Material-spiritual: Does science or spirituality have the real answers to human life? Well the fact is there are limits to how far material reality can go in creating long-term benefits. To the extent you are a materialist, you are trying to be values-free. You try to just describe “what is” but “what is” doesn’t tell you what you want. “What is” doesn’t tell you what should be.
Spiritual awareness, a deep understanding of our connectedness and where our life energy comes from, is really important for directing us. But we need to have materialist science help us understand what is, so that our spiritual longings can be served in ways that make sense in terms of the way the universe is organized. Some of the materialist science and technologies that are being developed are potentially disastrous. Spiritual based ethical principles can help us moderate the dangers of that.
Subjective-objective: Is what I see really what is? Is there some outside objectivity that is more real and important than what I experience? There are senses in which both of those questions are meaningful. But there are problems with using objective reality to dominate what somebody sees and believes and thinks: They will resist that or much of their life energy will be suppressed and you will degrade them. I remember having a picture that I drew when I was a kid analyzed by my father in detail and critiqued. I didn’t do much art after that. This is the (supposedly) objective dominating the subjective. The subjective dominating the objective is likewise problematic: “What I believe is what is, and you can’t tell me otherwise!” There is a psychological dynamic called “confirmation bias” whereby we only take in information that supports what we already believe. Most of us have that in one way or another. That is giving preference to the subjective over the objective. The fact is that what most of us think of as “objective reality” is to an odd extent constructed by the interactions of subjective entities – a phenomenon that sometimes goes by the name of intersubjectivity. We can support a balance by respecting and letting the objective and subjective realms inform and augment each other. Both of those perspectives have gifts to give to our broader understanding and engagement.
Immediate-long-term: The is an old one. It is like if you want to be an adult, you have to set aside immediate gratification. But if you’re only thinking in terms of long-term, your life may become very dry and drab because everything is a sacrifice for the future. So there’s a dance. How do we satisfy, as the original sustainability definition says, the needs of current generations without undermining the capacity of future generations to meet their needs? Beyond that, how might we satisfy long-term needs in ways that actually serve us now? It’s like how do we balance the need to be healthy by eating a healthy diet with our immediate urges to reach for all the unhealthy junk food? There’s an approach to dieting that says to just pay attention to what you’re eating, don’t get into a big deal about how much or which things you are eating. Just pay really full attention and that deepens your immediate experience and you tend to eat better food and less because every moment of eating is so deeply rich and satisfying and you are so in touch with how your body and mind are responding to the food. This is an example of a synergy between immediate and long-term.
In all these examples, we can benefit by consciously exploring how these things that seem so different could actually be synergized, and not just coexist or be balanced, as desirable as those states are, as well. The fact that both of sides of a polarity are generating their influence is usually a highly desirable thing. We wouldn’t want to have just one of them.
Gravity and levity: You could look at it in a purely physical way; we surely need both of those! But I wasn’t thinking that so much as seriousness versus humor and a light-hearted attitude – and that too much of either of those can degrade life. If you are always being bright-side funny you’re missing a lot of the meaning of what life is about. And if you are always being serious not a lot of people want to relate to you and your life will become graver and graver and probably more cynical. So being able to dance on both sides is what this polarity is about. There’s a serious humorist who goes by the name of Swami Beyondananda, who combines both qualities, as he himself puts it, in his non-religion of FUNdamentalism with the non-politics of the newly-formed Right to Laugh Party. www.wakeuplaughing.com
Depths and surfaces: This is related to the gravity-levity dichotomy. The depth half is like delving into the depths of what’s going on, what’s important, who we are. You can go on forever and never actually find something that applies to real life. Real life is lived so much on the surfaces. Therefore, pay attention to the surface manifestations of things while informing them with in-depth understandings. Also recognize when you’re going into the depths that you want stay related to the surfaces. It’s almost like a diver with their tube going to the surface to give them more oxygen to be able to breathe. So depth and surface is another one of the polarities where you really can’t have either one all by itself in a healthy way.
Safety and challenge: A whole pattern Safety First and Then Challenge is concerned with that. People will not be able to bring their life energy to the challenge if they don’t have some sense of safety. Sometimes that sense of safety is not objective; it is purely subjective. If a person has the sense that you cannot kill their spiritual being, you cannot kill their spirit, you can only kill their body, they have a lot of power and intrinsic safety. People who have that perspective and who are therefore not afraid of anything are so much more ready to take on the challenge which is part of the spiritual basis of powerful nonviolent movements like Gandhi and King led. You can beat me, you can jail me, but you can’t harm my spirit unless I let you.
To just seek safety, however, means you’ll never meet any challenges and that is a problem in terms of real life because life will end up challenging you. If you seek challenges with no safety you will be wiped out pretty soon. If you don’t attend to your safety at all and continually climb up mountains with no safety line, your life span will be fairly short. That’s another synergy and they can feed each other. Providing a safe space for people can help them take on real challenges. So we are mindful to take people beyond their comfort zones but not so far that they shut down or destroy themselves.
Equality-freedom is an interesting dynamic. I didn’t even think of those as opposites but they were given to me as an example of polarities in a workshop. The workshop leader observed that if you want a society that is very equal, you have to clamp down on some freedoms. If you give people full freedom, the resulting positive feedback loops will magnify their diversity and generate inequality. The person who is more capable is going to become more capable in a totally free environment and is going to accumulate more reputation and more wealth or power. The more that happens, the more there’s going to be a response, “Ok, now we’re going too far and we’d better stamp down on that.” But if you end up trying to push equality too far, people are going to start to resist the limits on their freedoms that go along with that.
So is there a way to have equality of opportunity and freedom up to a certain point – and to recognize that certain kinds of freedom are actually empowered by operating within constraints? Think of the artist who has his medium to work within: what kind of creativity and freedom can be expressed within the limits of that medium? So there are ways to have freedom and not encroach on others and there are ways to have equality of opportunity and not encroach on anybody’s freedom. Again it is about trying to balance these and explore synergies.
There are hundreds of other examples, but hopefully you can see the possible scope and challenge from what I am illustrating here. The fact is that life is filled with these kinds of things. It takes some perception to look and see, “Oh, this is a piece that we are missing and we can’t push this one side except in an effort to get more balance. And we don’t want to push it to achieve some kind of absolute. That would be heading towards collision, social disruption and folly.”