This mini-series of posts about reconciling my difficult experience of the Void[i] came about because of a reader’s question. It was he, Steve, who introduced me two years ago to a stunning article on the Void by experiencer El Collie, and it was he, not I, who noticed that although I had posted her article here immediately and enthusiastically, I had totally avoided responding to it.
His recent question: “I’d really like to know how you actually view the void now and how you feel you’ve ‘come to terms’” via this view.” (Do not trifle with blog readers; they are made of stern stuff.)
Furthermore, he continues, “… regarding life’s balance, or the ‘yin/yang,’
I’ve never heard you expound on the obviously profound significance of this eastern symbol within your NDE. As impish as they were, they represented life: relativity, duality. Andbeing dualistic, they were Janus-faced, betraying life’s most profound paradox: Life as both savior and betrayer.”
Caught. I am indebted to readers in so many ways! Steve’s comments and his brilliant similes drive straight to the heart of the crux of things—what makes NDEs important, far beyond their superficial “golly-gosh” phenomenology. Beneath their eye-widening images lie treasures, if only we can get to them. Sometimes we are reluctant to go looking.
Life as both savior and betrayer. Ah.
What about those Yin Yang images?
Although it is difficult to remember such a possibility, the Yin Yang symbol was not universally recognizable throughout the United States in the early 1960s. From within mainstream Protestant culture of the time, I saw the images in my experience merely as unusual ‘circles.’ There was no deep familiarity with the symbol; it was not a part of my world, my upbringing, my understandings, and could bring nothing to my perceptions.
For one thing, what was an ancient Chinese philosophical symbol doing in the experience of a New England Congregationalist who did not understand it? What is the purpose of the Yin Yang here, and what can possibly be the purpose of a misunderstood symbol?
This is as good a spot as any in which to answer Steve’s question: At base, I have no idea how the Yin Yang got into my NDE or what purpose it might have served. In terms of immediate utility, it was a wasted effort, as I understood nothing about it. However, perhaps with a touch of that cosmic humor with which the world is possessed, in the long run, the impossibility of answering has helped me keep an open mind; and given fifty years and the comments of others, I can at least now piece together a response which seems to me to hold together. (Whether it is true or not is beyond my pay grade to know.)
The holding together
In its most common definition, the Yin Yang is a symbol of opposites in conflict. From a more accommodating perspective, Scottish homeopathic physician Bob Leckridge says, “I love what it represents, that flowing balance of darkness and light, the harmony of the male and female energies, and the subtle hint that each opposite contains the other.” Nowadays, everyone pretty much smiles and agrees. Similarly, in Wikipedia’s nuanced definition, the symbol describes “how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. …[They represent] complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.”
Because I had no such understanding, for many years the only resonance for me was not ‘flowing balance’ but the dread associated with a message I took to mean universal annihilation. The Yin Yang as symbol remained submerged beneath the shock of the Void as experiential residue; it has taken a long time and a determined effort for me to be able to distinguish between the power and elegance of the symbol and the lingering devastation of the experience.
It is in this sense that Steve’s simile strikes home: The Yin Yang (my ‘circles’) as our most profound paradox: Life, both savior and betrayer.
What is the betrayal and what the salvation?
As a culture, we are not, in this literal, technological age, skilled in interpreting symbols, and much escapes us. Given enough thought, though, it is possible to recognize, as a Dutch theologian has noted,[ii] that “Despite the differences in meaning-making, human beings from different cultures and religions do not only share the human symbolizing capacity called culture, but also meet the same basic problems. These problems belong to the ‘existentials,’ the fixed features of human existence. Religious experience is marked by them.”
Those “fixed features of human existence” are the origin of Jung’s concept of archetypes. This should be a “Doh!” understanding: that as people across the globe and time share our common humanity, we also share issues and questions for which we devise images and understandings in terms our local culture will comprehend. Because they are addressed to similar issues, those images may overlap and share meanings.
One of these ‘existentials’ is the inescapable reality, built into our perceptual system, of either/or, of both/and–self and other, being and non-being, near and far, up and down—dualism. It is another of those “savior and betrayer” realities, the basic product of our physical senses and the working of our brains, and the trap in which our understandings are caught by their very nature. So far as we can tell, cultures since the beginning of human intelligence have struggled to comprehend such oppositions.
The Chinese Yin Yang stands as a focal expression of that duality, the essence of both/and, the image in which all opposites come together. As a generic, nameless circle with no beginning and no end, it is the archetype of wholeness, eternity, completion, fullness. As Yin Yang, two distinct yet interrelated forms, it carries all of the circle’s implicit meanings plus the tension of Difference holding dualities together in paradoxical simultaneity: both/and, consciousness/non/consciousness, being/ non-being. (And if they click from Yin to Yang, black to white, interchanging Yes/No, the Both/And, no wonder it is confusing to the uninitiated.)
Because we tend to be ignorant of the depth and variety of symbolic implications, it has been too easy to miss completely the fact that the West also has its corollary symbol of the intersection of opposites. In Western Christianity, the central point at which conflicting forces meet and are reconciled, the point at which dualism is overcome, is the cross—body and spirit, life and death, empire and commonality, the loving Yes and the destroying No.
Seeing the cross only literally, as the sign of a single crucifixion, we miss its depth as symbol, its representation of “a unity transcending human consciousness.”[iii] The cross as symbol is not identical with the Yin Yang; but is a close enough relative that we must at least pay attention to the family resemblance.
To bring this around even closer to our topic, metaphysician Alice Ouzounian asks,[iv] “What is represented by the center of the cross and the swastika, the basic principle at the center of the Wheel of the Universe, from which all flows and to which all returns; the center that is everywhere and nowhere?” At that center, she says, stands Emptiness. The Void.
We struggle to understand. We yearn for the radiant and affirming NDE, for the loving light, for the gloriously risen Christ; and of course they also hold a place in the many-storied universe. This other is not what we wanted, this paradox, this troubling puzzle. Yet it also seems deeply, inescapably true: Life as both savior and betrayer. Our task, surely, is to find a balance beyond the dualism.
More next time.
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[i] An Experience of the Void,http://dancingpastthedark.com/articles-2/an-experience-of-the-void/
[iii] The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods, George D. Chryssides, Ron Greaves p. 57.
[iv] “About Spiritual Emptiness or the Void,” Hermetic philosophy and the Mystery of Being,Alice Ouzounian,http://www.plotinus.com/spiritual%20emptiness_copy.htm