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.)
I’m borrowing the term “yin” from the Taoist idea of yin and yang. I don’t know how close my thinking on yin/yang is to standard Chinese thought, and honestly I don’t think it matters much if I’m way off. I’m using the idea as inspiration to create my own fake taxonomy that I find helpful.
I use yin & yang to mentally separate dynamic situations into complementary pairs. Yang is the loud/high-energy/forceful/powerful side, and yin is the quiet/low-energy/receptive/gentle side. Here’s a handful of examples to show how I think about this:
- If you toss a pebble into a pond, the crests are yang and the troughs are yin. (Before you toss the pebble in, yin & yang are muddled together and don’t flow into one another, which you see as the pond being still.)
- In an electric current, the voltage is yang and the conductivity of the wire is yin. Yang “pushes” the charge through the wire, while yin “clears the way” for its free passage.
- Alternatively, you could think of positive charge as yin and negative charge as yang (since electrons are what move to create current, and they’re negatively charged). Then you see muddling of yin & yang together as a lack of electric current (a “still pond” in the electric field).
- Day is yang and night is yin.
- Coffee is a very yang drink. You drink it when you want more energy and focus.
- Alcohol is quite yin. It’s relaxing and inhibition-lowering. (This might seem counterintuitive since some people get rowdy or angry when drunk — but the reason they do is because the alcohol clears away resistance to acting those ways, rather than because it inspires action. Versus caffeine, which actually drives people with more energy than they had before.)
- Fiery, passionate emotions like jubilation and rage are yang. Slower, deeper emotions like sorrow, grief, and quiet delight are yin.
- The ferocious effort a mathematician puts into solving a problem is the yang part of their work. The yin part occurs when they turn their mind to other things or take a nap, only to discover that when they come back to the problem later they have more insight or it’s just somehow easier.
There are quite a few more examples. In fact, anytime I see a dynamic, I can usually pretty quickly categorize it into a yin-and-yang pair. But hopefully this gives enough of a snapshot to convey the overall sense of what I mean when I say “yin” and “yang” without me having to list literally every dynamic in the universe.
I find that there’s a funny “equal and opposite reaction” kind of rule in place with these yin/yang pairings. That is, if you exalt yang too much, then yin reasserts itself, and vice versa.
For instance, coffee will keep you up only so long before you crash, and caffeine withdrawal is a very yin state. Similarly, I think most people can relax in bed (yin) only so long before they start to itch with the desire to get up and do something (yang).
Or more simplistically, in rippling water, you can’t have crests without troughs or vice versa. Each gives way to the other. Pulling the crests higher just makes the troughs lower.
I don’t know why there would be such a rule across all such pairings. But it happens often enough that I’ve learned to look for it when noting which things are yin and which are yang.
I think it’s interesting to look at burnout in this light. Burnout clearly looks to me like yang overreaching itself (with trying to pump oneself up and chug coffee and lock oneself in with precommitments, etc.) and yin stepping in to take over. We seem to have some cultural intuitions around this, with talk of workaholism being a bad thing and when we suggest going on a vacation or have a relaxing night.
I imagine there’s a symmetric possible problem, where people are too lazy and bored and then explode into energy that “disturbs the calm”.
…but we don’t really seem to encounter that problem very much.
Which is interesting.
In this framing, I’m under the impression that western culture tends to worship yang. It’s all about POWER, and DRIVE, and going forth to achieve your goals! There’s so much energy in the western narrative about what is good and right and virtuous.
For instance, Hollywood action heroes are basically made of yang. Part of what’s so amazing about them is that they aren’t subject to the needs of yin. They don’t need rest, or love, or time for sorrow. The closest they get is sex — but usually with a dismissive-avoidant narrative so that they aren’t really dependent on that sexual connection. They can walk away emotionally unharmed.
An implication of this view is that need for yin is a weakness. The only reason for yin is that we mere mortals, who can’t compare to the Olympians in these mighty stories, sometimes need to rest in order to be at our best. But it’s always important to strive to be our best, right? Yin is a necessary evil, whose only real value is in empowering us to achieve our goals, so goes the implied narrative.
I think this is toxic.
When I’m sitting on a grassy hill, enjoying the sunlight and the feeling of a breeze across my face, it seems violating to me to think of that experience as valuable only because it’ll later make me more energetic. Experiences like that are part of what makes life beautiful as far as I’m concerned. What good is all that extra energy if you never get to breathe in the wind and taste lovely food and generally delight in life?
This isn’t to say that yin is what’s worth living for. That would be a symmetric error. I think there’s joy in competing with all you have, and in thinking hard about a tricky problem, and in pouring your soul day & night for a time into something you feel passionately about. All that is yang, and I think it’s also worth fighting for.
But most of the people I talk to don’t neglect yang.
They neglect yin.
And then they wonder why they feel tired and empty all the time.
Suppose that you wanted to develop a mental discipline of seeing the world so clearly that your drive lines up with what makes sense. If you’re immersed in a culture obsessed with yang-worship, how might you naturally try to convey the intuition behind that art?
- becoming formidable
- taking a level in awesome
- the art of winning at life
- forcing yourself to change your mind
- summoning the will to do the impossible
- a determination to become stronger
I find it unsurprising, we’ll say, that I keep seeing people who talk like this getting tired, or unfocused, or depressed, or struggling with procrastination. And the exceptions I’m aware of put a lot of emphasis on integrating effortlessness into their passion.
Yay mysterious law of balance.
So… if this is the yang of “rationality”, then what exactly is the yin?
It’s the art you need when a loved one dies.
The pain of grief isn’t made of stories. There is no villain. There isn’t even a reason, or a good thing that the precious loss does.
There’s just a pointless, storyless ache from which there is no escape.
Because no matter where you turn, your loved one still isn’t there.
The yin of rationality is the art of seeing the world clearly, as it is, in all its nakedness. It is surrender to match yang’s victory, sorrow to yang’s ferocity, peace to yang’s jubilance. It is fully accepting the truth of what has been lost, without distraction from the pain, with neither looking away nor screaming to the sky nor going numb to an uncaring universe.
Instead, it is clearing your emotional space so that you can feel everything deeply.
It is letting go of old, calcified forms of who you were and what you believed so that you can fully experience the real world exactly as it is.
I think this gives room for a very deep kind of joy, too. Rather than the roaring victoriousness of yang, though, yin joy is so soft as to be silent. It’s the preciousness in being really present while cuddled up with someone you love. It’s the exquisiteness in having a moment to savor the flavor of a well-done dish. It’s the pleasure in feeling your heart beat and being grateful for the beauty of life.
But I think the joy and sorrow of yin come with the same breath.
Yin is sensitization. To be alive, to know joy and passion, to have room to let the ferocity of yang burn through your veins without scalding you, I think you need to have room for sorrow as well. You can’t just anesthetize the “bad part” of life; anesthetic numbs you to everything.
The skill of yin is saying “yes” to experience of the real.
All of it.
This is the grace that gives you room to say goodbye to God, if you are losing your religion. The pain of deconversion isn’t just having been wrong; it’s that the universe is no longer made of love, and the Lord isn’t watching over you. It feels on the inside like the death of meaning, beauty, and grace. It is terrifying, certainly — but more than that, it is devastatingly sad. The universe is empty, and it feels so, so alone to be trapped in it.
But as long as that’s a reason not to see whether God is real, then your belief can’t be based on truth. It’s based on numbness to life, out of fear that the truth might be horrible.
In the same way, any time we are tempted to flinch from horror, it is our skill with the yin of rationality that is tested.
The thing that saves our sanity in these cases is not ferocity. Ferocity burns us if we don’t have enough room for it. It makes us think we have answers when we don’t, or makes us pretend that the problems are really easy or irrelevant, or makes us panic.
The thing that saves us is being unwilling to use pain as a reason not to experience truth.
And let numbness fall away.
And let what is real touch us, deeply, and change who we are.
One last note:
I think our yang-obsessed culture makes grief far, far more painful than it needs to be.
One of the most agonizing things about grief is the isolation. No one understands. Everyone seems out of tune with reality, acting as though “You can always have another child” is ever a sane response to a grieving parent, or that “You’ll get through this, it’ll be okay” somehow helps whatsoever.
If in your deepest pain and sorrow you find that everyone around you is lost in delusion, it’s hard not to feel alone. It makes you wonder whether you’ve always been alone and are only now recognizing it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Bereaved parents from different families can come to share a deep, unspoken bond. They all have been through the greatest horror that the first world knows how to inflict on people. Coming together doesn’t lessen their pain — nor should it. The pain is an expression of their love for their lost children. But the fact that the pain is shared can give them a sense that they are not alone. It can form a connection between adults that is in some ways richer than had existed for them before.
This kind of open grief can also clear the way for yang-like passion to do powerful work. Mothers Against Drunk Driving emerged, I think, from this pain. I think this kind of work is more precious and in-tune with human needs than nearly any amount of caffeine-fueled profit-maximization.
I think it’s important to honor yin because it’s marginalized, and we suffer for it. As a culture, we are weak and numb and banally marching through life — and then when horror strikes, we correctly see how utterly empty this all-yang obsession is, which magnifies the horrible blow.
I don’t think this means we need less yang. I don’t want humanity to become a still pond. If anything, I want us to care more.
But I do think we need more respect for darkness, and sorrow, and times of quiet and rest. For taking care of ourselves, and for mourning for the beauty that time has destroyed and we’re too late to treasure and preserve.
I want to see a culture where mourners feel held and understood, where their grief is honored as part of being human rather than tolerated as an unavoidable interruption to work.
We are a beautiful, glorious species.
I want us to remember that.