Avoiding Extremes

St Anthony

My family watched the new “Karate Kid” tonight.  In one scene, the teacher (Jackie Chan) tells the enthusiastic student (Jaden Smith) that they will not study the next day. The student is puzzled and asks “Why?”,  to which the teacher replies “wù jí bì fǎn” and then translates in broken English as “too much something not good”.

This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the book “The Wisdom of the Desert” by Thomas Merton about Christian ascetics in the third century A.D known as the Desert Fathers.

Once Abbot Anthony was conversing with some brethren, and a hunter who was after game in the wilderness came upon them. He was Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves, and disapproved. Abbot Anthony said: Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it. This he did. Now shoot another, said the elder. And another, and another. The hunter said: If I bend my bow all the time it will break. Abbot Anthony replied: So it is also in the work of God. If we push ourselves beyond measure, the brethren will soon collapse. It is right, therefore, from time to time, to relax their efforts.

The translation wù jí bì fǎn ( 物极必反 ) is probably better translated as any of the following:

  • Things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme.
  • As soon as a thing reaches its extremity, it reverses its course.

Literally translate, the characters mean: 物 things/极 in extreme / 必 necessitate /反 opposite

This concept is what is meant by the small circles of opposite colors in the classic Ying-Yang symbol shown above.  This Taoist concept permeates Chinese culture.  In fact it is even found in their games.   I run a WeiQi club in my town, and tomorrow I will bring my WeiQi stones and board to the meeting.  I snapped this picture to show you my WeiQi set.  Tomorrow, when we open the stones, we will see them as I left them after my last game and has players have left them for thousands of year — as a reminder of this sacred principal known both to the Taoists and to the Desert Fathers.

  • Wow, I just remembered that I have already posted here on this principle using exercise as a parallel.
  • Question for Readers:  How do you break up your intensity to stay sane?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Avoiding Extremes

  1. Brian

    Too much moderation not good.

  2. @ Brian : Indeed, heck, even too much moderation is paradoxically deadly! :laugh:

  3. Ian

    Wise words. My wife and I both enjoyed this post this morning. I particularly like the Go stones – I didn’t realise about adding one from the opposite color.

    St Anthony and Karate Kid, both sages of their time.

  4. So glad you invited me to give a homily in your church home this morning!

  5. Ed

    Sleep… travel… drink… sex… the usual are what I use to break intensity and pretend I am sane.

  6. Temaskian

    You can understand Chinese?

  7. @ Temaskian
    一點點,為什麼 (A little, why?)
    I lived in Taiwan and Mainland for a total of about a year and a half. And as you can see, I prefer traditional Characters. But I have forgotten most of my Chinese. In Singapore (right?) do the Chinese use traditional characters?

  8. Temaskian

    We mostly use the simplified version. But most of us can recognize most of the traditional forms too.

    I’m really impressed. I had formerly thought that Japanese is the only other Asian language that you know.

  9. “How do you break up your intensity to stay sane?”

    i read books like Merton’s “The Wisdom of the Desert” or Nouwen’s “Way of the Heart.” I pray, meditate, do yoga. I play with my daughter and watch movies with my wife and discuss their meaning and implications. i play dungeon’s and dragons. i may be a minister yet i play a rogue. gotta let the shadow side run around every now and then.

    but i’m weird. it works for me, not for everyone.

    great post.

  10. @ Temaskian : no need to be impressed. with time, we can all do lots of things — all it illustrates is how I have wasted me time before I die!

    @ Zero: You are just a normal person in intellectual, sacred clothing who tries not to forget it is only clothing.

  11. How do you break up your intensity to stay sane?

    When I get too crazy in the head I direct more attention to my heart, and vice versa. When the two pull in the same direction, there’s no brakes other than time, humanity, and the universe, but I guess that’s okay.

  12. CRL

    I have given up on sanity!

    But to break up the monotony of schoolwork, I fence and take photos. (The former being one of the major reasons my blog is semi-dead.)

  13. I often let myself become too extreme. This was a timely post.

  14. @ Dan: a bit too abstract for me.

    @ CRL: FENCING ! Nice — that seems a fantastic way to find balance and relief!! Much better than blogging. Thanx for dropping in.

    @ Lina: Glad it was helpful.

  15. Hey Sabio, I like this guy, Eckhart Tolle, he talks about being present in the now. Marshall McLuhan also said that being present was the only way to avoid anxiety in our technological world. I think anxiety is a problem that comes from a relationship with time that is focused on the future. Too bad the future never arrives, we are always in the now.

    The phrase wù jí bì fǎn, reminds me the dialectic of Western philosophy, although dialectic isn’t as practical.

    Cool Blog,


  16. @ Bill :
    Anticipation of time is indeed the source of much anxiety!! Thanx for visiting, dude.

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