Why “yin”?

People keep asking me what “yin” is, as I use it. And why I think it’s important.

The really short and maybe unsatisfying answer is “Read this.” I think of yin as more like bicycle-riding than like understanding facts or theories. If I were to describe good bike-riding, I might do best by pointing at people who are trying to ride bikes and saying “That person is doing well because of X, and that other person is doing poorly because of not-X, I think.” That’s what I tried to do with my post on grieving well.

But people who have read that post still ask me about this, which makes sense. A lot of the main ideas of yin are buried or implied in that post rather than stated directly.

So, I’ll try to be pretty direct here, to the extent that I can.

(Trigger warning: references to death, child mortality, and losing faith in religion. Nothing gruesome — but if it doesn’t pull your heartstrings then I haven’t done my job. And some of the things I link to might be harsher.)

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Looking into the Abyss

Sometimes I’ll hear a conversation flirt with acknowledging really terrible things in the world. Someone will bring up how people are starving to death in parts of the world, or how children are sold into slavery and often horribly violated and abused, or some other wicked thing that should not be. And at that point, sometimes, I’ll hear someone say something like this:

“I try not to think about that too much. I’m afraid that if I do, it’ll be too much for me to handle.”

I want to point at this question of what we can or cannot handle. I think this is a really important question. I suspect that what we believe we can endure guides what we can and cannot clearly see; after all, if looking too closely at (say) our own mortality would destroy us, maybe it makes sense not to look. If we want to see everything in our lives clearly, on the other hand, maybe we first need to know we’ll be okay after we see whatever we find.

So, how might we come to endure whatever we find?

Well, in short, I think there’s something wrong with the question. I think we already can endure whatever we find. What I think we need instead is a sort of skill with trusting this fact about ourselves.

I know this is a bold claim. Some horrors do seem to shatter us. People do, in fact, seem to experience psychological trauma and get triggered. If we can already weather any hellish storm, why do we sometimes break?

I think it’s because we misperceive our relationship to horror.

I think it’s because “endurance” might be the wrong word.

I suspect it’s because we try to look away.

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The art of grieving well

In this post, I’m going to talk about grief. And sorrow. And the pain of loss.

I imagine this won’t be easy for you, my dear reader. And I wish I could say that I’m sorry for that.

…but I’m not.

I think there’s a skill to seeing horror clearly. And I think we need to learn how to see horror clearly if we want to end it.

This means that in order to point at the skill, I need to also point at real horror, to show how it works.

So, I’m not sorry that I will make you uncomfortable if I succeed at conveying my thoughts here. I imagine I have to.

Instead, I’m sorry that we live in a universe where this is necessary.

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