Monday, October 12, 2009

Yin and Yang: The Union of Opposites

The Yin-Yang symbol, or Taiji, is one of the most recognizable ancient symbols in modern culture, and appears regularly on anything from surfboards to tattoos. While the symbol itself is well known, some of its deeper meanings remain hidden, and its use as a practical tool for personal transformation could be greatly increased.

Most commonly known as the Yin/Yang (not Ying - Yang), a symbol for the Tao, this powerful image contains a wealth of meaning and can provide a touchstone for brining yourself into harmony with all the seemingly opposing forces in life. In the West with our strong sense of individuality, we generally hold an "either-or" attitude when it comes to polar opposites, most notably with the concept of good vs. evil. In the East, which puts unity over individuality, there is a sense of "plus-and" regarding opposites. Opposites in the West are mutually exclusive (in that one can survive without the other) while in the East, they are seen as being mutually interdependent. In the latter, the opposites are still distinguishable from each other, but never separated.

In fact, all polarities only really exist in relation to each other, such as up and down, left and right, etc. You can't have one without the other, so they "need" each other to exist. Take the example of the bilateral symmetry of our own bodies: we say we have a left ear and a right one (or eyes, lungs, etc.) but we would not say we have a left or right nose, mouth or heart. In art, the "figure-ground" relationship is absolutely necessary, as we can only see something relative to what it is not. If you have a white object on a black background (or visa versa) you would be able to see it clearly. If you have a black object on a black background, you would not.

Pythagoras of Samos, famous for the so-called Pythagorean Theorem in geometry, knew full well that opposites cannot be exclusive and listed several of them. A brief consideration of these will make clear that opposites need each other for either to exist:

Up/Down, Finite/Infinite, Hot/Cold, Dark/Light, Rest/Motion, One/Many, Masculine/Feminine, etc.

And even with a concept such as night and day, we say commonly say that two things or people are "different as night and day," but really, they are just two aspects of a unified whole. The earth simply rotates and the only difference between night and day is a matter of timing - if it is day, it will soon be night; if it is night, the day is not far behind. Or from a perspective in space, one plainly sees that the globe of the Earth is ALWAYS in a state of Night/Day: 1/2 of the planet is lighted by the Sun, the other 1/2 is in shadow. This would hold true regardless of the rotation of the Earth - even if it didn't rotate. And, as Pink Floyd states in their album of the same name, there is no Dark Side of the Moon, really. Like the Earth it is half lit, half shadow all the time, and from our perspective, the side of the Moon we don't see is actually the far side.

OK, so now we can see that opposing forces or ideas are really two parts of a whole, recognizable and distinguishable from each other but not separated in the larger sense. And as the question goes, "What good is this and how can it be useful to me?" Actually, our concept of separated reality - this vs. that - is at the heart of many of our difficulties as people and as a culture. And the unification of the opposites is a major goal of many spiritual and philosophical traditions, such as Taoism, Alchemy and Jung's theory of Individuation, or psychological integration.

In our public discourse, most of the debate on any issue or policy is caged in a highly polarized manner, pitting one against the other in a duel to the death. Do you ever wonder why none of these arguments can be resolved? It's because the whole notion of trying to have one of a pair of opposites reign victorious over the other is an impossibility. But, both sides usually dig in and fight harder for their side and it only results in more division and opposition. Like all opposites, the more you strengthen one pole, by necessity, the other pole is equally strengthened. What you persist resists, as a wise person said. Another states, the higher you climb, the harder you fall.

So before we start trying to reconcile opposites in the outside world, we need to reconnect opposing forces, ideas and emotions within ourselves. Actually, the separateness of opposites is only a mental construct, an illusion that we buy into, and any re-unification is merely a conceptual one, as the opposites are never "really" separate. But this change in our perspective, that we begin to see opposites as being inseparable, each needing the other to survive, is most important.

We have all heard of the split between our emotional and intellectual impulses, or we have asked the question, "Should I follow my Head, or follow my Heart?" Again, these two forces are not separable, they are forever connected within our consciousness. One may seem to take power over the other, but what often happens is they are in cahoots with each other and if we don't get a grip on them both, we will be bounced from one pole to the other in a constant battle that has no victor. Actually the only "victory" is in the harmony between the head and the heart. They don't have to totally "agree" with each other on all points, but they will working together if we let them, or work against each other (and us!) if we leave them to their own devices and let them run riot.

Just seeing the head and the heart as being two aspects of the same thing, one being more intellectual and the other more emotional, will go a long way toward reconciling them so they are in harmony. But if we continue to view them as opposites in a constant struggle, they will always be in disharmony. Try to see other opposites as being inseparable as well.

Look at the symbol again. The Yin aspect (back part) is the Feminine - soft and receptive - while the Yang (white) is the Masculine - hard and assertive. Clearly the man needs the woman, the woman needs the man, or the human race would not survive. But internally, according to Dr. Jung as well as the ancients, each of us possesses a bit of the other. In a man, there is a female aspect or feminine side (anima) and in a woman, there is a male aspect or masculine side (animus). If in the symbol, the white Yang part is the masculine, then the black dot represents the female anima aspect within. Conversely, the black Yin contains a white dot of masculine animus energy. The goal is to have balance, and have the opposite work in harmony instead of against. If we ignore the other, we will be out of balance. Even a macho "man's man" can most benefit from being in touch with his receptive, emotional and nurturing side. Likewise, a "grily girl" can also be best served when getting in touch with her assertive, logical and competitive side. But if we go too much in this direction, we end up with ineffectual men and overbearing women, as is often portrayed in our television sitcoms and pop culture.

Now consider again, the head and the heart. If the head is Yang (white) and he heart is Yin (black) then the balancing dots of the opposite come into play. Buddhist philosophy talks of the heart-mind. Others write about the intelligent heart. So it is true that emotions have intelligence and the intellect has feelings. Now is it easy to see the danger in seeing them as mutually exclusive. Can you recognize the advantage in tempering our emotions with the intellect, and opening the cold logical mind to the warmth and compassion of the heart?

As was stated earlier, the Ancient Wisdom has a way of showing up in many unusual areas of life and there is an old TV commercial that sums this up nicely. In it, one person is walking down the street eating a big chocolate bar and is very happy about it. Another person is equally happy eating peanut butter straight from the jar. When they collide, they both accuse the other: "You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!" "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." When they both taste the new combination, they are more happy than before, and the product is a unification or the "opposites" - a Resse's peanut butter cup!

I'll end on a personal note on how I have used the Yin-Yang symbol in my life. After a frustrating period of trying to decide my career path and determine my personal identity, I was torn between being a scholar or a rocker, a performer or a writer, feeling that I must decide between the two. After I finally gave up, I had a moment of realization, and the Yin-Yang symbol appeared to me in a way that I had never seen it before. An overwhelming sense of no longer having to struggle and the unmistakable feeling that I could be both - perhaps even had to be both - in order to reconcile the two. Not an either-or solution, but a plus-and solution. And to make the epiphany even more concrete, I went and had the symbol tattooed on my shoulder so that anytime since, when I feel torn between two opposing feelings or decisions, I just look at it and remember that it is possible, and preferable and profitable, to hold a larger vision that encompasses both.

© Chris Sheridan


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