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An Essay on the Reconcilitation of Opposites
This paper tries to shed light on the importance of multiple viewpoints. There is rarely one single answer or approach to any problem. More options reveal themselves by utilizing multiple ways of looking at issues, . The paper also tries to show that what seem to be mutually exclusive opposing forces are usually just two sides of a single coin, and are therefore inseparable.
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by Steven Gallop, OD (Published 1993; Journal of Behavioral Optometry, Vol. 4, #6)
Webster’s dictionary defines opposites as: 1. set against, facing or back to back; at the other end or side; in a contrary position or direction 2. characterized by hostility or resistance 3. different in every way; exactly contrary; antithetical. Perhaps part of the first definition is useful in understanding a positive use of the concept of opposites. The remainder of this definition either openly or surreptitiously implies no positive aspects to the relationship between opposites. This definition of opposites takes a very separatist look at two “entities” which are felt to have nothing in common except for the fact that they have nothing in common. This type of one-step analysis imposes an artificial separation and tends to obscure the true essence of the concept of opposites – their complementary nature. Even the word opposition (from the same root as opposite) exemplifies this paradox. Opposition – one against the other. The opposing sides are both required, are completely dependent on each other; if one withdraws there is NO opposition. The goal of this paper is to soften the boundaries we have constructed for the sake of linear simplicity and to add a flexibility and sense of flow to our understanding and utilization of opposites. What is being attempted is not to dispute these definitions or concepts but to question the way we perceive their relationship.
Two familiar examples of opposites in optometry are central vs. peripheral and figure vs. ground. Although central and figure refer to specific aspects of the environment and peripheral and ground may be similarly defined, what is at a given moment considered as figure easily transforms into ground as a peripheral stimulus draws our attention to become central. These concepts illustrate the interdependent and fluid nature that is the essence of opposites.
In our culture we focus on the obvious differences between opposites because those are the easiest aspects to observe. We habitually stop at that point without looking more deeply at the dynamics and subtle interactions in between the extremes. Other philosophies and cultures understand these dynamics in a way that seems to more accurately reflect the actual circumstances encountered when the concept of opposites manifests in daily life. One of the basic tenets of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism (JOVD vol. 21, Number 4) is an understanding of the dynamic interaction and interdependence of opposites. The Western view of the relationship of opposites tends to be that of utter separation: Opposites are opposed to one another – completely incompatible. Good versus bad; give me only the desirable and none of the undesirable. The Taoist view is that of mutual implication. Head implies tail, good implies bad, birth implies death. The Taoist approach to opposites is embodied in the Yin-Yang concept. Yin and Yang are merely convenient labels used to guide the perception and utilization of the way things function in relation to each other and to the universe. Yin-Yang theory contends that all things are merely parts of a whole. No entity can be considered without considering its relationship to other entities. No thing exists in isolation. There are no absolutes. “Yin and Yang must, necessarily, contain within themselves the possibility of opposition and change. The character for Yin originally meant the shady side of a slope. It is associated with such qualities as cold, rest, responsiveness, passivity, darkness, interiority, downwardness, inwardness, and decrease. The original meaning of Yang was the sunny side of a slope. The term implies brightness and is part of one common Chinese expression for the sun. Yang is associated with qualities such as heat, stimulation, movement, activity, excitement, vigor, light, exteriority, upwardness, outwardness, and increase.” (1) in fact with the cyclic passage of time, one continuously is transformed into the other and back.
This principle describes the nature of organic process. It suggests two types of transformations: changes that occur harmoniously, in the normal course of events, and the sudden ruptures and transformations characteristic of extremely disharmonious situations. In normal life such regular transformations occur smoothly, maintaining a proper, healthy balance of Yin and Yang in the body.
Yin and Yang create each other in even the most stable relationships and are always subtly transforming into each other. This constant transformation is the source of all change. Change is one of life’s few guarantees. Although we often fear and fight against change, there is neither denying nor preventing it. It may be a linear type of change such as the physical aging process. It may be a cyclic form such as the continual oscillation between inhaling and exhaling. Change is constant. When one is in balance, change is an ally, allowing freedom of movement and thought.
Visually speaking, one who is out of balance in centering and/or identification will experience this in visual performance and in the body/mind. One who is overly convergent, inwardized (yin) may perform well on culturally imposed near centered tasks but, generally at great cost to relaxed efficiency due to neglect of peripheral awareness and flexibility ( in general and in visual release of accommodation and vergence). Similarly, in one who is too divergent, peripheral (yang) there is great difficulty centering on the task at hand. Both styles have their merits but, the most efficient way to utilize the one is under the influence of the balancing effects of the other.
A good VT program does not merely seek to enhance poor performance areas while ignoring areas of relative strength. It uses areas of strength as a way into the system to develop or enhance areas of weakness. This is done while keeping the isolation of “separate” functions to a minimum. This allows the entire system to better experience the meaning of various aspects of function while maintaining the integrative nature of the program (and the process) as a priority. Strengths and weaknesses are both necessary components of any system. They complement each other best when balance between them is optimal and their interrelationship is understood.
It is also important to consider the roles of the participants in this same complementary light. This is usefully addressed in the pair known as teacher and student. One aspect of this concerns the working definition of teacher. Is a teacher one who doles out facts for superficial absorption or one who exposes questions allowing the student to search for truth and understanding from within? The latter puts the teacher more in the role of guide and the student in that of teacher. It seems this would also allow for greater personal enhancement of understanding. More importantly, this helps to decrease the tendency to just accept the “facts”. Another aspect of the teacher-student polarity revolves mainly around ego. Must the teacher control the information and the learning situation? What is the importance of the teacher’s position of power? Should this power be used to determine what is correct or more to direct the flow of the learning process?
A good teacher is one who is open when communicating with students. Being open in this way gives the opportunity to learn via the act of teaching. Of course many teachers are caught up in the separateness, in the opposition between teacher and student and are missing out on a wonderful gift – the teachings of the student. Maria Montessori, one of the great teachers of all time, felt that her greatest teachers over the years were the children she worked with. I’m sure most of us have gotten at least one new procedure or new variation from our patients’ insights. While the knowledge that comes with many years of experience is an invaluable asset it is not flawless. In most cases the many years of attention devoted to better understanding one’s field of expertise creates not only tremendous insight but, (and this may be unavoidable to some degree) varying degrees of preconceived notions about the way it “really is”. One who is quite unfamiliar with the subject is often able to make surprising insights quite because of a lack of understanding in the standard manner (paradigm). A novice must, by definition, be looking from a totally different angle. “The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not, however, just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong.”(3)
This tendency to see things through the filters of personal bias pervades science and all human interaction. The person who is striving to solve a problem is often over-focused on a singular issue. This facilitates the closing out of peripheral (wholistic) issues. This, in combination with the insistence on “objective” research based on pure scientific data, tends to denigrate intuitive grasps or leaps. Science, which is systematized knowledge gained by observation, study and experimentation is held in uncomplimentary opposition to intuition – direct knowing or learning without the conscious use of reasoning. The argument rages on. There is no place in science for guessing and feelings…or is there? [Often an] “individual has struggled for years with a problem, unable to find the solution. This preparation period includes typically numerous observations, study of all the pertinent literature, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to tackle the problem with ordinary logic. The solution then comes in a nonordinary state of consciousness – in a dream, during a time of exhaustion, as in a hallucination due to a febrile disease, or in meditation.”(4) One famous example involved the chemist Friedrich August von Kekule. Kekule finally apprehended the elusive structure of benzene – the basis of organic chemistry – in a dream in which he saw a little Uroboros snake biting its tail; hence, the benzene ring. Episodes such as this are common in the history of science. It appears that nonordinary states of consciousness are able to suspend the traditional ways of thinking that prevent a solution and allow a new creative synthesis. Obviously these events fulfill the requirements suggested by Pasteur’s statement: Chance favors the prepared mind. However, it sometimes takes removal from the scientific approach into a mode dependent on the intuitive aspects of problem solving to reach the desired understanding.
This recalls some of the Taoist philosophy wherein we confront concepts such as “resorting to non-action” and “doing that which is not done by doing”. These do not, in any way, refer to the complete absence of action or volition. There are times when the application of force or effort, as we commonly perceive them, are counterproductive. One does not surf from the beach out into the ocean. Skiing uphill provides few thrills. Sometimes the most progress is achieved by letting go as with Aikido (a non-violent art of self-defense whose name translates as – a way of life through harmony with nature) where the opponent’s force and energy are used to manipulate him. There is much similarity within the behavioral model of vision training. The example that springs to mind is the Brock String. While some conscious effort can be used to create performance changes, in many respects improvement is achieved by “not doing”. That is, by allowing the system to find its state of optimal balance. When there is suppression it cannot be forced away. By being in the activity the body/mind feels its way to balance.
The visual system generally begins in a state of balance. At some point the need for adaptation arises in order to cope with some event or circumstance. This adaptation to stress creates a warp within the system which, unconsciously, rises to the surface. This warp becomes a filter for dealing with the stress at hand but, that is not all. It all-too-often becomes a kind of bubble around the system which works full-time to allow only certain stimuli to enter in certain ways. The conditions thus created assure mismatches between the environment and its internal representations. This causes the initial state of balance to become submerged or suppressed. In this type of case the challenge is to allow awareness to open up. It helps if there is understanding of both the adaptations undergone and the possibilities for change in order for balance to be restored. However, forcing the issue tends to provoke a stress response and distort awareness creating new warps. This requires working within the realm of non-action.
This is why the vision training facilitator tends to present the individual with more questions than answers. Proceeding in this manner provides the opportunity for discovery, as opposed to merely following directions. In this way the hidden state of balance can gradually, gently be teased out of the jumble of adaptations; the bubble must be dissolved, not popped. Otherwise, there would just be another layer added on instead of allowing “new” insights which become part of the foundation of perception and behavior. Again we see the need to balance the desire for control with the ability to go with the flow to achieve the desired outcome.
A good example is the Squinchel sequence of activities(5). One eye is asked to grasp an image for manipulation while the other eye must simultaneously let-go of a visually displaced, exact copy. One must also be able to reverse this situation at will. The eye that is fixating must exert some measure of control and take charge of sensory integration. The fellow eye, at the same time, must be fully aware of the companion image without trying to control it as basic urges would desire. If the urge to control, and therefore, equalize the images is pursued, the task cannot be successfully completed.
Another example, emphasizing the Aikido-like aspects of VT, is the prescribing of yoked prisms. One school of thought in this realm contends that the appropriate prism is that which further accentuates the current state of imbalance. This will provoke the system into a movement towards balance. This is similar to turning the wheel in the direction of a skid to regain control of your car. The initial imbalance resulted from an aggressive response to a stressful situation. This response brought short-term relief but, instead of returning to balance after the stress ended, the response perseverated. This is the same as Hans Selye’s “bottom line” regarding stress in general; stress is not bad, it is our response to it that can be unhealthy. Now, a little Aikido is needed. Without the interference of the mind, the body is often very intelligent. The mind generally depends on logic while the body may often rely on intuition or instinct such as reflex actions. The body is often willing to return to balance if given the opportunity. The Aikido in this case comprises going with the brain’s vector of imbalance, throwing it further off balance and creating an opportunity for the body to move back into balance.
Another apparently irreconcilable pair of opposites is certainty vs. doubt, as in -We cannot use this procedure until we are CERTAIN of its properties. It was once thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth but that was silly; now we KNOW such-and-such. Albert Einstein touched on this saying “As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”(6) How long can we allow our certainties to overcome our doubts? With certainty comes knowledge, with doubt understanding. Knowledge, in this context, refers to a conscious/intellectual process of gathering facts. It may even include some type of synthesis of these bits of information into a higher class of useable information. Understanding, however, refers to the assimilation of information and knowledge into the very structure of the system. At the point of true understanding, information and knowledge become integrated into what might be called the intuitive process as it influences behavior on more of a subconscious level. It seems our culture knows too much while understanding too little.
Certainty is often a dead end. “We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty-some unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain…Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question -to doubt- to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Herein lies a responsibility to society.”(7) Similarly, we cannot allow the constraints of the current paradigm to dictate the direction or form of progress.
One of the hot topics in physics today is known as Chaos theory. Chaos is considered the antithesis of order. One cannot be had in the presence of the other. Chaos theory is concerned with observing systems which, at some point appear to become out of control. These are systems that are in some dynamic state, behaving “properly” until, at some point, a transition is reached causing the system to behave in a seemingly random fashion. As various systems were studied it was found that this was a very common phenomenon. “Now that scientists are looking, chaos seems to be everywhere. A rising column of cigarette smoke breaks into wild swirls. A flag snaps back and forth in the wind. A dripping faucet goes from a steady pattern to a random one. Chaos appears in the behavior of the weather, the behavior of an airplane in flight, the behavior of cars clustering on an expressway, the behavior of oil flowing in underground pipes. No matter what the medium, the behavior obeys the same newly discovered laws.”(8)
The more chaos was scrutinized the less chaotic it appeared. What seemed chaotic on one level was found to be quite orderly when observed in context. This is not unusual. This is, in fact, ubiquitous in science. Many concepts that seem to defy understanding do so because we fail to understand the context. For example, the wanton overuse of our natural resources was not even considered until the environmental context became obvious. Similarly, many fail to understand how VT could possibly have any meaning to a person who is experiencing learning difficulties. This happens because they cannot see the context; they have no concept of vision as a dynamic and pervasive system of thought and action.
Context is the key to understanding anything despite the fact that it is one of the first casualties of analytical science. Because context is often difficult to apprehend it tends to be overlooked and important relationships are missed, often for very long periods of time. Chaos is just Nature’s way of keeping things interesting. It is truly precise randomness that keeps things together in our universe. Chaos is about context. It is about patterns within patterns. Chaos is about deeper, or more subtle, levels of order submerged within more obvious levels of order. Chaos, it seems, is just another species of order.
Even our concept of time is not exempt from this paradigm of complementarity. Our usual appraisal of the linearity of past-present-future, which is so useful in our day-to-day activities, appears much less tidy than we would like, at least in some circles. As we all know, what happened yesterday helped shape what is occurring today which will direct future events. That is that. Simple, tidy, linear. The current research in quantum physics as well as its mathematics show there is statistical support for the case that the future influences the present. Subatomic particles seem to have little regard for our linear outlook. They appear to dart back and forth in time and space thriving on probabilities rather than actualities. While it is generally inappropriate to transfer concepts from the subatomic realm to the macroscopic world too frivolously, I would only say let us not be so sure of what we are so sure of.
We may not dart back and forth in time the way electrons and their fellow travelers do. However, information, thought and, perception are not as solid nor as linear as we are. Is it possible for the present to change the past? “Let’s take for example the order of words. Now words are strung out in a line just like we think events in time are strung out in a line and I can change a past word by a future word. If I say…’They went and told the sexton, and the sexton tolled the bell.’ You don’t know what the first told means until you get the sexton; you don’t know what the second tolled means until you get to the word bell. And so the later event changes the meaning of the former. Or you can say for example, ‘The bark of the tree,’ and the word bark has a certain meaning. Then I say, ‘The bark of the dog,’ and the later word has changed the meaning of the former one. And so, in this way, when we write history we find that writing history is really an art. The historian keeps putting a fresh interpretation on past events and in that sense he is changing it.”(9)
Finally, I would like to address the pair known as doctor and patient. The classical Western approach to medicine draws a very distinct line separating doctor and patient; the patient is routinely treated as a helpless victim who must show a blind faith as the doctor does what only he can do. There are, of course, situations where this model is appropriate. However, they are not as widespread as the paradigm would lead us to believe. Perhaps this outlook could be softened with some interesting examples. In a study done to evaluate the effects of placebos in relieving pain, four groups of subjects were given identical verbal instructions, “You will get a pain pill…” Group #1 gets a pain pill from a clinician who thinks it’s a pain pill. Group #2 gets a pain pill from a clinician who thinks it’s a sugar pill. Group #3 gets a sugar pill from a clinician who thinks it’s a sugar pill. Group #4 gets a sugar pill from a clinician who thinks it’s a pain pill. Group #1 experiences a significant reduction in pain over time. Group #3 experiences an increase in pain. Not only does group #4 experience a reduction in pain but, that reduction is greater than that for group #2.(10) The attitude of the caregiver must be included in the equation for healing.
Research has also been carried out to investigate brain-wave patterns (EEGs) of a healer and patient. The healer was a “non-traditional” practitioner who uses techniques that create conditions which allow the patient’s inner processes and abilities to affect recovery. “During the treatment, the EEGs of both persons showed very different patterns. Before the treatment, however, when the healer concentrated on his patient in order to ‘figure him out’ intuitively, the healer’s EEG for a few seconds assumed the precise pattern of the patient’s. Cognition became recognition outside of himself.”(11)
These examples help, it is hoped, to reconcile two intractable pairs of opposites. First, they pose significant questions regarding the absolute separation of mind and matter, bringing them into intimate, complementary interaction. They have been removed from the tightly sealed boxes into which Descartes placed them. Next, the patient/doctor barrier begins to wane as complementarity transforms our perception of this into the patient/doctor COMPLEX. A great contribution to this understanding is the doctor as patient. My time spent as a VT patient has proven invaluable to my ability to help others and I find it hard to imagine how I would function without having had this as part of my learning process.
The understanding that by healing we are healed is another benefit of looking at the patient/doctor complex more openly. This is not only due to the great satisfaction of knowing you have helped someone to have a better life. All the reminders we give patients regarding breath, posture, awareness, relaxation, etc., help us to remind ourselves of these same things which we probably all need.
While much of this may seem too esoteric to be clinically relevant, it is hoped that further reflection will allow for the unfolding of these ideas within each of us. If we soften our views toward these concepts, our relationships with our patients, ourselves and each other can only be enhanced. All of the opposites we deal with, on so many levels, could become subtle though powerful tools if we would utilize their interdependent nature. As we begin to see the blurring of our artificial boundaries, clarity arises.
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Published in Journal of Behavioral Optometry 1993