the coincidence of opposites in psychology and spirituality

A central part of all Carl Jung’s theories are based on ideas involving opposites. He thought that opposites are necessary for the definition of any entity or any process – one thing helps to define the other and give us an idea of it. So we have conscious/unconscious, ego/shadow, personal/collective, extraversion/introversion, rational/irrational, light/dark and so on.

In the same way Jung thought all the archetypes, or the basic universal human patterns of life, express a built-in polarity… more opposites….between positive and negative aspects of experience and emotions. An example is the archetypal image of the father which can be divided into the positive: the helpful, supportive, strong and admired father and the negative of that: a critical, dominating and destructive figure (or a weak and passive father). Clearly the totally good father would be an idealisation and we would all have a different view of what was good anyway.

The Jungian approach would be to understand how environmental experience has diluted or enhanced aspects of this archetypal image so that there is more of a blended or mediated process. The purpose of understanding all this would be to have a balance so that the good and the bad are somehow held and tolerated by the ego – the famous analytic phrase about ambivalence – so, for example, being able to hold both hateful and loving feelings at the same time.

Jung called the experience of holding, balancing and so overcoming the conflicts caused by opposites as the coincidence of opposites. He saw it as experiential, an emotional experience (in other words non-rational or intellectually thought through) and it was transcendent (the opposites were overcome and so transcended) and then the person was able to gain a new encompassing perspective.

What’s interesting in terms of spirituality is the connection between Jung’s theory and the same notion of the coincidence of opposites found in Christian mysticism as well as in other esoteric traditions as found in the Veda and the Kabbalah. Acknowledging this Jung thought that the coincidence of opposites characterised the God archetype and the Self.  The experiential reconciliation between the opposites in the minds of people is then the development or rebirth of God in the soul. (But, as is ever the case with Jung, God is restricted to the human psyche.)

In one of his writings Jung thought that the failure to reconcile opposites is encouraged by the serpent that tempts us to keep things separate and enslaved or to get taken over by one thing and then the other – overwhelmed and unable to keep things in any balance.

In mysticism the coincidence of the opposites is sometimes heralded by a spark, Thomas Merton described this as ‘The “spark” which is my true self is the flash of the Absolute recognizing itself in me.’ A classic experience as described by mystics and contemplatives is the feeling described as immense fullness and immense emptiness being the same thing.

Again I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s experience shortly before his death at Polonnaruwa preceded by an inner explosion:

‘I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious….everything is emptiness and everything is compassion…’