Skip to content

Not my usual stuff…

March 8, 2014

(I originally wrote this for another project…)

Rediscovering the Yin-Yang in Everyday Life

The yin-yang symbol is now so ubiquitous in western culture that it is practically invisible. When I do think to look for it, I see it somewhere, almost every day. On hipster shopping bags and tee shirts, on earrings and on valentine cards, hanging from necklaces, in graphic novel art, engraved on watch faces, stitched to backpacks, on business magnets, fingernail designs, tattoos, highway billboards, cereal ads, energy drinks, community posters for tai chi classes, vegetarian restaurant menus, and yesterday, my barista made one in my latté foam.

 The yin-yang symbol is so rife with post-modern pop culture saturation that we don’t see it or think much about what it represents. Like so many iconic images that are used in commercial advertising today – Che Guevara, the Nike swoosh, Marilyn Munroe – the yin-yang’s very omnipresence leaves it almost completely void of meaning.

Yet, if you dig the symbol out from under the many layers of pop culture detritus it lies under, you can re-discover that the yin-yang is one of the oldest and most sublime spiritual symbols known to humanity. The yin-yang is so timeless that it superimposes itself beyond language. It is wholly self-contained.

In its earliest known form it can be found engraved on the 14th century BCE oracle bones used in the ancient art of Chinese divination. The image of the yin-yang will be found a thousand years later in Celtic artwork, and 500 years after that on Roman imperial combat shields. Archeologists have found the yin-yang on artifacts and sacred icons from South Korea to the Ukraine.

It is a simple enough symbol. There is the circle, itself a sacred image of wholeness and perfection. And within that circle are two divided halves. Within each of these halves a small dab of the ‘other’ – white within the black, black within the white. You will also see that the halves are not rigidly designed, sharply divided equals. The line separating the two halves swoops and swirls, conferring on the viewer the idea of fluidity, movement, change.

At first glance, the yin-yang symbolizes the idea of harmony. A deceptively simple idea, yet harmony eludes most of us, most of the time. Harmony escapes us because it is too easy for us to perceive harmony as the absence of dis-harmony, or the absence of problems. Neither of which ever goes away.

Yet, when you stop and take a moment to contemplate the yin-yang, you see that a life of harmony is, in fact, a sublime dance of opposites – an unending dance of pairs. And it is through this dance of opposites that we understand our place in the world.

Harmony is in the dance of opposites. It is in the balance of light, and dark. Heaven and Earth. The masculine and the feminine. Mind and Body. The two halves that make the whole. For there is no up, without down. No in, without an out. No me, without you.

Slow down. Look closer. Follow the curve of the dividing line out to the tips. See how there is also the waxing and waning of pairs. The timeless movement of the yin around the yang – the eternal yang circling the yin. Neither can fill the circle, for they are both contained within the closed whole of the circle, and so there is only a constant striving for harmonization. There is the constant fluidity of divine balance. The savage gives way to the civilized. The civilized erodes into the savage.

If you look deeply into the yin-yang you will also see the much harder idea of acceptance. There is the realization that one half can never completely rule over the other. Neither gains control. Each has its place; each brings its unique strengths. Harmony only comes from the whole; from the acceptance that wholeness comes from the interplay of dualities, and from the acceptance of each other’s strengths and differences.

And beyond that further still you go into another layer of contemplation. The yin and the yang are like two great ocean currents forever sliding up against each other. When you meditate on the wholeness of the yin-yang, you find that most mystical notion of infinity. Within the yin-yang one can step into the everlastingness, into the OM of all being from all time.

Harmony is in the balanced existence of pure opposites. Acceptance lies in the understanding that pure opposites co-exist to create harmony. It is in this perfect embrace where harmony has always been, and will always be.

The writings of Lau Tzu[1] – the 81 poems that comprise the 6th century BCE Tao Té Ching – are the compilation of Chinese thought on the timeless ruminations and contemplations of the yin-yang. The Tao Té Ching was written six centuries before Christ, yet Lao Tzu notes that the principles of the yin-yang had already been meditated on by the Chinese mystics for countless millennia. Lao Tzu says that he speaks only on behalf of the ancient mystics who lived in another far-off time already long forgotten. He notes that he is simply providing a new form to very old thoughts.

The Tao Té Ching has been translated as often as the Bible. It sits on the great spiritual pantheon, alongside the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Vedas and Upanishads, the Sutras.

Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Té Ching as wisdom guidance for the Chinese Emperor. As such it has poems advising on how to be a wise ruler, how to govern over the people, how to conduct affairs of state, and how to conduct oneself in war. But what makes the Tao Té Ching timeless is that it is primarily concerned with how to live one’s life.

Alan Watts noted that the Tao Té Ching came into the world a fully formed idea. “…It came from the womb an old man with long white whiskers…its thoughts are as advanced as our most recent.”[2]  What are these ‘fully formed’ thoughts? What are these ancient truths – re-learned in every generation? Forgotten anew – with every death? What would the ancient Chinese mystics know about living in a totally connected technology obsessed 21st century universe?

The first poem of the Tao Té Ching says it all.[3] Indeed, I have often never made it any further than the first poem, ruminating on its ramifications for weeks at a time. Lao Tzu starts by reminding us that there are many ways to live your life. There are many paths upon which you can walk. But only you can walk your own path. No one else can walk it for you. Only you can experience your own Way (Tao).

We have many names for all the things we see in the world, but these are only names. The names are not real. Do not get caught up in words.

All things in existence come from a Mother, and She has a name. She existed before Time itself. Her name is unknown.

The truth will only come to you if your eyes are unclouded by longing. It is your desires that cloud your vision. (So many desires, so many layers of desires…)

Understand that all things in the world come paired by its opposite – this is the fundamental yin-yang itself – up/down, in/out, good/bad, so on and so forth. When you understand this fundamental truth, you sit at the Gates of God.

“Let me explain this better” (I imagine Lao Tzu suggesting at a Ted Talk, as he segues into the second poem), “Let me give you some examples, and some advice. If there is beauty, there is ugliness too. If there is goodness, there is wickedness as well. If there is being, there is not-being. There is no before, without an after. No hard, without an easy. All of our concepts are held in this fundamental duality. This fundamental idea of duality, the ancient mystics say, is at the very root to understanding the world.”

Okay? Stop. Take a breath. You probably read this quickly, perhaps in a café, but there is a lot here already to comprehend. The Tao Té Ching contains the mustard seed of existential philosophy – that notion that only you can live your life, only you can decide what path in this life you will walk. No one can walk that path for you. Your decisions in life will be profoundly clouded by your desires.   

The ancient mystics and the modern quantum physicists are basically saying the same thing – that all things are connected – in a dance around each other – held in space by their understanding of their opposite – that is the way it has always been, that is the way it will always be.

Now, if you are to be a seeker of life-wisdom, Lao Tzu next encourages you to start by sitting still and paying attention to the world around you. Don’t go about telling other people what to do, rather, lead by example. Be kind to all things. Do not boast of your accomplishments. Indeed, the wise man will choose to be last, and so becomes the first, for unselfishness brings rewards enough.

This is no easy path to wisdom. For what is this Tao (Way) that you seek? How can Lao Tzu describe to you what the ancient mystics had found?

How can he describe the elusive?

That you will look, but it will never appear.

That you will listen, but never a sound will be heard.

You will try to grasp it, but never get hold of it.

It does not make the world brighter.

It does not make the world darker.

It has been described as a shape without shape.

When you encounter it, it has no front.

And when you follow, it has no rear.

Some describe it as the void. An abyss.

A deep pool that never runs dry.

Some say it lives in the valley.

That it is the mystic female. And that she is a gateway. She is the base between earth and heaven.

The Tao is said to be the ancestor from whom all things come. Some even say it is the preface to God.

If you want to get close to it, to truly understand it, you must act like water. Do good to everything without thought. Flow unmurmuring to places men despise. Water is the gentle way. It overcomes the strong. No rock can withstand its gentle pressures. Water does not question. It nourishes all. Water adapts to any circumstance. Be like water.

But if you are greedy, and if you do not know when to stop, then you are quickly lost. If you seek wealth, power, or pride, then you set yourself up for your own doom. You must govern your animal soul; if you do not, the beast-of-desires within will drive you crazy.

How do you do this? Start by slowing down. Learn how to breathe with the softness of breath of a child. Do not be deceived by what your eyes see. Or what your ears hear. Move through the world as if you were crossing a half-frozen stream in the winter. Be aware of your world, as if there were danger all around. Behave, in all your actions, as if you were someone’s honored guest. Be sincere. Self-effacing. Know when to play like a child. Be receptive to the world around you.

When you slow down, you have the time to see how the world works. See how everything works together, flourishes, and then returns to its roots. When you slow down, you realize that there is a stillness behind the flourish. It is there, in the stillness, where you will find enlightenment. Then, you will find, that though you will die, you will not perish. 

The Way of your life is both a hard path and an easy one. It merely depends on your point of view. When you stand on tiptoe, your stance is unsteady. If you take long strides when you walk, you quickly lose your balance. If you boast about your progress, you will get no attention. True wisdom comes from living a simple life. Embrace unpretentious ways. Do not covet your neighbour’s success. If you live by virtue, you will be given virtue. But if you try to display your virtue then you have no virtue at all.

The display of virtue comes from those who have lost their Way. When virtue is lost, then comes compassion. After compassion is lost, then comes morality. If there is no morality, people rely on etiquette. 

Beware of the wise men who come selling wisdom and intelligence. Those who talk do not know. They bring with them the great hypocrisies. There is no wisdom in rote learning. Those who know do not talk.

If you do these things, you will begin to find your way.

But know this – little faith is put in those whose faith is small.


I first encountered Lao Tzu thirty years ago as a twenty-year-old boy working on an agricultural project in rural Thailand. A man in the village with whom I lived had only one book in his home. It was the Tao Té Ching. He told me it was the only book he had ever needed. It was obviously much loved and much read. Its spine had long since ceased to exist. He held it all together by binding it in string. The next opportunity I had for going into Bangkok, I looked for this book and found R. B. Blakney’s original 1955 translation in a used English bookstore.[4]

I grew up on a farm in rural Ontario and Lao Tzu’s simplicity immediately spoke to me. But do not be fooled by the word simplicity. The word may convey some notion of easy, or unlearned-ness. In our increasingly complex world, simplicity can be confused with backwardness. Simple is not shallow. Simple is not ignorant. Simple is not dumb.

We live now in the shadow of an environmental crisis. We plunder our resources as if we were children at play in a sandbox. Lao Tzu saw this predilection in human nature. He warned against following those “who would take the whole world to tinker with it as they see fit” (#29). He observed that these people never succeed. They spoil the sacred vessel. They destroy their own world.

Lao Tzu warns against the uselessness of war for it brings nothing but hunger and despair. “When the Way rules the world, coach horses fertilize the fields; when the Way does not rule, war horses breed in the parks.” (#46). Weapons are tools of bad omen and should only ever be used with calm and restraint. And to celebrate military victory is to perform your own funeral rites.

Lao Tzu knew then about our human nature what we still know today. That many will be called to the Way, but only a few will follow. Or, as Mathew noted (22:14) “Many are called but few are chosen.” But this too is as it should be. That is the Way of the world. Lao Tzu observed that most people simply wanted their holidays from work and their celebrations. A wise emperor knows that a full belly makes for a happy society. If it were any other way, it would not be the Way.

There is a great feng shui to knowing the Way. Learn how to move like water. To act in repose. Align your life with the great rhythms of the world. Deal with your troubles while they are still small, for it is much easier then when they are great. Do not consume all that you can. Rather, stop when you should. Pile your house full of gold and fine goods and you’ll not keep them long. Fame and success are fleeting. Death comes to us all. Changing your attitude changes your world.

When you look beyond the words – the names we give to things – you sense the great stillness behind it all. When you look beyond the endless newspaper distractions of the day, when you embrace unpretentious ways, when you stop coveting all the things you are bombarded with, when you take on a simplicity of living, then you have nothing to steal, nothing that can be plundered. Live by the Way, and you will have everything you need.

When you hold fast to this ancient way of being in the world, then you begin to understand the unity that lies behind the great flourishing that heaves and waxes on the surface of your life.

There are no creation tales in the Tao Té Ching. No myths to dissect. No historicity to be argued over. There is simply being, and becoming. You are here. You choose your path. You live your life. 

Go into the silence to contemplate the duality of all things. Go into the silence to contemplate the ever-present fluid play of yin and yang that comprises the Tao. 

Lao Tzu offers you a way to tap into the primal knowledge of time and being. It is in the contemplation of the yin and the yang where you hear the gentle breathing of the ancient mystics.

It is there where you hear the whispers of God.





[1] Whether Lao Tzu existed is unknown. The name given to him is honorific. It translates as “old venerable master”. Some historians believe he was a contemporary of Confucius. Others believe he may have lived in either the 5th or 4th century BCE.

[2] Alan Watts. The Supreme Identity: An Essay on Oriental Metaphysic and the Christian Religion. Vintage Books. 1972. p46.

[3] There are literally thousands of English translations for the Tao Té Ching. I have read perhaps fifty translations. My preference has always been R.B. Blakney’s 1955 translation entitled “The Way of Life”. I am here using the 2007 Signet Classics re-print (now called simply “Tao Té Ching”), with the Richard John Lynn afterword. I should also note that I will be combining stanzas, and I am paraphrasing for flow. Nor will space allow for a review of all 81 poems.

[4] I also bought Somchai a new Tao Te Ching. He thanked me and put it away and continued to use his copy. When I asked him why he did not use the new copy I had bought for him, se replied that he already had a copy, and that he would save the new one for when his was no longer usable.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: