I was watching YouTube the other day — one of Jordan Peterson’s talks, Who Dares Say He Believes in God. Afterward, as YouTube does, it led me to a related video showing one of his older university lectures where he talked about the meaning behind the yin yang symbol. It’s a symbol I’ve seen throughout my life but I’ve never heard it explained with the same depth of meaning.

“The yin yang symbol is interesting for a variety of reasons, because the Daoists believe that the symbol represents “being.”

“Now, being is not the same thing as objective reality. Being is what you experience as a conscious creature. That’s being. And for the Daoist being is made up of these two elements — order and chaos. The reason for that is quite straightforward — wherever you go, and whenever you live, and whoever you are, each environment that you’re in is composed of things you understand and things that work the way that you expect them to, and things you do not understand and that can pull the rug out from under you at any moment.

“So in some sense these are symbolic representations of the most unchanging elements of being — the most real things.

“A typical person will look at this and think, “Well, those aren’t real.” They are real. In fact they’re hyper real, because one of the things that defines real is that it’s permanent. And it is permanent. No matter where you go there are things you know and things you don’t know, and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s permanent, so it’s part of the existential landscape of human being.

“Another interesting thing about the yin yang symbol: The black paisley has a little white dot in it and the white paisley has a little black dot in it. The reason for that is the Daoists also recognised that chaos can turn to order at any moment, so a new order can rise out of a chaotic structure. That’s a revolution in some sense. But by the same token, if you’re in a place that’s orderly and predictable something can happen that casts you into a chaotic situation right away. So even though these two things oppose each other in some sense there’s a continual dynamic interplay between them.

“The final thing that’s interesting about this symbol is a brilliant idea because Dao also means ‘the way’ and the way is the line between the two. That indicates that the optimal position for a human being isn’t in chaos or in order, because if it’s too orderly then it’s totalitarian, and if it’s too chaotic then it’s disgust and fear and emotional pain and depression.

“So where’s the proper place? The Daoist answer is right on the line, where you have one foot in order so that you’re fairly stable, and you have another foot in chaos so that new and interesting and compelling and transforming things are happening to you. Your nervous system basically tells you when you’re there by making you interested in whatever it is that you’re engaged in. The fact that the thing that you’re engaged in grips you, which is really an unconscious process, is because your nervous system, which has adapted to the environment of chaos and order, is telling you that if you’re engaged and interested you are in the place where the balance between chaos and order is perfect.

“Think about that. It’s no use reading a [research] paper that you can’t understand at all, even if hypothetically it would be a tremendously informative paper, but you can’t understand it because it’s all chaos to you. And then there’s absolutely no reason to read a paper for the tenth time if you’ve already extracted the information from it. It’s going to be boring.

“So what do you want? You want a paper that you can almost understand, [where] the cognitive frameworks that you understand are sufficient for you to take the next steps into the unknown, and the paper will inform you of that. Books do that. Movies do that. Conversations do that. Even lines of thought do that. If they’re at exactly the right level of complexity for you they’re going to engage you.”

A good story. It’ll stick with me next time the symbol shows up.

Visit www.jordanpeterson.com for his blog, podcast, YouTube channel, recommended books, courses, and more.


I feel a bit dizzy after reading that now, haha. Always love to hear stories behind things we never really think much about.

There was a time when our public library had a rich collection of books. They even had the hardback (first) edition of JBP’s “Maps of Meaning – The Architecture of Belief” for me to stumble upon. Alas – that was from way before our current era of streaming entertainment. But I digress.

At roughly that same time, I thought of a lifecycle-oriented way to interpret the yin yang symbol. While I may someday learn how to cast it into a flowing animation, I can try to describe it here.

Stage 1 – the white disc. You come into being. Stage 2 – the black boteh (or buta, or “paisley”). You spiral outwards, clockwise, wandering into darkness, slowing down. Stage 3 – the black circumference. You go around and around the outer edge, clockwise. You are stuck in this orbit, until … Stage 4 – the backwards “S” which is the boundary line between the black/white boteh shapes. The turning point – the transformative path gets you unstuck, and moving counter-clockwise along the circumference. Stage 5 – the white boteh. You spiral inwards, accelerating. You experience time passing more quickly. Stage 6 – the black disc. Either your journey ends here, or maybe it somehow loops back to Stage 1.

The yin yang does not mean that balance is found down the middle line. It means that change is natural and not something to be feared. It means you can stop worrying about whether things go right or wrong in life, that you can stop hoping for the good things to win because they are only good in relation to bad. They imply each other. Balance is not found on a line in between them. Balance is accepting everything. Being okay without being okay. That’s where peace is found. This interpretation with “balance being down the center line” is so weird. You can literally google what this symbol means and Peterson apparently hasn’t bothered.

Dear Mike, I basically agree with you, but try to consider the middle line as the Middle Way of the Law of Balance with the theory of the pendulum… 😉

Excellent explanation and well thought-out understanding of finding a balance in the center. One foot in chaos, one food in order, and it then goes and relates with the shadow and slaying the dragon. It’s exciting to land on your blog as I was writing one and wanted this sign, Google linked me to here on searching for images and the interesting thing is that I was quoting Jordan Peterson, I am a student of his.

The answer to what Yin-yang is has busied the minds of monks for millennia. It is a part of understanding enlightenment, and becoming the individuals we are meant to be. I’ll at this point claim God (of a kind) does exist. I’m willing to stick my neck out based on the fact that I realised the suggestion made by Yin-yang. Wait, there’s a suggestion there?! It doesn’t just explain the duality in life?!

Exactly. As with all trainees, they often need a smack on the head with a hard stick, just as monks receive when they take a wild stab at the truth. I’d whack J. B. Peterson on the head and ask him to think again about what he said. Why?

The dark represents your unconscious. It has the same shape, dimensions and volume as the white. It doesn’t matter which you choose to represent which dualist concepts you wish to describe using the symbol, as long as they are opposites. So the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. One is as important as the other. There is a process by which the two halves are combined and dissolved called individuation. Christ called it fasting from the world. In that time you would be confronted by your bad memories unavoidably. By processing these dark memories, the truth about the white section is revealed.

As always, the master waits for the student to notice the paper upon which the symbol is drawn. If white and dark are processed, the symbol dissolves leaving just the paper. Who or what is the paper?

Seems this is from a male perspective, ie. chaos and femininity are in the same category? From my (female) perspective, males have traditionally been the arbiters of chaos (war, aggression, general disorganization and messiness). I like the fact that we’re all supposed to live on the line though.

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