avatarChristie Sausa

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I'm Using This Taoist Principle To Be More Balanced This Year

The seasons hold wisdom if you allow them to.

Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash

Just a few months ago, I was constantly pushing.

Trying so hard to get somewhere, be somebody, and do something extraordinary.

When COVID happened, I started learning that all the things I had fought so hard for were illusions.

I also realized that, like most modern humans, I struggle to balance my impulses. Despite the realization, I remained ambitious and thought I needed to do more. Always more.

I either overworked and crashed or did too little (perhaps recovering from the over-striving) and then struggled to catch up.

Luckily, the Tao de Ching — and the principle of Yin and Yang — helps us reckon with those dueling tendencies.

You've probably heard of Yin and Yang before. I'm wearing a t-shirt with the little stitched black and white logo right now, and yet, until a few days ago, I didn't even think about what the symbol represented.

I always thought of it on a surface level, a symbol of Zen philosophy, an indicator of aspirational unbotheredness — a vibe I always tried to achieve but never reached (I am bothered, more often than not).

But Yin and Yang speak to how we live our lives, whether we classify them in that way or not.

Yin and Yang are opposites yet complementary principles of Chinese Philosophy. Each side has its attributes.

Ideally, we can work with both sides without being taken over by one or the other and remain more balanced. But as with all philosophical concepts, that's easier said than done.

So, what does this have to do with the Tao de Ching?

Written by Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu in the 6th Century, The Tao only explicitly mentions Yin and Yang once in the book, but the entire philosophy of the Tao de Ching is based on these principles.

In Chapter 42, Lao Tzu states:

“All things carry yin yet embrace yang. They blend their life breaths to produce harmony.”

So what does that mean?

It means we must balance both aspects within ourselves to be truly peaceful.

It's even more of a balancing act now than when the Tao was written because Lao Tzu didn't have computers, hustle culture, or social media.

Yin/Yang & the Seasons

Until this year, I was ALWAYS striving to do more, especially in the winter.

This sounds counterintuitive for a lot of people because it is.

But for me, the winter is "my season". I do not particularly love cold weather (I prefer fall), but winter is the time I can take my figure and speed skating outside. Our outdoor skating oval is open for about three months, and I usually make time to skate on frozen ponds or ski through the woods.

In previous years, I knew I had to "stay in shape" because I starred in and organized multiple outdoor ice shows, so I often started my day with Crossfit, speed skated in the afternoon, and figure skated at night.

Before 2020, I organized speed skating meets on some weekends (sometimes racing in them as well); on other weekends, I often speed skated twice a day or went on outdoor excursions with friends.

All while helping run the family business, working at the Crossfit gym, and freelance writing.

So, winter was always the time of year I did MORE, not less.

Back then, I was proud of being athletic and disciplined, but I rarely allowed myself to listen to my body. And during a season when I should have been resting and restoring, I was instead pushing.

I was rewarded with a fitter, leaner body but an unbalanced mind.

That's directly counter to Yin energy.

Yin is about taking a break. It's about restoration, retreating, healing. The black side of the Yin/Yang symbol represents its absence of action.

And winter is a Yin season.

In contrast, Yang energy, represented by the white half of the symbol, is summer energy. It's outgoing, active, bright, and ambitious energy.

Fall and Spring have transitional vibes, straddling the line between Yin and Yang.

This summer, I struggled to embrace Yang energy. I was house-sitting and spent a lot of time sitting and relaxing. I balanced it with biking and rollerblading activities, but I knew I did so reluctantly. I now recognize that my mind and body wanted a break and overcompensated with "laziness." Which was actually self-preservation.

It wasn't about fitness or health either; I wanted to do more because I had gained weight and wanted desperately to lose it.

Then, in late July, I nearly got hit by a car while riding my bike and slid out, spraining my left knee in the process. For two weeks, I could barely walk.

Still, I didn't get the message and was straining desperately for the moment I could start exercising again to "get back in shape."

I realize now that I was tremendously unbalanced in energy terms and presented grasping energy (also explicitly discouraged in the Tao), trying to accumulate more (in this case, a leaner body), and ignoring what I truly needed.

One way or another, through my injury and the aftermath, my body forced me to recalibrate my Yin and Yang energy. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

How NOT to Embrace Yin Energy

Keep pushing yourself

This winter, I was doing the same hustle thing, trying to be the same person I was four years ago. I told myself I had to keep up the pace, keep skating, keep active, keep moving.

After five hours of sleep, I even pulled myself out of bed to skate in morning speed skating sessions, convinced that I needed to do that because that's what I had done in years past.

When you remove the need to do things, you can see what your body/mind/self actually wants. And I really didn't want to do all that; I thought I had to, and it was the only way to get what I wanted. From an energy perspective, I was making things worse by disregarding my needs.

Compensate with caffeine

To keep myself going, I would overcompensate with caffeine.

This pattern started in the summer. I wasn't allowing myself to sleep enough, so I would consume caffeine and sugar to get through my day.

It got to the point where I was drinking caffeinated tea plus at least one large latte a day (with an extra shot!) to stay "up."

I felt ambitious and in control as long as I kept pumping the stimulants.

But that's an unhealthy way to be — too much caffeine has been linked to nervous system damage, and sugar (for me, at least) leads to a whole host of ill health effects, from physical to mental.

Trying to force yourself to be more energetic/more active/more anything is a surefire way to get hurt, sick, or tired. I found this out the hard way when I reduced my caffeine and stopped sugar. It took me a whole week to get my energy back.

Ignore your body's needs

I was still injured. My knee was sprained, and I had bunions on my feet that made skating and even walking painful.

I didn't care and kept skating. I used bunion pads to try to take the pain away and thought I could take my knee and foot pain away.

I couldn't.

Another part of having imbalanced energy is not listening to your body.

How to live IN alignment with Yin energy this winter ❄️

It's never too late to change how you function in the world.

I realized this year, for the first time, that this is what I do, and this is part of why I'm so tired and burnt out all the time — I push, push, push until I get unbalanced and crash.

I didn't believe in restoration seasons; instead, I thought I should constantly be forcing myself to accomplish and stay moving.

But every year is a different story. Your body changes. Your energy changes. Your needs change.

Here's how to honor yours this Yin season.

Realize you're in a slow season & SLOW DOWN

Winter is long and dark for a reason. It's meant to be a restorative season where everything slows down. Acknowledge that and permit yourself to do the same.

Take a day (or days) off from something you think you "have" to do

I took several days off from skating for the first time in years.

It bothered me initially because I felt I needed to keep moving. Taking off meant I was lazy, undisciplined, unfocused, and wasting time. I thought I needed to "make" myself go, even when I didn't want to or felt terrible.

But I knew my body was healing in various ways, so I took a few days off.

One thing you figure out when you dig deeper into your reasoning for doing things — a lot of it is ego. For example, I wanted to go skating because I thought if I didn't, I would keep gaining weight (ego), I would look bad for not training as hard as I used to (ego), or I needed to force myself to practice so I got my skills back (ego).

See through the mental game and do what you need for yourself instead of prioritizing "appearances." Peace is more important than appearance any day. Take a day off (or a few days, if you can) and recalibrate.

Listen to your body

Most of us are disconnected from our bodies, instead living in our minds. As a chronic overthinker, I very rarely think much about my body unless something hurts (and even then, it's usually a delayed reaction)!

Winter, and Yin energy in general, encourages QUIET.

In a world where we can have entertainment in the palm of our hands, true silence and stillness is hard to come by.

But this season is an excellent time to practice it, and it's easy.

Try going for a short (easy) walk in the snowy woods, or sit in a room quietly if inside is more your speed. Observe how your body feels and your reactions to it. Allow yourself to be self-absorbed (in a good way). Try reconnecting with your body without distractions and seeing what it tells you.

When I did this the other day, I realized I needed stretching. I used to stretch a lot more in my competitive skating days, but now, I spend much time writing and sitting, so my muscles tighten up much faster. This realization spurred me to add a quick yoga series to my morning routine to feel more present and less tight.

Take the time to make quiet space and listen to your body, then try to give it what it needs.

Nourish yourself

This doesn't mean eating whatever you want whenever you want (trust me, I tried that, and I'm still paying for it).

It means seeking out food, people, and activities that are fulfilling and make you feel better instead of worse.

I'm already something of a hermit, but winter makes me even more reclusive.

I prioritize spending time by myself, creating, planning, and dreaming. And I am selective about who I interact with and for how long.

This is an excellent time to determine what people and things make your life better and which don't.

It's also an excellent time to figure out your nutritional needs. Pay attention to how your body responds to certain foods and substitute as needed. I've had food allergies my whole life and recently recalibrated my diet even more to suit my needs and goals. My diet is now more nourishing and allows my body to repair itself after months of caffeine, carb, and sugar overload.

Consider who/what nourishes you carefully and incorporate those findings into your life.

Prioritize rest

As I mentioned, I got into a caffeine trap where I would drink a lot of caffeine and stay up as late as possible.

I used to think I was getting more done by staying up until 5 am, but I was mostly reading Substacks, internet window shopping, and envying others on social media.

Granted, the pattern started when I was working on a massive project for a consulting client. I finished on the day Prince Charles became King after working all night until 7 am.

But I kept it going, and it wreaked havoc with my schedule. I would get up after a few hours, get a lot of emails/work done, and then grab more lattes to power myself through to the evening/early morning….then do it all over again the next day.

This does not work.

Again, Yin energy is about REST. It's about healing and restoration. You can't do that if you're on a caffeine binge.

When you start to get tired, go to sleep. Wake up after at least 8 hours. And don't use caffeine to extend your energy artificially.

Acknowledge this is a necessary pause

Yin energy celebrates passivity and retreating. Realize that winter is a time to pause. Use the time to think or plan if you'd like, but don't go overboard trying to "make things happen."

Remember 2020? It was a horrible time, and I remember the terror and uncertainty that filled our days.

But I also remember that it was a valuable pause.

We couldn't do anything, so we stayed inside. We spent time with our families. We got extremely bored, but many of us started thinking and realizing we wanted something different.

That's the value of a pause. When you're going full steam ahead, you won't necessarily have the time or brain space to consider your options.

But pause brings possibilities.

Realize that this season brings a pause, and that's a good thing.

Do Less

For years, I thought I was "lazy" and "undisciplined" because I "didn't get enough" done. I prioritize the wrong things while not putting my energy into the things that matter.

I realized something about people through this process.

Most of us are ambitious and work hard but sometimes need help prioritizing. Then, we try so hard to get it all done that we burn ourselves out.

Even Business Insider acknowledges we should use the Yin and Yang to balance our efforts at work.

But it's tough when you've listened too much to productivity/hustle culture, place high expectations on yourself, or are just too darn busy (often because you are stuck in the trap of poor prioritization and needless distractions).

Every morning, I must get through all my emails, read everything, and return to inbox zero.

Every afternoon, I think I must go speed skating and train or exercise "hard enough."

Every night, I must write a Medium article, complete a chapter of my book, or write a freelance article.

These are all excellent goals but taken together; they are too much.

Yin energy is about conserving energy. It's about doing things slowly and deliberately rather than scattering your energy in a thousand different directions.

To embrace the Yin energy of the season, prioritize your daily tasks. Do the most important things first, and only do the others if you have time. Pay attention to your energy levels and ensure demanding tasks have a proportional rest.

Reduce the social media hustle & disconnect when you can

Social media and the internet generally encourage us to speed up. With endless information at our fingertips, we can easily get pulled into attention-fragmenting activities.

Before social media, most of us didn't think as much about what others were doing and how they were better than us. Now, you only have to open Instagram or TikTok to see people living more glamorous or beautiful lives than yours.

In response, many of us feel the need to try to, as the trend goes, "romanticize our lives" and broadcast them on social media. To prove that we also live an extraordinary life and beg people to validate it.

Or we try to do endless challenges. Read this many books this year. Or run this many miles. Or go to yoga daily. Most of which are connected to some social media type of app.

I'm not saying you should never post on social and give up entirely on goals and challenges. But again, it's good to ask yourself why you are participating in these activities.

Is it to share your life and make yourself better?

Or is it to inflate your ego through endless reels and smash your challenges for the admiration of strangers?

If you can, cut down on social media (and screens in general). Only set goals for things that matter deeply to you, and don't feel you need to make all your goals public.

Of course, this being a Yin energy season doesn't mean you should give up on everything and live in a cave.

But if your default mode is to put too much pressure on yourself and burn yourself out, you might have to overcompensate at first.

Instead of pursuing more accomplishments, responsibilities, actions, and movement, try to go in the other direction and pare down to the essentials.

Then, you can figure out your unique balance point.

Life is made up of extremes, but how you recalibrate from one to the other will determine your fulfillment.

After all, the purpose of Yin and Yang is to have a BALANCE of both energies in your daily life. The concept of Zen relies on the presence of both. So, as much as you have Yin energy, you should also balance it with Yang energy, considering the season's general energy and limits.

But don’t get stuck trying to keep everything stable and predictable, either. Acknowledge everything is constantly changing, and learn to roll with those changes.

Right now, we are past the winter solstice, and this passage from a post about Yin and Yang explains the energy well:

On the Winter Solstice in 1245 C.E. Zen Master Dogen wrote the following:

Today’s first [arising of] yang [and the daylight’s increase] is an auspicious occasion; a noble person reaches maturity. Although this is an auspicious occasion for laypeople, it is truly a delight and support for buddha ancestors. Yesterday, the short length [of day] departed, yin reached its fullness, and the sound of cold wind ceased. This morning the growing length [of day] arrived, and yang arises with a boisterous clamor.[1]

Many are familiar with the yin-yang symbol, but few of us know what it means or how it is applied to real life. In Zen Master Dogen’s time this symbol was taken for granted. Not just Dogen Zenji, but all of Japanese culture connects the solstice with the yin-yang energy that fluctuates depending on the time of year.

Even though the sunset is getting later a little bit every day, we've been hit with frigid temperatures here after an unseasonably warm start to the winter. So, although Yang energy should be rising, to me (and many others), it feels like winter has just begun, and we're still squarely in Yin energy.

I spoke to a few friends the other night and realized I wasn't the only one feeling this recuperative energy. All of us have injuries we are working through. All of us are tired. All of us feel the need to slow down.

I've started focusing on Yin energy whenever I feel too inclined to "push" and have felt more at peace. My energy is more stable. And I'm less moody because I don't feel the need to binge eat or mainline caffeine to keep up the pace.

I've also found that a big part of embracing Yin energy is realizing that you're not lazy, undisciplined, or weak if you allow yourself to rest. Life has moments of stillness or pause and movements of inertia. If you can work with the dominant energy, you can stop fighting with yourself and accept where you're at rather than where you wish you were.

And if you're like me, always thinking you need to do more to be worthy, chances are you need to bring more Yin energy into your life. And now's the perfect time. ❄️ ⛄️

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Taoism
Productivity
Energy
Self
Self Improvement
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