Home Balanced Achievement The Yin and Yang of Stillness and Flow

The Yin and Yang of Stillness and Flow

The sun systematically makes way for the moon, summer effortlessly transforms into winter and life unfailingly ends in death, only to regenerate as life once again. Although we don’t consciously recognize the dynamic interplay that takes place between a countless number of seemingly opposite energy forces such as these, they are in fact what brings balance and harmony to the world. For hundreds of centuries, China’s great seers have discussed this truth and pointed to the interconnected nature of abstract yin and yang principles as being responsible for governing over the universe. The immortalized philosopher Confucius, being one such individual, so wisely summed it up by telling us:

Yin and yang, male and female, strong and weak, rigid and tender, heaven and earth, light and darkness, thunder and lightning, cold and warmth, good and evil…the interplay of opposite principles constitutes the universe.”

Just as changes in the weather, shifts in oceanic tides, and rotating cycles of day and night bring equilibrium to our planet on a macro scale, so too are our lives guided by underlying yin and yang forces in a more intimate way. For example, we must rest to be active, responsibility goes hand and hand with trust and without the union of man and woman, none of us would be alive today. By coming to understand how our well-being is affected by an all-pervading interplay of personal yin and yang principles, which operate at the physical, mental and emotional levels, we can take steps to foster a greater sense of harmonious balance within ourselves. One especially powerful way that we can do this is by recognizing and living in accordance with the yin and yang of stillness and flow. That is the much desired psychological state of flow and the stillness that can be found in meditation practice.

The Origins and Philosophical Construct of Yin and Yang:

An image shows a computer generated image of a black and white yin-yang symbol. This picture is used in Balanced Achievement's article titled 'The yin and yang of stillness and flow'.Although the historical origins of yin and yang aren’t verifiably known, scholars tell us that the concept, which is firmly rooted in Chinese history, can be traced back to at least the 14th century BCE. It wasn’t until around the 4th century BCE, however, when enlightened sages such as Confucius and Lao Tzu began thinking about the idea as a philosophical construct and utilizing yin and yang as a rhetorical device. Subsequently, the concept’s popularity grew exponentially, in the 3rd century BCE, after the iconic cosmologist Zou Yan established the Yin and Yang philosophical school of thought. Amazingly enough, despite the fact that thousands of years have passed since the idea of yin and yang first came about, the concept has largely remained unchanged as a staple of Chinese religion, traditional medicine and martial arts. Lao Tzu told us of the all-pervading nature of yin and yang:

All things carry Yin, yet embrace Yang. They blend their life breaths in order to produce harmony.”

If we’re to benefit from the dynamic interplay that takes place between stillness and flow, it’ll be vital for us to gain understanding of a number of key ideas that relate to the theory of yin and yang. Generally speaking, the term yin is used to describe feminine, still and inward principles such as softness, water and good, and the term yang describes masculine, energetic and outward opposites such as hardness, fire and evil. Although it may appear as if mismatching yin and yang principles like these contradict and oppose one another, China’s immortalized philosophers have told us they’re unquestionably complementary, inseparable and converge to create a whole that’s greater than the assembled parts.

Additionally, because yin and yang energies naturally seek to equalize each other in a push-and-pull or give-and-take manner, too much of either results in an unhealthy imbalance at the level of the whole. Conversely, wholesome health results when yin and yang principles are allowed to naturally balance each other out. Jinghan He, a 5th generation Bagua Quan martial arts master, tells us of this paradoxical yet fruitful interplay where unity and duality harmoniously coexist as one:

Yin and Yang in themselves are of course opposites, so we use Yin and Yang to generalize opposing elements such as up and down, left and right, day and night, water and fire, male and female, inside and outside. But Yin and Yang do not exist in separated and independent forms. Yin and Yang are two faces of a whole, or, it may be said, Yin and Yang join together and combine into a whole.”

The Optimal Psychological State of Flow:

An image shows a young man contently working alongside two co-workers. This image is featured in Balanced Achievement's article titled 'The yin and yang of stillness and flow'.It was in 1975 when the prolific Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe a mental state in which people are fully immersed in the present-moment and joyously partakes in whichever activity they find themselves doing. In this optimal psychological mode, individuals also experience greater focus and lose reflective self-consciousness as their actions and awareness merge into one. In his 1990 Bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes of the much desired internal state:

Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

According to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory, nearly any activity can activate the intrinsically rewarding state, with the most favorable being those that put an individual’s most developed skills to the test and foster an environment for growth. This means that while doing housework, watching tv and resting aren’t usually conducive to a state of flow, playing sports, partaking in hobbies, having sex and learning certainly are. Yet still, we must inquire as to why the much desired state is more accessible for some than it is for others who lead circumstantially comparable lives. Csikszentmihalyi tells us how the happiest people tend to spend more time in flow:

The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

The Transformational Power of Finding Stillness in Meditation:

An image shows a young man practicing meditation in his home. this image is featured in Balanced Achievement's article titled - The Yin and Yang of Stillness and FlowAs Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and other prominent psychologists have told us, the activities individuals partake in largely determine the activation potential for the psychological flow state. However, when considering how the theory of yin and yang makes clear that every energetic force and internal state comes with a complementary opposite, we must wonder if there is a condition that naturally fosters one’s ability to optimally experience life in the present-moment. Although uninviting states such as boredom, apathy, worry and anxiety may appear to most directly contrast with the optimal experiential state, it’s certain that flow’s paradoxically interconnected counterpart is stillness. More specifically, the stillness that can only be found in the silence of meditation practice. The acclaimed spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra reminds us:

The most effective way to live in the flow of the timeless is meditation.”

When comparing the intangible qualities of the mental state of flow with the psychological benefits that stem from meditative practices, the yin and yang relationship between stillness and flow becomes crystal clear to see. For example, when individuals are in a state of flow, it’s said that they become fully absorbed in the moment-to-moment experiences of life, as opposed to being fully engrossed in themselves, and live with a greater sense of intrinsic satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, it’s widely believed amongst both spiritualists and psychologists that the stillness found in meditation practice can naturally heighten individuals’ ability to live in the present and foster a greater sense of joyous contentment for the little things in life. Of the transformational power of meditation, the beloved American spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson tells us:

Meditation is power. Enter chaos from the place of internal stillness, and your stillness becomes a chaos buster.”

Nurturing Personal Wholeness through Stillness and Flow:

A computer generated image shows the silhouette of a person rising out of a yin and yang symbol. This photo is used in Balanced Achievement's article titled - The Yin and Yang of Stillness and FlowJust as the earth’s harmony is maintained by a symphonic balance of darkness and light, so too can our own personal equilibrium be nurtured by a fruitful interplay of stillness and flow. It’s certain that as the calmness of meditation optimizes our external experiential state, which subsequently guides us back to practice, we’ll begin to live with a heightened sense of personal wholeness. Although Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi never directly discussed the maturation of this yin and yang process or the practice of meditation as it relates to the much desired psychological mode, his writings point to an intuitive understanding of how the state of flow is guided by one’s internal world. He writes:

Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe… Flow is the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life. The optimal state of inner experience is order in consciousness.”

If we are to maximize our potential as individuals and deepen our sense of fulfillment throughout our lives, it’ll be imperative to heed the advice of China’s immortalized philosophers and strive for balance with understanding of yin and yang. Coming to realize that it’s only possible to live with an enduring state of flow by regularly retreating into the stillness of meditation, we’ll be able to more effortlessly maintain a harmonious balance in both our external and internal worlds. As the immortalized Lao Tzu told us:

Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.”

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