“Self-mastery, maturity, and wisdom, are defined by our ability to hold the tension between opposites.” ~Louis G. Herman
What exactly is this “tension” between opposites? It can be as simple as the friction between right and wrong, or as complex as the struggle between life and death. It can be as intimate as the tussle between your inner shadow and your outer persona, or as distant as the stretch between summit and abyss. It can be as absurd as the conflict between mortality and immortality, or as abstract as the difference between finitude and infinity.
Okay. So, what does it mean to “hold” this tension? It means to become hyperaware of the push-pull energies of reality. It means to be utterly present. Which usually means you must be in a state of healthy detachment from the energy so that you can look at it like an experiment. Certainty is put in the back seat as Curiosity takes the wheel and drives you into ruthless inquiry.
Astonishment emerges when the tension between opposites is held in sacred alignment. When awe and fascination are discovered between reciprocal dynamics, then you know that you are holding the tension. Balance is key. Poise is paramount. Detachment is the secret. But if that’s not enough for you, here are four more ways to double down on holding the tension between opposites.
1.) Learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable:
“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.” ~Nietzsche
The tension between comfort and discomfort is a daily experience for everyone. Your comfort zone will only stretch as far as you dare it, after all. The best way to get it to stretch further is to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Discomfort comes in many forms: tragic loss, monumental setbacks, angry demons, heartbreak, being wrong, fallibility, imperfection, soreness from working out. The list goes on into uncomfortable madness.
So, how do you hold the tension between comfort and discomfort? The answer is proactive transformation. Which first requires brutal honesty. You must be able to look your discomfort in the eyes and be honest with why it makes you uncomfortable. Then, rather than anger, rather than disappointment, rather than self-pity, you flip the script and come at it with curiosity. You transform woundedness into wonder.
With curiosity at the fore and a sense of wonder driving you, true transformation is ready to take place. You are ready to transform loss into laboratory, setbacks into steppingstones, haunting demons into honed diamonds, heartbreak into lightheartedness, wrongness into consideration, imperfection into uniqueness, and soreness into strength.
Indeed. When you’re open to your loss, you gain cosmic embrace. You become a cosmic binding force. The tension between comfort and discomfort is held between fragility and antifragility and your courage to hold it tight gives you the wherewithal to move ever so closer to an antifragile state.
2.) Learn how to integrate fear:
“You want to get your fear behind you where it’s pushing you forward instead of in front of you where it’s stopping you.” ~Jordan Peterson
When you turn to face your fear, you meet the warrior within. The warrior within is an integration of your fear. It’s also an integration of your shadow. For what is it that all mortals fear? Death. Always it is death. Death is the cave where our fear lives, taunting us, haunting us, beckoning us. As Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
The undisciplined mind (unintegrated shadow) looks at death like a beast it should fear. The disciplined mind (integrated shadow) looks at death like a beast it must ride into fearlessness.
Mortality is always a dance between death and rebirth. The warrior within dances the dance well. He (or she) respects death. He honors mortality. He pays homage to finitude even as he respects Infinity.
A true warrior walks with death at his side. Death teaches him how to live. It gives him perspective. He learns how to live well in order to eventually die well. Death becomes a kind of compass he uses to navigate the infinite. He is at peace with the fact that he is going to die. This peace transforms fear into fuel for fearlessness.
Fearlessness is not the lack of fear, it’s a doubling down on fear and using it as an inspiring force. Fear becomes motivation. It becomes self-empowerment. It becomes providential impetus.
Fear becomes a reason for heroism rather than an excuse to remain a victim. Then it’s all about staring into the abyss of the human condition and declaring, with courage and aplomb, “Bring it on. I’m prepared to learn from the pain of living a fearless lifestyle.”
3.) Learn to embrace paradox:
“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” ~Tony Schwartz
The true paradox is that you probably imagine the universe is paradoxical. It’s not. You are the paradox. A deliciously complicated paradox.
Embrace that fact. There is nothing more fascinating in this universe than you are. You’re not just a speck in the universe; you are the entire universe in a speck. You are the universe perceiving itself in a way it cannot. Man is God asleep; God is man awake.
You may be a finite construct in an infinite universe, but you are connected to that universe in an infinite way. You are infinity all the way down perceiving infinity all the way up. You’re simply stuck in a finite body which uses a fallible brain to perceive it all, which creates a paradox of perception.
The only way to resolve the paradox is to embrace and then transcend it. You must accept the fact that you are a fundamentally flawed, fallible, imperfect, and biased mortal and then detach yourself from it so that you can enjoy the paradox.
But the real secret to becoming adaptable to paradox and maintaining the tension between opposites is keeping humility ahead of hubris. Never forsake one for the other but keep hubris on a shorter leash. Make sure the Ego works for the Soul and not the other way around.
4.) Reimagine imagination itself:
“The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.” ~Ken Kesey
Imagination is that place where, as Jung intuited, “reason and understanding unite with unreason and magic.” It’s a transcendent state. It’s where Einstein rode on a photon of light. It’s where Prometheus stole fire from the gods. It’s where the pen is mightier than the sword.
There is nothing more powerful than your imagination. Through your imagination you can become anything. You can go anywhere.
You can even discover a sacred space where you can hold the tension between opposites, a place where you are free to pull the strings, manipulate higher frequencies, and secure the tug of war rope stretched between life and death. A place between worlds where you are the bridge.
Call it an existential crossroads. A place to surrender. A place for transformation. A place for resurrection. When you surrender to emptiness, you find fullness. When you are willing to experience aloneness, you discover connection.
Here, you are the pivot, the elbow of the universe, the hinge of high humor. You are the fulcrum where meaninglessness and meaning collide. It is your duty to respond to Alpha and Beta pettiness with Meta greatness. You must pivot lest you become stuck. To prevent being trapped in a stifling comfort zone. To thwart close-mindedness, hardheartedness, brittleness, and dogmatism. You pivot so that you may remain flexible, adaptable, and antifragile.
As Bruce Lee said, “All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”
And so, you are not fixed in any set pattern. You keep imagination ahead of reason and the Truth Quest ahead of the “truth.” You recondition cultural conditioning. You reimagine imagination. You reinvent God. For you are the fulcrum. You are the tension. You hold yourself between heaven and hell, shadow and light, life and death, mortality and infinity. You are aware.
As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “To be aware of limitations is already to be beyond them.”
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (How to Hold the Tension Between Opposites) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.