We have all heard mention of the ancient philosophy of yin and yang – isn’t it Chinese or something? But what do yin and yang really mean? How is it useful in the modern world? In truth the concept is remarkably simple, and yet it is all pervasive and underpins much of Chinese medicine. As we will see it is an incredibly useful concept in describing the natural world and dynamic systems in a way that reductionist concepts do not. In other words it describes the dynamic of the system rather than the make up of individual piece parts.
Although Chinese characters may initially appear complex to the western eye, when we take a closer look we can see a series of pictures. For example in the character for ‘Yin’ the left portion is a stylised representation of a hill or mound, with a winding path leading to the top. The portion to the underneath right represents a cloud. So the overall picture is of ‘the shady side of the hill’.
Contrast this with the character for yang. Look carefully and you will see the same representation of the hill on the left. But on the upper right we see a picture of the sun appearing over the horizon, and underneath a representation of its streaming rays. So this is a view from ‘the sunny side of the hill’.
So there we have it – the whole of creation represented as either the sunny side or the shady side of the hill. From this we can derive many of the descriptive pairs that are classically ascribed to yin and yang – for example hot and cold, day and night, up and down, activity and rest, male and female, sun and moon, fire and water.
But what is even more interesting is the fact that we have a dynamic – the continual movement from day to night and vice versa. One is not complete without the other (like the two sides of a coin), and within this one simple idea are described the very forces that hold the universe together.
When contemplating the complex system that is the human being, we now have a handy way of describing our constantly fluctuating state of health. For example ‘Yang deficient’ translates as ‘cold’ – so we may crave warmth and sunshine. And ‘yang excess’ may translate as ‘hot and thirsty with a red face’. In this example we may be slightly yang excess or slightly yang deficient (or indeed a little of both).
You may be suffering with disturbed sleep, in which case the 24 hour transition from night to day (and vice versa) outside your bedroom window is not properly synchronised with the 24 hour rhythm within your body. Or your menstrual cycle may be disrupted by ‘deficiency of yang in the kidneys’ which would be described in modern terminology as ‘luteal insufficiency’. And the remedy for the latter? Good old-fashioned heat. Remember the sunny side of the hill?
Over the centuries, this approach to describing the human condition has led to countless innovative interventions which have quite rightly given Chinese medicine the high reputation it still enjoys today.
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