Two sides of a coin

If I seek pleasure, and reject pain1, I lose what both are a part of: my depth of feeling. But to an artist, depth of feeling is all. If pain and pleasure both contribute to it, how can either be shunned? It depends on what one seeks: feelings of pleasure – which must diminish in the absence of contrast – or a greater depth of feeling itself.

The interplay of opposites hones awareness. Nothing makes a meal taste better than hunger. Anyone who has fasted knows the sublime taste of water at the end of the day. What could compare to it? But it needs a day of toil to reach that moment of perfection; a day of loss to feel the beauty of the gain.

Always moving from opposite to opposite, what is the point? Perhaps it is the unity these two are a part of: consciousness. Repetition of one state leads to familiarity, which breeds forgetfulness. They say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Our fondness for life would diminish without its trials, just as our amazement at the sunrise would lessen without the endless monotony of physical existence. Between extremes we are shaped, formed, and bred to a higher state of being: an awareness of the reality pointed to by those extremes. That is, not just a keener sense of pain, or of pleasure, but “the marrow of life”: the depths we reach by the interplay of the two.

In the book Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel talks about his experience learning archery from a Zen teacher. At one point, the teacher talked about how the archer and the target are two parts of one thing. In one sense, the archer shoots an arrow at the target; in the other, the target draws the arrow from the archer. They are not contending opposites, but two parts of a single thing: Archery. When the archer acts as if he were apart from it, he is not able to manifest “Archery” by his actions. He can only do it if he gives himself up to what he wishes to be a part of. At that moment, Archery comes into being. It cannot be said where it begins or where it ends. It is the man, the bow, the arrow, the target, all of it. To say it begins at the bow, and ends at the target, only divides it again. As Archery, it is one, indivisible; as separate parts, they each have their role.

Sometimes, when Eugen would allow Archery to appear by his actions, the teacher would stop and bow, saying “It” had shot. If Eugen thought he had done it – as if the man alone were Archery – the teacher would tell him all their practice was for nothing. He was not learning to shoot a bow, but to become a part of Archery, until there could be no distinction between himself and the target, or any other part. There is only Archery, if the archer allows himself to participate, and to share that reality with all the other parts.

This is my understanding of what the book was saying; I’m paraphrasing because the book is in storage, but it seemed also to be saying: the many and the one are the same; we only go wrong by disbelieving this.

I am going to put these thoughts to the test by seeing if I can participate in the systems of life. I’m accustomed to thinking that I’m essentially separate from them, which means I do not easily accept my role. What would happen if my foot rejected playing its part in the operation of my body? But I do something similar when I separate myself from the unities I am a part of. Let’s see what happens if I yield, and stop trying so hard to establish “myself” as apart…


  1. On a mystical level, I believe one can develop a deeper appreciation of pain and pleasure such that, despite our avoidance and attraction, we bear a deep appreciation for both. When pain must come, we cherish it even as we avoid it; and when pleasure comes, we cherish it similarly even as we revel in it. This is when the soul relates directly to the being of the two, while the body relates to one or the other part.