I recently returned from a wilderness canoe trip. My friend and I spent four days carrying and paddling our canoe in a remote Adirondack preserve. During the four days we saw no one except a forest ranger. We did see loons, ducks, otters, a beautiful bald eagle, and the usual deer.
Being immersed in nature got me thinking about contrasts. First, the contrast of a quiet wilderness and my usual day full of fast information, overloaded activities, and interactions with machines and people. Messages fly at me from my assistant, smart phone, email, regular telephone, and all the people I bump into. How many inputs do any of us process in one day? It’s a very different experience to arise because the sun came up, eat when hungry, rest when tired, and go to bed because it’s dark when my muscles are pleasantly sore from exertion all day.
The most striking contrast was the weather. We departed in a chilly rain. The rain stopped as we crossed the first lake and the sky remained grey. We pitched our tent on a small island and made dinner as the sun set. In the morning, the sun was out and we made breakfast on a large rock jetty with the bright sun reflecting off the lake. While enjoying our omelet, the sky quickly turned grey and it began raining. For the next two days, we portaged and paddled in cool rain and wind, including a large lake crossing with huge swells and whitecaps that was quite challenging.
On the fourth day we awoke to bright sun and completely still air. The lake was covered with mist backlit by the gorgeous sun. The mist burned off and we paddled for several hours on a dazzling mirror of water. We stumbled on a young bald eagle just above us in a tree, fishing for his breakfast.
The water was so quiet that looking at the shore was a completely disorienting and spectacular experience. The trees and rocks above shoreline reflected so brightly and clearly that we began to feel we were floating in a wacky Escher world. Our canoe like a spaceship, the world seemed to plunge below us and above us simultaneously with no perception of water. It all felt like air. We stopped paddling altogether. Without ripples to orient us, the sense of floating became more real than the water we were sitting on. We floated in complete silence and stillness for about 20 minutes.
So what’s my point about contrast?
The joy and excitement I felt floating on the water with a warm bright sun was enhanced by spending most of the previous three days in chilly rain and wind. The experience of quiet and peace is more striking in contrast to my noisy and over-stimulated days at work.
Chinese philosophers began writing about striking contrasts or the yin/yang phenomenon many thousands of years ago. What struck me on this trip is the lesson that it takes yin and yang to keep life in balance. So what jumped into my head was the awareness that I use this yin yang deliberately when seeking to achieve balance in my life.
Take conflict for example. My work frequently involves conflict. When someone before me gets angry and raises their voice, it is really tempting to escalate and do the same. If I introduce yin to this yang by staying silent for a few moments and breathing deeply, the energy changes. Balance shifts. I feel myself relaxing, getting less tense, and usually the other person's energy also changes; they become less confrontational.
The cold rain yin contrast with the warm sun yang is a source of balance. I am left with a heightened awareness and motivation to deliberately introduce polarity into my life to improve balance.
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