Yin & Yang: Notes from book by Martin Palmer

Notes from: “Yin & Yang: Understanding the Chinese philosophy of opposites and how to apply it to your everyday life” by Martin Palmer, copyright 1997, published by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd, 5 Windmill Street, London W1P 1HF.

What does the Ying Yang Symbol itself imply in general?

from pg vii:

THE YIN YANG SYMBOL is one of the best known of all Chinese designs.  With its vivid flowing black and white swirls, each with a dot of the other at their centre, it has become one of the most prevalent of Chinese symbols in the West.  It captures within it the quintessential essence of balance, harmony and of equality.  Each one, yin and yang, gives way to the other in flowing lines and each contains within itself, at its very heart, an element of the other.  Here is balance, harmony and equality writ large.

This description is in part true.  Ying and yang, female and male, cold and hot, moon and sun, earth and heaven – in other words total opposites – do complement each other.  Yet their balance, their equilibrium, is not a passive one.  They do not lie side by side in peaceful co-existence.  Their balance comes from dynamic tension, from the constant struggle of the one to overcome the other.  Their energy, the very life energy of the universe, arises from the contest and from combat.  They each wish to eradicate the other and be supreme, yet they cannot do this, for the very simple reason that nature, the Tao, has placed a part of the other at the heart of each of them.  Thus, as they reach their zenith, they peak and begin to decline, allowing the other to rise.  The yang forces of summer heat give way inexorably to the yin of autumn chill.  The yin of winter’s ice cold must melt in the face of the ascending yang forces of spring’s warmth.  This is what the symbol of yin and yang is telling us.

It is this tension, this holding together of two opposites, which is so exciting about the Chinese world view – and of such importance today.  This view offers, I believe, a way of understanding the world about us and of what is happening to us.  It offers a way of understanding the contradictions within ourselves, which can help us to come to terms with and have some degree of control over the forces that ebb and flow around us.  For we are all caught in such ebbs and flows, in our relationships at home, at work and with the rest of creation.  Yin and yang asks us to look again at how we relate to others, to ourselves and to the environment at a time in history when old ways of thinking are crumbling.  Into the vacuum new models are just beginning to emerge – or, in the case of Chinese ideas, re-emerge, not only in their own world but in the wider world as well.

Where did the ancient Chinese get the idea of 5 elements interacting both creatively and destructively?

The 4th century BC text, the Chi Ni Tzu expresses this idea in the following quote where the King of Yueh asks the sage Chi Ni whether natural phenomena have diabolical or auspicious meanings for humanity:

Chi Ni answered, ‘There are the Yin and the Yang.  All things have their chi-kang. [i.e. their fixed positions and motions with regard to other things in the web of nature’s relationships].  The sun, moon and stars signify punishment or virtue, and their changes indicate fortune and misfortune.  Metal, wood, water, fire and earth conquer each other successively; the moon waxes and wanes alternately.   Yet these normal [changes] have no ruler or governor.  If you follow it [Heaven’s Way] virtue will be attained; if you violate it there will be misfortune…All affairs must be managed following the course of Heaven and Earth and the Four Seasons with reference to the Yin and Yang.  If these principles are not carefully used, State affairs will get into trouble.’

From whence do we get the Chinese idea of a life-force called ‘chi’?

This idea is expressed in the Pao Pu Tzu, an important Taoist text from the 4th century AD in which the author of this text, the doctor Pao Pu says:

We exist in the chi and the chi resides inside us.  From Heaven and Earth down to all living things, there is no one nor any thing that does not need chi for life to continue.  One who knows how to ensure the circulation of chi preserves integrity and banishes the evil forces which bring harm.

What is the Chinese view of medicine?

On page 52, Palmer writes:

The belief that medicine and doctors were there to maintain the balance of the body and the harmony of the soul is encapsulated in the Chinese tradition that you pay the doctor while you are well and stop paying when the doctor has to treat you for sickness!  A doctor’s responsibility is to make sure you are not ill, not to just cure you when you do fall ill.  The traditional role of doctors is to keep you well balanced so you don’t fall ill.

The heart of Chinese attitudes to the well-being of the body is spelt out in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine:

The Yellow Emperor said: ‘The principle of Yin and Yang is the basic principle of the entire universe.  It is the principle of everything in creation…In order to treat and cure disease one must search into their origin.

Yang stands for peace and serenity.  Yin stands for recklessness and turmoil.  Yang stands for destruction and Yin stands for conservation.  Yang causes evaporation and Yin gives shape to things…

Through these interactions of their functions, Yin and Yang, the negative and positive principles in nature, are responsible for diseases which befall those who are rebellious to the laws of nature as well as those who conform to them.

The whole body is divided between yin and yang, and it is the vital interaction and indeed even competition between these two forces that keeps a body healthy and fit.  Too much of one means imbalance and thus dis-ease…

How can the idea of yin and yang help us to better deal with ourselves and others?

On page X Palmer writes:

If we can come to realize that we ourselves contain within us elements of that which seems most opposed to us, then we might be able to learn to live with ourselves a little better.  If we can also see that those most opposed to us contain an element of us within them, then adversaries cease to be so absolute.  If we can see problems around us as being capable of changing, as the seasons change, as night changes to day, because this is how life is, then we can live more at ease in a complex world.

Is it important to keep contrasting elements within us (i.e. the yin and yang) in balance when it comes to our health and well being?

Yes!  Palmer illustrates how the struggle of yin and yang within us can get out of balance and cause disease when he states the following on page 14:

Even though, then, we may be predominantly yin or predominantly yang, we are also a mixture of both yin and yang, constantly changing and struggling within us.  Ill health, colds or fevers, are signs of this struggle having got out of hand within us. If we allow either the yin or yang to overstep a certain point within us, we are subject to forces which unbalance us. This is why Chinese medicine has always placed such stress on whether you are innately a yin, cool person, or a yang, hot person.


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