Growing up in the 1960’s, I got exposed to the beginnings of the women’s movement. Women seemed so angry at men, burning bra’s and such. I didn’t really understand it, but I knew I was a boy, and would someday turn into a man. I thought there must be something inherently bad about men, and this must apply to me also. It was a confusing time to be growing up.
Today the relationship between the sexes is very different than it was 50 years ago, a fact I was reminded of while watching “Mad Men”, which is set in NYC in the 60’s. Today people talk about the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine. It seems like there is more of an effort to resolve the age old battle of the sexes so that it can become the partnership of the sexes. That sounds great to me, but it seems like we have a long way to go. Women have changed a lot in the past 50 years, and have had a lot to say. Men have changed too, but have been relatively quiet about it. It seems to me it’s time for men to find their voice; for men and women to sit down together and find a new way. Part of this is looking at what masculinity and femininity really mean in today’s world. Most of the articles I’ve seen about the sacred masculine list qualities that the author thinks men should embody. However, they always seem a bit arbitrary to me; some fit, and others seem like they apply to women just as well.
I believe there is a big paradigm shift underway. For the last 10,000 years or so, masculine values have dominated. This is from the dawn of agriculture, and is the period where most of recorded history has taken place. This history is “his story”, as men and masculine values have dominated. We don’t now as much about the prior periods of human history, but homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. There is good evidence that in much of 190,000 years of pre-history, human culture was matriarchal. Could the shifts we are now experiencing be a move toward balance and integration of masculine and feminine qualities? This is my hope. But what does masculine and feminine even mean?
If we try to define masculine as the qualities that a man should embody, it’s very difficult to come up with a clear definition. It’s just as difficult to define femininity as qualities that a woman should embody. Men are strong, but women can be too. Women are nurturing, but men can be too. The women’s movement created more freedom from sex roles for women and men, but there is yet no agreed upon set of principles to help us understand and integrate the sexual dynamic.
In my view sacred masculine is not something only for men to embody, it’s for women too, just as the sacred feminine is also for men. We carry within us both qualities, and these qualities vary from person to person, and within a single person at different times. I believe that part of the paradigm shift we are going though involves us ceasing to expect women to embody only feminine qualities, and for men to embody only masculine qualities. We are humans first, and women and men second. The definitions of what a man or women should embody are constantly in flux as culture and values change. There is no one right way to be a man or woman. A little more freedom please, for all of us.
In fact, I have never seen a clear definition of what these words mean. In this article, I am instead going to use the terms from Taoism: Yin for the feminine, and Yang for the masculine. I offer here my own definition of Yin and Yang; a narrow definition as relates only to humans and their relationships. I don’t mean these as some final and absolute definition. A great conversation may need to take place involving many women and men before we can come to some sort of universal and commonly acceptable definitions. Consider this a part of that conversation:
YIN: Connection, relationship, accepting, intuition, submission, subjective experience.
YANG: Separation, individuation, improving, deduction, dominance, objective experience.
The Yin side of us wants connection, intimacy, security, and accepts things just as they are. The Yang side of us wants independence, self-expression, freedom and wants to improve things. It’s Yin that allows us to immerse ourselves in an experience, and it’s the Yang that wants to stand back, analyze and be objective. Even the most freedom loving man will have some desire for intimacy, and even the most intimacy minded women will have some need for freedom. It’s wrong in my view to tie these qualities too closely to gender. Women may generally have more Yin than Yang, but it will vary from woman to woman, and for a given woman, will vary over time. The same principle applies to men. This Yin/Yang dynamic is present regardless of sexual orientation too; generally one partner will be Yang dominant, and the other Yin dominant.
One of the ways these qualities express themselves is in our Yin desire for intimacy and our Yang desire for freedom. This plays out in healthy couples as cycles of closeness and separation. As Khalil Gibran said “Let there be spaces in our togetherness”. When the partners in a couple separate, they each have their own experiences. Later in the intimacy phase, they can bring back these fresh experiences and perspectives which enlivens their experience of intimacy. If both partners embrace the Yin and Yang in themselves, then the separation phase does not threaten abandonment, and the intimacy phase does not smother. The relationship breathes through the cycles of intimacy and separation.
It’s interesting to see what happens when we “assign” all of the Yin energy to the woman and Yang energy to the man in a heterosexual relationship, which is what happens in a traditional relationship. The woman will be responsible for all of their social connections, writing Christmas cards, remembering birthdays, etc. It also makes her responsible for the quality of the connection between the two of them. The man will be responsible for tending to their place in the world, money, politics, etc.
When I think about this, I always get this image of a woman sitting at the table with her husband, wanting him to engage with her and open up, while the husband sits reading the paper, saying as little as possible. Each is frozen into their role. If the woman gets fed up with this situation and threatens to leave the relationship, she will have switched from an expression of Yin energy (connection) to Yang energy (separation). Like the poles of a magnet, this will often flip the polarity of the man into Yin mode – he will then put a lot of time and attention into connecting with her. If she accepts this and settles back into the relationship, the polarity will often flip back – she will again be craving connection while he goes back to reading the paper. Recognizing that this interplay is about our sacred feminine and sacred masculine aspects gives depth to our understanding. It’s a much healthier situation of both partners embrace their desire for connection and their desire for freedom, instead of these being gender specific qualities.
In our culture, being subjective seems to be considered an insult, and being objective seems to be a compliment. To me this is an aspect of the masculine or Yang values still being dominant. The subjective is undervalued, but is actually where happiness and contentment lie; the yang is never satisfied, and wants to improve things. The objective by itself is cold, detached, & restless, and the subjective by itself is naive and lacks perspective. We need both the subjective and objective to live a full life. In a world where the masculine and feminine are valued equally, we will regard the subjective as a valued partner to the objective.
Dominance is yang, and submission is yin. The dominant person has the pleasure of being in control, and the submissive person has the pleasure of not having to make decisions, and thus can simply be immersed in the experience. Both are valuable and equal roles, as long as the roles are entered into by permission. Dominance without permission is anti-social or criminal. Although we may have a preference for one or the other role, if we go too far we’ll crave the opposite. I think that’s why corporate titans often crave the company of a dominatrix. They have to constantly make decisions in their corporate role, and it’s a pleasure for them to just submit to the wishes of another for a while.
When a man is dating a woman, if he is the yang/dominant partner, it’s better for him to have a clear plan for the date. Some flexibility can of course be incorporated, and he should have a good idea beforehand what would please her. By taking charge, he is being dominant. A woman is fully capable of making decisions on the date, and even directing it if she has to, but if she’s more yin than yang, she won’t want to. The problem is that stepping into decision making mode is very yang, so making decisions pulls her out of her immersion in the experience. Yin want to be immersed and subjective. Sometimes, a couple may want to switch roles, because being immersed in experience has it’s own pleasure, as does being the one who is more in control. Neither role is superior to the other, but we often have preferences. Don’t sacrifice sexual tension at the altar of a contrived equality. Embracing who we are and how we really feel is erotic, but let’s keep it flexible too.
Whatever the definitions of Yin and Yang, I think our task is to understand and integrate both qualities into who we are and how we live our lives. One is not better than the other any more than the inhale is better than the exhale; you can argue about which is superior, but stop either one and you’re in big trouble. Real equality between men and women does not come from trying to walk a tightrope where everyone has to express Yin and Yang equally at all times. There is great joy in the dancing of these qualities within us and between us.
The Yin is not superior to the Yang. The Yang is not superior to the Yin. I’ve come to believe that power actually comes from skillfully embracing and integrating the Yang and Yin. Real equality and individual wholeness can only happen if we elevate the Yin to be equal to the Yang. Yet it seems that our culture is still too Yang, and would benefit from continuing the shift toward Yin values. We could for example start recognizing the down side of progress, become more accepting of ourselves and others, and embrace the validity and importance of subjective experience. Time to step out of his story and into our story.
I close with the prayer of serenity, which is a beautiful expression of the integration of these two qualities:
God grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr