This morning I found myself thinking about expansion and contraction, as I watched the ebb and flow of the tide and felt the warming breezes of spring. The earth goes through these cycles with each season, more obviously so in the temperate zones but also, though more subtly, in the tropical regions.

And so do we. Not only do we correspond to the seasonal changes by contracting — turning inward, drawing away from the external world — in winter and expanding outward in summer (or at least, in the hotter climates, in spring), but we also go through similar cycles in our individual lives. There are times when we are more naturally sociable, expanding outward, seeking out the company of others — and times when we draw inward, contracting, pulling away from others and seeking solitude.

There can be so many reasons for this. In part, I think these cycles are as natural as that which the earth experiences, as our bodies reflect and correspond to same. We may also withdraw because of our personal experience — grief, exhaustion, or depression, or perhaps the need for reflection, contemplation, deep thinking. Conversely, we expand into the society of others when we seek companionship, collaboration, love, or perhaps when we’re feeling stronger, safer, more relaxed.

We can also consider a more existential version of expansion and contraction in that, when we are feeling uncertain of ourselves or our way, we draw inward and away from others; when we’re feeling self-assured and confident, we tend to go out into the world. The process of psychological development is one of individuation, of understanding and accepting who we are in the fullest sense possible, which is indeed a process of expansion. We meet, and know, and claim who we are — at our very core. And we become enormous, full, whole.

In Asian cultures, this idea of individuation may not fit so well, as varying measures of collectivism are valued. Psychological health can be found in relationship, in how one relates to others in a healthy and loving manner, and in how one relates to groups — such as family and colleagues — and to society as a whole. Expansion takes on a different meaning in this context and to my mind, in that psychological development can be found not so much in self-discovery but in learning how one relates to, and can improve upon the relationship with, one’s surroundings. It is still expansion.

Carl Jung identified two core personality types of introvert and extrovert. While extroversion is given great value in youth, and introversion in middle and later years, and while societies generally place more value on extroversion in terms of individuals acting as responsible and involved members of the society, people are typically born with the tendencies of one or the other. This doesn’t mean that the introvert hides away in a cave or that the extrovert is always the life of the party, however; rather, it’s a matter of where one gets one’s energy. The source of that energy for the introvert is found in solitude, and upon “recharging”, he or she can freely enter society again; the extrovert needs society for that energy, and must discipline him- or herself to also seek out solitude in order to develop an inner life through contemplation.  

Expansion and contraction. Natural cycles. And perhaps, like the ever-expanding universe of which we are both a part and a reflection, we are actually following a spiral pattern — one which includes these cycles of expansion and contraction, but ultimately moves toward an ever-greater expansion of who we are.

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