The duality of complementary opposites, termed yin and yang in Chinese philosophy and symbolized in the taiji diagram, is a fundamental reality of nature and human experience. Like many of you, I assume, I was first introduced to the concept of complementary opposites while studying Daoist philosophy – but the understanding of duality is also fundamental to Greek philosophy that predates Laoze and the Dao De Jing. Heraclitus (approx. 500bce), whose philosophy was a foundation for Socratic thought, spoke a great deal about the interrelatedness and interdependency of complementary opposites.
Relativity, reversal, and non-absoluteness are characteristics of complementary opposites. Everything is relative to something else. Good and bad, high and low, big and small, strong and weak, (east and west:-) – all are relative and all depend on the complementary opposite for its existence. I just stated that Heraclitus spoke “a great deal” about complementary opposites. But we actually know very little about what Heraclitus thought or said (or Socrates, or Jesus, or Buddha, or Laoze). The judgement of “a great deal” is relative to the small body of sayings attributed to him. As another example, if I judge that I had a “bad” day, that is relative to other days I judged as good, or my expectation of what that day should have been. But certainly my bad day, blessed with living in abundance in America, was much better than the day of many others less fortunate than myself. But, as you might rightly say, “everyone knows that” . . .
The insightful observation on complementary opposites is that, as stated in the Dao De Jing, “reversal is the way of the Dao.” What is big will be made small. What is praised will be criticized. At its extreme yin will change to yang, and yang to yin. What is considered good fortune can actually be bad luck. How many lives have been ruined through excess of “a good thing”? What is considered bad fortune can actually be a good thing – the source of wisdom and strength, learning and improvement. The short story of the Daoist farmer perfectly illustrates the Chinese philosophical understanding that “reversal is the way of the Dao.” Who knows what is good or bad? And, as symbolized by the dots in the taiji diagram, nothing is absolute. Within the extreme of yin there is always a trace of yang. Nothing in the observable universe is absolute good or bad, right or wrong, and everything is relative. It is just as it should be, interrelated and interdependent.
Heraclitus described the same fundamental reality of complementary opposites:
God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace.
Hesiod, whom so many accept as their wise teacher, did not even understand the nature of day and night, for they are one.
Reversal of opposites:
Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.
It is one and the same thing to be living and dead, awake or asleep, young or old. the former aspect in each case becomes the latter, and the latter becomes the former, by sudden unexpected reversal.
It is by disease that health is pleasant, by evil that good is pleasant.
All is well, just as it should be:
To God all things are beautiful, good, and right. Men, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong.
And warning against judgement of good or bad:
It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish.
Socrates’ argument that the soul is eternal was based on his observation that life and death are simply complementary opposites:
Let us see whether in general everything that admits of generation is generated in this way and no other — opposites from opposites, wherever there is an opposite . . . The living have come from the dead no less than the dead from the living. But I think we decided that if this was so, it was a sufficient proof that the souls of the dead must exist in some place from which they are reborn.
It could possibly be argued that duality/complementary opposites is the most fundamental of all observable realities concerning human experience. Certainly change, or as Buddha put it “the transient nature of all things,” is a fundamental reality. But is not change also inherently described by the flow of yin and yang? Heraclitus’ famous statement on change is
We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.
The river changes, and so do we.
We chose this as the first blog of our web site for two reasons. First, the principles of the relativity, reversal, and non-absoluteness of yin and yang are fundamental to taiji and qigong practice in myriad ways. The (lasting and efficient) way to extreme strength is through softness. Standing meditation will increase your power more efficiently than any other single exercise. We practice slow relaxed movements to ultimately achieve explosive, powerful, and precise movement. Second, as Dr. Yang teaches, understanding the fundamental reality of complementary opposites is essential to increasing awareness and understanding of nature and human experience, the goal of meditation. Balance of yin and yang is the key to health, and to tranquil living in harmony with oneself and one’s surroundings. We’ll expound on these ideas, as they relate to taiji, qigong, and meditation practice, in future posts.