Inside/outside, left/right, positive/negative, friend/foe, ours/theirs, mine/yours – these are all binary oppositions. They make our lives easier to understand, reducing ambiguity. They make decisions easier; they make categorization simple. No thought necessary. They render tones of gray into black and white, simplifying choices to A or B, quick and simple.
Their simplicity removes nuance, highlighting difference and ignoring commonality. Their ubiquity hides their own constructed nature. We choose amongst them with false confidence, pretending they are self-evident. They run deep, but as the Buddha taught, they are composite and impermanent, constantly changing. They are open to reimagining.
The boundaries between opposing positions seem so solid, so real. The spaces they occupy on either side appearing so clearly. But as the philosopher Martin Heidegger reminded us, a space is something that has been made room for.* There is an active creative gesture involved in defining a space and bringing it into being. Its boundaries are not where the space stops: they are where we begin investing it with characteristics and meaning.
Think of a national border. It may be clear in maps, but in the physical world, it doesn’t appear at all. We go to great lengths making this line visible with signs, flags, fences, or walls. In our minds, the territories on either side are clear and their differences easy to list. But, if we look across that border from a physical vantage point, a difference in landscape is hard to find.
We spend great effort drawing lines, making spaces, and occupying positions. In that way we create our own identities. “I am this; I am not that.” This makes the world work efficiently in many ways.
But, we usually allow these conceptual spaces to solidify. We forget that they came from an initial, arbitrary gesture, an empty mark that we proceeded to endow with “truth.” As positions become more elaborated and entrenched, we forget the common ground which they occupy. All binaries are this way. The “/” is the boundary creating both sides.
And there are some big oppositions out there these days.
When opposing positions become tense, the time is ripe for reconsidering that “/”. We can reimagine the opposition, examining it until, perhaps, we see no separation at all.
Give it a try: analyze a binary and see how it works. Start small, right at home. Choose a favorite object and ask before it was yours, whose was it? When did it become yours/mine? How? What will happen when it leaves your possession? Does the object itself change as it passes from hand to hand? Where exactly is the line between mine/yours? Can the object be left to simply be itself?