Monday, July 27, 2015

Yin and Yang Defined

Yin and Yang

The above symbol of yin and yang is actually called Tai Chi.  Tai Chi means “the supreme ultimate reality.”

There is also a concept called Wu Chi.  Wu Chi looks like this:

It is just an empty circle, void, meaningless.  It also comes to represent chaos or non-order or the inconceivable.  It is only when this wu chi divides itself into two distinguishable poles (yin and yang) do we derive meaning, form and order.

Yin is classically written like this 阴.
Yang is classically written like this 阳.
The Chinese characters yin and yang are both comprised of two separate characters.  The character yin has the character for moon 月 in it.

The character of yang has the character of sun 日 in it.  This gives us an important clue into what these two words are meant to signify.

When literally translated, yin means “the shady side of the hill.”  Yang means “the sunny side of the hill.”  The yin side, or shady side, is associated with things that are at rest, introverted, calm, receptive, passive, cold and dark.  The yang side, or sunny side, is associated with activity, extroversion, excitement, unrest, creativity, chaos, action, heat and light.

To the casual observer the yang side of things may seem preferable, but it is important to point out that these two opposites depend upon each other.  They need each other to define their very existence.  All things are relationships.  What is up without down?  What is pleasure without pain?  What is awake without asleep?

Though our culture puts a high emphasis on activity and action, without rest and calm we will get ill and burnout.  Furthermore, what does a picture of a black bear at night drawn on a black piece of paper look like?  Nothing.  There is nothing to see.

However, if we put that picture on a white piece of paper we know instantly what it is.  In other words, we need a concept of ugly in order to distinguish beauty.  We need a concept of a hard day so we can appreciate a good day.

We live in a world of opposites joined together inexplicably in a great mysterious union.  This forms a mutual alliance between these two seemingly opposed energies.

Yin and yang are not a duality.  By duality we refer to the way Western Culture and the English language creates a kind of opposing duality in one’s mind.  Things are always good or bad, up and down, pretty or ugly, happy or sad.  This is not the way the Chinese language is constructed.

All seemingly opposite phenomena are really different sides to the same thing.  Day and night are always dependent upon each other to give the other meaning.  You cannot have saints unless you have sinners.  These seemingly opposing things are really united, inexplicably.

Trying to live a life only on one side of this balanced equation is a formula for disaster and disease.  Flowing within this inherent structure that comprises the phenomena of existence is a useful piece of advice.

As we will see, these two basic types of qi are further subdivided into the 5 Chinese Elements and then even further divided (though this is beyond the scope of this book) into the 8 Trigrams of the Ba Qua and then further into the 64 Hexagrams of the Ba Qua.  The division keeps going and going until the numbers reach so high into infinity that their very hugeness renders them obsolete and meaningless once more.  Try to conceive of a trillion of something.

Things cease to have meaning after they grow beyond a certain size, so we are plunged back into the Wu Chi from which once again yin and yang are formed and the process repeats itself.

“To shrink something, first allow it to expand.  To expand something, first allow it to shrink.”
– Lao Tzu

Our conscious mind is similar to this process.  Before we are born our conscious mind is present but it is empty, just like Wu Chi it is formless, a vast sea of potentiality but lacking a fixed point of reference from which to distinguish its' self.  As we prepare for our birth, our conscious mind begins to move and thrash.

As we open our eyes for the first time we are blinded by LIGHT.  In defense, we shut our eyes quickly.  Because we have seen light we now know darkness.  We take our first breath.  Air rushes into our lungs and then rushes out.  In and out. Yin and yang.  We feel hot, cold.  We learn good and bad.  The two poles of yin and yang are firmly established.  The world of Tai Chi becomes manifest with our senses and the dangers of separateness begin to take root.

“In separateness lies the world's greatest misery;
in compassion lies the world's true strength.”
                                                                  ― Siddhārtha Gautama

As we gain more knowledge and experience, our conscious mind expands and further subdivides, separates and categorizes.  Our attention is spread out into worrying about our careers, relationships, money, our health, bills, etc.  Our conscious mind just keeps spreading and dividing and growing larger and larger.  As time goes on we feel spread thin and tired.  Nothing seems very clear anymore.  Right and wrong become confused and indistinguishable.  Our consciousness has grown like a weed and now obscures the original garden of simple yin and yang.  Life has plunged itself into a modern, meaningless void.

Realizing that our conscious mind has gotten “too big for its own britches” is our signal that ENLIGHTENMENT is fast approaching.

Enlightenment is a word often associated with Zen yet widely misunderstood in American culture.

Enlightenment means liberation from one’s self.  It means that we have realized that something has gone wrong and we vow to bring this wrong back into balance and harmony.  This realization is the state of enlightenment.  The active participation in rebuilding of one’s self.  Enlightenment is a spring cleaning.  It is the embracing of change on all levels.  It is an affirmation of life.  Enlightenment is the conscious act of saying yes to life, I will play!

Recognizing the mess and chaos usually stirs a person into trying to clean it up.  We try to find a way out of this growing confusion and convolution.  So we grasp onto religion and meditation or mind/mood altering drugs as a way to resolve or deal with this frightening mess.

However, the very thought of this Enlightened moment where we recognized the mess plunges us right back into to spreading and dividing our consciousness.  Then the second enlightenment hits “Holy shit!  There is no way out of this flippin’ mess!!  And the harder I try to clean it up, the worse it becomes!”

This is a KEY turning point in our conscious evolution.  Knowing we are stuck.  At this point, we must put on the brakes and stop moving forward grasping at more and more understanding.  We must start to move backward along the path we just traveled.  Unlearning as we go.
We move backward towards our original understanding of yin and yang when the world was first distinguishable to us.  Moving forward only causes more confusion and subdivision.  Only by moving backwards, by stripping away and simplifying our lives can we arrive at this final enlightened state of being.  We moved from a state of complexity to a state of simplicity.  It is only then that we gain the understanding and insight we seek.

Everything is yin and yang.  The linear mind longs to move forward, progress, onward, bigger, better, faster.  This leads to only more confusion.  Man is overworked.  He builds a computer to lessen his load.  However, with the spare time now available, he works harder, makes more progress, and gets tired again.  Invents a faster, better computer.  Work becomes easier again.  With the spare time, he takes on more projects, and more work, soon he is worn out again, a newer, better computer is invented…on and on and on it goes…

The solution is to move toward the beginning.  Simplify.  Stop making complexity where there is none.  Life is simple, easy and free for the giving.  All that we need to do is step into the dark forest and realizing that there is no path, we make a path where one never existed.  This is the call to adventure that, in effect, IS life, traveling an unknown path, rich with surprise, mystery, suffering and joy.  Leaving a fresh wake behind us where other travelers will point and say, “That was her path.  Well traveled!”  

If we could only remember this.  We all knew this truth inherently at one time in our lives but quickly lost sight of it.

An Orphean boy once said “The instructions for life are scratched onto our mother’s wombs when we are still yet to be born.”  Like ancient cave paintings pointing us toward the direction of the roaming herds, we knew the way.  But somehow we forgot the instructions.  We hastily exited the cave, directionless.

Regain this valuable insight.  Search your mind, it is still there.

The Five Elements

The Chinese Five Elements are also referred to as the five phases, the five transformations, the five manifestations or the five agents of change.  The Five Elements represent patterns of movement which support, nurture, unite, control, divide and destroy one another.

The Five Elements are:

木  wood
火  fire
土  earth
金 metal
水  water

Included here is a short quiz that will help us determine our Element tendencies.  It is important to remember that no one is exclusively one element.  Everyone is a rich, complex blend of ALL Five Elements.  The goal is to recognize our natural elemental persuasions and use that wisdom to guide us through all of life’s many permutations, phases and cycles.  The goal is NOT to balance all the elements within ourselves, instead the point is to cultivate certain elements during certain times of our lives.  To be appropriate to the situation and to adapt to an ever-evolving landscape is the value of understanding the Five Elements.

Wood and Fire are considered yang elements.  Metal and Water are considered yin elements.  Earth holds the middle ground and is where the yin and yang elements overlap, mingle, embrace, shove and fight.

Each Element corresponds with an archetype, which is a basic, generalized kind of person.  For example, if we think about the captain of the football team.  A similar mental image pops into our collective brains.  If we think about a cheerleader, a clear image emerges in our minds.  Class clown, nerd, mamma’s boy, all are modern day archetypes.  These standardized snap shots were primarily pioneered by famed Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung.  The Five Elements are likely the oldest of such archetypes!

We will peal back several layers of detail for each Element: from the season it is associated with, to the internal body organ it represents, to the chemicals/substances most likely abused by each.  Bare in mind, these are generalizations.  No one person fits into a single elemental category.  The human experience is far too rich and varied.  Humanity defies any simple categorization.  We all change and our dominant Element changes with us.

This is not a hard science.  Wandering with the Five Elements is more akin to poetry.  Knowledge of it gives each of us a new flavor to ponder, a different perspective to consider and a fresh scent to tickle our senses and stimulate our minds.  The human condition is lavish and textured.

There is a much-misunderstood concept in Eastern thought regarding “wandering.”  It was said by a youthful, old man once that a good traveler has not set destination.  They just wander.  When our hearts are pure and we love our own company, no matter where we go we will find success, friendship and open arms.  This is what is meant by being a good traveler.  We have no preconceived notions, no expectations and no resentment.

The destination is the same for all.  We all arrive at the same mysterious end.  It is the quality of how we walk our path toward the mystery that has meaning.  There are so many ways to live a life, so many ways to love and be loved, so many stones that need unturning and so many mountains that cannot be turned no matter how hard we try.  Try anyway.  Try with every ounce of vigor and passion you possess.

All of it is waiting there for us.  Like ironic, warm-hearted Sirens beckoning us to the shore, but instead of rocky harbors and false hopes, a calm port and a warm embrace awaits us.

Certain things can only have significance in the current moment.  Dancing, wandering and compassion are only meaningful as they exist right now, in the present.

To dance we only dance.  Good dancers are immersed in the moment; enthralled in the whirlwind and the rapture.  A devilish, English philosopher with an infectious laugh once said that dancing has no goal in mind, no destination.  We just dance for the sake of dancing.
In wandering, we accept the moment as it is, with no regret; completely uneditted and raw.  Whatever crosses our path, we accept it, for we crossed its path too!  When the road leads to odd places and strange faces, we welcome both with an open heart.

Compassion is the greatest of human emotions.  To have compassion for another means we suffer their pain with them.  We join them in their suffering and take a bit of it ourselves so that they can breathe a little easier knowing they are not alone.  “We are here with you,” whispers the compassionate.  Compassion does not stand across the room empathizing from a safe distance.  It is right there with us, holding our hand as we plunge into the bitter suffering that always, always, always leads us to rebirth, joy and sweet redemption.  This is what it means to be truly human.

We just wander.    Compassion is wealth.  Join the dance.

“In separateness lies the world's greatest misery;
in compassion lies the world's true strength.”

                                                              ― Siddhārtha Gautama

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

We Shape Our World

Often times other people seem to be the problem. Are they?

Other people seemingly cause us pain, suffering and sorrow. Do they?

Sometimes, while at our darkest moments as we drift in malicious waters, we blame others for our own failings, mistakes and misadventures. As tempting and gratifying as it may be to place blame on others and hold others responsible for our circumstance, in our quietest of moments, clarity sets in reveling that we ourselves are the captains of our ships. We stand at the helm.

If you find yourself lost at sea with the waves crashing overhead and doom impeding, ask yourself, why as captain did I bring my ship here?

When you find yourself in a strange port with not a friendly face among, ask yourself, as captain why did I come here?

Storms happen, not our fault. Ships bump into hidden rocks, not our fault. The wind tugs us in wayward directions, not our fault. However, though these things are not our fault, what we do next is our fault. How we deal with these outside forces is the direct responsibility of the helmsman. And we are the helmsmen, the captain of the ship.

Even if we have been victimized by another person and forced against our physical will, these oppressors do not have the power to make us feel victimized for the rest of our lives. In a moment in time, yes, they had the power to physically force their will, but that storm has passed, and their power over us has passed. Only we can surrender our personal power and strength. Only we can allow these tempests of circumstance to drag us to the depths and smother us.

Circumstance, we often blame circumstance for our unhappiness and struggles. “My father abandoned me.” “My mother was an alcoholic.” “I was beaten and abused and ignored.” “A house fell on me.” These are all unfortunate downpours. But this is not OUR fate.

Like a great Phoenix, the symbolic bird of the ancients, we rise up from the ashes of turmoil and adversity with unfurled wings, stronger and wiser than we were before. A great Taoist healer and martial artist named Hing Wo Tsim once expressed in a hearty laugh “To hell with the circumstances! We are the circumstances!” In other words, we manifest our circumstance. It is not thrust upon us as a burden. We are the creators and we shape our world.

The Body is a Temple

Imagine our physical body is a house:

body is a temple

Let’s pretend we do not love this home. In fact, we believe we do not even own it. We only rent it from some nameless, faceless landlord that never comes around.

We neglect the home, we abuse it, and we hate being there. Because we hate being here, we have no problem inviting strangers in to pass the time. Since we do not care, we allow these strangers to make a mess. They notice that we do not care about the house so they neglect and abuse it too.

Before long we realize that we have taken up residence in a body that we no longer recognize and can’t bare to look at in the mirror. We have allowed a sacred space to become tarnished and overgrown with the weeds of addiction, despair, rage and loneliness. At this point, we put any poison into our body that happens along; anything to dull the reality of the situation. Drugs, alcohol and destructive relationships become welcome distractions from the true underlying problems going on. 

Now let’s look at the flip side of this image. We love our home. We own it, outright. It is all ours. Because it is all ours, we take care of it. We keep it clean and free from destructive forces. Because this home is important to us, we protect it. We do not allow anything to enter that will harm the peaceful, calm environment.

Strangers are met at the door and welcomed in only after we remind them they are entering a temple; a place to be respected and loved. We are people who are very careful about what and whom we allow access to our temple. We no longer view ourselves as a cheap rental to be abused and disregarded.

We are a palace. A holy place. We bring light and joy wherever we go, like a traveling temple. This is a key point and one that may be meditated upon often. Though the physical body may be attacked and damaged, our spirit always remains intact - provided we guard it like a temple. A sacred place. 

Once we learn how to protect and nurture our internal sacred space, other people’s actions become irrelevant to our own. We become the masters of ourselves.

The Five Elements are a tool. Knowledge of them, helps us to be masters of ourselves. They help us to recognize and stifle destructive habits and tendencies before they grow out of control. Only then, once we have weeded and tended our garden can we help others create their own gardens.

If someone sees our garden and nothing grows in it, will they want to learn from us? The proof of a good gardener is in their garden. The proof of a good martial artist is in their self-expression. The proof of a poet is in the depth of his words. The proof of a great teacher is in the quality of their students.

The Five Elements are an ancient way Chinese sages saw the world. It is a way in which the Universe interacts with itself. It is a relationship between different kinds of energy or QI and how those energies transform into each other and relate to one another.

This system of viewing these interactions has been adopted most notably by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, military strategists, musicians and martial artists. The Five Elements can be used to better understand our world and our places within it.

Human beings are a natural resource. We are products of nature and we share the same energies as nature. In fact…we are nature! The principles that govern nature also govern human beings.

By understanding our natural tendencies and maximizing those tendencies is paramount in running a successful team, company, family, country, school or self. Round pegs do not fit into square holes. Try as we may, it will never work. Often we are forced into roles we cannot assume. Or even worse, we force others into roles they cannot assume. Instead of maximizing our natural gifts, we sometimes adopt a “one way fits all” philosophy. This is a catastrophic error.

People are not machines. We are not analytical robots running a rigid program. On the contrary, we are organic, flexible and ever-changing. The Five Elements teach us how to grow a garden, not how to build a machine. The Elements teach us how to cultivate a productive, vibrant, healthy and happy self.

Working harmoniously with others is a gift. It is also an art that can be cultivated and learned so well that is becomes intrinsic. Especially in a company or team setting, if an executive cannot co-exist, thrive and inspire his people, what good is that executive? Intelligence, cleverness, shrewdness, handsomeness, all fall to the wayside. If we cannot work in a balanced harmony with ourselves and with others, then we cannot make music, we make only noise.

Each person’s unique note needs to be organized in such a way that music and harmony abound. Not just noise and chaos. Life is relationships. Without human interaction, we have nothing. But first we have to love our own company. We are only lonely when we don’t like the company of ourselves. No thing and no one can live in a vacuum. To know a person, we must know the environment in which that person exists. To understand a footstep we must understand first what the ground is and its natural relationship to the myriad things that are placed upon it. All things are a combination of other things. This provides the texture of our reality.

We are not separate from anything. We are part of a glorious oneness that seeps into every nook and cranny of our existence. When one of us is strong, we are all strong. When one of us weeps, we all weep. When one of us laughs, we all laugh.

There is nothing worse than believing the lie that we are alone. We have never been alone, and never will be.