An ancient antidote to the tyrannies of modern life

MeditationsJun 2021

Yin / yang has proven to be a useful and visually clarifying mental model for how to approach my day.

This came out of the realization that, on a day-to-day basis, I had made ‘stress’ my baseline state. By stress, I don’t necessarily mean anxiety or crippling worry. Stress akin to that of working out where I stress my body to grow my physical ability. To always be filling every moment with just a little more. But a life solely built around growth is also a life built around stress.

This led me to instate a daily yoga practice; not as another sport but as a ritual of winding down akin to a shower at the end of the day. In yoga, I then discovered that not all practices are the same. There are yang practices that push the body to grow, and yin practices that help the body integrate. Both are practices, but each built around different principles.

This distinction, a two-type action, and the need to balance both out, stayed with me outside of yoga and it’s become a great mental model to approach my day.

It goes as follows:

1. An empty start

The day begins in an empty state. *

* On a wider scale, I just came out of yin (night-time, rest) and entered yang (day, action). But within the scope of the day, a new cycle begins of yin and yang.

2. Distinguish yin from yang moments

A morning spent only working from 8am all the way to lunchtime with no leisure and integration is an excess of yang. It is out of balance.

Seen this way, a morning of pure work makes yang look more like a monster tyrannizing yin.

3. To every action, there’s a counter-action

Therefore, a crazy morning of work needs to be counterbalanced by time away, not only from the screen, but from doing and chasing. Think of a long morning walk, time alone, stretching, or even the breaks in the pomodoro method.

4. The aim is balance

As simple as this sounds, this reframes the goal from fitting in as much as I can in the day; to being the ongoing pursuit of balance. A balanced array of both yin and yang actions throughout the day.

Just like the body can’t continuously inhale without eventually exhaling, just like it can’t keep running without eventually needing a moment of rest, just like it can’t stay awake for days on end without eventually going to sleep… or maybe it can, but at what cost?

The body, the planet, the cosmos, all seem to work in cycles. We inhale then exhale, we wake up then go to sleep, in spring everything blooms, in autumn it begins to die out.

This all sounds very commonplace. But that’s where I found the visual model of the yin and yang a useful symbol as it makes the imbalance of overly chasing growth look all the more insane. All the while, making the absence of action also seem disproportionate. This thousands-of-years-old image synthesises a lot of what we already know to be true into a symbolic compass we can carry with us in our minds.

5. One contains the other

There’s also a little hidden caveat that came to me later. Each practice, when done well, integrates the qualities and characteristics of its opposite.

To do, grow and act but with presence and calm, not in a rush, not in anxiety. To rest and decompress but with intent and discipline, not expecting it’ll happen on its own.

Just like a vase would not fulfill its purpose were it not for its empty space; just like a house would lose its utility were it not for the space inside that we inhabit, so does a day spent solely preoccupied with growth and achievement negates its own value since it steals time from integration, recuperation, which in turn reduces the mind and body’s availability for future growth.

Again, for me this is a useful image. It invites me to stretch the timeframe of my goals and daily errands. Not everything needs to get done right this second in an insane array of events. There is in fact time to take each step, learn each thing, with both presence and balance.

A simple symbol from millenia ago, tattooed on the biceps of every 90s kid, also an appropriate tool for modern life in the 21st century.

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