Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Working with Opposites

Working with Opposites

The creative geniuses who have walked upon the soil of this marvellous, if at times frustrating, world have often been intrigued and puzzled by the power of opposites.  One such genius (literary, poetic and philosophic) was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and another was Carl Gustave Jung. (1875-1961)  From my college days I have been much taken by the works of the former, his Biografia Literaria being my favourite as it wrestles with what the human imagination is and what creativity is all about.  Coleridge spoke of his theory of the “reconciliation of opposites”.  He defined the "reconciliation of opposites," as a concept in which two opposite but equal forces will react to and interact upon one another so that a third force will result, which is different than the sum of both or either one taken singly.  Referring to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and to his daughter Sarah’s long introduction to an old edition of the Biografia, the critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978) has succinctly stated that the power that is in poetry and all art is the power we want in our lives all the time--the oneness of opposites. (Poet, critic, philosopher and educator Eli Siegel (1902-1978) grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the founder of the school of aesthetic realism in literature and drama).

Carl Gustave Jung was also most intrigued and taken by the power of polar opposites, the dynamic interaction and interplay, and the eventual integration of both which he was to see as essential to becoming whole, a word he loved and a word much quoted by Jungian therapists.   Another catchphrase of this grouping would be “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  This latter is a statement worth considered and deep thought and meditation.

A short brainstorm of opposites that comes to mind:

  • Good and Evil

  • Day and Night

  • White and Black

  • God and Devil

  • Up and Down

  • Bright and Dark

  • Happy and Sad

  • Youth and Old Age

  • The Winner and the Loser

  • Masculine and Feminine

  • Strong and Weak

  • Calm (Peace of Mind) and Anger

  • Love and Hate

  • Yin and Yang

One could go on and on with this list.  You can add your own for good measure.  I would also like to draw attention to a mathematical set of opposites which comes to mind at this moment – a pair of opposites most apposite to my subject namely differentiation and integration, which are very important concepts that form the basis of a branch of mathematics called the calculus.  However, it is from the standpoint of psychology that I wish to discuss these two terms.  As we grow as human beings we learn to differentiate ourselves from others and from the world, and, of course, we learn to differentiate all the various objects we encounter in our world.  So growing up is a process of separating out, as it were, ourselves and the existence of various objects one from another.  However, if we are to grow as human beings we have to learn to integrate many seemingly separate parts of us into the new whole of our personality, or better still the one true whole of our very own “Self.”  (I am deliberately using the singular substantive to emphasize my point.)
Working with opposites – “the oneness of opposites” (Siegel), the “reconciliation of opposites” (Coleridge) - as outlined in much of Carl Jung’s work and especially in his late book Mysterium Coniunctionis (written when he was 81)  is one sure way of integrating the personality, or of achieving what Jung terms “individuation” and others “self-realization” [knowledge of the real self in the yoga tradition where the term "self-realization" is a translation of the Sanskrit expression atman jnana (knowledge of the self or atman)]  or “self-actualization” (Dr Abraham Maslow,  1908-1970).

However one defines the goal of life - self-knowledge or “individuation” or these other terms mentioned here – getting to know one’s real self can only really and truly be achieved through integrating the shadow aspects of our character.   In the above list of opposites which I have brainstormed, the polarities must be integrated into a whole.  When we deny our anger we lessen our calmness and tenderness; when we deny the evil aspects in us we detract from our goodness; when we do not allow the expression of our grief or sadness we diminish greatly our capacity for happiness; when we fail to incorporate the hateful aspects of us we deny the potency of our love; when we deny the feminine in us we in like manner subtract greatly from the power or our manhood.   In like manner when we deny our ugliness, we lessen our beauty and when we deny our violence, we essentially diminish our capacity to be open and accepting of others.  

An exercise to help us in integrating our Shadow so as to become more whole:

  • What aspects of me have I rejected?  Have I rejected the feminine in me (if a man)?  Have I rejected the masculine in me (if a woman)?

  • What aspect of me do I hide away or deny?

  • What are all those “don’t be” messages I received as a child?  For example: “Don’t cry!” “Don’t be a sissy!” “Don’t be angry!” (selfish, naughty, dirty, selfish, unkind etc)  These I may have suppressed or pushed down into my unconscious.

  • What pet criticisms do I have of others?  In other words what qualities (which I deny in myself) do I project on others?   He’s a “know all,”  “a bragger”, “effeminate” etc.  These are probably all aspects of me.

  • What are my greatest fears?  Why? What do these fears tell about me?

  • What trait do I put most energy into defending? Greed, selfishness, meanness, competitiveness, slyness, unkindness, hatefulness, manipulation, deceit, weakness, bullish and bullying behaviour, hostility, anger etc.

  • What people in the world do I most hate and despise?  List them.

  • Who do you least associate with?

  • Am I honest about how I really feel?  Do I own all my feelings?

These questions are enough to be going on with.


I’ll finish with some random quotes which are appropriate and apt to my subject:

“The Gold is in the dark.”                    
   Carl Gustave Jung

“Direct your eye inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind as yet undiscovered.  Travel them and be an expert in home-cosmography.”  Henry David Thoreau

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This is more than enough to be getting on with.


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