Duality and the Polarity of Opposites

Posted on February 14, 2018

The image above shows the coat of arms that the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) designed for himself when he received a knighthood, in 1947. The elephants in the picture refer to the Order of the Elephant that was conferred on Bohr.

The coat of arms bears the Latin motto contraria sunt complementa, which means opposites are complementary. This refers to the complementary principle of Quantum Mechanics, which asserts, roughly, that the objects of nature, when studied at a micro scale, have complementary properties (e.g., position and momentum) that can not all be observed and measured simultaneously.

The Yin Yang sign that is also in the coat of arms, refers to the deep complementarities that are present everywhere, in us and around us, according to the Taoist tradition in Chinese philosophy. Tao is the intuitive grasp of life as it unfolds, the path that shows itself as we walk it. Tao is the natural order of the universe. Tao is what is so evident that it is hard, or even impossible, to put it in words. Tao is the reality of life that is prior to any description of it.

According to Taoism, when we look at the interplay of seemingly contrary forces we can see that, at a deeper level, they are interconnected. The core of this duality is symbolized by yin and yang. I can sense the light and warmth of sunshine because I can also sense the darkness and coldness of its absence. We can only form an image of something if we can view it against a background that is in contrast with that thing. I can discern light because I sense the contrast with its opposite, darkness. The poet Rumi, by the way, uses this as an explanation of why we cannot see God. God is invisible to us because God, being everything, has no opposite.

All things that we can perceive must have opposites. These opposites manifest as yin and yang. Yang is the sunny side of a hill where yin is the dark side of a hill. Yang is the positive where yin is the negative. Yang is the sun where yin is the moon. Yang is loud laughter where yin is silent weeping. Yang is fire where yin is water. Yang is summer where yin is winter. Yang is expanding where yin is contracting. Yang is the masculine principle manifesting as the warrior where yin is the feminine principle manifesting as the woman of deep and mysterious wisdom. Yang is outside where yin is inside. Yang is the broad and firm back of the human body where yin is its soft belly. Closing oneself off is yang where opening up is yin. Challenging and preparing for battle is yang where putting down one’s guard and opening one’s arms in welcome is yin. War is yang where peace is yin. Intellect is yang where intuition is yin. Acting according to an accepted rule is yang where acting spontaneously is yin.

With all of these opposites there is a balance or a natural flow, or a context that demands one of the opposites to manifest and the other to remain hidden. Also, each pole in a pair of opposites has the beginning or the arising of its complement already inside. This is symbolized by the spot of black in the white of the yang and the spot of white in the black of the yin, in the sign.

The opposites in life cannot exist without each other. Yin and yang need and complement each other, and you cannot fully separate them without destroying something. We can see everywhere around us what goes wrong when one of the poles of a duality gets denied or surpressed. The warrior has to also develop vulnerability and flexibility to be really strong. The wise woman also has to develop her intellect to complement her intuition. The citizen with left wing views has to remain open for collaboration with fellow citizens that do not share these views. And so on.

To act naturally is to accept the polarity of opposites. To be in equilibrium is to be at the precise place where the opposites of yin and yang meet. This is a place where by performing very subtle actions we can achieve very powerful effects. The Taoists call this wu wei. It looks like we are doing nothing and still our goals are achieved. This is what it feels like to act as a true master of one’s art, or of one’s life.

And finally, there is the insight that the world of opposites, or as the Taoists say, the world of the thousand things, arises in consciousness. At the level of pure awareness, there are no opposites and there is no duality. This is called wu by the Taoists and advaita or non-duality by the Advaita Vedantists.