Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
You likely don’t know the treasure-trove of wisdom contained in the Yin-Yang symbol. Much of it in fact was not even taught to me in Chinese medicine school. This ancient symbol has been a subject of deep meditation and learning for me over the last couple decades. So, I will share with you here the essence of how valuable this symbol is for our healing and thriving.
Without light and goodness, life is meaningless. Yet so much of the light we need is paralyzed in violence and greed, pain and suffering. The way to release these hidden riches and create more light and love is through transformation. This yields sustainable light, when the dark has been befriended and healed, transformed into an ally.
Transformation involves the death of one thing for the next. Death involves darkness; without darkness there is no death and no transformation. No transformation, no gaining of sustainable light. So, the object of health and creating sustainable abundance is to make what is dark light, which makes the darkness an ally, not an enemy, fear, or a force of violence. When darkness is transformed more light results, more compassion happens, more thriving blossoms.
In practical terms, for example, this means converting compost into nourishment for vibrant plant growth. Spiritually, it means converting personal pain into joy, beauty, and more love. I have found no better model to discuss transformation and the creation of sanity and fertility than the Yin-Yang symbol. This symbol has its roots in ancient Taoism, which is nothing more than wisdom for living in harmony with nature, according to the laws of nature we experience every day.
Hidden in the Yin-Yang symbol are the seasons of the yearly cycle (see below), which seasons also cycle inside us from birth (spring) to thriving and growth (summer) to decay (autumn) unto death (winter) and back into spring, as re-birth. This happens physically, emotionally, and spiritually in every aspect of our lives, linking us with the natural world. There is no more important meme for our world today than this reunion with Nature on every level of our being.
One of the most well-known emblems of Eastern wisdom is the Yin-Yang symbol. No symbol, in my opinion, is more appropriate, more instructional, for healing our current personal and global modern illness. So, let’s take a look into some of what this symbol means and why it matters so much for us in the most practical ways.
First, however, note that this symbol is not hypothetical. It is a reflection of the world we live in and the world we are. It is your own body. It is the body of the Earth, the fertility of the land, the growth of forests, the way of rivers and waterways, and everything else. It is our relationship with nature, with everyday life, in the most fundamental sense. So, there is no theory here, just common sense, really. It’s simply helpful to have these realities we live inside of, often too close to notice and appreciate as we should, to be objectified for the sake of discussion. So, when you see the symbol and I discuss it, I invite you to feel your body, see your life, see the natural world and our interaction with it, as what this symbol points to.
First, the Yin-yang symbol is a circle. Circles represent wholeness, especially because any point on the circumference of the circle is equidistant from its center. We can understand this to mean that no part of the circle is separated from truth, the whole, balance, or “God,” or the Tao in Chinese thought. No part of life is separate from others; we are all interrelated and connected. In other words, the Yin-Yang symbol is egalitarian; it is a symbol of justice and equality. When we divide a circle in half and color half of it white and the other half black, the circle also represents paradox and completion, two important aspects of sustainability. The Yin-Yang symbol therefore embraces the Native American wisdom of acting now for the next seven generations, and then some.
In fact, the old riddle of which came first the chicken or the egg, also represents the interdependence of Yin and Yang. This is why it’s a riddle, because without Yin (the egg) there is no Yang (chicken) and without Yang there is no Yin. Chinese medicine doesn’t really care which came first; it is concerned with practicality, with fortifying and protecting the egg and making strong chickens. And by “chickens” I mean all of life. Chinese medicine is more immediately interested in what works, in benefitting our experience, our ordinary wellness. This is why it’s such a practical system of healthcare, not to mention its applicability and insights for global health, which is a topic I cover a bit later here and in more depth in this presentation called Wild Inside.
Circles also represent cycles. The Yin-Yang symbol is also a model for the turning of seasons and their cooperation for fertility to sustain life on the planet. This is why Taoism is considered “the way of nature.” It is the original deep ecology. As part of nature, when we employ its Yin-Yang wisdom to our own lives we participate in this thriving, in sustainability, in a sane future. For a humanity on the brink of collapse though the destruction of the biosphere, we would do well to pay more attention to this ancient symbol of decency and responsible thriving.
Yin and Yang is a sustainable model because it embraces opposites in dynamic equilibrium, which means balance, and balance means growth and decay, activity and rest, fertility and thriving, dark and light. This thriving, as the constant movement and channeling of vital energy, is passion in action because it is fundamentally creative, earthy, carnal, and life-enhancing. If we want real, sustainable passion we would do well to embrace and honor both dark and light in ourselves and in the natural world. This is to honor the whole of the circle. When we do not, this causes stagnation and the experience of pain, which is suffering, which decreases vitality, which increases apathy, disconnection, thereby decreasing our passionate participation in life. Yet, when we can dip into and embrace pain, we can also release it and gain wisdom. So, Yin-Yang is always bringing us into greater participation; healing is always possible, but it relies on the flow of dark into light and back and forth from life unto death unto rebirth.
Yin-Yang is also the quintessential symbol for recyclability because there is no waste in its design — what is dark, old, painful, and dying holds the seeds for light, richness, beauty, and renewal. Just think of compost. Plant growth (Yang) feeds decay (Yin) and the building of nourishing soil to grow more plants, which in turn creates more compost. Compost is the essence of fertility and why chemical agriculture is a total insult to Yin-Yang harmony, thriving, and fecundity. What’s more, while we might not see the immediate effects, acting against this natural law breeds disease. For example, you might be able to cheat on good sleep for a time, but eventually you will experience discomfort and dis-ease that forces you back to balance, for which you will have to lean just as far into the opposite of what you have been doing — getting extra rest — in proportion to having engaged in extra activity.
Yin-Yang offers the insight that we need all aspects of our psyche to maintain homeostasis, just as we need all aspects of the seasons and their unique, holistic contributions to maintain homeostasis in the biosphere. Yin-Yang theory understands that actions turn into their opposites. For example, when Yang is overemphasized and thereby in a perverse or diseased state, as it is in our world today, it turns into perverse Yin, which is death without renewal. Burning up the planet through consumption (Yang) leads to depletion of resources (Yin) and more pollution and suffering in a downward spiral. If this pattern continues, increased disease and eventual death result. Replenishing resources through natural, non-chemical, non-polluting ways of consumption means feeding fertility, recyclability, and thriving. This is crucial wisdom for us to understand and for how to turn this disease pattern around, as I’ll discuss soon.
In holistic thought — which is the holism represented by Yin-Yang and what makes life work most prolifically and smoothly — the black half of the circle is considered Yin while the white half of the circle is considered Yang. Yin is archetypal feminine, Yang is archetypal masculine, and both exist in each of us and all of nature. Further, because black and white are each contained in the circle and given the same amount of real estate, neither is ultimately more important than the other. In fact, each is needed to make the other what it is. There is not Yin (dark) without Yang (light) and there is no Yang without Yin. We witness this reality each day; night time is meaningless without day and daytime is meaningless without night.
We cannot be active unless we have also rested. We cannot rest well unless we have been active. The whole of the Earth itself is naturally divided into northern and southern hemispheres, with relatively opposite seasons occurring in each. We also know that the ocean currents, which traverse the entire globe, contribute to the warming and cooling trends in both hemispheres. The poles are cold (Yin), while their opposite direction in the equator is warm (Yang). The whole globe itself is connected in the dialectic of Yin and Yang.
Therefore, there are two core truths of Yin and Yang. One is that Yin and Yang are entirely interdependent. The second is that Yin and Yang generate and support one another. These truths guide Chinese medicine practice and living according to natural law. For example, the Yin-Yang heating and cooling of the planet also manifests inside our own bodies. Again, cold or coolness pertains to Yin and heat to Yang. Herbs, foods, exercises, acupuncture techniques, as well as lifestyle recommendations, that cool the body are used when there is too much heat, and vice versa for cold conditions. In imbalance and disease, Chinese medicine in its precision is able to shunt heat and coolness from one organ system to the next to create balance. We aid this process on a planetary level by participating in the world in natural, sustainable ways, so that nature itself can continue in homeostasis. In the end, Nature is boss. When we do not follow natural law, we will lose.
On a planetary level today we need to increase Yin, which is getting burned out by Yang. We also need to decrease Yang. This means we stop burning and consuming so much. It also means to get good rest and to “remain cool” as much as possible and appropriate, by doing our best to live in moderation. With this said there is the appropriate, balanced, place for the expression of fire and anger, as I discuss here). When we get poor sleep and do not rejuvenate ourselves, we burn out and tend to be imbalanced in mind and action, leading to more mindless consumption and actions, until we reclaim balance. So, tending to Yin-Yang inside us is crucial for caring for Yin-Yang balance outwardly. This applies not only to physical measures like sleep and rest but our own psychology as well. Conscious awareness (light) is incomplete without awareness of our unconscious (dark). Bringing consciousness to what is dark in us, unites the Yin-Yang symbol in wholeness. This is what Carl Jung meant by making the dark conscious; this is the Yin-Yang symbol in action. I discuss this more shortly.
Without coolness, heat has no relief. Without heat, coolness cannot warm itself up. Each condition in excess leads to decline and death. Therefore, Chinese medicine regulates the preponderance of Yin and Yang so that the circle remains in tact, so that wholeness is maintained and promoted. We would be wise to apply this wisdom to the environment as well; Yin-Yang has so much to offer our modern-day unsustainable interface with nature.
As mentioned earlier, the circle of Yin and Yang is also a representation of the yearly cycle, of the seasonal progression from Spring into Summer into Fall into Winter and back to Spring again. So, the seasons shown below proceed in a clockwise direction, round and round from birth into life into decline into death into rebirth. The darker, cooler seasons of the year pertain to Yin, the dark half of the circle. The brighter, warmer seasons pertain to Yang, the white half of the circle. In fall and winter the energy of plants descends and moves towards the Earth, reaching its nadir at the winter solstice (where it says “winter” in the diagram below), which is also the time of year when there is the least amount of sunlight. As the proliferation of life and goodness, fertility in the natural world is achieved through a balance of growth and decay, daytime and nighttime, rest and repose, expansion and contraction, Yin and Yang, respectively.
As representative of this dynamic, consider compost (including loam, as the decay of plant matter) and plant growth. Compost, made in the hidden, dark and moist recesses of nature, captures the nourishing essence of the sacred feminine and the fertility of the world — everything Yin. This Yin-rich compost and loam also provide a home for the microorganisms that break down (Yin) the just-fallen plant matter and convert it into nutrition for plants, and for humans. Without compost, we’d have nothing but burned out Monsanto chemical soil and days. During the Yang months of spring and summer nature is busy growing leaves; it is using the energy (Yang) from sunlight and nutrients from the soil (Yin) to build branches, foliage, and fruits. This way, plant life, like us, is a beautiful combination of Yin and Yang, mutually supporting one another. This growth phase (spring into summer) of the seasonal cycle relies on the fallow death and decay phase from autumn and winter. This way, Yin and Yang both support one another for life, for fertility.
So, the growth phase, which includes all the plant food we eat, is produced primarily during the Yang months. But, again, this growth phase can’t happen without the decline cycle of Autumn and Winter, the Yin-dark phase of the yearly cycle, when the soil is nourished by the same plant matter that it gave rise to the year before. Through the making of compost and the production of food, and back to compost again, we glimpse how each part of the natural cycle, Yin and Yang, is needed to nourish the life cycle. Darkness is not inherently bad; it is needed for sustainable light. And light without darkness burns everything out and separates us from the ground, the life-giving soil, earthly everyday life and care. This also means that what is dark and painful in us is merely an opportunity for learning, growth, and greater love. There is nothing permanently evil and un-healable inside us when our darkness has a venue to be vented and loved back into wholeness, which brings me to the psychology of Yin and Yang.
This model of Yin and Yang, of compost and outward growth, also applies to our inner, emotional lives. In Chinese medicine spring and summer correspond with the outward expressions of creativity and joy, respectively. Autumn and winter correspond with the deeper, sinking experiences of grief and decline, fear and death, respectively. These are all traditional correspondences. Just as these Yin seasons are needed for fertility and sustainability in the world of green nature, they are necessary for our own sustainability, inner richness, and health. See the correlation?
In a good portion of the rest of my essays I discuss the importance of embracing our difficult emotions. This is to embrace the Yin, archetypal feminine aspects of ourselves, especially our grief. Grief is what heals a broken heart, and our hearts are all broken in one way or another. According to Chinese medicine, grief corresponds with autumn. Even in the falling leaves and the movement into longer nights, a certain natural sadness occurs. We are sad for the fading light, the exuberance and joy of summer passing out of season. This sadness is to be embraced, for it is part of the healthy cycle of thriving inherent to Yin-Yang wholeness.
In a world that denies the sacred feminine, we deny grief and the sacredness of death for new life. So, we need to give a little extra attention to the sacred, healing darkness we have avoided. For when we don’t know how to do Yin, we can’t do Yang very well. So, we get perverse Yang, deranged actions. Sound familiar? This perverse Yang is manifest today in the greed, the chemical pollution, the genocide and ecocide around the globe. We have to use our Yang-anger and fierce love to fight it, yet we also have to use our grief to clear our pain, bring us into deep compassion and empathy, gain wisdom, and clear our pain to renew our hearts. This is a crucial way that we marry Yin and Yang to create an abundant and thriving world.
Grief is the inner, emotional equivalent to soil’s microorganisms. Grief, like soil bugs, breaks down what is no longer useful in daylight, in our outward lives, what we are letting go. When we grieve the love we did not get as children, and our other losses, either material or physical, this clears and heals our hearts. More light, soul-nourishment, revitalized passion, creativity, and a rich inner life result from grieving — because grief releases the stagnation of pain and our inner psycho-spiritual resources. It is no wonder, then, that grief, the corresponding emotion of autumn, ushers in the Yin cycle of decline in earnest, as the darker half of the Yin-Yang circle.
When we do not grieve our losses, our heartbreaks, our emotional pain (and its physical manifestations in tight muscles, congestion, and postural anomalies) stagnates in us causing depression and anger, apathy and closed-heartedness, violence and sociopathy. When we grieve our losses (autumn’s cardinal experience) and then “die through our pain” (symbolized by winter’s death), we free our hearts, we clear what impedes our vitality, and we create the fertile ground in ourselves for the enjoyment of a creative life of joy and genuine, inner abundance, which are the cardinal experiences of a well-lived Spring and Summer. This, by the way, is how to heal heartbreak in a wholesome, enduring, and healthy way — by entering and being with the pain until it changes us and leaves of its own accord. We don’t heal it by seeking new relationships and ignoring our grief, or by taking up addictions and distractions. We heal it by being with it and letting it work on us until it is done and our “season” naturally changes, which again, is the way of nature. We don’t have to control the transformation; we just have to facilitate it by being with what is moment to moment, day to day.
In all this we see how Chinese medicine, and its profound understanding of nature and wellness, provides wisdom for how to live in sustainable wholeness — as Yin and Yang contribute to one another and the overall richness and beauty of all parts of the circle, which is our lives, our full “hearts.” We learn through Yin-Yang that we are inextricably connected to Nature in a cycle of Oneness. This is proved to us when we act in accord with natural law and find belonging as well as when we act in disaccord with natural law and find disconnection.
This Yin-Yang sustainable, harmonious model for our inner and eco-centered lives can also be extrapolated to our relationships with one another, especially helpful for intimate relationships, both between men and women and even same-gender relationships, because the feminine and masculine qualities of Yin and are present in both men and women and are desired and engaged with no matter the gender of our partner. So check in with me for my next article, “The Yin & Yang of Intimate Relationship.”
Yin-Yang wisdom, then, is both for personal growth and for healing the natural world, which we affect so pervasively. So, I recommend to embrace both simultaneously: act with wisdom and use the wisdom of illuminating the dark to heal your heart. To help you on your way, the following resources might be helpful.