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The Balancing Act Of Yin And Yang

Posted Sep 07 2012 4:57pm


We are like this seagull:  we can find balance or we can fall or we can even, symbolically, fly.  Balance allows us to land and settle and balance allows us to take off and fly.  The experience of falling also has balance in it, the balance of letting go and trusting despite the thrill or the fear of it.  To me this photograph is a good example of actual and potential balance, yin and yang in action.

In Chinese the literal meaning of the word yin is shadow and the literal meaning of the word yang is light.  The yin and yang symbol is often illustrated in black and white showing the greatest extremes co-joined in a balanced duality.  The symbol is perfectly contained yet implies movement.  It is supposed to represent the elements of nature, opposing yet not in opposition, rather interconnected.  Human beings are animals and evolved from nature and have literal and figurative elements of shadow and light in their make-up as does everything in our world.  This experience of contrasts is how we sense, and make sense of, ourselves and our environment.  We see the difference between sunlight and shadows or we feel the difference between the warmth from the sun and the coolness of the shadows.  These contrasts, and all the subtleties between them, make for the profound richness of our lives.

Duality, then, is an essential and intimate part of all our lives.  The yin and yang symbol, though it uses the visual language of extremes, really teaches about moderation, balance and the perfect compromise.  So why are humans often immoderate, unbalanced and in conflict?  The balance of yin and yang is perfection, heaven or "the pure lands", yet there is always flow and flux to it.  There are innumerable combinations which allow us to become unbalanced.  But is that lack of balance a lack of perfection?  Or is it the perfection of a process that moves towards a larger view, a broader picture?  We too often label the low points in our lives as bad and the high points as good when really they are both just different aspects of a fertile and fully experienced lifetime.

I don't mean to minimize the intensity that our suffering can reach, but suffering never is or has been the whole picture.  If it were, we would have no means of surviving and certainly none of being happy.  It is when we are seeing black, really imagining that all is hopeless and dark, that we can make the biggest fall of all into aggressive acts against ourselves and/or others.  But before the act comes the thoughts and feelings, the reactions to the real and imagined pain in our present moment.  Always there is the touch of light amidst a black background, but when we focus on the darkness and even add to the darkness, we blot out the one door out of our prison.  Controlled by our imagination we think there is no door to freedom, to the outside.  I'm convinced that the reality is that there is always a door available.

There is a Tibetan lojong slogan that goes, "Train in the three difficulties."  The first difficulty is to recognize mental illness as mental illness.  Pema Chodron uses the word neurosis, but I have found that it applies just as much to psychosis, depression and anxiety.  Recognition is intuitive awareness and awareness is the first major step towards beneficial change in yourself and towards others, which leads to the second difficulty which is to do something different after you recognize your illness.  Doing the usual thing, the habitual thoughtless thing, leads you to reinforce the original illness.  Instead of finding some liberation from sickness, you settle more deeply into it.  The only way to find the door, the access to light, is to take the blinders off your eyes.  That's doing something different.  The final difficulty is to make this your life's practice.

Actually, I think the first and second difficulty are one in the same.  The act of recognizing is an act of doing something different.  The question is how to you get to the point where you are ready to become aware?  I've been looking back on some of my adult life, reading a journal from the early years of my recovery, and I see now what I was unable to see then, that I was harboring, even cultivating, resentment towards these mysterious and challenging voices in my mind.  I was full of questions and I chased the questions wanting answers like a cat chasing its own tail.  Some of the questions were understandable, but others revealed my particular bias towards blaming them for my own ills.  Interspersed in the resentment was the germination of a compassion practice towards them and myself because we appeared to both be ill.  That practice was enough for me to see the touch of light in the midst of my persistent depression.

It's been almost eleven years since I entered into recovery.  The early years, when I was struggling to get my BFA degree, were not easy.  Now I can see that I made them harder.  I was self centered, self isolating and resentful, but I was also curious, thoughtful and basically non harming.  I did return again and again to the practice of gratitude and lovingkindness however imperfectly.  Anyway, it was enough to get me to this point where I'm more ready to be aware than I was before.  A lot more ready.  It's only been since I finished reading "Dharma In Hell" that I realized that I do have a daily Buddhist practice.  I practice lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and everyone, but I came to the practice gradually.  A little bit here and a little bit there while going in circles and falling backwards.  I believed strongly in that little ray of light and when I could I nurtured it.  None of it has gone to waste and life on the path continues.  I am just beginning to enter into compassion practice which is harder than lovingkindness practice in that I will have to feel the pain in myself, others and the situations we get ourselves into.

Next Tuesday, on September 11th, I will go to my first NAMI meeting in a nearby town.  This is very important to me and hopefully to the other people who attend.  It will give me the chance to be of service to a few of the people in my community.  Early in the acute stage of my psychosis, the voices ordered me to be of benefit to my community and despite battling the delusions and my paranoia I did help a few people out.  Then I pulled back into myself and gradually I have started reaching out.  It took me years just to reach out to people online and then years of me wishing that there was a support group to go to.  The time has come.  I'll be nervous, but I will work to stay open to the opportunities that present themselves to me, opportunities to share my story and to listen and learn from other people's stories.  The flux and flow of yin interacting with yang has brought me to this place, a place where I can finally open the door.

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