brutality due to its inherent insensitivity and inflexibility. This is where chaos is necessary. When chaos and change are introduced, they disrupt the status quo in such a way that the final outcome cannot be fully predicted. They introduce novelty and create space in which a new spirit and vitality can blossom. Chaos tends towards destruction and entropy, with the risk of tearing down too much and building up too little. It can also scatter attention and undermine the focus and power that order brings, possibly preventing the building of necessary skills and knowledge needed to make progress. Again, we may find that the ideal balance is to participate in an orderly system for a period of time, until it becomes stagnant and no longer delivers value commensurate with the costs of maintaining the system, then introduce a dose of chaos to disrupt the pattern until we settle on a new system of order.

Ritual – Novelty 

Ritualistic activities are those that we repeat day after day; familiar tasks to maintain the conditions of life, such as: cooking, cleaning, eating, bathing, sleeping and exercising. If we have worked in the same occupation for a long time, it is likely to be highly ritualistic as well. These activities often require very little of us in terms of original thought or creativity, but they nevertheless do require our constant attention to be done well. The benefit of rituals is that precisely because of their repetitive and cyclical nature, they allow for the preservation and reproduction of existing value in a familiar and known manner. Rituals tend to have a conservative bias and they foster psychological contentment with the status quo as well as mastery of skills and techniques. Because they have a protective quality about them, they are favoured by government and military organizations and large corporations, as well as people who are risk averse. They are a safeguard against chaos and entropy, and they are useful in consolidating power. In my experience, ritualistic activities tend to be favoured by Asian cultures, particularly in the social sphere.

Novel activities are those which have either never been done or have been done so infrequently as to be insufficient to establish a pattern or ritual. This is the domain of all true creativity (as opposed to re-creation), and appears most frequently in the compositional aspects of the performing arts, design, invention and the like, and in new experiences or variations of experience not yet encountered. Novelty necessarily implies change, usually on both subjective/internal and objective/external levels, and so necessarily involves a certain degree of risk. It is a moment of improvisation guided by intuition. When one is thrown into a new and unprecedented situation, an opening is created in which the old familiar patterns of thought and behaviour may either be extrapolated to meet the present requirements, or replaced by a new pattern of thought and behaviour.

The benefit of novelty is to promote growth and development from an evolutionary perspective, rather than simply an expansionary perspective. Things may grow by reproducing copies of themselves and spreading them widely (the ritual approach), or they may grow by evolving into new internal structures and patterns of behaviour (the novelty approach). In contrast with the preservation and reproduction of existing value, novelty creates new value and is thus is biased towards change, disruption, evolution and cognitive learning, often at the expense of old value. For this reason, it is often resisted, sometimes violently, by those who favour the status quo. In my experience, activities with a high degree of novelty (such as jazz improvisation) tend to be favoured by Western cultures, above all in North America.

True creation is messy and chaotic, is never efficient, grows organically and is unpredictable. Reproduction, on the other hand, is clean and orderly, efficient, proceeds linearly and has a predictable outcome. The challenge for us, of course, is to understand how best to balance ritual and novelty to bring about the highest quality experience for human life. The battle between those who favour ritual and those who favour novelty can be seen all around us in the fields of politics, economics, religion, culture and society at large. As with all things in life, the optimal solution is not a one-sided ‘either/or’ approach but an integral, holistic approach that respects and honours the contributions of both forces. Clearly, we cannot cling to the same patterns forever, and in the long run change is inevitable, but as we change we must remember to preserve those aspects of our current patterns which support a healthy and satisfying life. Trying to erase or destroy the past and build a new foundation from scratch is foolish and reckless, for it is our past that has brought us to this very moment. At the same time, we must not cling to the past in a desperate attempt to recover a ‘golden age’ of traditional values, lest we forfeit all of the evolutionary growth that awaits us. Acknowledging our past, we let it go and walk fearlessly onward.


~ by spiritualseeker1 on November 26, 2012.

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