Truth is often thought of as simple and easy: It’s hot outside. Maria is 1.56 meters tall. The milk has gone bad. These are all easy truths – easy to talk about, easy to find the answers to. But some answers don’t come so easy. When do you know whether to take someone’s advice, or ignore it? To trust somebody, or not trust them? Whether to wear these clothes, or those? Drive faster, or slower? What’s the right response?
In a world that often over-simplifies and generalizes so that more people can easily understand something quicker, the concept of Yin and Yang is a great way to free your mind from the confines of one-way-is-best thinking.
Sometimes one way is best. But that’s the easy part. The real challenges occur those times when there is no one thing or method you can count on to “be the best.” That’s where genius shines.
Yin and yang are two Chinese-language terms that describe interconnected polar opposites: for example, darkness and light. These opposites are interconnected because one inevitably will give rise to the other: if a room is very dark, then even the smallest point of light looks brilliant and very noticeable; if a space is too bright, we become drawn to the darker areas of the space, even though generally we might consider those spaces to still be bright, in a neutral context. The yin-yang point of view sees light and darkness as opposite, but also related – not just opposites. Thus, even when there is an abundance of one thing, its opposite can – and does – coexist right along with it.
We can apply this thinking to truth in the sense that, when one thing is perceived as right, that very often does not mean that its opposite is wrong. The key is often to achieve a balance between the two poles.
Once you mix, let’s say, milk into a cup of coffee, you cannot go back and separate the milk from the coffee. This is how yin and yang interact. They are inseparable from each other, and the existence of both yin and yang put together gives us what we are observing and feeling in the present. Everything out there is or has a mixture of both yin and yang. The mixture is different each time, and constantly changes – but it’s always there.
What do yin and yang actually stand for?
In different contexts, yin and yang express different opposites (yin on the left, in italics; yang on the right, in bold):
- cold vs. hot
- soft vs. hard
- feminine vs. masculine
- passive vs. assertive
- hidden vs. obvious
- invisible vs. radiant
- abstract vs. concrete
- darkness vs. light
- mental vs. physical
- slow vs. fast
- unspoken vs. spoken
- following vs. leading
- gentle vs. firm
- the moon vs. the sun
- bland vs. spicy
- light vs. heavy
- diffuse vs. concentrated
- complex vs. straightforward
- indefinite vs. well-defined
- submissive vs. dominant
- creative vs. practical
- quiet vs. noisy
- loose vs. tight
The yang characteristic is always the more obvious, more palpable, more easily detected one, while the yin characteristic is the more mysterious, less obvious one. The point, of course, is to achieve a balance between yin and yang, in all these domains.
Western capitalist culture, and especially American culture, is a far too yang-centered culture. A lot of the deeper problems people face in modern society are due to the overvaluing of only the yang characteristics: being strong, strightforward, doing things quickly and practically, leading, conquering, making your own destiny, and the like. This is like knowing really well how to heat up your food to cook it, but having little idea about how and when to cool the food down; the food gets burnt. That’s what happens to many people’s lives.
You can also have an imbalance of too much yin. Women in particular are often encouraged much more than men to develop yin characteristics; the ambiguousness and complexity of the so-called “feminine mystique” is a drawing point for society – especially an industrialized society that runs primarily on yang energy and needs some kind of yin energy to balance itself out. Women, thus, have often been positioned as the primary keepers and givers of yin energy, and frequently, this can lead to a life of invisibility and despair – a sense that no one cares about you, as if you don’t even exist. People in this situation must work on their yang energy in order to achieve a better balance and thus more fulfillment in life that they are living the right way.
This article started by asking how we can know what is right when the answer doesn’t come easily. Well, we may never find easy answers to some things, but the yin-yang perspective can help tremendously to get a better sense of what is out of balance and needs to be leveled out.
One last thing: please remember that no one perspective on “what the right thing to do is” is good forever. The truth, and the needs of a situation… are constantly changing.