by Monte J. Zerger
Originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Zerger, Monte J.. "The Passion of Yin and Yang." Quest 98. 4 (Fall 2010): 135-138, 159.
The yin-yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.
—Alan Watts (Tao, 26)
In his beautiful masterpiece entitled Hsin Hsin Ming ("Faith Mind"), Seng Ts'an, a Buddhist philosopher of the sixth century C.E., teaches that when we "make the slightest distinction...heaven and earth are set infinitely apart."
Often a visual representation of a concept is more helpful and enlightening than words. The two bands in the accompanying diagram were formed by cutting two identical strips from an ordinary sheet of paper. On each strip "yin" was written on one side and "yang" on the other. The cylindrical band on the left was formed by taping the ends of one strip together in an ordinary manner. The other band was created in the same way except that one end was given a half-twist before being taped to the other end. This creates what is called a Mbius band, and most of us are familiar with this shape. Yet we probably find that no matter how many times we construct one or how well we comprehend the topology involved, something mysterious still remains.
Obviously in the case of the cylindrical band, the yin and yang remain on opposite sides. With the Mbius band, however, if you fix your eyes on the yin and visually trace a path along the band, you will find you eventually reach the yang. If you continue to trace further, you will soon return to the yin again. The yin and yang are now on the same side of the strip, for it is now one-sided.
Suppose now we think of the Mbius band as the "original condition," as the "underlying unity" of yin and yang. If we "make the slightest distinction" by cutting the band and taping it back without the twist, we have set yin and yang distinctly apart, even if not "infinitely apart." A simple alteration in the taping has created a distinct change. In both cases we return to where we began, but only in one situation do we return after "visiting" both the yin and the yang. We have moved from the appearance of two to the underlying unity of one.
We live by polarities, as we must. If I think I am one with the door, I will end up with a bruised head. The joys of romantic love spring from the attraction of opposites, while the horrors of war spring from the clashes of opposites. Passion seems to fuel them both. But do opposites even exist? This may seem like a silly question when we can look around us and see opposites everywhere. But we are looking at the visible world, the world of appearance and manifestation. What about the substratum beneath the visible? What about the mysterious quantum world of physics? Is the world of opposites merely an illusion, created by Mind in order to process information? Is it all a matter of vantage point, so that, with a more encompassing view, the opposites merge? Alan Watts, the renowned interpreter of Eastern philosophies, noted that the apparent conflicts of nature are "rooted in an underlying harmony," so there is "no serious conflict, no ultimate threat to the universal order, no possibility of final annihilation or non-being because as Lao-tzu said, â€˜To be and not to be arise mutually'" (Watts, The Two Hands of God, 57).
Nondualism, and the nondualistic state, are abstractions for nearly everyone. We try talking about these things, but when we do, we find that we're only grasping at metaphoric straws. If we're lucky, we may have brief moments in which we experience nondualism. Quickly we realize we cannot adequately explain the experience, because it transcends the rational mind and defies verbal description. There is no yin and yang at that pointâ€“only the Tao. In that moment we are in that matrix from which, as Lao-tzu said, "To be and not to be arise mutually."
Paradox and Complementarity
Closely intertwined with the concept of opposites is that of paradox. H.P. Blavatsky comments that although the manifested universe is "pervaded by duality...the opposite poles of subject and object, spirit and matter, are but aspects of the One Unity in which they are synthesized" (Blavatsky, 1:15-16). Here she is simultaneously, and paradoxically, calling two poles both opposite and One. Isn't it in paradox that the deepest truths lay?
When Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, was knighted in his country, he designed a coat of arms around the yin-yang symbol. He viewed this symbol as a striking visual representation of the principle of complementarity that he had formulated. Loosely interpreted, this principle states that it is possible for something to exhibit its nature in two different states that are apparently contradictory. The classic example of this is light, which is sometimes seen as a wave and sometimes as a stream of particles. In reality, as has been proven, light exists as both, but those two states can never be observed simultaneously. Compare this to those drawings we've all seen that seem to portray one thing (a duck, a candlestick), but if you blink your eyes, you suddenly see a different image (a rabbit, a pair of faces). Try as you may, you are never able to see both at once, and yet they are both there.
In view of Bohr's complementarity principle and his choice of the yin-yang symbol, it is not surprising that the following statement is attributed to him: "The opposite of a shallow truth is false, but the opposite of a deep truth is also true" (Keyes, 227). Whether or not these were his exact words is less important than that he held such a belief. The true-false polarity that is so obvious at a surface level can mysteriously dissolve into a singular truth at a deeper level.
Nature's Quantum World
Richard Wilhelm, the eminent scholar of Chinese philosophy and cosmology, is best known for his seminal translation of the I Ching, one of the oldest books in civilization's library. In discussing the yin and yang, he wrote, "Among European scholars, some have turned first to sexual references for an explanation, but the characters refer to phenomena in nature" (Wilhelm, 12).
Matter is formed from atoms, which in turn are formed from what physicists call particles. Particles are believed to be the smallest components of matter. In the 1930s physicists discovered that every particle in the universe has an antiparticle (although some particles, such as photons—light particles—include their own antiparticles).
The bubble chamber portrayed in the accompanying photograph shows two spiral tracks, one produced by an electron (negatively charged), and one by its antiparticle, a positron (positively charged). The pair was created by a single high-energy photon (light particle) as it traveled through a magnetic field. The tracks spiral in opposite directions because their charges react in opposite ways to the magnetic field through which the photon is passing. Although the photon does not create a track, because it lacks a charge, we can detect where the "birthing" took place. The point where the two spirals touch marks the point where the photon transformed into the two oppositely charged particles. This genesis is called pair production, and physicists have compelling evidence that it occurred over and over again in the first two seconds after the Big Bang. We might say that the particle (yang) and the antiparticle (yin) arose mutually from the photon (Tao).
The most amazing part of this story is that a simple mathematical principle was at the heart of the discovery of antiparticles. In 1932 Paul Dirac, a quiet, unassuming physicist, developed an equation for which a solution was the electron, long an observed and studied particle. He was puzzled by the fact that the equation had another solution, a condition familiar to any high-school mathematics student. For a time this was ignored, but eventually Dirac boldly suggested that since mathematical equations don't "lie," the other solution must reflect a reality. He hypothesized that a particle opposite in charge to the electron must exist. Many of Dirac's fellow physicists scoffed at this idea, but eventually such a particle was discovered and named the positron. There is a beautiful parallelism here. Just as 0 is equivalent to the sum of two numbers equal in magnitude but opposite in sign (e.g. -2 and +2), likewise a particle with a 0 charge (photon) can give rise to two particles with equal magnitude, but carrying opposite charges (electron and positron).
One of the deepest mysteries of quantum mechanics is entanglement. This astounding phenomenon has been proven by experiments, and yet continues to elude explanation. Two particles can be "entangled" in the laboratory in such a way that makes them effectively two parts of the same entity. You can then separate them from each other as far as you likeâ€“the distance is irrelevantâ€“and a change in one will be instantly reflected in the other.
We used to think that a basic property of space is that it separates and distinguishes one object from another. But we now see that quantum mechanics radically challenges this view. Two things can be separated by an enormous amount of space and yet not have a fully independent existence....Space does not distinguish such entangled objects. Space cannot overcome their interconnection. Space, even a huge amount of space, does not weaken their quantum mechanical interdependence. (Greene, 122; italics are the author's)
The parallelism exhibited by entanglement is not the result of a signal being sent, because nothing travels faster than light, the upper "speed limit" of our universe, and the response of entangled particles is instantaneous. In some as yet unexplained way, a random choice by one entangled particle is instantly echoed by its distant partner. The physicist Abner Shimony has humorously referred to entanglement as "passion at a distance" (Aczel, 252). Chinese philosophers many millennia ago might have referred to the passion of yin and yang.
Cosmos and Psyche
Wilhelm wrote, "The psyche and the cosmos are to each other like the inner world and the outer world. Therefore man participates by nature in all cosmic events, and is inwardly as well as outwardly interwoven with them" (Wilhelm, 11).
The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was deeply influenced by his friendship with Wilhelm. He wrote the foreword to one of Wilhelm's books (a translation of the I Ching), a commentary on another (The Secret of the Golden Flower), and, after Wilhelm's death, delivered the principal address at his memorial service. If one were to choose a single word that most effectively exemplifies Jung's psychology, surely a leading candidate would be "polarity." Jung, whose significance and audience seem to be growing at an exponential rate, was intent on identifying and characterizing opposites, as well as on reconciling them. In this way, Theosophy and Jung share a common ground, suggested by the fact that he was born in July 1875, just four months before the Theosophical Society was created.
In any case, we can easily see the common ground shared by Jung, who studied the psyche, and Bohr, whose work was with matter, by comparing the following statement from Jung with Bohr's remark that the opposite of a deep truth is also true. In an interview given late in his life, Jung said, as if summing up his life's work, "Every psychological statement is also true when it is turned round to mean the opposite. That is complicated but that is Nature" (Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking, 246).
Particularly in his later years, Jung spoke extensively of an unus mundus ("unitary world") in which psyche and matter are undifferentiated. This term was first used by medieval philosophers, who identified it with Sophia, the ancient personification of wisdom. This concept of an unus mundus was at the core of Jung's theories of synchronicity, and was regarded by his colleague Marie-Louise von Franz as "one of the most important discoveries he made" (von Franz, 159). Jung saw the unus mundus as the "Western equivalent of the fundamental principle of classical Chinese philosophy, namely the union of yang and yin in Tao" (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, 464).
Jung analyzed the dreams of the quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli, and they corresponded extensively for several years. They even coauthored a book consisting of two essays, one from each of them. In discussing Bohr's complementarity principle, Pauli wrote, "It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality" (Pauli and Jung, 210). Pauli felt so strongly about the yin and yang of physics and psyche that he would not allow his article to be translated into English unless it was published simultaneously with Jung's article on synchronicity (Laurikainen, 140).
In his brilliant work Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas contrasts two worldviews, which he calls the primal and modern, and his sentiments echo those of Wilhelm and Jung. He laments that we have traded the holistic primal worldview, characteristic of traditional indigenous cultures, for a modern view, with its "fundamental tendency to assert and experience a radical separation between subject and object, a distinct division between the human self and the encompassing world." In this reality "the human psyche is embedded within a world psyche in which it completely participates and by which it is continuously defined" (Tarnas, 16-17). Sadly, modern humanity appears to be terminating this dialogue and overlaying it with an artificial construct of duality. Nevertheless, as Tarnas observes, "The relation of psyche and cosmos is a mysterious marriage, one that is still unfoldingâ€“at once a mutual interpenetration and a fertile tension of opposites....Our own marvelously complex nature depends upon and is embedded in the universe" (Tarnas, 491).
Biology and Psychology
Back in the '70s split-brain research created great excitement by revealing that the two hemispheres of the brain tended to divide processing tasks between them according to the nature of the task. The left hemisphere performed the analytic and verbal tasks, while the right hemisphere handled the nonverbal and spatial ones. Although this is still held to be true to some degree, later research has shown that there is extensive communication between these hemispheres through the corpus callosum, and different jobs are not so neatly parceled out. We could say the halves of the brain are two in form but one in function, evidence of an underlying unity.
Another area in which Jung pioneered was the realm of the contrasexual. He introduced the terms anima and animus to represent the inner feminine in a man and the inner masculine in a woman respectively. These concepts are becoming increasingly common, accepted, and drawn upon in therapeutic work.
"Gender fluidity" seems to be increasingly visible in Western society today. This term is not to be conflated with same-sex sexual preference or transgenderism, but rather is to be seen as a continuum between the polarities of female and male. It can be viewed as the emerging desire to express outwardly the inner-dwelling yin and yang. There is ample anthropological evidence that this fluidity has been found in diverse cultures throughout time. In her book Androgyny, the Jungian analyst June Singer writes, "Androgyny may be the oldest archetype of which we have any experience. It derives from, and is second only to, the archetype of the Absolute, which is beyond the possibility of human experience and must remain forever unknowable" (Singer, 6).
What is the message of all this for us? Perhaps it is to function in the World of Two (because we must) but anchor in the World of One. Perhaps the most we can do is recognize, accept, and reconcile, but not attempt to dissolve, the opposites. As long as we walk the earth, yin and yang will be immanent and pervasive. But they don't have to war and wreak havoc in our lives. Our challenge is to stand midway between them, extending one hand to each and offering them a fulcrum on which to balance.
The Taoist Chuang Tzu is often associated with his celebrated dream in which he dreamt he was a butterfly, and in the dream he didn't realize he was Chuang Tzu. However, when he awoke, he realized he was unmistakably Chuang Tzu. He was then faced with the dilemma of whether he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.
At the core of being, is there truly a difference? Was there a separate butterfly and Chuang Tzu, or were they, and are they still, embedded in an underlying unity from which they arose mutually?
Aczel, Amir D. Entanglement. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001.
Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. Two volumes. Pasadena, Calif.: Thesosophical University Press, 1988.
Greene, Brian. The Fabric of the Cosmos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Jung, C.G. C.G. Jung Speaking. Edited by William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
—— Mysterium Coniunctionis. 2d ed. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.
Laurikainen, Kalervo V. Beyond the Atom. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1988.
Pauli, Wolfgang, and C.G. Jung. The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Translated by Priscilla Sitz and R.F.C Hull.
New York: Pantheon, 1955.
Singer, June. Androgyny. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Psyche and Matter. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
—— The Two Hands of God. New York: Collier, 1963.
Wilhelm, Richard. The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Cary F. Baynes. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.
Monte J. Zerger is a retired mathematics professor with interests that include the perennial philosophy, Carl Jung, the esoteric sciences, and particularly number symbolism. During his teaching career he published numerous aricles in professional mathematical journals, but has also published articles and poetry in other types of journals and magazines such as Word Ways, New Realities and The Mountain Astrologer. He lives in the Rocky Mountains with his partner, Susan, a counselor educator.