Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World
Part 3:   Yin-Yang - The Principle of Harmony and Change

by Ted Kardash

This is the third of a series of articles on Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophical tradition. This article deals with yin-yang, the principle of harmony and change.
Taoism’s central organizing principle is the interconnectedness of all life with its flow of continuous change. Nowhere is this idea expressed in such a unique and exquisite manner as in the concept of yin-yang, which describes the underlying unity of life through the interplay of opposites.

Taoist writings state that all things and all processes contain two primal energies or forces. These two basic aspects of manifestation often are described as masculine and feminine, light and dark, negative and positive, creative and receptive. The original meaning of the term signified the light and dark sides of a mountain. Our common English-language expression, "there are two sides to everything," expresses this concept quite succinctly.

From a Taoist point of view, however, these two polar opposites are not seen as distinctly separate or in conflict, but rather as interdependent and complementary. In actuality, one creates the other. "Is there a difference between yes and no?", Lao Tzu, one of Taoism’s immortal sages, asks. "Is there a difference between good and evil?" His reply is that "Under heaven all can see beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil."

Chuang Tzu, another legendary Taoist sage, states with delightful wit and humor: "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."
These two sages are telling us is that the seeming opposites of life - the "yes" and "no," the "good" and "bad," are merely expressions of a deeper underlying unity, the connectedness that characterizes life in all its forms and processes. They advise us to not get caught in these apparent contradictions, rigidly choosing one side against the other. We are urged, rather, to perceive them in their relatedness, to experience how one grows out of the other. In so doing we can partake in the reconciling of opposites, "in blunting the sharpness and untangling the knot," as Lao Tzu states. Nature’s tendency is to constantly move to a state of harmony and balance.

The idea of change leading to harmonious balance underlines another aspect of yin-yang.

These two polar forces are not static or rigidly locked in battle with one another.

Just as one side of the mountain does not remain sunny all day, but gradually becomes shady as the sun moves across the sky and lights the other side, so also do the two forces of yin and yang constantly move and interact. When one energy becomes full and complete, then the other begins to grow and ascend.
"That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails must first be strong. That which is cast down must first be raised." Lao Tzu is telling us that life is a process. There is constant change, one thing flowing into another, one thing becoming another. Furthermore, within this constant change is a recognizable cyclical pattern, like the alternating of day and night or the turning of the seasons. 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.

What implications does this have for us on a personal level? How can we apply the concept of yin-yang in our daily lives?

For the past two thousand years traditional Western thinking has been dominated by a dualistic, either-or approach: either something is good, or it is bad; desirable or undesirable; someone is an ally or an enemy. We perceive experiences to be either positive or negative and we expend much energy in trying to eradicate what we consider to be negative. From a Taoist point of view, this is like trying to erase the negative current from electricity because it is not "positive."

Because we perceive ourselves as separate from others, we often find ourselves in opposition to them, locked into "this" and "that," merely because of skin color, language, or beliefs. Taking these "differences" for the way things "really are" leads to breakdowns in relating, arguing, fighting, and even killing. All because of "this" and "that." We do the same with ourselves. We dislike or disown parts of ourselves and struggle to change, not trusting that our own inner nature, as an expression of the Tao, will of its own accord move towards a harmonious balance.

"Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this’," Chuang Tzu writes. "Thus the sage does not bother with these distinctions, but beholds the light beyond right and wrong."
As strange as such thinking may seem to us, we can recognize that every good negotiator and mediator certainly looks beyond "right" and "wrong" in order to reconcile opposites, to "soften the glare and untangle the knot." By being yielding and receptive, by remaining in relationship with others as well as with ourselves, we learn to flow with life’s myriad of changes. Indeed, we become an agent of change ourselves, rather than resisting it while desperately clinging to one pole, one experience or perception, or the other.

"What goes up must come down," and "Every cloud has a silver lining." Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin-yang. Bad luck becomes good luck and crisis contains the opportunity for growth. We can choose to cooperate with this complimentary set of opposites by not denying, suppressing, or struggling against unwanted discomfort or pain, but rather by accepting all facets of our existence, "good" and "bad," as the natural flow of the 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 "is not always looking for right and wrong, 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. Mind free, thoughts gone, brow clear, face serene. All that comes out of him comes quiet, like the four seasons."

The next article in this series will explore the concept of wu-wei, or "non-doing," often popularly referred to as "going with the flow."

Ted Kardash is the Assistant Director of the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego (619-692-1155) where he teaches classes in Tai Chi Chuan and Taoist philosophy. He also is a licensed Marriage, Family, Child Counselor with a practice in the San Diego area. To contact the Taoist Sanctuary, please call (619) 692-1155.
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Part one in our five part series:   Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for A Modern World

Part two in our five part series:   Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for A Modern World
Part 2:   Te - The Principle of Inner Nature
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