A Yin-Yang Theory of Global Issues

Global warming. In America, the rich grow richer and the poor, poorer. The gap between them growing. The US national debt grows day by day; inflation rates in Venezuela, Argentina, and Syria (just to name a few) skyrocketing.  Increase in school shootings and an increase in suicide, the number of which, in the United States at least, surpassed the number of deaths by car accidents in 2013. The Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, Boko Haram and ISIL.

On the surface, there is little in common, say, between global warming, suicide rates, and violence in the Middle East.

But that depends on how you look at it.

As an aim of my blog, I seek to and encourage engaging  things from various perspective. In this post, I will do so by thinking through the various phenomenon listed above (by no means an exhaustive list) from the perspective of the yin-yang theory and its associate–the Theory of Wu-Hsing, or Five Elements/Phases.


If you are reading this, my bet is you are at least familiar with yin-yang, popularly known by its symbol as shown to the right. And you may know that the black and white “sides” or fishes, representing yin and yang, are complementary forces and that each contains the seed of the other as represented by the white dot in the black fish, the black dot in the white fish. But prior to proceeding, a few word regarding yin-yang are in order.


Classic Chinese literature states yin and yang emerged from the Tao, the undifferentiated whole, much like Chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony.  The Tao “is both the unity of all things and the way the universe works” (Beinfield and Korngold 49) out of which yin-yang are born. Together, yin-yang “is a symbolic representation of universal process that portrays a changing rather than a static picture of reality” (50). Together, yin-yang, which exist in a dialectical relationship,  are a means by which to understand such changes.

In short, yin-yang “describe all phenomena…all objects or phenomenon in the universe can be understood as limitless pairs of opposites which interact” according to certain principles (Pitchford 49): 1) The source of yin and yang, the Tao, is unified and unchanging; 2) Yang is the active principle, yin the passive (and nothing is purely either); 3) if either one predominates, it “tends to ‘consume’ the other;” 4) when the predominant principle reaches it limit, it beings to transform into the other; and 5) the two exist in continual transformation (49-51).

Below is a brief list of correspondences to each principle:

YangActive, expanding, ascending, transforming, exterior, hot, male

Yin: Substantive, contracting, descending, forming, hidden, interior, cold, female

If we were to again consider the list at the onset of this post, we would, then, find a commonality, a principle: such are yang phenomenon and I would say, yang phenomenon still expanding. That is, this yang “explosion” for lack of a better term, has not yet reached its limit. Such of course, does not bode well, for it implies that such phenomenon will continue to increase.


The Theory of Five Elements

But thinking of such global issues in terms of yin-yang can only go so far, as such are general principles by which to understand changing phenomenon. Wu-Hsing, the theory of Five Elements, however, allows us a means by which to look at such a little deeper as this system “serves as an aid for understanding the limitless correspondences that pervade every facet of life” (Pitchford 305) and according to the ancient Yin-Yang school, the Five Elements arose through the interaction of yin-yang. Wu-Hsing is highly complex and well deserving of its own series of posts (let alone the volumes of texts on the subject) and thus it is not the time and place to delve into its specifics. While fundamental to the understanding and practice of Chinese medicine, Wu-Hsing “provides the basis for describing the development of forms, systems, and events” as it “postulates that everything in creation can be categorized within these basic parameters” (Beinfield and Korngold 86), these “parameters” being the elements themselves: Wood, Water, Metal, Fire, and Earth. The five elements exist in relationship and any phenomenon that can be described with yin-yang can be further differentiated by applying the Five Elements.

In terms of Chinese medicine, each Element corresponds to an organ system, and the health of one organ systems contributes to the health of the overall system–that is, the human being. Illness–both physiological and psychological–set in when an organ system falls into disequilibrium, thus effecting the whole. The diagram below describes the relationship between such elements. The arrows arranged as a circle indicate what is knows as the “supporting sequence,” meaning a healthy heart (Fire) supports/nourishes a healthy spleen (Earth). The “restraining sequence” is  indicated by the straight arrows and “equilibrium is maintained by these contrary patterns” (Beinfield and Korngold 95).



While the ideal state is that of an equilibrium between the elements, since they are interconnected and interdependent, if the active of one becomes either “exaggerated” or “collapses,” illness is likely to occur. For example, if there is excess in the liver (wood),  this disharmony “may afflict the spleen…If this is not corrected, the spleen passes this problem on the kidney, the kidney to the heart, the heart to the lung” and finally to the back home to the liver (98-9).

Before proceeding, I should note the importance of not literalizing here–that while speaking in medical terms here, these organs are to be understood in relation to their elements and these elements too, should not be literalized. Since the theory applies to all phenomenon it may best suit us here to think of them as archetypal energies, “agents” (as they are often called) that play particular roles in the process of change.

So if we understand the above global issues in terms of a predominance of yang tending toward the excessive, what might we say about such when applying the theory of Five Elements?

(A caveat prior to responding: I am about to make a claim about what I see as the fundamental organ/element that is the “source” of such issues. That being said, in order to keep this post as concise as possible, I am not going to provide arguments for why I see this particular element as the main “culprit” over and against the others.)

Based on my understanding of the Five Elements, I would say the fundamental disharmony effecting the above current problems is a disharmony in the liver–the Wood Element. In the remainder of this post I will discuss why.

Liver and Wood

Likened to “military commander who formulates strategy and tactics, the liver exercises authority in collecting and directing the blood” (Beinfield and Korngold 107) which is the mother of chi, which is a subtle energy, “insubstantial, mobile, changeable, a catalyst for moment and transformation” (55). When the liver system is healthy, the chi is spread evenly. This, of course, is the ideal, and, thanks to its essential function in spreading chi (and the prevention of its stagnation), the liver “establishes a smooth and soothing flow of energy through the whole person, in both body and mind” (Pitchford 318). A healthy liver system is key, in other words, to maintaining the desired equilibrium and “is responsible for…the assertion and direction of ‘being'” (Hammer 88), or existence itself.  Such is underscored by Wood/Liver’s association with Spring,  a yang season, the time of  activity and new growth, a time of expansion: a “time for contacting your true nature and giving attention to self-awareness and self-expression” (Pitchford 317).

These few ideas demonstrate the importance of a healthy liver system, for if equilibrium is to be maintained, the liver’s health is essential. Furthermore, this equilibrium is what directs our very beings as people, our true natures. To flip it around, the ability to understand and form a connection with our “true natures” is inhibited if disharmony exists within the liver.

Well guess what?

“This Wood-Element organ is perhaps the most congested of all organs in the modern person” (Pitchford 318).

What are the results of Liver disharmony? None to good:

–Impatience, frustration, resentment, violence, belligerence, rudeness, edginess, arrogance, stubbornness, aggression, and impulsive and/or explosive personality (Pitchford 318)

–Most cases of heart disease (the number 1 killer in America) are related to liver stagnation (Pitchford 321)

–Unyielding, tyrannical behavior; intolerance; obstinence; compulsiveness (Beinfield and Korngold)

The natural capacity of Liver/Wood is to act, such action is organized around change/metamorphosis (Beinfield and Korngold 140). However, when Liver/Wood becomes exaggerated, such action is distorted toward domination (142). Making use again of the military commander metaphor, Liver/Wood, in its capacity to act, is the “decision maker in the pantheon of energic ego functions” and thus directs the “ability to advance…and to retreat” (Hammer 148). When the Liver/Wood is in equilibrium there exists the “wisdom to know when to move and when to be still” (148).

Furthermore, since Wood/Liver is that which directs being, or existence itself, when the Liver is disharmonious, the energies directing being/existence are out of balance and thus life/existence falls out of balance. In other words, it is sick.

Not knowing when and how to act to best serve ourselves, our common humanity, our planet. Life itself. Sound like any of those problems I listed at the onset of this post? Aggression, hostility, unyielding, tyrannical behavior? Compulsiveness, arrogance, violence?

I will not go into the details here, for while I see such behavior as being present in one way or another in that brief list of global issues, I invite you to ask the question yourself.

Thus if I were to give a diagnosis for these present problems, I would say as a collective, we suffer from Liver Yang Excess.

While the following is applied to an individual diagnosed as such, I think again, we can apply it to our current modern state.

Here are a few of the signs of Liver Yang Excess;

-A person cannot take “no” for an answer and “in fact, does not even seem to hear it” (Hammer 168)

-“Whatever is important to him crowds out any other physical or interpersonal consideration” (ibid)

-“This person totally convinced of the correctness of his behavior and has no insight into the appropriateness of his actions…Other people’s needs…receive absolutely no consideration in the drive to satisfy his own needs” (ibid)

-“This is not a happy person, just driven” (169)

-“Agitation, with underlying anger, is the dominant mood in the face of opposition. The atmosphere is more noxious than nourishing” (169)

-Faculties of judgment, discernment, planning, clarity of vision, thought, and decision making are impaired. In particular, such are “distorted to serve the irrepressible and imminent compulsion” (169)

-The person is “not interested in addressing the problems associated with her mode of relating to others” (171)

-and last but not least,

“Love, which in part we have defined as the ability to consider experience from another’s perspective as well as from one’s own, is almost out of the question for someone whose sole outlook is for his own self-aggrandizement” (169)

Wow. Just look over that list again and again, while I will not make my case for seeing the presence of such in my scant list of global issues, I invite you to again reflect upon them yourself.

Paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity in its current state right?

And even more of a downer is the suggestion that if the yang principle has not yet reached its limit, such will continue to balloon and I find myself lamenting Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Is there anything that can be done?

A Chance for Healing?

Of course there is and while the issues will be dealt by those who deal with them, there are a certain number of things we can all do, and certain things those whose job it is to directly deal with these pertinent issues can learn to utilize.

In treating Liver Yang Excess, “practice listening and cultivate less aggressive attitudes” (Pitchford 21).

In treating Yang Excess, preserving yin is necessary to harmonizing the yang while building yin’s receptive, yielding, and compassionate qualities. Such include, but are not limited to:

-Yoga, contemplation, meditation.

-Doing something that connects you with the earth, the soil. If you have the space, try your hand at gardening. If you don’t have the time, make the time.

-Slow down if you are always busy. Give yourself time to pause. The stress is not worth it.

-Stay engaged, but don’t exhaust yourself

-Learn to trust by being trustworthy

-Be more aware of consequences of your actions

-Learn to be more flexible and in becoming more flexible, more patient

Does it not seem that those who in charge of addressing our global issues can benefit from such? That you yourself can, perhaps, benefit from such? I know I could.

These actions build and preserve yin and I end with this:

“Actions that build a substantial yin foundation for an individual are the same ones that restore the planet” (Pitchford 64).


3 thoughts on “A Yin-Yang Theory of Global Issues

  1. this is , of course in my opinion, good good stuff. these days the energies are such that most people here are finding the earth-physical connection that you list particularly essential for regaining stability: hiking/running/walking half again as much as usual, camping out instead of hoteling, massage therapy, patio veggie patch and meditating on the key words about one’s individual mars and pluto energies: where on the spectrum are they vibrating?
    these *are* such sad times. here’s to taking responsibility – to the greatest degree we are able – for our own balance.
    it would be great if others would share which examples on your list they are utilising to help them maintain balance and we could thus encourage one another. me, Flexibility and Patience are essential and i find that if i physically work myself, this in turn causes me not to *care* so much that things are not exactly how i want them. i am too tired! and that tired space helps me to SEE that its not such a big right-here-right-now deal…the sky isnt falling so i chill out.
    there are plenty of days in this heat that i dont want to put on my shoes and go. i understand i must…so i do.
    thats me imagining my liver in ”the assertion and direction of ‘being” 🙂


    1. Great comment weaver thanks…and your mentioning of Mars and Pluto reminds me of a book I think you would really love: it is called “Psyche and Cosmos” by Richard Tarnas and basically what he does is look at various planetary conjunctions across time, and then examines the historical processes/changes that occur at those times. It is truly outstanding.


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