In one of Jordan Peterson’s older university lectures he shared an interpretation of the meaning behind the yin yang symbol. It’s a symbol I’ve seen throughout my life but I’ve not heard it explained in this way, and thought it was worth a share.
Yin and yang, order and chaos
“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.”
I’m sure there are other interpretations of the ying yang symbol, and readers will know better than me, but this one will stick.
Courtesy of www.jordanpeterson.com.
Somewhat related is the Symbol Sourcebook, by Henry Dreyfuss, and you might also like these hobo signs and symbols, from the archives.
I feel a bit dizzy after reading that now, haha. Always love to hear stories behind things we never really think much about.
“The proper place … is right on the line.” Very interesting article that makes you see this symbol from a new perspective. Thanks!
A secret behind every mark!
Nice write up David. Got to love the Yin & Yang Symbol its the perfect balance.
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.
Very nice. I like how you start with the disc. That’s how I start making one in illustrator. I had envisioned something of the path being a spiral balancing between dichotomies, white & black, order & chaos, the way. The book sounds interesting!
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.
“Balance is accepting everything. Being okay without being okay. That’s where peace is found.”
Interesting take, Mike.
I don’t see the problem with different people interpreting different philosophical ideas, so why do you see it as a problem?
Interesting article on such a well known and ubiquitous symbol. It’s great to read something a little more in depth.
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.
It is a symbol I like very much. Thank you for sharing this story.
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?
This is quite a good contribution. But alas, each and every person has a different interpretation or belief toward the theory. You people are just complementing one another.
For me the symbol represents impermanence.
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.
It’s more referring to woman as nature because they are the ones who reproduce and choose a male. Nature: Female, Nurture: Male.
It’s a mistake to associate one yin quality with another yin quality. “Woman” is not “chaos.”
Each pair only has meaning within itself, in its own context.
Take JP’s interpretations with a grain of salt. Outside of his field, he does not do deep research into concepts that do not confirm his biases.
And the point is not to find balance on the line in the middle: the taijitu (the diagram) is not prescriptive. The diagram represents constant motion between yin and yang — it represents taiji, the state after no-extremes (wuji) and before static yin vs. static yang, which leads to the combinations of yin and yang and the Yi Jing (I Ching).
Yes, I was one of his students, too. And I earned a 92 in his seminar.
Chaos isn’t a negative thing. I think it relates to women in the fact that they’re more intuitive and act in regard to emotion and sensation which can be more free and unpredictable than a controlled logic-based male perspective.
“Without order, civilization is impossible; without chaos, civilization is intolerable. Yin and yang, pollinating each other, produce hybrid vigor.”
I just wrote that to a friend in a PM, regarding the state of the world. He asked if it was original; to the best of my (and Google’s) knowledge, every piece of it is.
Please feel free to quote it promiscuously.
I have to agree with Mike here. Balance is in constant motion and ever-changing. I was excited to read another blog post from you David as it has been a long time I wanted to start up again, but I’m very disappointed to see you link to someone like Jordan Peterson.
The more fascinating (logo-linguistically?) is the characters for the words Yin and Yang themselves are connected to the ideograms for “sunny side of the hill” or “sun” and “shady side of the hill” or “moon”. (Source: Wikipedia, which in this case, is one of the most reliable sources.)
– Former DesignTypeGeek
I study kung fu and my Sifu talks about this a LOT.
He often points out that I am too ‘yang’ and need to relax and be more yielding so I do not miss opportunities. When he touches me his hands feel like that of a ghost which I cannot fight or resist. It’s not just mumbo jumbo when it’s dropping you on your ass.
Thank you Dr Peterson!
I can’t help but think of our current political situation in the United States. I liken the Republican Party to that of Yang while the Democratic Party is Yin. Extremists on either side is problematic. We as a country need to walk the line of balance between the two.
When creating Personas, Customer Journeys or working on other parts of Design Thinking; It’s really about finding the balance. Without balance it is incredibly difficult to prioritise one thing over another.
This symbol represents harmony and spirituality. For me the Yin Yang represents a very great philosophical value. I have a Yin Yang necklace that makes me feel in peace with myself.
So King Solomon was right in his teaching… and in his asking for wisdom to govern people rather than material. Balance.
I listened to his audio book on the topic and this article helped me understand it better.
As a professor of Chinese philosophy, I can assure you that this is all really terrible commentary on yinyang thought (other than mograph’s contribution). Jordan Peterson may be an expert in his field — but not in Daoist philosophy. Nothing wrong with recognizing order-chaos as a correlative pair, but that is not “the meaning” of the yinyang symbol. Nor does it mean “being” or “known and unknown.”
Anyone who wants more than a cartoonish understanding should see a real academic book on the subject: Robin R. Wang’s “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Culture.”
I’m just trying to help. What you are seeing here is ignorance in an authoritative tone.
After reading everyones comments, which, by the way, were collectively very interesting, I can very plainly see that everyone just has a perspective, EVERYONE. If you are an awake person, on a daily basis you are involved with all of the above, plain and simple. There are constants (or truths) while being a human living on this earth. Morning and night, everything is always in motion or changing, there is silence and noise, peace/conflict, etc.
So what is my point? That all is here or nothing is here, depending on where you choose to look. With every thought or non-thought we are gaining or releasing something.
It comes down to, for me at least; look, observe, experience, listen, breathe, be.
Thanks and blessings.
Jordan Peterson’s ideas about this symbol and what yin and yang mean came entirely out of his ass. This symbol is called a taiji tu, btw, and yin and yang do not mean the things he says. His ideas are interesting, but this symbol doesn’t actually represent any duality you care to apply to it. It specifically represents the interrelationship of yin and yang as developed by the School of Naturalists in China a few hundred years BC. Yang has never meant “authoritarianism, fascism, order, the known” and Yin has never meant “chaos, decadence, nihilism.” These are just ideas that someone with almost zero understanding of the actual philosophy has stuck onto a symbol they appropriated to try to legitimize it.
For what it’s worth, yin-yang theory was one of the first things I studied 25 years ago when getting my doctorate in Traditional Chinese Medicine & I’ve been deepening my understanding of this profound philosophy ever since. Jordan’s ideas might be worthy of discussion, but they have little to do with yin-yang theory.