Monday, August 04, 2008

Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang or The Power of Paradox

Niels Bohr said, “How wonderful that we've met with a paradox. Now we have hope of making some progress.” Seeming paradoxes are a presentation of a truth just around the corner, if only you could pivot your point of view in some way. At the place where two beliefs are at odds, there is a seem which can be torn open to view the whole problem inside out, resolving it. Patterns of this occur time and time again. When two conclusions seem at odds within a framework, and both conclusions are convincingly true, there is either a problem with the framework itself or the two conclusions are actually the truth. This calls for a paradigm shift, when the whole framework needs to be altered to support the facts.

It is both absurd and elegant that paradoxes herald truths. This has been borne out in the sciences repeatedly throughout the ages. Though, this is certainly not limited to the sciences. Taken to their greatest extent, elegance and absurdity, seemingly opposites, are the same thing. This seems to obey a non-Euclidian geometry where negative and positive infinity converge.

One example of this lies in the notion that “simple is sophisticated.” It is often the most basic, perfect line or shape that is raised to the penultimate position. In cooking, the chef who can make ingredients shine through in the dish, reigns supreme. Top chefs are adept at allowing flavors to harmonize, rather than be obscured by each other. So much work is put into cooking ingredients so that they taste like separate ingredients, together. High fashion also trends the same way, the designers renowned throughout time make classically elegant pieces with simple cuts, curves, and constructions.

In Japanese, there is a similar concept called wabi-sabi, which claims that perfection is found in imperfection. It is the little mistakes in something that make it perfect. It is the roughly of hand-made paper that makes it special, the subtle unevenness of a hand-sewn line that makes such garments coveted above factory-“perfect” apparel. It is absurd that these things are true; it shows the world's sense of humor--that true wonder is found when space is left for error. All of this holds a simple elegance to be admired.

This taoist principle that seeming opposites such as elegance and absurdity require each other to be whole is exemplified in the taijitu (or yin yang) symbol. This symbol shows a swoosh of black swirling into a swoosh of white, and in the middle of the black is a dab of white and in the middle of the white is a dab of black. This has always held some abstract meaning for me, especially since my childhood days studying the martial art of Tang Soo Do. As I practiced the art, I would stare at and meditate on the South Korean flag hanging in the center of the room. The flag has a modified red and blue yin yang surrounded by symbols for the elements of nature, arranged as opposites across from each other and expressed as 3 bars, some of them divided in the middle, others not divided. And even the pattern of these bars showed a balance. I spent many years sitting in meditation on the floor of the dojos contemplating the symbolism of the South Korean flag.

Recently in my tai chi practice, I had the special fortune of being able to attend a workshop by direct descendent 20th generation Master Chen Bing. Tai chi is in his blood, his lineage. It has permeated him from before his birth and he has remarkable skill. During the workshop, watching him subtley move, I was struck by how clear his intention is in even his move subtle movements. You can witness on his body exactly where his attention is focused and understand the purpose of each movement. Yes, he is an amazing athlete, though tai chi is not particularly a flashy art--though there are some flashy moves. Instead, watching the intention, the balance, the patience, the energy, the flow is truly spectacular. Though English is not his first language, Master Chen is quite adept at imparting profound and sophisticated concepts, aided by his guestures which are embelished by the nuance that he brings to all of his movements. The symbolism of the yin yang, and the meaning of the tao became much more clear to be during his instruction:

"Tai chi is not yang" -- he flexes his body and assumes a fierce look
"Tai chi is not yin" -- his entire body becomes soft and floppy
Then he laughs a little with his body, indicating light-heartedness, and the dojo fills with chuckles and sincere laughter - this man can express humor with any part of his body and his whole body at once. This gets our attention just before he delivers the punchline:
"Tai chi is yang within yin, yin within yang." And what he did here is extraordinary. He moved his entire body with the expressions, assuming a deep and beautiful tai chi posture as he began, he showed tension wrapped in relaxation and he softened as he showed relaxation wrapped in tension, settling into the most expressive posture that I had ever seen. Layers of tension and relaxation wrapped around each other, layer upon layer; it was all visible in his hands, arms shoulders, face, neck, chest, abdomen (dantian), hips, thighs, knees, calves, feet. His whole being taught the lesson, and the entire workshop was moved by the explanation of posture and words.

And we all knew that to this man, tai chi is a metaphor for life. Life is yang within yin, yin within yang. This seeming paradox holds a potent truth.


  1. Now I know why you hanker for those Korean hotties ...

  2. That's a bit of a stretch in several ways. ;)