Taoism – Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World: Yin and Yang
by Ted Kardash
This is the second in a series of six articles on fundamental Taoist principles. Each commentary will focus on explaining and understanding a separate principle along with its application to daily living.
Taoist teachings function as a guide to daily living. Their purpose is to assist us in experiencing our essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos, to be part of the flow of life. Gaining knowledge of the main principles of Taoist thought allows us to cultivate and strengthen our own process of self-exploration, growth, and transformation, and to connect us deeply to our inner nature and to the world around us. In this way we enter the Circle of Tao.
Yin and Yang
An important first step toward attaining this experience of interconnectedness is by learning to recognize and align ourselves with the movement of life itself. This is achieved through an understanding of yin and yang. This principle lies at the very root of the Taoist tradition and describes the underlying unity of life through the interplay of two primal forces.
Yin and yang are the two essential and interdependent energies of life. Though opposite in nature, they are not experienced as diametrically opposed, but rather as complementary and relative to one another. They arise from a common source, the Tao. Yang is characterized as creative, assertive, positive, and light, while yin is receptive, yielding, negative, and dark. It is important to note that these attributes are only descriptive and do not carry any moral value.
It is yin and yang make the world go round! Our entire physical reality is based on the interplay of these two energies. Whether it is the structure of DNA, with its positive and negative strands, the transmission of neurons in our brains, from a positively charged sender to a negatively charged receptor, the existence of the earth’s magnetic fields which regulate the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, or the makeup of electricity with its positive and negative currents - all of these processes take place because of these two opposing energies. Their interaction creates all manifestation. It is through them that the Tao reveals itself.
The original meaning of the term “yin-yang” signified the dark (yin) and light (yang) sides of a mountain. Early in the day, the sun would illuminate one part of the mountain while the other side would remain dark. As the sun moved across the sky it gradually began to light the opposite side while the earlier sunlit face became dark. Light and dark were not static but interacted with one another, defined one another, and actually assumed each other’s roles in the process of change. This describes the interplay of yin and yang.
This image is named the Tai Chi Tu, or Supreme Ultimate Map. It is also sometimes referred to as the “yin-yang symbol”. You can see in this figure that the two energies are depicted as equally proportional, symbolizing a harmonious balance between the two. The small dot signifies that as each energy reaches its fullest expression it already carries the seed of its opposite. And the curved line suggests a flowing dynamic between the two - they are constantly changing, literally flowing into each other and becoming each other. (Remember the sunny and dark sides of the mountain.)
All is Tao. All opposites are in actuality part of one whole, giving rise to one another. Neither is excluded, neither one is superior to the other. There is a constant, natural flow between them. Lao Tzu, the immortal Taoist sage, reminds us that one polarity cannot exist without the other. If there is no “light”, there is no “dark”, no “up” without a “down”. He writes, "Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil." Then, more provocatively, he asks: "Is there a difference between yes and no?" “Is there a difference between good and evil?"
Chuang Tzu, another legendary Taoist sage, states that depending on your point of view, "Everything can be a 'that'; everything can be a 'this.' Therefore, 'that' comes from 'this' and 'this' comes from 'that' - which means 'that' and 'this' give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between 'that' and 'this', it is called being one with the Tao.”
All opposites - thoughts, views, opinions, interpretations, phenomena - all spring from a common source. Life is both yin and yang, it contains “good” and “evil”. It is how we respond to these energies that determines the quality of our lives.
§ Are you willing to explore and try to understand another’s viewpoint that is opposed to yours? Can you find the dot of yang in the sea of yin?
- Lao Tzu writes that “evil” will change through the influence of its opposite.
What is your relationship to evil? Do you help create it by standing in direct opposition to it? Can you see it as part of the whole?
- Have you ever had an “evil” thought? What might you learn from that?
Another aspect of yin and yang is the concept of change. The “Supreme Ultimate Map” charts out how life manifests through the interaction of yin and yang. First, there is continuous change. Secondly, as these two forces constantly interact, the process of change moves through recognizable, cyclical patterns, like the alternating of day and night or the turning of the seasons. When one energy becomes full and complete, the other begins to grow and ascend. "That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails must first be strong." Lao Tzu tells us that life is a process. For all things there is a natural expansion and contraction, on both the most minute and grandest levels. It is the breathing pattern of life itself.
Taoist texts speak of “living life in the round”. The “round” refers to the circle which encompasses the yin and yang energies. “Living life in the round” means being comfortable with the flow of energy as it passes through one phase and then the other. Knowledge of the cyclical process of events liberates us from an unbalanced view of the world.
- Going with the flow implies that there is a larger life current with which we can align ourselves. Can you sense that energy, when it changes direction, the turning of the tide?
- All things change and change is constant. Are you comfortable with change?
- By recognizing patterns and stages of change we can practice appropriate timing. There is a time to act and a time to be still, a time to intercede and a time to yield.
Balance and Equality
Balance is central to yin and yang. The Tai Chi Tu presents these energies in a balanced state. Yet we also see that any point on the circle is balanced by a point on the other side. One can find and maintain balance anywhere within the process of change. By learning to keenly perceive these two energies we learn the skill of being in balance in any given situation.
The ancient Chinese martial art, Tai Chi Chuan, or Supreme Ultimate Boxing, takes its name from the Tai Chi Tu precisely because it embodies many of the principles depicted by this symbol, primarily that of balance. Practitioners of Tai Chi learn to relax, to be one with their experience (the Tao), to flow smoothly with the changing postures, and to maintain balance in a variety of positions, including standing on one leg!
- We are all aware of the importance of balance in our lives. Our language expresses this awareness through such terms as balanced diet, a balanced or even-handed approach, and, of course, a balanced checkbook.
- Are there areas of imbalance in your life? Do you work too much? Do you have enough quiet time or enough exercise? Do you feel emotionally balanced?
What implications does all of this have for us on a personal level? How can we apply the concept of yin and yang in our daily lives? If we want to enter the circle of Tao, to live life in the round, we have to be willing to flow with what comes along. If our awareness is sufficiently attuned to the patterns of change we have the potential to be a harmonizing force. If we are unaware, then at best we are swept along by the current, often fighting it in a futile manner.
Cultivate an awareness of things as they truly are, interconnected, part of a larger whole.
Our conventional view of the world as irreconcilable opposites is based on a perception of the universe as separate objects.
Our two sages advise us to move beyond these apparent contradictions. All is Tao! Both yin and yang are Tao. Good luck is Tao, bad luck is Tao. Rather than rigidly choosing one side against the other, we are urged to perceive the two sides in their relatedness, to experience how one creates the other. In so doing we reconcile or harmonize these opposites, we “blunt the sharpness and untangle the knot," as Lao Tzu states. We become part of nature's constant movement toward a state of balance.
There are “two sides to every story”. Listening to both sides and making an effort to appreciate them allows us to be empathic, to understand another’s experience, to stand in their shoes. Then we see that while there are two “sides”, yin and yang, there is one “story” - Tao. Nothing has an absolute or totally separate identity.
Recognize change in its various stages. Learn how to flow with change.
When we become attuned to cycles and patterns of change our actions become more skillful, more in step with these phases. We can recognize and deal with problems in their early stages. Our natural wisdom lets us know when to intervene and when to let things play out.
Much of our struggle in life arises either out of our failure to acknowledge change or out of our resistance to it. By flowing with the ongoing patterns of change we harmonize with them. We learn to not cling to our own values and interpretations.
By not holding tightly to one polarity or the other we experience how “bad” luck can become “good” luck while crisis can contain the opportunity for growth. Choosing to cooperate with the unity of opposites means accepting all facets of our existence, "good" and "bad," as the natural flow of the Tao.
Be an agent of balance, partake in the reconciling of opposites
Nature contains all opposites. They exist as part of the natural order, the ever-changing, ongoing process of life. In nature, however, unlike our human realm, there are no value distinctions, no moral judgments that make this or that phenomenon good or bad, desirable or undesirable. While value distinctions often cause the very ills they are supposed to cure, natural opposites enhance and complement one another.
Rather than trying to win or be “right” at the expense of another, we may regard another’s experience or opinion as different without making it categorically “wrong”. This allows balance to be achieved.
We do live in a world of “yes” and “no”, “light” and “dark”, and “good” and “evil”. There are times when we feel deeply that we are “right”, and that we must assert our position or vision. And there will be occasions when we will be aligned with the ascendant, or harmonizing energy. Yet, even then, if we can remember our connection to the whole, remember that we are, in some way, part of “the other side”, resolution will be more harmonious and will lead to a true balance, an outcome that benefits all.
A skilled mediator enacts this principle by looking beyond “right and wrong” and seeking what is common and beneficial to all sides in a dispute. This is reconciling opposites, finding the common ground of the Tao.
“What goes up must come down." "Every cloud has a silver lining." Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin and yang and encourages us to embrace these opposites, to see them as relative and changing, and to remember that ultimately all is Tao.
By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can become, in the words of Chuang Tzu, true women and men of Tao. “The true person of Tao,” he writes, "is not always looking for right and wrong, not always deciding 'yes' or 'no'. The true person has no mind to fight Tao and does not try by her own contriving to help Tao along. All that comes out of her comes quiet, like the four seasons."