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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Holding Opposites

Updated: 1 day ago

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).

-Walt Whitman

War/peace, happy/sad, hard/soft- these polarities are often held in opposition by the dualistic mind. The dualistic mind sorts experiences into good or bad, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable, etc. Sometimes, phenomena are either/or; something is either fast or slow, heavy or light, bounded or limitless. And sometimes they are both true in the same instant.

Last winter, I held retreats outdoors. We explored dualities. Even now as you sit reading this, you may experience cold and heat, some parts may be warm, others cool, some dry, others moist. Some muscles may be contracted, others relaxed. There may be areas of comfort and of discomfort. One can experience both heaviness (as pressure) or lightness. You can easily experience this now for yourself.

Similarly, you may experience antipodal moods or emotional states simultaneously. In meditation, awareness can be stable enough to allow us to see how unstable the mind is. We can get curious and investigate an arising boredom. We can feel disquiet yet find comfort in allowing it just to be. We can take refuge within even when powerful emotional storms hit hard.

In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang represent opposing forces that are interdependent and interconnected. Yin represents darkness, femininity, and passivity, while Yang represents light, masculinity, and activity. Despite their contrasting qualities, they exist in harmony and cannot exist without each other. This paradoxical concept suggests that opposites can coexist and complement each other.

This first principle can be applied to many fields of inquiry. Internal Family Systems is premised on this allowance of opposites. At this moment, there may be competing "parts" vying for attention. One part may be curious, another may be bored, and still another ambivalent. One part may feel slightly apprehensive and there may be another part that sits securely observing the transient nature of all phenomena. One can feel frightened, yet confront their fear with a degree of fearlessness. All of these can arise and co-exist in this moment.

The non-dualistic mind embraces paradox and can hold two or more opposing truths simultaneously. Many contemplatives sit comfortably in circles of ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox.

The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of Chan Buddhist koans and commentaries compiled in China in 1125. Koans are puzzles of paradox. Meanings cannot be grasped with the grasping mind. The records are labyrinthine. Logic gets lost in its own cleverness and devices. Reason goes round and round in circles: wisdom masked as foolishness masked as wisdom masked as foolishness. As soon as a monk thinks he understands, he's slapped. Unenlightened masters are ridiculed. As soon as monk's think they've found the way out, they fall back in.

The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu, embraces opposites, and the power of the prose lies in grasping what cannot be grasped with words.

When everyone in the world sees beauty, then ugly exists. [Chapter 2] What should be weakened must first be strengthened. [Chapter 36] Misery is what happiness rests upon. Happiness is what misery lurks beneath. [Chapter 56]

The softest thing in the universe Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe. That without substance can enter where there is no room. Hence I know the value of non-action.

Teaching without words and work without doing Are understood by very few. [Chapter 43]

The Tao also holds paradoxes without sorting into either/or:

The highest virtue is not virtuous. Therefore it has virtue. The lowest virtue holds on to virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. [Chapter 38] The most fundamental seems fickle. [Chapter 41] Sometimes gain comes from losing, and sometimes loss comes from gaining. [Chapter 42]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

The Tao stresses the Importance of nothingness or emptiness.

Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel’s hub. The hole in the middle makes it useful. [Chapter 11]

Mold clay into a bowl. The empty space makes it useful. [Chapter 11] Cut out doors and windows for the house. The holes make it useful. [Chapter 11] The value comes from what is there, but the use comes from what is not there. [Chapter 11]

The mind is like this. The ability to empty the mind enough to allow and to embrace what is without judging or labelling or fitting whatever arises into this or that box is key to transcending the mind's tendency to limit complexity and categorize phenomena into tidy taxonomies of good or bad, craving or aversion, positive or negative, etc.

There is power in leveraging this paradox principle. Learning to be comfortable in discomfort, facing your fears fearlessly, turning tragedies into triumphs, putting the body and mind under stress to mitigate stress, or using failure to fund success are applications of this principle. These paradoxes are givens in contemplative circles: e.g. change is the one constant; our perceived realities are illusions; those who pursue happiness are often miserable, and the path to pleasure often leads to sorrow.

Consider leveraging this principle in your physical training regimen. Exercise is a stressor that relieves stress. To train balance, we throw ourselves off-balance. Cold baths trigger a sympathetic "stress" response. With intention, we can dial up the parasympathetic system, calming body and mind, remaining comfortable in discomfort, finding heat while immersed in cold.

Consider adding this module to your meditation practice. If you feel heat, find coolness; if you feel busyness, find centeredness; if you feel tension, find softness. This skill can be generalized. Your anxiety may be your path to peace. Your brokenness may be the way to wholeness; your weaknesses may be alchemized to strength. Learning to embrace all that is- the darkness, the fear, the suffering- promotes an openness that also allows in more light and equanimity and peace with life as it unfolds moment by moment.

We can go deeper with this. As we settle into the present moment, we realize that the timeless now is the only time there ever is. We move as if through time, but there is only ever this moment. And as thought forms dissolve, the seeming self catches glimpses of no-Self. As we grow in wisdom, we realize just how foolish we are. The greatest desire is to be without desire. And we often find peace when we stop chasing after it.

Consider adding this attitude of equanimity to your spiritual walk with All-That-Is: "Shall we indeed accept only good from the hand of God and not also accept adversity and disaster?” (Job 2:10) As we grow, we reject what the world values and value what the world rejects. What the world deems important is rightly regarded as unimportant. Want to live life more fully? Meditate daily on death.

There is power in understanding this paradox principle. C.J. Jung coined the term "shadow" to describe aspects of the personality that remain in the dark of the unconscious. These are aspects of the self that are repressed or perhaps even denied. It could be our brokenness, our fear, our anger, our shame, our sadness. Wholeness comes when we finally integrate our shadows.

"The disunited mind is far from wise."

-Bhagavad Gita

I teach meditation. The expectation is that I live mindfully, am compassionate, gentle. I am those things. But I also have a beautiful temper that I do not conceal from others. When anger arises, I don't suppress it. I let it express. We can be compassionate and fierce at the same time. Love can hold fury.

Often cowardice masks as morality. If I'm afraid to challenge injustice or stand up to a bully, I can hide behind a facade of saintliness. Better to embrace one's cowardice, feel the fear, and stand up anyway. Fear becomes fuel. The more of it you have, the more petrol you have to burn off. Cowardice transmutes into courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but its transcendence.

I was a boxer and a soldier. I am a man of peace trained in the art of war. I can destroy and kill and maim, but I choose compassion and respect. This is a truer morality. We have the strength and power and skill to hurt others, but we don't.

Today, I coach boxing. I teach youth how to stand up to fear, how to channel anger and aggression, how to alchemize suffering into resilience, how to control violent impulses. We shadowbox our shadows. We wage war with what is false within ourselves to be more authentically human. We destroy all that is illusory... and there can never be too much destruction.

I will close with 2 paradoxes. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.” The spiritual warrior is ruthless- our most sacred idols are cast into the fire! All impurities are melted in the forge; the dross is discarded. A steel sword must be purified and hammered over and again.

The Prince of Peace said: "Do not think I have come to bring peace... I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Take the sword and behead your sacred cows and golden calves for the end draws near.

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