Union of Opposites

Several years ago, four of my students and I attended a workshop taught by renowned watercolorist Cheng-Khee Chee. One of my students asked Chee, “Do you plan your paintings out ahead of time or do you work spontaneously and intuitively?” Chee explained that he did both, and went on to say “Reason and emotion are the warp and weft of a painting.”

The warp and weft. Woven together, and both essential to the integrity of the fabric.

What a different metaphor than we usually use for the relationship between reason and emotion!

I don’t know if it’s a quirk of our language, a reflection of our cultural fascination with “winning” and/or being “right” or a reflection of our natural tendency to categorize, but we do seem to have a tendency to think in terms of opposites. And often, when we mentally place two ideas—or people—in opposition, we then conclude that more of one (or for one) must come at the expense of the other.

After hearing Chee’s remark, I began to see that my paintings—and my life!—were richer and stronger when they had both a good measure of reason (planning, analysis, critical evaluation, deliberation) and emotion (intuition, spontaneity, playfulness, passion). Furthermore, with a bit of practice I discovered that there really was no conflict. I could think rationally and respond emotionally at the same time. There was no need to squelch one in order to access the other.

All that was required was that I learn to stop thinking of them as mutually exclusive. The metaphor of a strong and beautiful fabric made of two interwoven yarns—both necessary, both playing a role in the character of the fabric—has been a fruitful one for me.

How often do you find yourself thinking in terms of conflict, of either/or, win/lose without even thinking to ask if the two people/ideas/paths are really opposed?

What would happen if you considered the metaphor of warp and weft? What if the two seemingly-opposed things could both be present, both be valued and celebrated, both employed or pursued at the same time?

The yin-yang concept and symbol carries a somewhat similar idea: that balance is dynamic and fluid and requires an interplay of yin and yang, and that even when it seems one is ascendant, it still contains within it the essence of the other (the little black and white dots in center of the big black and white “tadpoles”).

Exploring “Opposites”

1.  Choose two qualities, ideas, choices or people who you generally think of as being “opposites”.

For the first few times working with this exercise, you may be more successful if you choose something rather abstract and neutral, rather than something that causes you a lot of angst. It could be as simple as complementary colors, summer and winter, or as I’ve chosen for this week’s example, fire and water.

The goal is to reconsider your usual assumptions about the relationship between these two things.

If you start with something you’ve already been wrestling with and ruminating on at length, you may find it more difficult to wholeheartedly shift your thinking. Consider choosing something a bit less charged for your first experience with this exercise. Tackle more charged issues after you’ve had a chance to experience and understand how the exercise works.

2. Spend a few moments brainstorming or mind-mapping each quality/idea/concept/person.

What are some words and phrases that come to mind in connection with each? I like to mind-map these and allow myself to go off on tangents a bit before returning to the central concept. Here are my mind-maps for fire and water, as an example.

Mind-map of associations with fire and water.
Mind-mapping my initial impressions of fire and water. Working fast and without reflection.
3. Choose some visual qualities to suggest each quality/idea/concept/person.

I chose reds, oranges and yellows and pointy, flamelike shapes to suggest fire, and blues, green and purples and blobby droplet and puddle shapes to suggest water.

4. Set up either a “yin-yang” format or a “woven” format (or both) and create a mandala, doodle or “weaving” of the two visual elements.

In my example, I chose to work in a “yin-yang” format with colored pencils. I find colored pencil shading soothing and meditative. It helps me let my mind wander out of my usual modes of thinking. Perhaps interwoven doodles would appeal to you, or perhaps you’d like to work in watercolor and allow the water to mingle colors and forms as you create your yin-yang or weaving. If you like, you could even work on two different pieces of paper, cut them up and actually weave them together.

Radiating colored pencil drawing withlue/green watery shapes and red/orange fiery shapes.
Fire and water union-of-opposites mandala. This is by no means “finished”. I like to return to this sort of page and develop it slowly over time, meditating further on the union of these two “opposites”.
5. Focus on creating the image, but notice any thoughts or insights that emerge.

As you worked to represent the interweaving of the two qualities/ideas/concepts/people, did you realize anything new about them that allowed you to see them as not necessarily opposed or in conflict?

As I worked on my fire-and-water mandala, I was struck by the similarity of many of the shapes I associate with fire and water. I considered how they are both characterized by movement and fluidity. I realized that there are, of course, times when flames are blue, and times when water appears red.

I thought of how mesmerizing they both can be. We love to watch the flicker of a campfire or ripples in a stream.

I thought of how fire and water combine to make the steam that carries the soothing qualities of both in a sauna. I thought of the beauty of mist floating above a lake or rain clouds building as the sun warms the wet earth. I realized we use a combination of fire and water to cook foods that would be hard to digest otherwise. I thought of the flame of my gas water heater warming water for a hot shower or bath. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that fire and water play at least as large a role in our lives in combined form as they do separately.

Not a momentous example, and yet, each time I do this exercise, it shifts my thinking just a little. I’ve become more and more aware of how I make arbitrary mental oppositions, or at least separations, between things which are not opposed at all.

I’m more likely now to take a few minutes to ask if there really is a conflict, or if I’m just mindlessly setting up an opposition between two things that often work in concert. Is it really either-or? Or is it warp and weft?

One more way to step outside my usual worldview and encourage the open, flexible frame of mind in which creativity flourishes.