In summer I like to explore and teach about the Fire Element. Summers are dominated by that big fireball in the sky, which has recently been bringing us some extreme temperatures and, sadly, droughts and major wildfires.
I recently wrote an article on the summer solstice – the day of maximum sun – and it occurred to me that I tend to celebrate the light (fire) on both the winter and summer solstices. On the darkest day of the year our family focuses on honoring the light and remembering that even during dark times it never completely disappears. Then on summer solstice we revel in the light’s fullest return.
Less often do we stop to appreciate what’s healthy and balancing about darkness. And if there’s anything worth calling forth in summer (especially in the western part of the country) it’s not more fire but water.
Perhaps our fixation on the fire of life is symptomatic of a broader cultural imbalance – to value yang qualities over yin ones. If you’re not familiar with yin-yang theory, the nutshell explanation is that these terms are adjectives describing two opposing and complementary sets of qualities. Some yin characteristics are: soft, receptive, dark, cool, passive, internal, solid, still, hidden, moist, grounded, shadowy, supple, yielding, and tending to descend. Some yang characteristics are: hot, assertive, bright, active, sharp, rising, expanding, transforming, external, hard.
We need both yin and yang in ourselves and our lives, but if we’re wired to regard survival, hoarding, and conquering as most important, it’s difficult to see the virtue in yin qualities. A yang-orientation seems preferable. Thus, we like to be active all the time. We feel we should always be doing something, always productive in some way. We believe it’s best to be extroverted and we esteem people who are driven, even dominating.
We’re attracted to parties and passion, and our movies tend to portray love as intense, fervent, and insatiable – like an out of control fire. We treat the planet in a similar way – consuming, controlling, ravaging, and desiccating it. We often live “up high” – in our heads – rather than in the depths of our feeling and intuition. The many illuminated things that now fill our world – electric lights and screens especially – have taken the place of the fires we used to gaze into. And the perpetual data stream these electronics connect us to – news, tweets, texts, emails, videos – ensure that there’s rarely any total darkness or stillness (i.e., yin) in our waking lives.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these yang qualities, of course. It’s only when they aren’t balanced by yin ones that we run into trouble. Climate change, media overload, unsustainable growth and consumption are symptoms of this imbalance. While there are plenty of material changes that are worth making – reducing our carbon footprint, buying less virgin plastic, limiting screen time, and supporting sustainable agriculture to name a few – a cultural change will be instrumental in turning the tide, and that change is about honoring the yin.
It’s a tall order, I know. We tend to think we’ve done this work already, but the fire has grown more quickly than our measures to balance it. For instance, many people believe that women have had equality with men for decades. It’s true that things get better over the years, but much of this “equality” has looked like men (and women) accepting female empowerment only to the extent that women flex their yang qualities. More revolutionary is the idea of cherishing women (and men) who embody the yin, and recognizing that all that is yang in the world needs an equally monumental anchor of yin in order to be in balance.
This means (to give just a few examples) accepting and cultivating stillness, appreciating healthy darkness, saving water, listening, being receptive, being humble, being moderate, living simply, being self-reflective, and being truly adaptable.
It amounts to reverence for what sets humans apart from other animals. It’s the biggest work our species will ever face.