Yin and Yang: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Yin and Yang: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The Supreme Ultimate Reality

During our discussions of the Five Elements over the past couple weeks we have made a few mentions of the concepts of Yin and Yang, as well as Tai Chi. This week we’re going to look a little more closely at these fundamentals and how they relate to our lives.

The above symbol of yin and yang is actually called Tai Chi.  Tai Chi means “the supreme ultimate reality.”

There is also a concept called Wu Chi.  Wu Chi looks like this:

It is just an empty circle, void, meaningless.  Wu chi also comes to represent chaos or non-order or the inconceivable.  It is only when this wu chi divides itself into two distinguishable poles (yin and yang) do we derive meaning, form and order

The Etymology of Yin and Yang

We gain some valuable insights into yin and yang when we examine the etymology of the words. For example, we write Yin in classical Chinese like this: 阴. We write Yang like this: 阳. The Chinese characters yin and yang are both comprised of two separate characters. The character yin has the character for moon 月 in it. The character of yang has the character of sun 日 in it.  This gives us an important clue into what these two words are meant to signify. When literally translated, yin means “the shady side of the hill.”  Yang means “the sunny side of the hill.”  We associate the yin side, or shady side, with things that are at rest, introverted, calm, receptive, passive, cold and dark. We associate the yang side, or sunny side, with activity, extroversion, excitement, unrest, creativity, chaos, action, heat and light.

An Alliance of Energies

At first glance, it might seem tempting to prefer the yang side of things. However, it needs to be said that these two opposites depend upon each other. They need each other to define their very existence. All things are relationships. What is up without down? Though our culture puts a high emphasis on activity and action, without rest and calm we will get ill and burnout. Furthermore, what does a picture of a black bear at night drawn on a black piece of paper look like? Nothing. However, if we put that picture on a white piece of paper we know instantly what it is. In other words, we need a concept of a hard day so we can appreciate a good day. We live in a world of opposites joined together inexplicably in a great mysterious union.  This forms a mutual alliance between these two seemingly opposed energies.

Breaking Down the Binaries

To see yin and yang as a type of binary structure is missing the point entirely. Yin and yang are not a duality. By duality, we refer to the way Western Culture and the English language creates a kind of opposing duality in one’s mind. Things are always good or bad, up and down, pretty or ugly, happy or sad. However, the Chinese constructed their language differently. All seemingly opposite phenomena are really different sides to the same thing. Day and night are always dependent upon each other to give the other meaning. You cannot have saints unless you have sinners. These seemingly opposing things are really united, inexplicably. Trying to live a life only on one side of this balanced equation is a formula for disaster and disease. Flowing within this inherent structure that comprises the phenomena of existence is a useful piece of advice.

Keep It Simple

As we grow, our consciousness begins to expand and subdivide in an effort to categorize our experiences. However, we should remember that everything is yin and yang. The linear mind longs to move forward – bigger, better, faster. This leads to only more confusion. Man is overworked. He builds a computer to lessen his load. However, with the spare time now available, he works harder, makes more progress, and gets tired again. A newer, better computer is invented…and on it goes. The solution is to move toward the beginning. Stop making complexity where there is none. Life is simple, easy and free for the giving. All that we need to do is step into the dark forest and realizing that there is no path, we make a path where one never existed. This is the adventure that, in effect, IS life, traveling a path rich with surprise, mystery, suffering, and joy.


Order and Chaos

Order and Chaos

The Comfort of Order

Order is the words. Organized. Defined. Always there when they are needed. Words are concrete. Unchanging. Predictable. And things that are predictable are comfortable: like the location of your bed, the place where you keep your food, where your money is kept, where your favorite people live, your name. A comfy, old sweater. Then, of course, we define these words using what? Other words. We use words to define words. However, if that is the case, what was the first word? We will get to that. Order is a fundamental principle that is vital to our lives. Indeed, making order out of a mess is what some would claim is the highest of human aspirations. In fact, some say it is our duty as humans to establish and protect the order. They are correct. Mostly.

The Challenge of Chaos

Chaos is the emptiness between the words. The white space. The limitless void of the unknown where the first and original cry or utterance likely emerged. I suspect that first word was a yelp or a growl. Who knows? These first words define themselves by their very sound: like BOOM, SPLAT, CRASH. We all understand a GROWL or a YELP regardless if there is a dictionary handy. Chaos is ALL that we do not know. The dark, scary places where order has not yet found its calling or form. All that crashes down on us, pulls the rug out from under us, breaks our heart and plants a curve ball right on the side of your head. Chaos challenges us and forces us to learn something new. To make the chaos more known. More understood. More like order. But there is always more chaos. It surrounds us daily scheming new accidents for us to make meaning of. Have you ever daydreamed while driving about closing your hands and taking your hands off the wheel? Odds are you are not suicidal. That is just the call of chaos. We need some adventure in our lives.

Finding the Middle Ground

These two personalities, of order and chaos, have opposed each other since time out of mind. As balanced human beings, we ideally straddle the middle ground with a foot in each camp. The line that separates order from the chaos. The borderlands. No man’s land. The place where known and unknown converge. The wild west. The Final Frontier. Tijuana. Chinatown. That weird bar in Star Wars. Casablanca. OZ. We love border towns. There is always a sense of wildness and freedom there. Possibility and danger. Adventure! Surprisingly, it is the place we find ourselves every day. On the path between what we know and guard and what we do not know and fear.

The Cosmic Dance of Destruction and Birth

The ancient Taoists call this phenomenon Tai Chi. The white-eyed black snake eating the black-eyed white snake who is eating the white-eyed black snake, etc. etc. for all time. Order and chaos in a cosmic dance of destruction and birth. Some people know this symbol as yin and yang. Some cling to the ordered principle and shun the chaos.  Unfortunately, this leads to boredom, submission, arrogance and eventual annihilation at the hands of barbarians. Some cling to chaos and shun order.  Similarly, this leads to feeling overwhelmed with no sense of where you are or where you are going. These diverging principles of light and dark rely on each other for meaning. It is not one or the other. It is both.The call of adventure into the unknown is bewitching and fun. The comfort of the Shire by a warm fire is also alluring and needed.

Start Small and Stand Proud

That being said, this week we are going to stand proudly in the borderlands, firmly on that squiggly line separating yin and yang, and reach a hand into chaos and a hand into order. Think about an aspect of your life that is chaotic and beyond your control. Start small. Then, using the community and mentors, scheme ways on how you may make that chaos into order. By doing this small exercise and raising the stakes little by little as we go, tackling larger and larger chaoses, we will become masters of calm order and high adventure.

I hope we find this week that there is no shortage of wild to tame. And nothing too tame that it couldn’t hold up to a healthy injection of the unknown.

The Five Elements, Continued

The Five Elements, Continued

Expounding Upon the Five Elements

Last week we introduced the Five Elements during a thought experiment and discussion on living harmoniously. We received enough questions that we thought it would be a good idea to go over the Elements in a little more detail here. The Chinese Five Elements are also referred to as the five phases, the five transformations, the five manifestations or the five agents of change. The Five Elements represent patterns of movement which support, nurture, unite, control, divide and destroy one another.

The Five Elements are:

木 wood

火 fire

土 earth

金 metal

水 water

The purpose of the Five Elements is not to pigeon-hole anyone into a certain type or label. It is important to remember that no one is exclusively one element. Everyone is a rich, complex blend of ALL Five Elements. The goal is to recognize our natural elemental persuasions and use that wisdom to guide us through all of life’s many permutations, phases and cycles. However, the goal is NOT to balance all the elements within ourselves. Instead, the point is to cultivate certain elements during certain times of our lives. To be appropriate to the situation and to adapt to an ever-evolving landscape is the value of understanding the Five Elements.

Yin and Yang

There is some overlap between the Elements and the modern taiji diagram, or “yin yang” symbol as it’s known in popular culture. Firstly, Wood and Fire are considered yang elements. Next, we consider Metal and Water to be yin elements. Finally, Earth holds the middle ground and is where the yin and yang elements overlap, mingle, embrace, shove and fight. Each Element corresponds with an archetype, which is a basic, generalized kind of person. For example, if we think about the captain of the football team, a similar mental image pops into our collective brains. If we think about a cheerleader, a clear image emerges in our minds. Class clown, nerd, mamma’s boy, all are modern day archetypes. The famed Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung primarily pioneered these standardized snapshots. The Five Elements are likely the oldest of such archetypes!

“Each One of Us Is a Brain…and an Athlete…and a Basket Case…”

Now we have some unpacking to do. We will peel back several layers of detail for each Element: from the season it is associated with, to the internal body organ it represents, to the chemicals/substances most likely abused by each. Bear in mind, these are generalizations. No one person fits into a single elemental category. The human experience is far too rich and varied. Humanity defies any simple categorization. We all change and our dominant Element changes with us. This is not a hard science. Wandering with the Five Elements is more akin to poetry. Knowledge of it gives each of us a new flavor to ponder, a different perspective to consider and a fresh scent to tickle our senses and stimulate our minds. The human condition is lavish and textured.

How We Walk Our Path

We mentioned “wandering” earlier. There is a much-misunderstood concept in Eastern thought regarding “wandering.” It was said by a youthful, old man once that a good traveler has not set a destination. They just wander. When our hearts are pure and we love our own company, no matter where we go, we will find success, friendship and open arms. This is what is meant by being a good traveler. We have no preconceived notions, no expectations and no resentment. The destination is the same for all. We all arrive at the same mysterious end. It is the quality of how we walk our path toward the mystery that has meaning. There are so many ways to live a life. Additionally, there are so many ways to love and be loved, so many stones that need un-turning and so many mountains that cannot be turned no matter how hard we try. Try anyway. Indeed, try with every ounce of vigor and passion you possess.

The Whirlwind and the Rapture

All of it is waiting there for us. Like ironic, warm-hearted Sirens beckoning us to the shore, but instead of rocky harbors and false hopes, a calm port and a warm embrace awaits us. Certain things can only have significance in the current moment. Dancing, wandering and compassion are only meaningful as they exist right now, in the present. To dance we only dance. Good dancers are immersed in the moment; enthralled in the whirlwind and the rapture. A devilish, English philosopher with an infectious laugh once said that dancing has no goal in mind, no destination. We just dance for the sake of dancing.

Compassion Is Wealth

This is exactly the same mindset we should bring to our wandering. In wandering, we accept the moment as it is, with no regret; completely unedited and raw. Whatever crosses our path, we accept it, for we crossed its path too! When the road leads to odd places and strange faces, we welcome both with an open heart. Compassion is the greatest of human emotions. To have compassion for another means we suffer their pain with them. We join them in their suffering and take a bit of it ourselves so that they can breathe a little easier knowing they are not alone. “We are here with you,” whispers the compassionate. Compassion does not stand across the room empathizing from a safe distance. It is right there with us, holding our hand as we plunge into the bitter suffering that always, always, always leads us to rebirth, joy and sweet redemption. This is what it means to be truly human.

We just wander. Compassion is wealth. Join the dance.

“In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery;

in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

― Siddhārtha Gautama

The Three Building Blocks of Mental Health

The Three Building Blocks of Mental Health

It Starts with Sleep

Mental health starts simply.  The first easy 3 things to consider are:

  1. Quality of Rest/Sleep
  2. Access to Quality Food
  3. Serotonin-Friendly Postures

The first two are obvious.  If a mentally ill person cannot get enough rest, they will function poorly.  In fact, if a mentally healthy person cannot get consistent rest, they TOO will function poorly.  Life’s stresses and challenges are hard enough as it is, but when you are sleepy – because the neighbor was blasting music all night, or your roommate is a vampire, or you live in a submarine-like condition with four people to a room in bunk beds – these life pressures become debilitating and create more stress and more discomfort.  

Premium Fuel Only

Access to quality food is also a proven, necessary component of a life on the mend.  A steady diet of fresh fruit, vegetables and leans fats have been proven to help improve outcomes for the mentally ill and the mentally healthy.  A diet of energy drinks and Hot Cheetos, with a pizza and a Lean Cuisine thrown in here and there, is not a recipe for happiness or health. 

Serotonin-Friendly Postures

Which brings us to Serotonin-Friendly Postures.  Huh?  For a more detailed explanation of serotonin-friendly postures, check out Ted Talks or read some Jordan E. Peterson books.  For our purposes, we will only glean this rich and satisfying topic.  When you stand up straight with your shoulders back and head up, you will feel better.  Serotonin is a neural chemical that makes life bearable and nice.  It helps you deal with stress and anxiety.  It settles your nerves and makes you feel a “oneness” with the world.  When you carry your posture properly, whether you feel good or not, you will feel better very quickly.  Being upright and alert signals to your body to release this chemical.  Certain foods like milk, turkey and green peas help increase this effect by adding 5HTP into your system.  5HTP is a precursor to serotonin (happy) and melatonin (sleepy).

Bringing It All Together

Proper sleep and healthy posture combined with proper diet and we have a proven combination for improvement and success.  Slumped shoulders, skulking body language and lowered heads all communicate to the outside world that you are a victim or ill-intentioned.  And victims generally continue to be victimized by savvy predators and ill-intended victimizers.  It is like waving a flag announcing you are in a weakened state.  Even if you ARE a victim and have been victimized, carrying yourself in a victimized manner isn’t going to make anything any better.  In fact, it will get worse.  So let’s try to take a tip from Mr. Peterson and his lobsters (google it) and start preparing for change and success by eating better, sleeping better and moving our bodies through space in a way that signals calm strength and courage, even in the face of uncertainty and suffering.  

I know this sounds superficial and overly simple.  Yes, it is.  But we need to start the journey of healing somewhere, and if you do not look the part or feel the part, it will likely never happen.  The more complex and challenging steps will never be realized because you will be too tired, stressed out, malnourished and advertising to be mistreated by abusive opportunists.   

Take away:  Sleep tight.  Sit up straight.  Have breakfast and meet us on the battlefield.  There is a war brewing and only you can make the difference.    

The Five Elements and Living Harmoniously

The Five Elements and Living Harmoniously

A Neglected Temple

Let’s try a thought experiment to illustrate a point concerning the way we treat our bodies. We’ll begin by imagining that our body is a house. We’ll also pretend that we care nothing for this house. We do not love it. In fact, we believe we do not even own it. We only rent it from some faceless landlord. Furthermore, we neglect the home, we abuse it, and we hate being there. We have no problem inviting strangers in to pass the time. They notice that we do not care about the house, so they neglect and abuse it, too. Before long we realize that we have taken up residence in a body that we no longer recognize. We have allowed a sacred space to become overgrown with the weeds of addiction and despair. Drugs, alcohol and destructive relationships become welcome distractions from the true underlying problems. 

Our Holy Palace

This is an awful, dystopian way to view our bodies. However, we can also look at the other side of this coin. In this vision, we love our home. We own it, outright. It is all ours. Because it is all ours, we take care of it. We do not allow anything to enter that will harm the peaceful environment. Strangers are welcomed in only after we remind them they are entering a temple. We no longer view ourselves as a cheap rental to be abused and disregarded. This is a key point and one that may be meditated upon often. Though the physical body may be attacked and damaged, our spirit always remains intact – provided we guard it like a temple. Once we learn how to protect and nurture our internal sacred space, other people’s actions become irrelevant to our own. We become the masters of ourselves.

The Five Elements

The question then becomes “How do we best take care of this sacred space?” One way is by studying and practicing the Chinese philosophy of the Five Elements. The Five Elements are a tool. Knowledge of them helps us to be masters of ourselves. They help us to recognize and stifle destructive habits and tendencies before they grow out of control. Only then, once we have weeded and tended our garden can we help others create their own gardens. The proof of a good gardener is in their garden. The proof of a great teacher is in the quality of their students. The Five Elements are an ancient way Chinese sages saw the world. It is a relationship between different kinds of energy or QI and how those energies relate to one another. The Five Elements can be used to better understand our world and our places within it.

We Are Nature

We often hear about the need to take care of the natural world. While it’s admirable to want to preserve our green space, this outlook is wrong-headed. Human beings are a natural resource. We are products of nature share the same energies as nature. In fact…we are nature! The principles that govern nature also govern human beings. Understanding and maximizing those natural tendencies is paramount. Round pegs do not fit into square holes. Try as we may, it will never work. Often we are forced into roles we cannot assume. Instead of maximizing our natural gifts, we sometimes adopt a “one way fits all” philosophy. This is a catastrophic error. People are not machines. On the contrary, we are organic and flexible. The Five Elements teach us how to grow a garden, not how to build a machine. The Elements teach us how to cultivate a healthy and happy self.

Living Harmoniously

Once we start to find that organic harmony within ourselves, we can begin to bring it to others. Working harmoniously with others is a gift. Especially in a company or team setting. If an executive cannot co-exist, thrive and inspire his people, what good is that executive? Intelligence, cleverness, shrewdness, handsomeness – these all fall to the wayside. If we cannot work in a balanced harmony with ourselves and with others, then we cannot make music, we make only noise. Each person’s unique note needs to be organized in such a way that music and harmony abound. Not just noise and chaos. Life is relationships. Without human interaction, we have nothing. But first we have to love our own company. We are only lonely when we don’t like the company of ourselves. No thing and no one can live in a vacuum.

Part of a Glorious Oneness

Having harmonious relationships with others means making an effort to understand someone and to see things from their perspective. To know a person, we must know the environment in which that person exists. To understand a footstep we must understand first what the ground is and its natural relationship to the myriad things that are placed upon it. All things are a combination of other things. This provides the texture of our reality. We are not separate from anything. We are part of a glorious oneness that seeps into every nook and cranny of our existence. When one of us is strong, we are all strong. When one of us weeps, we all weep. When one of us laughs, we all laugh. There is nothing worse than believing the lie that we are alone. We have never been alone, and never will be.