An Essay about Yin, Yang and Thinking Styles
Arthur ten Wolde
A hopeful trend in these turbulent times is that more and more people are becoming aware of their own motives. They are identifying, on the one hand, what really matters to them like family, justice, and social success and/or the environment. On the other hand, they are also aware of their own fears and frustrations. And not only that! A growing group tries to integrate these insights into their personal lives by acting upon them by being more present in the here and now[i] and by reacting less defensively with Pavlov-like reflexes to daily problems. This trend, as I see it, is vital for the leadership we need to face and solve the complex problems of our time.
Awareness itself is as old as mankind. Enlightened prophets like Buddha and their followers had reached a state of awareness thousands of years ago, druids and shamans probably much earlier. Characteristically, these were small groups of monks and nuns who lived in seclusion in such a manner that their daily necessities were dealt with according to a tight schedule and with minimal exposure to temptations. That has recently changed. The group appears to be larger and growing while people live and think freely, amid all sorts of temptations.
What is going on here? What’s behind it and what does it mean? How can it help us to cope with the growing personal and global problems like hunger, burnout, the credit crunch and the climate crisis?
This essay looks into different models for human values that are linked to these questions. By combining the well-known concepts of yin, yang and ego with the rather complex model of Spiral Dynamics, a relatively simple framework is created. As a result, various widely different factors seem to fall into place.
Yin and Yang Thinking Styles
Between 1950 and 1975, the American scientist Clare Graves[ii] developed a brilliant model about the development of behavior of adults. Don Beck and Chris Cowan later elaborated on his model and dubbed it “Spiral dynamics” [iii]. It is a theory that came forward from countless psychological observations. At the core are eight different “value systems” or thinking styles of adults, groups or organizations, that are determining their decisions and actions. The potential of the model to get a grip on complex problems at all levels is awesome. However, its complexity seems to prevent it from being widely known or broadly applied. Many interested people soon stop reading in the various books on the subject and subsequently do, or can do, little with it.
Simplification of Graves’ model would therefore be a great good. In my recent essay on which this article is based[iv], I present a simplified representation without loss of content by linking it to the well-known concepts of yin and yang. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are the two primary cosmic principles of the universe. Yin is the passive, feminine part. Yang is the active, male part.
Spiral Dynamics distinguishes at least eight thinking styles that develop, in the ideal case, as successive stages. Each of these styles of thinking is well-suited to certain living conditions and is often indicated by a color, see column three and four of the table below. The colors Purple, Blue, Green and Turquoise are also called the “cold” colors; the dominant quality or focus of these styles of thinking is “we-centered”. Conversely, Beige, Red, Orange and Yellow, the “warm” colors, are linked to more “I-oriented” thinking styles. A special feature of the model is that the dominant quality of each of the successive styles of thinking alternates from the “I-” to “we-centered” and back again.
Now, by linking these two qualities to yin and yang, the eight stages are reduced to four, with alternating yin and yang quality:
|4. Awareness||Yin||“Cold” (inward)||Turquoise||Holistic|
|Yang||“Warm” (outward)||Yellow||Systems thinking|
|3. Freedom||Yin||Cool||Green||Green and social|
|2. Power||Yin||Cool||Blue||Order oriented|
|1. Survival||Yin||Cool||Purple||Clan oriented|
Within each stage of this simplified model, here referred to as the development model, we find two consecutive thinking styles. Always starting with Yang, the revolution to a whole new style of thinking, followed by Yin, stabilization within the given circumstances. Very important is that the series of thinking styles implies no value judgment. One is not better than the other. At best, it is better or less well suited to cope with reality.
At a glance: at the most basic level, living is about Survival, first alone (yang) and then as a tribe (yin). The latter requires cooperation and more yin qualities. If the tribes engage in Power struggles (yang) with each other, a revolution in thinking takes place and yang again gets the upper hand. But the subsequent formation of larger kingdoms are associated with stabilizing bureaucracy (yin). This process repeats itself more or less with the rise of Freedom during the revolution of the Enlightenment (yang), but primarily through the power of money. In the western world, civil society is currently seeking to stabilize (yin) our economy. We come to speak about the final stage of Awareness later. All these processes are still taking place in various places on the globe and within societies.
Graves’ model lacks a clear link with the “ego” concept of spiritual movements. The ego stands for involuntary thoughts and feelings arising from our own fears and frustrations, and stands in the way of our presence in the here and now[v],[vi]. The balance between yin and yang determines the integral thinking style of an individual, group or organization, which always contains elements of various “pure” thinking styles. If both qualities are activated in comparable strengths, a balance is kept under the given circumstances. In that case, the degree of “ego”, that is, of frustration with the life conditions, will be minimal and people can live in harmony with themselves, each other and the environment.
However, our ego is actually quickly triggered by frustrations and circumstances, which makes us also susceptible to temptations that briefly provide redress but to the detriment of ourselves or our environment. Most of the time, people and organizations are far from equilibrium, especially in stages one to three. As a result, the “unhealthy” side and the pitfalls of the respective thinking style as indicated by Graves are often visible.
Still, people in development stages one to three can be very well aware of their ego. Think of the prophets, saints and some enlightened monks. As long as they withstand the ego temptations around them, they can live in harmony. But even if they are enlightened their ego will always be triggered by an encounter with “foreign” elements from one of the following stages. Perhaps this explains the collection of expensive Rolls Royces by Bhagwan. In this model, he was enlightened in the order-oriented thinking style but his ego was triggered by the very first temptation of freedom thinking: an orange ego took over. Only when awareness occurs within the fourth stage the ego starts to crumble, first cognitively (yang) and then emotionally (yin).
The ego is very stubborn at that. Dealing with it is a life task. Truly dissolving the ego requires discipline, time and opportunity to meditate. Combining this with an active life remains a challenge. For instance, combining a part-time carreer with taking responsibility in a modern way for the upbringing of your children is likely to limit your results. Indeed, all enlightened persons I know of focus on their career as a teacher.
From Yin to Yang and Back Again
If we continue this way of reasoning, we arrive at the following considerations. For each thinking style, the “healthy” variant without ego is located at the center. Yin and yang are in balance. You can envision this by the usual Yin / Yang symbol (see picture on the left):
Yin is coupled to the female (black) and yang of the male (white). Now imagine that you are far from equilibrium in the direction of yang. Then, white has grown while black has shrunk (see picture on the right). If you are far out in the direction of yin, the situation is reversed. In the extreme case, the circle is almost single-colored with a small spot of the other one inside.
This is exactly what is going on within the model of Spiral Dynamics: for each of the successive styles of thinking the dominant quality flips from yin to yang and back again. Sometimes the ego is so out of balance up towards yin (in Purple, Blue, Green and Turquoise), the other time towards yang (Beige, Red, Orange and Yellow). Because the life conditions fundamentally alter in the course of history, the movement takes the form of a spiral rather than a circle.
To stay balanced during the course of development through the Spiral one therefore needs to adopt a “mixture” of two or more thinking styles. In fact, we all include and transcend[vii] all of the underlying stages to a greater or lesser extent, in a unique way. This means that everyone’s yin-yang balance depends on his or her personal mix of the more basic styles of thinking. If your thinking is dominated by one of these thinking styles, you can keep your balance by staying well in touch with the underlying ones – like entrepreneurs (freedom thinkers) obeying the law (order-oriented thinking). Alternatively, you may attain it by getting in touch with a new style of thinking that comes forward from changing circumstances – like a company taking on corporate social responsibility from a personal conviction (green and social thinking) of a CEO. This is the kind of leadership we need most at the moment (see further on).
How do yin and yang keep each other in balance in practice – or not? The balance point between tribal and power thinking seems to coincide with the living conditions of war and battle. In that situation, the yang of struggle is compensated by the yin of the strong bond with comrades and with your own people.
Hippies from the nineteen sixties form another interesting example. They were young people breaking loose into freedom from their blue bourgeois background, but rather than doing this alone they did this together according to the “green” thinking style – the group, the community, in other words, the modern tribe. The hippy way of life provided a powerful package and a rapidly emerging culture wave. But the way freedom was enjoyed lacked emotional maturity. Entrepreneurship was weak. There was much talk, idealism was not rooted in realism. There was little money and that is what eventually brought its demise.
If you make the transition to a new style of thinking, the ego will try to disrupt the balance. The freedom of thought that is now breaking through in the Middle East and emerging economies in the Western world began with the Enlightenment. Here we move from imposed order to freedom and entrepreneurship. However, at the same time we are already facing a global financial, climate, environmental and resource crisis. In the development model, these crises result from limitless freedom thinking. The breakthrough of the Enlightenment and the rise of science, technology and capitalism exhibit obvious yang qualities. These are most evident in the extreme philosophy of Ayn Rand. The limits to growth[viii] are gradually exceeded in all directions. On the one hand the yin of the underlying thinking style (e.g. the financial bureaucracy) is not properly secured while the next thinking style – (sustainable financing) is not sufficiently tapped into.
As we see complexity increase to the edge of chaos, we simultaneously see an increasing demand for stabilization. Fortunately, the first signs of this demand are visible. The idea that we are now entering a time when the forces are aimed at stabilization is in itself reassuring. However, the “green” paradigm is notoriously inefficient in achieving solutions. An acceleration is therefore urgently needed.
From Freedom to Awareness
While the signs indicate that we may be doing “too little, too late”, the growing global awareness might also yield an unprecedented turnaround. This realization corresponds to the radical transition from the “green” thinking (freedom within realistic limits) to systems thinking. This transition is accompanied by awareness on two fronts. First, cognitive awareness manifests itself in systems thinking, including understanding of the thinking styles themselves. The ego is still very active and the thinking style is not stable. As soon as awareness of the body (presence, essence) and of the ego follows, this value system takes the stable form that is represented by holistic thinking. We are talking about modern forms of spirituality, yoga, meditation and group sessions, with open discussions without dogma, intolerance or fundamentalism.
In Spiral Dynamics, the phase of awareness is referred to as the “second tier”. There are two schools. Some believe that this is the beginning of a second spiral.
I am a supporter of the school stating that this is not the case. System thinkers can experience all thinking styles of the first tier passing by with egos in various colors of the Spiral: green anger at social injustice, orange agitation to win a contract, yellow workaholic behavior to solve an environmental problem. With enough yin, for example through meditation, the ego can be kept under control, but it is always looming. Holistic thinkers can feel all styles from the first tier as well, but more often without ego, in the presence and connectedness. For example, they may continue to experience presence as they fight to survive, connectedness with other people instead of fear of foreign people, influence instead of power.
These experiences are consistent with the testimony of philosopher Ken Wilber and others having even more thinking styles, indicated by new colors such as “amber”. Their statements are easier to describe as an integration of the first tier in full consciousness. And the simplest explanation or description is often the right one, or at least a good hypothesis. You relive the three previous stages of survival, power and freedom from the perspective of stage four, awareness. Your ego can no longer be triggered by any of the other thinking styles. According to Wilber, you include and transcend them. I therefore believe that “Turquoise” is the final thinking style, there is no moving through it because “there is nothing further”. There are no colors beyond Turquoise. There is no further second tier. The second tier consists of awareness only.
The boundary between system and holistic thinking is the final balance point where yin and yang are in balance between holistic consciousness and system thinking, while the ego dissolves in connectedness with the world. It resembles systems thinking with a different “flavor” and is not a radical change but a stabilization. If you move too far into the holistic thinking without keeping in touch with the underlying stages, the yin-ego finds its last opportunity. For instance, one might deny aspects of science-based systems thinking and revert to unclear mysticism.
Personal Leadership is the Key
To what extent is your thinking style in accordance with your environment? An important factor is the size of your ego. The bigger your ego, the more likely you are stuck in a “wrong” thinking style, i.e. one that is not well-suited to cope with your reality. You unconsciously ignore a lot of information. If your ego dissolves, you naturally slide to the center of the spiral. You will then feel comfortable in your own skin.
This does not mean at all that you automatically move up or down “until it is right”. It may well be that the cognitive concepts (frames) that you’ve acquired from your upbringing or from an indoctrinating group of friends are so strong that you remain adherent to obsolete political ideas. Like, in my personal opinion, some politicians who are very mature meditate regularly and still adhere to conservative right-wing ideas.
Remarkably, the amount of ego is minimal on the border of two consecutive thinking styles. They form a kind of natural “balance point”. If we consider that people or organizations going through such a transition can experience this as a true conversion in thinking, feeling and beliefs, it is not really that strange. If your thinking style changes, you notice it in all sorts of ways. It is like changing preferences and tastes for food, fashion and clothing. You suddenly love circular patterns and soft colors (green, purple) while previously you always preferred bright red, straight stripes and diamond shirts. You suddenly want tea and less coffee. Or vice versa. To change your way of thinking you must be open to new ideas and lifestyles That is only possible if your ego keeps relatively quiet. However, once your new style of thinking has been consolidated, the ego pops up again.
On the other hand, it is entirely possible to be in balance in the first tier of thinking styles. Wise men, who were able to eliminate their egos in first-tier life circumstances, arrive on the balance line. Perhaps Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, Ghandi, Mandela, maybe even enlightened despots such as the Roman Emperor Hadrian? And what about martial artists with their meditative body control? One can even survive in inner balance in precarious conditions without violating one’s core values. You should be prepared to kill your enemy in ultimate self-defense, but not to hate or to commit atrocities.
This would mean that an “egoless” way through all thinking styles and stages is possible that passes them harmoniously, without falling into the yin-yang pendulum movement that characterizes the Spiral Dynamics. The balance points lie directly above each other in a line at the center of the Spiral, always at the entrance of a subsequent stage of life circumstances. Without ego, you go vertically up and down (as in the world model of Van Egmond where you remain in the center), with the ego you move through the spiral on the outside.
Apparently, a “pure” thinking style of Spiral Dynamics is never in balance. The Spiral dynamics obtain a fundamentally different meaning. In practice, the dynamics usually follow a spiral movement, but that is due to the ego. The first tier is ego-driven. When the ego dissolves, the dynamics are very different – straight up, with yin and yang in balance. No static balance at that, but always a dynamic one.
In practice, being more in balance is visible through improved communication, such as adequate responses to the thinking style of others and much better presentations[ix]. It may also help to accelerate the adoption of the new Zeitgeist within your own sphere of influence.
This requires personal leadership by each of us. Fortunately, over the past few years, a mass of approaches have been developed from which each of us can choose. Within the boundaries of the size of your wallet and family obligations, you can take your pick to form your personal mix of yoga, meditation, tai chi, teachers, rebalancing, haptonomy, self-help books, spiral dynamics courses, appreciative inquiry, nature experience trips, etc. Whatever forms the best entrance to investigate and dissolve your personal ego, just do it!
We Need Wise Political Leaders
Personal leadership may be the key, but is it enough? Can’t politics help in solving our issues top down? Recently, a discussion took place in the Netherlands about the question “What type of leadership do we need?” While the debate quickly focused on the status of the government, which has since then fallen, the conclusion was “we need yellow leadership”.
This sounds hopeful, but is it the answer for politics? I doubt it. Such leaders should couple a yellow thinking style with exceptionally strong resonances in the colors of the people and an exceptional feel for power as well. These will be rare and probably belong to the elite. I think we most of all need wise politicians in all colors of the people they represent. Across the Western world, democracies are struggling to formulate solutions while populism is rising and polarization increases. In the 20 years since the first conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations proved utterly incapable of solving the environmental crisis. Even the 80 billion Euro Horizon 2020 research and development policy currently formulated by the European Commission lacks focus on an ambitious environmental and social agenda.
I rather think we need more political leaders who truly represent their constituency, while at the same time being able to listen respectfully to other parties and formulate practical solutions that can actually be implemented. This means they share and understand the sentiments of the people, but coupled with personal wisdom and less driven by fear. As long as many people base their votes on purple fear and orange greed, these are the drivers that will have to be played out nationally, as well. True progress needs to come from citizens facing their own personal fears – and then change their voting behavior. The current crisis will hopefully speed up this process. So, what we may need are awareness campaigns including all bottom-up social media, rather than yellow leaders without a constituency.
We Need Forward-Looking CEO’s
Meanwhile, since we cannot expect political solutions any time soon, it is all the more important that companies take the lead. Fortunately, here we do see more and more good examples. Take Interface, the global modular carpet company led towards sustainability by their late CEO Ray Anderson. Or take multinationals such as DSM, Philips and Unilever with ambitious targets to reduce their environmental footprint and scores as global leaders in their sector on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. They measure and manage their impact. Indeed, the CEO’s of these types of companies score high on yellow and green. We need far more of them, and fast, so that the financial sector switches to (green) impact investing, separates high risk investments from guarding people’s life savings and stops paying out bonuses to themselves. Industry will switch to a circular economy. All in the next decade…
In this article a link is established between the models of Spiral Dynamics, yin & yang and the ego. The analysis underlines the importance of more yin to achieve the necessary balance. While the Enlightenment led to freedom, democracy, emancipation and the sexual revolution, our society is still dominated by yang. We need much more yin or feminine qualities as a counterweight to solve the problems of our time, whether it comes to organizational issues or climate change. The message of Occupy is widely regarded as obscure but always comes down to “more yin” in all its aspects – art, money, labor relations, care for nature and the environment, you name it. The frameworks necessary for a revolution, such as tax reform, must first be enforced bottom up. Every free people get the political leaders they are asking for.
The development model presented needs a critical evaluation. Is this useful and helpful? There are many assumptions and presumptions. It connects all sorts of notions without much evidence to back it up. The model can be further compared and linked to other existing models of development such as Almaas[x], Cook-Greuter[xi], Loevinger[xii] and Fowler[xiii]. At the same time the format in eight thinking styles retains its individual value. I feel that much more research is needed in the field of value systems, styles of thinking and awareness. Scientific articles like that of Annick Hedlund-de Witt on contemporary spirituality[xiv] are, at least in my perception, rare flowers growing on bare territory while they should form a flourishing field.
There have been accounts of awareness for thousands of years, but only within a small, select group of monks. That group is still tiny but larger than ever and, for the first time in history, with the potential to become a mass movement living in freedom! So who knows, maybe the musical Hair in the early seventies was right after all: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” – not as a hippie movement, but as an unstoppable emerging trend of world awareness that is deep-rooted in society.
Let’s hope this social shift happens fast enough so that we can deal with our problems in unity. As the recently deceased former Czech President Vaclav Havel once said: “Hope is a quality of soul and not dependent on what happens in the world.”
[i] Eckhart Tolle, The Power Of Now, A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment, 2005
[ii] Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic, The Never Ending Quest: Clare W. Graves Explores Human Nature, ECLET Publishing, Santa Barbara, California, 2005
[iii] Don Beck and Chris Cowan, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1996
[iv] Arthur ten Wolde, From freedom to awareness. An Essay about Yin, Yang and Thinking Styles, Haarlem, February 2012; corrected edition, March 2012, download location https://www.box.net/shared/btlg0h0k38eje1sdcjmj
[v] Samael Aun Weor, The Revolution of the Dialectic, Thelema Press, 2003 (1960)
[vi] Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Ending of Time, Harper, San Francisco, 1985
[vii] Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 1996
[viii] Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth, The 30‑Year Update, 2004
[ix] Floor de Ruiter, Value Framing (in Dutch), Kluwer, 2011
[x] A.H. Almaas, Integration of Personality Into Being, an Object Relations Approach, Diamond Books, 2000
[xi] Suzanne Cook-Greuter, Mature Ego Development: A Gateway to Ego Transcendence? Journal of Adult Development, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2000
[xii] L.X. Hy and J. Loevinger, Measuring Ego Development, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1996
[xiii] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith. The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning, New York, HarperCollins, 1995
[xiv] Annick Hedlund-de Witt, The rising culture and worldview of contemporary spirituality: A sociological study of potentials and pitfalls for sustainable development, Ecological Economics, 70, 1057-1065, 2011
About the Author
Arthur ten Wolde is Level Two Certified in Spiral Dynamics Integral Technologies and works as a consultant at a private Think tank in Amsterdam. Specializing in strategy, future trend studies and connecting visions, he works for and with companies, NGOs, scientist and governments on projects accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy. He is a physicist and previously worked for an industry confederation. In his spare time Arthur is a family man and sings as tenor in a choir. The essay is written in a personal capacity. His life ambition is to be present in the here and now while making an active contribution to sustainability.