The Meaning of Yin and Yang

Night and day. Light and darkness. Masculine and Feminine. Chaos and order.

Life is comprised of a series of interconnected opposing forces. Everything that exists has an opposite, just as there is always two sides to the same coin.

Although we are inclined to seek pleasure without pain or cling onto the ‘good’ while banishing the ‘bad’, we come to realize the flawed logic of this kind of thinking. Anything worth pursuing is associated with risk and uncertainty. Even when our ambitions come to fruition, the unpredictability and continual flux of the world implies that there is always a chance that whatever we attained can be lost.  

Our fortune can change at any instant.

A key insight we can learn from Taoism is that the positive or negative or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ should not be thought of as distinct or separate. Rather, they are integrated into one cohesive system.

You can’t have one without the other.

We see this concept alluded to in the brilliant lyrical language of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet,

Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you….. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.

In many cases it is easy to rush to judgements about our fortune and fate. What may seem like an unfortunate set of circumstances, may be the exact prescription or ‘wake up call’ one needs to make important life changes to move us forward. The artist of course is acutely aware of this and cleverly transforms the experience of heartbreak and loss into music or art. Think of how many hit songs are about loss or breakups.

Yin/Yang Symbol

The yin and yang symbol beautifully depicts this relationship between opposites hinting at the harmony between these two elements.  

  • Yin: The black part of the symbol is associated with the night, darkness, passivity, intuition and the feminine.
  • Yang:  The white part of the circle represents the day, light, liveliness and vigor as well as the masculine.   [1]
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As seen in the picture above, the yin and yang are intertwined and connected. The small black dot (yin) can be found in the white area while the white dot (yang) is situated in the black space. Just like a scale, the more one tips towards one of these halves the less they get of the other.

Moreover, each is a part of the greater whole and there is no concrete nor clearly defined separation between them, as signified by the wavy line splitting the two poles. As the symbol suggests the yin and yang are not static representing the fact that our lives and the world are continually in a state of constant change.

Unity and Division

Our understanding of how the world operates is shaped by the contrast and  distinction between opposites. As Lao Tsu points out in chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching,

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short contrast each other:

High and low rest upon each other;

Voice and sound harmonize each other;

Front and back follow one another.

The above passage from Lao Tsu demonstrates that we can’t comprehend something without having a grasp of what its opposite is.

We understand what happiness is because it contrasts with the possibility of sadness, just as we know we know what pleasure is because we have an idea of what constitutes pain.

The yin and yang cannot be separated and one of these poles in the system cannot exist without the other. The concept of hsiang sheng alludes to the fact that the yin and yang are inseparable and arise together. We shouldn’t think of one of these poles as better or superior, rather the idea is to understand that balance between the opposites is the goal.  

The yin and yang aren’t enemies, but partners engaged in a playful dance.  

This requires us to call into question many of preconceived notions of what we think of as good and bad.

Only through openness and acceptance we can be content with whatever arises in our life.


[1] As Alan Watts notes in Tao: The Watercourse Way we shouldn’t think of the use of the terms masculine and feminine as referring explicitly to the different sexes, but rather more general characteristics. He writes, “ But the male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male….The yin and yang  are principles, not men and women.”

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8 thoughts on “The Meaning of Yin and Yang

  1. Hi Andrew! Two points I really like that you make is “Even when our ambitions come to fruition, the unpredictability and continual flux of the world implies that there is always a chance that whatever we attained can be lost.” This hits home in many ways because I’ve lost everything at least 4 times in this lifetime. Big loses followed big gains – be prepared. Another point I like is your last one: “ But the male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male….The yin and yang are principles, not men and women.” I was in a Tao discussion group a couple of years ago and one woman really took exception to the concept of Yin and Yang because she believed a negative identity was being attached to women. I tried to explain that the qualities described applied to all of us. Nice post !

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m always willing to discuss such things. Great fun, and we can learn from each other. I don’t profess to know a lot about Daoism, but I recommend getting more than one translation of the Tao Te Ching. Stephen Miller’s translation is good because it’s pragmatic, but I love the translation by Witter Bynner (1944) as his is much more poetic. His is titled “The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu.” He’s got a nice intro too

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rather than opposing forces, I tend to view them as a measure of balance.

    This is why any modern movement seeking to silence or depose its opposition will inevitably fail. An introduction of a balanced and meaningful systemic approach to life is much more readily attained and will by its nature, lead to a more viable approach to life.

    On the down side, if you can call it that, the more you learn from a philosophical approach, the more you realize you will never be able to learn. An interesting paradox.

    Liked by 1 person

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