Our Dualistic Universe
Two and a half years ago I was chasing through the streets of Manhattan in the back of an ambulance—marking time by my in-breaths, telling myself to conserve energy, to stay focused, not to get distracted by the pain or all the activity. I was having a heart attack, and by the time I reached the emergency room I was hallucinating. I knew I mustn’t lose contact with my body or with the room. I had to keep breathing; as long as I could take another breath I was still alive. Then I heard the doctor’s voice directing my attention toward the monitors. He was pointing to my coronary artery, which was now plumping with blood. I was returning from the depths, breaking through the surface, my lungs filling with more than just air. I was breathing in the living presence of the sacredness of life.
The potency of that experience has not diminished for me over time. I felt that I had returned from a dangerous place with miraculous healing treasures, and I was committed to making the healthy choices that would repair my body and maintain my good health. Since then I have taken my doctors’ advice to heart, literally. I eat a healthy diet: oatmeal with fruit in the morning, and a heaping plate of steamed organic vegetables and brown rice for lunch. Dinner is a large multicolored salad (the color of a vegetable is an indication of its antioxidant qualities) and no more than four ounces of lean animal protein. I take my medications, and a full range of nutraceutical supplements. I walk everywhere, take Pilates and yoga classes five times a week, and rollerblade in Central Park. I practice stress reduction by meditating regularly, and I seek the counsel of a therapist to help me deal with my quick-to-anger personality. I look healthier and feel stronger than I did five years ago. I’m not bragging. As a person who must live each day with cardiovascular disease, I can tell you from experience that it really makes a difference when you commit yourself to a healthy lifestyle.
Let me return briefly to what I experienced in the operating room. I was hallucinating, yet somehow completely present to what was going on around me. Everything appeared just as it does normally, except that it seemed as if a… membrane on the surface of everything instantaneously thawed so that the room and everyone in it, including myself, appeared to me as transparent luminous fountains of light. Everything maintained its discrete form, yet each thing appeared to be crystallizing out of a unified, interconnected, interrelated flow—similar to what a home looks like at Christmas time, when everything inside and out is cascading with tiny multicolored light bulbs. I remember joking with the medical team that I knew they were really angels. For what I was witnessing with the totality of my being was the undeniable recognition that our ordinary world—all of it, every atom of it—is sacred.
As I write these words, I’m aware of how real this experience still is for me, yet how fantastical and difficult to comprehend it must seem to you, my reader. You may question how the world, with all its strife, can possibly be sacred. At the time I had this concrete experience, I was flat on my back in the catheterization lab of St. Luke's Hospital, my entire world stripped down to its barest essentials. I was not reflecting on what I was experiencing, it was almost as if I was experiencing the meaning of what I saw directly, actually witnessing the primal spiritual realities that are imbedded within all of life’s unfolding circumstances. In order to convey the significance of what I experienced, it’s necessary for me to use the symbolic language from some traditions of wisdom to talk about what I believe are the spiritual underpinnings of our everyday reality.
We live each moment as a bit of the future unfolds into the present, then recedes and becomes the past; it is into this elusive moment we call now that we weave the fabric of our lives. Are the choices that we make simply reactions to the capricious tides of fate and fortune? Or are there primordial spiritual forces at work in our lives that, once discerned, can help us chart our course along the way? I believe that there are such forces, and by relating to them we can better understand how they affect us as well as every other living thing on our planet.
So let’s turn our attention toward Chinese Taoism and drift back in time to before the dawn of history. According to legend, the ancient Chinese sage Fu Hsi, upon observing the ebb and flow of ordinary events, saw the hint of deeper truths: that the pouring of water to fill an empty urn revealed the same universal principle (the Tao of I, the way of change) that causes the stars to arch through the night sky and the sun and moon to cast light and shadow upon distant mountains. He saw that the largest truths are one with the smallest manifestations of life—“the world in a grain of sand,” as William Blake said.
Although writing was invented some 5,000 years ago, it wasn’t until around 1000 B.C. that humanity produced one of its first written works on practical philosophy when King Wen, founder of the Chou dynasty, and his son, the Duke of Chou, began setting down this ancient oral lore in written form. It was to be another 500 years before Confucius wrote his commentaries, thereby completing the oldest of the Chinese classics, called the I Ching,1 The Truth of Change. Around that time, 500 B.C., there was an incredible advancement of Chinese (and, for that matter, world) culture, when Lao Tzu, Confucius’ contemporary senior, founded Taoism by writing his famous Tao Te Ching, The Truth of The Way. About 200 years later Chuang Tzu expounded and amplified the teachings of Lao Tzu in his writings, known as The Way of Chang Tzu. These three seminal texts of wisdom helped define the classical period of Chinese philosophy (700 to 250 B.C.). And it was during this classical period that the deeper truth hinted at by King Wen became more widely referred to as yin and yang, the underlying female and male spiritual principles that animate the natural world.
The ancient Taoist sages symbolically represented yin and yang as intertwining polarities of light and shadow, expressing their entire dynamic range within the boundary of a perfect circle. In the heart of each is the secret seed of the other, like the two poles of a single magnet, interrelating to form a natural unity. Over the millennia, these two symbols have stood the test of time and have accurately portrayed, in pre-scientific symbolic language, the fact that everything in the universe manifests through the dynamic interactions between these two opposing principles. They are active in every aspect of our lives. They are the diastole and systole that enable our hearts to move blood throughout our bodies and the rain to fall from the skies.
We can more readily relate to these principles by understanding that when yin and yang are equal, there is dynamic stability, much like the modern-day gyroscope holding its position as it spins in perfect balance. This same principle holds the moon in orbit as it endlessly circles the earth. When yin and yang are not balanced, there is change—outward movement. This is what causes us to feel hunger when our bellies are empty and makes rain fall from the sky when warm moist air rises and is cooled in the upper atmosphere. Yin and yang have a natural affinity toward each other; each responds to the other’s movements: we gracefully dance with our partner or smile and extend our hand when greeting a friend.
There is also a deep mystery to the relationship between yin and yang. When pushed beyond their limits, they turn into their opposites—there is a thin line between love and hate, and the darkest moment is just before the dawn. The more one becomes revealed, the more the other recedes and becomes hidden. Our planet is rotating on its axis and revolves around the sun, yet we feel as if we are standing still. The natural world is literally animated by the interplay between yin and yang. These principles can be discerned in everything, from the most commonplace act of walking to the single most powerful event in history, when from a single spark of light of unimaginable intensity, our entire universe exploded into existence out of the infinite void.
The ancient Taoist sages envisioned that everything in the natural world, including humanity, was a manifestation of what they symbolically referred to as the Tao: the total matrix from which all things emerge, the way things really are, the underlying and overarching truth of things. The dynamism of the Tao was generated by the interactions of the feminine yin and masculine yang principles. The yin feminine principle was considered earthy, dark, still, passive, receptive; the yang masculine principle as heavenly, light, moving, active, creative. People are both an objective part of the natural world and at the same time are the subjects who experience everything unfolding within their human perspective. Thus the ancient Taoist sages spoke of humanity standing between heaven and earth. They affirmed that everyone, by attuning themselves to the ebb and flow of the natural world, could integrate and balance the heavenly creative and the earthy receptive principles within themselves to enhance their individual well-being, establish harmony within society, and further the evolution of their consciousness.
Here is truly the heart of it all. The Taoist yin and yang symbols can act as keys for unlocking the secrets that are hidden in plain sight. They are the foundational principles that generate the dynamism of the natural world, wherein all things are in a state of motion, motion that results from the dynamic interplay between opposing forces; where everything is interconnected and interdependent; and each thing is always paired with its opposite.
In today’s culture, these ancient Taoist yin and yang symbols are the wellspring of modern-day Systems Theory2 ,which holds that every object and event emerges out of, and at the same time remains within the context of, a dynamic whole system. For example, the apple on your kitchen table that was purchased from the grocery store arrived there by truck soon after it was harvested from an apple tree, which grew from a seed, which was planted in nutrient-rich soil, which formed over eons of time from decomposed organic matter, and so on. We can trace these linkages all the way back to the formation of our planet from the debris of a distant exploding star gathered into the gravitational orbit of our sun.
To recognize that all things are always paired with their opposite, however, requires a bit more heavy lifting. We know that when we turn on a light, we are illuminating the darkness, and to move toward the center is always to move away from the edge. But it took the genius of the 20th-century scientific community to articulate how this principle remains consistent in scale and category in profound and surprising ways.
At the micro level, Ernst Rutherford, a pioneer in the field of nuclear physics described the structure of the atom, where negatively charged electrons are held in orbit by their energetic attraction to positively charged protons in the nucleolus. On the personal level, the patriarch of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, proved that our conscious thoughts, like the tip of an iceberg rising from the surface of the sea, well up from a vast unseen trove he called our unconscious mind. And just recently on the macro scale of astrophysics, scientists are postulating the existence of so-called “dark matter and energy”—dark because it cannot be detected by our senses or any of our scientific instruments.
No one has actually seen these subatomic particles; nor has anyone ever directly observed the unconscious mind; and dark energy and matter are similarly invisible to our sensibilities. Yet we can infer they are there because of the scientifically measurable effects they exert in our known, visible world.
Millennia before the advent of science and its sophisticated explanations of natural phenomena, the Taoist sages were exquisitely attuned to the subtleties of process within the natural world, whether through inference or some form of hyper-awareness—the possibility of which we in the West are just beginning to acknowledge. Ponder if you will the pre-scientific cryptic spiritual words of Lao Tzu:
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good is good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low rest upon each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease.
Creating, yet not possessing.
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts for ever.3
We are now in the position to construct a bridge over a 2,500-year-old cultural divide between East and West. Some aspects of contemporary scientific understanding are clearly evident in Lao Tzu’s poem, while others are implied. We can clearly recognize that for Lao Tzu, all things—hidden and revealed—are paired with their opposite and are rooted in the ebb and flow of the natural world. And we can overlay his words with our own to say that all things emerge within the context of dynamic interdependent and interrelated whole systems. On an even more subtle level, we can hear echoing over two and a half millennia Lao Tzu’s recognition of the power that resides in the shadows of what we now call our unconscious minds.
What I believe we are witnessing—here at the dawn of the new millennium—despite all the apparent upheaval, is the beginning of the next stage of humanity’s collective spiritual evolution. Over the course of 2,500 years of world history, we have achieved the integration of the primal spiritual principles of the ancient Eastern Taoist tradition with modern Western scientific knowledge. Both traditions are grounded in the notion that all things are rooted in the natural world, and therefore accessible to our human understanding. This perspective enables us to continue on our evolutionary journey toward the discovery of the wisdom that grows from the integration of our understanding of the processes that shape our natural world with our innate power that enables us to shape our destiny.
When we come together again, our attention will remain around the fifth century B.C. but will shift westward to what was then classical Athens—the cultural incubator of Western tradition. It is possible, because of the silk trade routes that extended all the way from China to Greece, that Plato, one of the West’s greatest philosophers, could have been familiar with the writings of Lao Tzu. Yet Plato was elucidating a completely different model of the world. For him, the true was composed of transcendent, static, pure forms that were completely detached from the natural world. So it is fitting that we shall pick up our story there, at the time when sages and philosophers began first articulating opposing notions about the true nature of things.
The Way of Chang Tzu, by Thomas Merton, published by Penguin Books, Canada, Ltd.
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