Coincidence of Opposites

Hi there! If you’ve made it this far on my website then you’re probably already interested in Acupuncture and want to know more about it and how it may benefit you. I don’t blame you. I’ve been fascinated by acupuncture for over a decade using it in my clinic practice to help people with all kinds of ailments.

If you’re anything like me you probably have an interest in the theory, philosophy and how it all works. If not then this would be your queue to keep on clicking…

Good you’re still here!

To really help you get your head around acupuncture and how we think about health in Traditional Chinese Medicine, I have to introduce to some key aspects of traditional Chinese thinking. I’m going to guide you through some ancient Chinese books and theories. Some will be familiar others less so.

The first is what Alan Watts called the “Coincidence of Opposites”.  This idea is one that is central to Chinese medical thinking and is also one of the best know Asian philosophical ideas, which I guarantee you’ll know.  You may have already guessed it’s the Yin Yang or by its proper name the Tai Ji, meaning Great Ultimate.

Most times when we hear of yin and yang it’s in some justification to find balance between thinking its ok to smoke 20 cigarettes a day with a bottle of wine because we had salad and vegetables for dinner, because you know it’s all about balance. People also use this theory to justify ethically bankrupt behaviours because to them it represents some kind of moral relativism making their opinion valid even if it is disputed by facts. Sadly misuse of this theory has played into the notion of “post truth/fact” political world.

The truth is the coincidence of opposites is not so much opposition at all and more to the notion of interdependence. The Chinese concept of Xiang Sheng or Mutual Arising. This is where we can think about the idea of interrelated phenomena which cannot exist independently of each other.  The best example given by one of my favourite philosophers Alan Watts is the relationship between bees and flowers. The flowers providing nectar for bees who in turn pollinate other flowers. The two cannot exist without each other. This is a simple example but when we think of the complexity of the properties of soil in which plants grow, be hives, predators and the multiple factors which exist in order to make an event happen and we cannot easily find a starting point. This web of interconnectivity is not so much a transcendent or otherworldly journey into some unknown realm or mind state, but is mystical none the less, in the sense of realising the deep sense of wonder at the subtle complexities which the very ordinary world has to offer. Then when we ask ourselves where did all begin, it’s really hard to say… and so to the Daoist mind (one of the ancient Chinese religious and philosophical traditions) they arrive at the idea that all these events arrive mutually, you can’t find a starting point in the infinite possibility of starting points, as so things are said to arise mutually, but as the human mind start to seek to classify and name everything we get into trouble..   As the Daoist text the Dao De Jing states:

“As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful and beautiful, there is already ugliness,

As soon as everyone knows the able, there is ineptness.

Determinacy (you) and indeterminacy (wu) give rise to each other,

Difficult and easy complement each other,

Long and short set each other off,

High and low complete each other,

Refined notes and read sounds harmonise (he) with each other

And before and after lend sequence to each other

This is really how it all works.


It is for this reason that sages keep to service that does not entail coercion (wu wei)

And disseminate teachings that go beyond what can be said


In all that happens (wan wu)

The sages develop things but do not initiate them

They act on behalf of things but do not lay claim to them

They see thing through to fruition but do not take credit for them

It is only because they do not take credit for them that things do not take their leave.”

As we start to draw distinctions about the world, our minds become so focused on the one that we lose focus on the other, but we can’t truly know one without the other.  When we stand back from creating such distinctions and trying to change to world to force it into reality, we can truly feel at peace and allow the world around us to shape itself, free of control and coercion.

When we see how these phenomena interrelate we can begin to notice how this plays out in human health; physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, existentially, philosophically, spiritually.

In the traditional Chinese medical perception of the world this interdependence plays out in several ways. The simplest being that of the balance between heat and cold in the body.

Humans are essentially sacks of fluid somehow walking around having conversations, inventing smart phones, writing blog posts, creating memes and spending far too long watching cats do weird stuff on the internet. The water in our bodies is what ancient Chinese thinkers describe as yin, but this yin doesn’t exist on its own. Without the hardness (yang) of bones we’d probably be highly sophisticated puddles or balls of goo. Without heat (yang) we’d probably not be doing much in the way of metabolising, digesting, moving or functioning. Our fluid needs a furnace to get thing moving. We can also think about this in terms of the interior of our body versus the exterior of the body, front to back, top to bottom.  Now let’s say that that your favourite thing in the world is chocolate ice cream and there’s nothing you enjoy on a hot summers day is snacking on 2 scoops of the finest chocolate ice cream you could lay your hands on, feeling the hot sun beating down on your face as it melts the tasty dessert which runs down your fingers causing a mess when it lands on your new t-shirt.  In this interaction we can see how yin and yang balance each other out.  You’re feeling warm in the summer heat and want to cool off, the cool ice cream helps you rebalance the excess yang.  But ice cream being frozen and chilly is excess yin and the warmth of the sun and your body melt it to make it more yang.

This yin and yang interdependence plays out in every sphere of life if we look in heteronormative relationships between a men and women, then we see the male and yang and the female as yin, traits can be associated with each and complementary between couples.  We can see in every individual that there are degrees of flexibility around traits enabling a person to express themselves individually, in fact when we lose our flexibility that’s when we tend to break.  This is why ancient Chinese teachings focused upon the fluidity of water, we must be flexible, adaptable and capable of change.  For example men who are too ridged in their ability to acknowledge and process emotion and take care of themselves because it’s been associated with femininity are also quite often guys with mental health problems and countless other expressions.

We see then that we aren’t living in a world of contrast and opposition where we’re trying to conquer one thing or another.  We’re living in a world of interdependence where any number of events, people, actions, cat videos or desserts are dependent upon each other to maintain some kind of order and cohesion.