Rhythms, Waves, Vibrations, Polarities and Mutual Arisings.

The concept of ‘vibrations’ is somewhat contaminated – one of those trigger words that can act as a block , rather than an aid, to understanding. It feels like part of the lexicography of the New Age. Good vibrations. Healing vibrations. The vibration of the universe. Vibes.

Alan Watts helped me put that prejudice to one side and begin to understand what is in fact, obvious when you think about it for even a moment. That is to say that everything is vibrations. Vibrations and rhythms and pulses and waves of energy.

As William Blake observed “Energy is eternal delight”

The idea that everything is vibration is not a theory. It is a simple, observable scientific fact. It is another way of saying ‘everything comes and goes’.

In physics, there are only two forces described in the non-subatomic world – the electromagnetic field, and gravity. These account for everything in the universe. Everything, a physicist will tell you, happens because of these two forces (within the atom there are two other forces, the ‘Strong’ and the ‘Weak,’ but it is not necessary to refer to them in order to make the point).

Both electromagnetism and gravity come in waves. The world, then, is waving.

Both light and sound – as elements of the electromagnetic spectrum – come as vibrations, on/off, peak/trough, sound/silence light/darkness.

Life itself is a ‘wave’, or vibration – a pulsing of life/death. The cosmos itself is born and dies, and this too is a kind of vibration. At a subatomic level, matter fizzes in and out of existence – another vibration. (the ‘quantum froth’).

What, asks Watts, exactly is a ‘wave’.

“When we think about waves, we think about crests, that is to say, waves, because waves stand out from underlying uniform bed of water, which is relatively solid compared with space above…but you cannot have ups without downs…you cannot have emphasis, concave, without de-emphasis, trough.”


Waves always have troughs. But we only notice the crests. This is typical of the way we scan information, and leads to all sorts of confusions.

There are many other vibrations. Sleep and wakefulness (or consciousness and unconsciousness), the rhythm of the heart, the drawing in and out of your breath, the pulses and cycles of a body, the regular sweep of the planets and stars.

This is the fundamental nature of the world. It is not at all the solid, continuous thing we experience with our senses.

Think for a moment, for instance, about sound. It is not really sound at all – not pure uninterrupted noise. It is sound/silence, a series of waves and troughs. It has to be that way otherwise your eardrum would not react to it. The wave crest pushes the eardrum in, the trough lets it come out. That is how the eardrum itself vibrates in response to the sound wave.

This is not obvious in high-pitched noise, but if you listen to a very low vibration, a deep sound, it will be grainy on the ear. That graininess is because there is a significant distance between the sound and the silence – rough sandpaper instead of fine.

This is likewise true of light. We only manage to see a continuous image because of the persistence of vision – a sort of sight-memory that ‘holds on’ to the thing we are perceiving. But in fact a light wave is not continuous any more than a sound wave. It is actually light/darkness. And this is a vibration.

Vibration really means on/off, there/not there. However, the mind only notices the on rather than the off, the peak rather than the trough, the sound rather than the silence.

But ons alone and offs alone do not exist.

We don’t hear the interval between peaks and troughs of sound vibration, we don’t see the interval in light vibration. When the waves are very slow – in the case of day and night, light and darkness, life and death, the great slow cycles of the world, we notice continuity- but we ignore the isn’t side. But it’s there all the same.


This all feeds into two of the fundamental concepts of Eastern thought – interconnectedness (see Connections) and mutual arising, known in Japanese as ji ji muge.



Watts takes the idea of vibration and pushes it further, to illustrate that the world is not made up of opposites in conflict with one another, as we imagine, but polarities.


Just as sound is not one thing and silences another – they are vibrations, two aspects of the same thing – solid is not one thing, and space another. They also are two aspects of the same thing.

They are different but inseparable. They are space/solid. In the same way, light is actually light/dark. Neither can exist without the other.

Sound waves

Wavelengths on the electromagnetic (light) spectrum.

“Light/dark, good/evil, life/death, order and randomness, skill and chance. We fell from grace by seeing them as opposites.”


Polarity is key to the concept of mutual arising or mutual interpenetration (ji-ji muge). Mutual arising does away with idea of perpetual conflict and struggle. Light and darkness give birth to one another, as do life and death. An apple falls to the ground, rots into the earth, and seeds a new apple tree. Each is necessary to give the other meaning, and to bring the other into being. You never, for instance, get bees without flowers, because they are part of an interpenetrating system.

The question is not ‘to be or not to be”.

‘To be’ and ‘not to be’ arise mutually.


Lao Tse said

‘When all the world understand beauty to be beautiful, there is already ugliness. When all the world understands that all is good, then there is already evil. “






Lao Tse as seen in ‘South Park’:

Watts elaborated:

“Everything is positive or negative. The neuron either fires or it doesn’t. You can’t have pleasure if you can’t contrast it with non-pleasure. A person blind from birth doesn’t know what darkness is, because they have never known light. If you want one end of the spectrum, you have to have the other, like you can’t have a magnet with only one pole. What you gain on the roundabout, you lose on the swings.








“Male and female are not poles apart, they are poles of the same thing. There is common ground between poles. The circuit runs from positive to negative. They are differences between one field. Black implies white. If it wasn’t a wet day occasionally, you wouldn’t enjoy the sun.


This philosophy of vibrations, of rhythms, of mutual arisings, the ‘game of opposites’ as Watt’s calls it, is – I believe – deeply consoling. It helps us to accept much that might seem unbearable and it makes sense without any recourse to magical thinking or mystical texts.

Watts invented a new word ‘ goeswith’, or ‘gowith’ to try and make the concept more transparent yet.

“I could not realise my self without the other. I wouldn’t know what I meant. Self and other are inseparable, they gowith each other. Voluntary/involuntary behaviour – do you ‘do’ breathing or does it happen to you? Perhaps the distinction is vague.


“How can you say you’ve done something unless there is contrasting act I didn’t do? I can regard what I do as what happens to me, and what happens to me as what I do.   Karma means ‘you did it’. You did your accident in the way you grow your hair or digest your dinner.


“ Is self only the voluntary? If the self includes the other and the’ involuntary’, then involuntary happenings are ‘your’ deeds. You may feel in a completely deterministic universe that you are at best a witness. Or you can feel the opposite, that you are God and doing everything.

“Everything flip flops perpetually. Solid/space – is reality solid, rather than space? We talk of hard facts. We talk of impenetrable reality, of brute facts. But there is no solid without space. There have to be edges of the solid because the edge is the point of interface between solid and space.  


“We take no account of space. (See ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Chapter) We are confused by curved space…expanding space…because its ‘not there’. But in any given solid there is a lot of space. We are far more nothing than something. The more you penetrate the more spacious it is. Space and solid are like poles of a magnet, or a circuit. They are limits, like organism and environment.


“How many of us realise that space is the same thing as mind, or consciousness? That when you look into infinity you are looking at yourself? That your inside goes with your entire outside, as your front with your back? That this galaxy, and all other galaxies, are as much a part of you as your heart and your brain? That your coming and going, your waking and sleeping, your birth and your death, are exactly the same kind of rhythmic phenomena as the stars and their surrounding darkness. To be afraid of life is to be afraid of myself.


“I realise myself through other. Difference and unity, north and south are poles of one. That which is underlying the yes and no, the light and the darkness, underlying all the poles, is what we call God. But we can’t say anything about it, because everything implies an opposite.


“If everybody wins, there is no game. We are always frustrated trying to do what can’t be done. If you have sunshine every day you live in a desert. We think we want a world in which all is positive, but we don’t really. You cannot beat the game of opposites, and you shouldn’t want it any other way, because you can’t improve it. Differentiation is the way through which unity is discovered. ‘Everything else’ and ‘me’ are two poles of the same thing. Every outside has to have an inside.










“Before God said ‘Let there be Light’, he said, ‘you have to draw the line somewhere’ otherwise nothing will happen at all. You got to have good guys and bad, light and dark, this and that, order and chaos.


“This is duality.”


Watts demonstrates our difficulty with understanding duality by using a famous optical illusion.

“You can’t see two images at the same time. You can only alternate, either the white figure or black figure.


“But figure and ground, black and white, are mutually necessary. However our concepts are mutually exclusive, and so we cannot see both at the same time.


“Just in the same way, we identify ourselves with the knower, the subject, we don’t identify with what we see. But if there is nothing to be seen, there is no seer. They go together. Inside and outside, black and white, go together.

Satori (liberation) is seeing that you cant have one without the other, the sudden dawning that life is not a contest to make yes triumph over no. The two sides go together. All that is painful and evil – there is a kind of necessity for it. Life not a contest, but a dance.”


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