Enantiodromia: A Lesson in Yin and Yang

That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? This fine, full-bodied word derives from the Greek and means “the tendency of qualities to reverse themselves at the extreme.” The classic example is that of the moon which, as it reaches the extreme of its waxing, begins to wane. Enantiodromia thus denotes the active principle of yin and yang. Unlike a generation ago, any schoolchild on Earth can now inform you that yin represents the female principle and yang the male. But that’s often as far as it goes. I thought we might engage in a little chalk talk about that so well-known and so little-understood symbol associated with yin and yang. Though, since ancient days, Chinese culture had viewed the world in this enantiodromian way, the yin-yang symbol was developed slowly. One might have represented the idea thousands of years ago as simply two circles.

At this point all we’ve said is that the world is full of objects, mostly yin or mostly yang. As children we like to see the world this way. But, with the exception of growing up and being Pat Robertson, life is rarely this black and white. In fact, reflection reveals that each and every entity in the landscape embraces attributes both yin and yang. Seeing this, we might more accurately draw the following:

Better, but still not completely satisfactory. For one thing this symbol implies everything is exactly one half yin and one half yang. For another, it doesn’t suggest movement, rather stasis. Enantiodromia implies a change, a qualitative reversal associated with a quantitative increase. For moons we say, “waxing and waning”. For life we say, “youth and age”. Few things move as freely in their environment as fish. And with that in mind, as though depicting the joyful play of a white and black carp representing the chasing of each other like day chasing night, the following symbol was developed.

As mystics and philosophers considered this representation, a logical question arose. From where did this new phase, bordered by extremes, arise? With the previous symbol (of the double fish) it wasn’t difficult to see the seasons’ change. The progression from youth to age was obvious but from where did new life come? Finally, it was thought, it was like the blackest coal concentrated under pressure becomes the brightest diamond. As in the creation of the universe, where matter so condensed reversed itself to create our galaxies, the sages realized that from the belly of each extreme its opposite was born. Thus the fish play no longer blind, complete with “eyes” representing the germinating seed of reversal. At this point we’ve reached our enantiodromiac conclusion. Time now for a little silence.


Note: I should mention that the most common use of the word derives from Jung’s study of a tendency to  reverse psychological states. Or, as Joseph Campbell explains it:

If your personal role is too thin, too narrow—if you’ve buried too much of yourself within your shadow—you’re going to dry up. Most of your energies are not available to you. A lot can get gathered there in the depths. And eventually, enantiodromia is going to hit, and that unrecognized, unheeded demon is going to come roaring up into the light.


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