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If meditating feels like one more task on a to-do list, I have a meditation to share that has nothing to do with “doing.” But before I reveal how this meditation lets you be, and not do, let’s begin with Yin and Yang Theory from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective.
Yin qualities include receptivity, allowance, tolerance, reflection, and passivity. Yang qualities include doing, directing, improving, achieving, controlling, and becoming. Nothing in the world is inherently Yin or Yang; things are only more Yin or Yang in relationship to something else. Both qualities are essential; neither is superior. When we understand this relationship, we can promote balance and harmony.
Even so, in general, our culture favors and rewards Yang traits. Our bosses like our ability to get things done and achieve. That's how we get bonuses, promotions, and recognition. In turn, our Yang side is overly pumped, causing stress, while our Yin side is undernourished.
Yang Meditation: “Dear meditator, do this with your mind”
It's no surprise, then, that society also values Yang styles of meditation that emphasize controlling and directing your mind and attention. It could be that you focus on breath, sensations in the body, a mantra, or a candle’s flame. Sometimes it is referred to as “structured” meditation, in that you follow a protocol, blueprint, or map to manage your experience. When you find yourself distracted, in distress, or confused, you don’t have to worry about what to do because the Yang meditation instruction makes the choice for you. Often Yang styles have the explicit intention of producing states of calm, peace, serenity, love, compassion, and quietude—interestingly, all Yin qualities. For people who like structure and order, Yang meditation is appealing.
Yin Meditation: Receptivity and allowance
On the other hand, Yin meditation is less about structure and clear-cut rules. Instead of trying to manage what your mind should focus on, the Yin approach emphasizes being receptive toward your experience and allowing it to unfold however it may. While meditating, you cultivate a very different way of being—one that involves allowance, reflection, and tolerance. It asks our inner control freak to take a coffee break from its workaholic tendency.
A Yin meditation is also less specific about outcomes and results. Sometimes you may find yourself going into very peaceful states. But it’s also entirely possible to find yourself exploring conflict or pain in your life. When your intention in meditation is to be receptive to your entire inner experience, you open the gate to unresolved issues, difficult memories, and anxieties. Of course, you might be asking why on earth becoming receptive to those experiences is worthwhile. Good question!
I speak more about the nuances of Yin meditation in my Yin 101 course, including why these seemingly negative outcomes can be useful. But the general idea is that by becoming more receptive to your inner life, you develop compassion toward yourself and understand yourself. This self-knowledge develops ways of being with yourself and others that serve you directly—imbuing your life with more tolerance, among other qualities. If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself, here is a short Yin meditation practice to try right now.
A Simple Yin Meditation for Compassion and Kindness
- Set a timer for at least 5-to-10 minutes and sit in a comfortable position on a cushion, chair, or couch.
- Feel your hands resting on your lap or feel your body rest on the surface beneath it. These points of bodily contact can be a “perch” on which your attention can rest.
- Set the gentle intention of being receptive and kind toward your unfolding experience over the duration of the meditation. Inevitably, your attention will leave its perch and explore other sensations, sounds, thoughts, and feelings. Whatever happens during this period of time is your meditation, and you are open to it.
- If at any point you feel lost or overwhelmed, you can play your “mental edge” by bringing your attention back to the perch. You can keep your attention there until it feels okay to let your attention fly off to explore other experiences.
Through this meditation, you cultivate kindness and compassion by the gentle intention not to interrupt or cut off your experience. You practice kindness to your thoughts by listening to them. You practice compassion to your body by feeling sensations. Sometimes kindness means you let thoughts and sensations continue; other times, it means bringing your attention back to the perch. You, the meditator, decide what to do. This develops your own sense of responsibility, as well as a more nuanced and intimate understanding of what it’s like to be you! As my teacher Jason Siff says, “By letting our life into our meditation practice, we allow our meditation to develop our life.”