Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Yin Power

The concept of yin (female) and yang (male) making up a whole is ancient. Karen Armstrong suggests that it may come from the way people lived thousands of years ago in China. Planting and harvest were conducted in the sun when men were most active, and winter was the yin period, when women spent time weaving, spinning and making wine.

The United States, as an immigrant, westward-moving, pioneer nation has valued the yang element in our natures so highly that I believe the yin element, particularly its power, has been little understood. In China, the “valley spirit,” water, with its gentle power to float an egg on its surface or huge container ships, is seen as yin.

“Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”
The Tao Te Ching: Chapter 78 - 6th Century B.C.E.

As Peter Matthiessen relates in The Snow Leopard, the record of the trip he made into the Himalayas in 1973, he was often cheered in the bitter weather and difficult mountain conditions by the women he sees. The merry young Tende Samnug in a red woolen hat and small bells at her sash carries her baby, Chiring Lamo, on her back through the deep snows and secretly gives him a gift of potatoes. Glimpses of women lighted up this adventure story for me too. Knowing this mother and her baby were real people, I sometimes speculated as I read what they might be doing now.

In late November Matthiessen hiked out of the Dolpo region of Nepal into the village of Rohagaon. One of his guides makes a place for him at a family hearth where he watches “cooking rites so simple and certain in their movements that I sit marveling upon my goat skin, scarcely breathing … The cooking is done by the woman in black rags while [her husband] lies glowering against the wall; the slow deft handling of burning twigs as tsampa and dried pumpkin squash are cooked on a brazier, the breadmaking, the murmuring, the love and food extended to the children without waste words or motion, the tenderness toward the sick husband – all has the pace and dignity of sacrament.”

The picture Matthiessen paints mesmerized me. Few of us go about our household tasks thinking of them as sacrament, but of course they are. Repetition and habit make the food gathering, preparation and setting out of meals to be shared into ritual. We clean house, wash clothes and linens almost daily. The yin-oriented tasks of the private sphere are generally the responsibility of women. And the atmosphere of our homes is set by the cheerfulness, dignity and peace we bring to them.

The Western corporate world has seized upon home-making as an area to be despised, to be filled with labor-saving devices which conscript us into consuming. But when we lose the value for home-making, we lose contact with real life. We can reclaim this ritual for ourselves by conscious, mindful work, by using local food that has not been packaged for us, by choosing carefully the things that surround us, and setting standards of peacefulness and pride in the families we create.

Yin and yang are constantly and continually seeking equilibrium and right relationship. No one gets along without them both. One of our favorite tai chi practices is a series of movements in which, with a partner, we Listen to the other person’s body, Surrender to their advance, Transform or turn in relation to them and Push. This series works in many contexts!

Yin power is that of surrender, of the “valley spirit” which lies low, taking everything in to its capacious breast. It is the power of yielding, letting the water of life seek its own level. It is also the power of listening to our inner selves as well as to others. No one should underestimate it. I would like to see it more openly understood and valued. Progress, achievement, competition and dominance have their place, but so has the yin power of listening, patience, collaboration and respect.

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