On Yin and Yang, and Strength

What do you think of when you think of strength? Maybe it’s a body builder or weight trainer. Maybe it’s a boxer, or a martial artist. Or maybe you think of a heavily muscled soldier wearing fatigues and holding a gun.

I’ve been ruminating a lot about strength recently, ever since I overheard a personal trainer talk about the concepts of Yin and Yang. He was saying that there should always be balance of both Yin and Yang in your life, and that’s true. But then he went further and said and that Yang symbolizes strength and power, while Yin symbolizes softness and I found myself bristling at his comments. Who says Yin lacks strength? Who says Yin can’t also be powerful?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, Yang represents the brightness, warmth, and dryness of the sun, as well as growth and hardness. By contrast, Yin represents the dark, cool, mysterious energy of the moon, as well as moistness and softness. Yang is active. Yin is passive. Yang is extroverted. Yin is introverted. But neither is more powerful than the other. Each of them is strong in their own way.

The kind of strength that Yang exudes is quick, hard, and loud. This is the strength of a soldier. It is fiery, violent and abrupt. The kind of strength that Yin exudes is slower, more deliberate and patient. This is the strength of a hard worker, who quietly does his job every day without complaint and slowly rises up the ladder of success. It’s a different kind of strength, but no less powerful.

I recently saw the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it is a psychedelic mind-trip of a film. At it’s climax, it elucidates the difference between a Yin action and a Yang action quite beautifully. The movie stars Michelle Yeoh as an angry and dissatisfied laundromat owner who is unhappy with her life. She is angry at her husband, who she sees as useless. She is frustrated with her daughter, who she sees as directionless. She wishes she had taken another path in life. She wishes she had made different choices.

At a turning point in the film, she accuses her husband of being too soft. Of never fighting back. In reply, he says to her:

“You think when I choose to see the good side of things, I’m being naive. But my kindness is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”

And with each problem they encounter, he responds quietly and softly, with optimism, caring and kindness, while she responds with physicality and violence. While neither approach is perfect, his understanding gets them further than her anger does. Once Michelle Yeoh decides to give kindness and empathy a try, it results in a happier outcome for everyone, including herself. She ends the film smiling, despite being in the same circumstances she started in.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that we’ve focused a little to strongly on Yang energy in recent decades, particularly in North America. We’ve worked increasingly longer hours and then partied too hard to make up for it. Our patience has run short, and our voices have become louder and more shrill.

Like Michelle Yeoh, maybe we could learn to use our energy a little differently. Instead of competing against one another, maybe we can show one another more kindness and learn to work together. Maybe we can learn to be more thoughtful and empathetic. We have more in common than we think.

Lest you think Yin energy is too soft and slow to be effective, remember the water that carved the Grand Canyon. Yin energy may be more passive and quiet, but over time, it still packs a punch. You can call me naive, but that’s the way I fight.

Little Moments of Wonder

It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday. Recent rains have dissipated much of the humidity in the air, making the weather warm and pleasant. With a little bubble of anticipated pleasure forming in my head, I have decided to pack up my little, two-wheeled cart, along with some reusable shopping bags, and head over to the local farmer’s market. Such a normal, ordinary thing to do, and yet for me, it’s a big milestone.

I can’t say I’ve ever been that interested in farmer’s markets. Of course, I understand all the benefits of buying local, both nutrition-wise, and for the economy. But for many years, as a busy mom with kids, going to the farmer’s market was just another place I’d have to go. Another chore in a long list of them. It was far easier to just head over to the local supermarket, which was conveniently open 7 days a week, with hours that better suited my schedule.

So, why the sudden interest in the farmer’s market now? It all started when Mike and I drove past it on our way to work one day. I couldn’t help but notice all the happy customers walking to and fro under the colourful pavilions. It looked so peaceful. So ordinary. I remember thinking to myself, “This is what happy people do in prosperous countries: they go to market on a sunny Saturday morning”. And all of the sudden, I decided that I wanted to go too.

I don’t think I am understating things when I say that, over the last few years, I’ve been struggling with a pretty major case of mid-life burnout. I mostly keep to myself. I’ve given up on all but the closest relationships in my life. I feel numb most of the time, just going through the motions of my work. Chores that I used to feel were important to me, I am now letting slide. There are so many things that I just don’t care about anymore.

I’ve been trying to decide if this is an improvement, or if it’s not. Previously, you could say that maybe I cared too much. I let everything affect me too deeply, and as a result, I could go through major mood swings, feeling elated one day, and absolutely despondent the next. But then again, what’s happening now doesn’t feel quite right either. I don’t think it’s healthy to not care if your house is a complete and total mess. I don’t think it’s normal when you struggle to get out of bed each morning. I start to worry when I show no interest in doing any of the things I used to do.

So, under the circumstances, you can see why deciding that I wanted to go to the farmer’s market seemed like a pretty big step. I actually wanted to do something. I had a feeling that it would give me pleasure. I didn’t do it because I had to, as I’ve done so many other things in my life. I didn’t do it because someone else wanted me to do it for them. I did it because I had a small inkling, somewhere in the back of my mind, that it might make me feel happy.

And so, with slow and tentative movements, I drove our car over to the area where the farmer’s market was running, and I parked it nearby. Grabbing hold of my purse, I got out of the car and began the small walk over to where all the fruit and vegetable stands were operating, and I started to stroll. I noticed all the pretty, ripened fruits and vegetables and my mouth started watering. At first, I felt a little overwhelmed by all the choices, but then I started to ask myself,What would I like to eat?” and it made the decisions easier. I began to purchase all the things that made me happy. I began to purchase what I wanted.

As I walked along, I began to notice all the shop girls. Of course, there were many boys there too, but it was the girls that caught my attention. They wore shorts, T-shirts and running shoes. Their skin was flushed and sweaty from standing outside in the sun for many hours. Their hair was bound up in ponytails or clipped up in messy buns. They watched the crowd expectantly, and helped customers with their purchases. They made change easily and with a friendly smile.

These girls struck me so forcefully, I was stopped in my tracks. I had a strong feeling, sort of like deja vu, but in reverse. A long time ago, I used to be one of those girls. In the small town where I grew up, I worked at a vegetable stand one summer. It was located at the very end of a long, dusty, rural street that I biked on every day, and it intersected with the main street of tiny, Cottam, Ontario. You could blink as you were driving and pass the entire area by. I remember standing out under the trees behind the market table, making small talk with customers, bagging their vegetables and making change. It felt so odd to be on the other side of the table this time.

As I watched them, time warped oddly for a few moments as I dropped into the experience of being a young market girl, and then morphed back into my current experience of being a middle-aged customer standing silently in front of the vegetable stand, trying to decide what I wanted to buy. For those few moments, time broke free of its bounds and started to bend back on itself. It was an odd sensation. Time isn’t linear, I’m discovering as I age. The longer you live, the more your experiences seem to overlap one another in mysterious ways.

Once I’d gotten my head back in order, I resumed my walk among the stalls. The sun felt warm on my face, and the smells of ripening fruit and crisp vegetables were everywhere. I loved the sound of being among people, many different people. There was a low hum of voices and activity as people talked with one another, and exchanged money and produce between them. It felt comfortable and familiar, like a well worn shoe. There was absolutely nothing stressful about the experience at all, and that meant everything.

They say it’s the small things in life that bring you joy, and that’s absolutely true. Wonders like this one – a simple trek to the farmer’s market – can nurture happiness if we really pay attention. Over the next year or so, I’ve decided that I will share with you all the little pleasures I find, as I journey on my way back from burn-out. Every time I have an encounter that sparks my spirit back into being, I will write about it. Come along with me, if you like. Maybe it will help you re-discover the wonder in your life too.

Atractylodes Rhizome

Atractylodes Rhizome

According to Chinese medicine, we are now in peak Spleen time. This is the time of year, often referred to as Indian summer, when the days are warm, dry and still. There is an air of solidity and gravity, as if the world finally decided to slow down, relax, and enjoy the fruit of all its labours. It is a time of pause and reflection before the world subtly tilts on its axis and we are nudged into autumn.

If you have a weak Spleen, this is when it would be most advantageous to strengthen it, as Spleen tonics have their most powerful effect. And atractylodes rhizome, our herb of the month, would be a great herb of choice for that purpose.

You may have noticed that I have been capitalizing the world ‘Spleen’ so far in this article. This is because the Spleen, as described in Chinese medicine is quite different from the spleen in Western medicine. In Western medicine, the spleen is a mostly useless organ, which has some ability to filter blood and buffer the immune system. However, in Chinese medicine, the Spleen includes the functions of the pancreas and is considered a major organ for digestion, as well as for the strength of your immune system and the generation of Qi for your entire body.

So, what are some signs that your Spleen may be weak and in need of strengthening? You would tend to feel fatigued often. This fatigue is often not just a feeling of tiredness, but also of heaviness, like you are dragging the world behind you. Your appetite may be low and you might experience bloating afterwards. When you eat, your food may not be digested well and you can still see bits of it in your stool, which may tend towards diarrhea. If you don’t have diarrhea, your stool may be “sticky”. (You need to wipe a lot, and there may be a smear in your toilet after you flush. Sorry for the graphic images!) Your immune system will tend to be weak, so you will catch colds and flus easily. You may also tend towards anemia, or have low blood volume.

These are the kinds of health conditions that are not severe enough to contact a doctor, but if you have them, you definitely don’t feel well. If you were to contact a doctor, he would also have little ability to help you. There are very few Western herbs that might nudge your Spleen in the right direction. But this particular area of personal health, is where Chinese medicine really shines. The Chinese herbal pharmacopia includes at least a dozen herbs that can be used to strengthen Spleen functioning, and actractylodes root, the herb we’re focusing on this month, is one of them.

Atractylodes root is warming and drying, the perfect combination of properties to stabilize an organ which tends towards cold and dampness. It is used to strengthen digestion, resolve diarrhea, improve appetite, reduce fatigue, and dispel edema. It can even be used to help prevent miscarriage, particularly for women who feel a draggy sensation in their pregnancy, or who tend towards unexplained bleeding. Atractylodes rhizome will give your body strength and support as you carry your baby to term.

Unfortunately, warming and drying herbs like atractylodes can tend to cause “heat” to develop in your body. This is why they are best combined with more cooling herbs to balance their effects. This will allow you to take them long term with fewer side effects. Our Chinese Bitters tincture contains atractylodes rhizome, and its function there is to add support to your spleen while you open up the ducts of your liver to remove any heat or stagnation there. Atractylodes root is also in our Meta Plus tincture, where it is used to more directly strengthen the Spleen. Here, it is paired with more cooling herbs, such as the neutral poria mushroom, and the cooling scutellaria root and cassia seeds to balance its warming and drying nature.

Do you think atractylodes rhizome might be right for you? Consider trying either of the above two tinctures, prepared with care at our Toronto facility. And if not, be sure to bask in the warm, dry energy of Spleen time before the cold and dampness of winter sets in. May you experience peace as summer slowly winds itself down.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – July 2022

Welcome to the second edition of the Waayyy Behind Book Club, where I talk about the books I’ve been reading this month, and encourage your feedback. I didn’t read quite as many this month, as some of them were really long! It took me awhile to finish them.

First on our list this month is The Good German by Dennis Bock. This was an alternate history, where one of those many attempts to assassinate Hitler actually succeeded! Contrary to what you might expect, Hitler’s death did not end the war, though. In this version of history, Herman Goring takes control of the country after Hitler is killed, and Germany actually wins! What does this mean for the US and Canada, or for the rest of Europe for that matter? It was an interesting exercise in speculative history. A little dark for my taste.

The second book this month is When the Body Says ‘No’, by Gabor Mate. I’ve been interested in ways to overcome emotional trauma ever since I watched the film The Wisdom of Trauma about a year ago. This was a compassionate and thought-provoking movie based on Gabor Mate’s work, and really opened my eyes to how prevalent trauma is, and what we might do to heal it. Here is a link to the movie trailer, if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70HNmSsJvVU. The book did not disappoint. If you’re at all interested in how our emotions and core beliefs might contribute to illnesses like cancer, ALS, and MS, among others, this book is a gem.

Our final book this month is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. There’s a reason why I named this book club the Waayyy Behind Book Club ! This book was originally published in 1989. So many people have recommended this book to me over the years that I’ve simply lost count. I finally added it to my reading list so I wouldn’t put off reading it any longer.

You get hooked into this story right from the beginning, when you are drawn into a small town where an unjust execution is taking place. It’s an spell-binding scene. The book is set in medieval UK, and is essentially about the building of a cathedral. The characters are well-drawn and likeable – they’d have to be for you to stick with them for the length of this book (1,008 pages)! The story continues through a couple of generations before the cathedral is finally built.

The book was so popular that there are now two sequels, and a prequel. I think I might take a break from the Pillars world for a little while before embarking on any of those! I can see why so many people love the book, though. I grew to love so many of the characters. They were drawn so realistically, I felt like I actually knew them.

If you’ve already read some of these books, or if you want to read any of these books, let me know. I’d love to hear what you think of them.