Yin Yang

The picture above is the graphic image of the title of this blog: Yin Yang. Because I had committed to using only my own photography in “OWLcourage”, the image is a cropped photo of my Yin Yang necklace. I have been trying to convince myself that this is better than clip art. I only wear jewelry that expresses something I hope to manifest. I wonder if that counts as a good excuse for this dicey photo. It does set the stage for my summary description of Yin Yang.

Yin Yang is a dominant component of many Chinese, and some Japanese schools of thought, hence often associated with worldviews of the “East” as imagined globally by a person who resides in the “West”. The general consensus is that the image is a diagrammatic representation of a set of philosophical assertions about all of existence, focused on the harmonization of all that is and highlighting the relationships among seemingly contradictory elements of existence.

In contrast to Western assertions, Yin Yang has no valuation hierarchy but posits a view of the world where complementarity explains variance, where one can only understand totality by understanding both sides of something. By way of example, I will not be able to know cold without also knowing hot, I will not know what light is until I know darkness. These dimensions are not opposites (or oppositional) but obverses, counterparts like sides of a coin. Having tried to teach this concept for decades, it is my sense that the US worldview finds the concept of “obverses” elusive at best, since we are deeply habituated to seeing everything through an oppositional and competitive lens tainted by extreme hierarchical valuation norms.

When I was first exposed to the philosophical mapping that Yin Yang offers, I was enchanted. It showed me a conceptual depiction that contrasted with the one I knew and experienced daily. Here in the West, we assert that when two things differ, one must be determined to be superior and we must attempt to overthrow the other as inferior and even potentially dangerous. It is perhaps self-evident, but it has seemed to me that this very familiar “Western” world view has reached pathological levels in much of the US, expressing itself on a wide range of topics.

I started working with conflict resolution and conflict engagement in 1986; for 13 years I did this work full time throughout the US. In thirty-six years of focused effort, bolstered by a 13-year intensive, one notices patterns. Yin Yang helped me make sense of some of these patterns.

When confronted with what appeared to be an insoluble difference between parties, I would try to place their contrasting views in a Yin Yang mapping. Over time I became convinced that in every substantive conflict I was addressing or exploring with others, each party had an insight, piece of knowledge, or capacity that the other party lacked. As is perhaps apparent, to discover that you are having a conflict due to your own limitations is not good news to many people. To make this more concrete and personal, when I find myself differing with another person, the first question I always ask is: What do they know about or understand that I do not know about or understand?

Here are some examples to help you understand this. I have no personal or experiential knowledge of what it feels like when persons with substantial education deliberately try to make me feel inferior, even mocking me. I have no personal or experiential knowledge of what it feels like to be accustomed to significant societal advantages, and to then find them suddenly taken away from me. I have no personal or experiential knowledge of what it feels like to be a Native American child ripped from family and community, forced into a boarding school, losing name, language, hair and culture. I have learned about these things from others willing to teach me. I asked.

I have found that this is, indeed, an interesting and demanding exercise, yet yields amazing outcomes. The first is obvious: I slow down and essentially ask what the personally inaccessible aspect of my Yin Yang moment is all about. I also find I often do not know the answer. This too seems obvious, however the quickest way to find out is to ask: What do you know about or understand that I do not know about or understand? Now of course there are a zillion ways to ask that question, but that is the question.

If asked sincerely, in the curious search for the missing half of my Yin Yang moment, I have found people always have an answer and that answer always has information I did not have before I asked the question. To be honest, of course, I may not like the information, however I am then stuck with the next obvious observation: Who am I to declare that all my ideas are correct, that only my side of the Yin Yang moment should exist? It doesn’t take long to remove the self-righteous wind from my sails. If my self-righteous impulse persists, that is my issue, not someone else’s.

To be sure, there is great complexity embedded in this practice of questioning and in the struggle to learn about the “other”. There are responses to the question that are not merely opinions but sometimes involve factual information that cannot be declared nonexistent. Yes, these experiences occur. More often however, I am merely grappling with two contrasting dimensions of a human reality, complementary obverses that shed light on a moment in time.

The courage of genuine curiosity asks a lot, and even more when new information emerges. Yin Yang shines a light on a decision: conflict or complementarity. What do you know about or understand that I do not know about or understand?

“Yin and Yang are not oppositional but rather complementary forces. Yin and Yang are in no more conflict than the light of day is fighting the dark of night or the warmth of summer is battling with the cold of winter.”

- Brendan Kelly-