Take a Risk: Balancing Your Yin and Yang

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I had this post all done and ready to upload when Jim made this comment. I thought it and my answer fit in so well that I wanted to include it here.

Hey Bob,
Really enjoyed your post. I live in a house, but have always envied those who don’t. Never understood why!?!? I feel isolated from the real world and burdened by stuff. My wife does not feel the same way. The truth is, she is not happy living in a house managing all of her stuff, but she can’t see past the security or tradition that comes from house living. Most people would be happier living in a small space with less stuff, but will never take the leap. Only the brave actually do it!! Jim

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Jim, you are very right! Most people are contented to live a barely acceptable life as long as it is safe and comfortable. Pursuing happiness is risky, and today we hate risk. You are right, only the brave do it. I wasn’t one of the brave ones. I was unhappy my whole life, but never unhappy enough or brave enough to do anything about it. Then, suddenly, circumstances forced me out of my comfort zone into mobile living kicking and screaming. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. Bob

Jim’s story and mine are very common. Most of us truly do live lives of quiet desperation, too afraid to do anything to change it. You may think I am exaggerating, but you wouldn’t if you got my email. I frequently get letters from people who are like me; circumstances are forcing them out of their comfort zone and into vandwelling. Many of them are worried that it is very risky if they become vandwellers. They write me to see if it is really safe.
That just fits into a general pattern I see everywhere around me: our country is obsessed with safety. Everything in our society is designed and planned with only one thought: making us safer and eliminating all possible risk from our lives. From the cradle to the grave the government is involved in every tiny aspect of our life searching out every possible risk that might present even the most remote chance of danger. And they have been very successful; we live very, very safe lives.
You would think the result would be a great upsurge in happiness and we would be a contented and happy people. But just the opposite is true. The rates of depression are skyrocketing among every group except the Amish. By all measurements we are becoming tremendously alienated from each other. Most of us spend all out time inside the four walls of our homes quietly unhappy but much too afraid to do anything about it. If you get sick of that life and decide to move into a car, van or RV and live a mobile life, most people will respond that you are crazy because it is much too risky. They are convinced you will be robbed, raped, or killed. In today’s post I want to explain the philosophical foundation of why most Americans are virtually paralyzed with fear over their safety. By understanding why we are so afraid, we can work on a solution.
One of my favorite books is the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. In the second chapter we find this introduction to the Oriental concept of Yin and Yang:

When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.

I think this is a brilliant introduction to one of the most important concepts in my life, the ancient Chinese idea of Yin and Yang. A greatly oversimplified definition is that like a coin must have two sides, everything in the universe is composed of two opposites. Here are some examples:

  • Birth-Death
  • Male-Female
  • Dark-Light
  • Day-Night
  • Good-Bad
  • Friend-Enemy
  • Order-Chaos
  • Danger-Safety
  • Rich-Poor
  • Predator-Prey

I love this Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang because of all the symbolism it includes. First there is the circle which shows there is only One thing composed of seeming opposites. To hate and reject one, is to hate and reject All. Second is the way they opposites flow and blend into each other symbolizing the constant transformation of one into the other. Finally there is the dot of the opposite in each side. To me that says that risk taking is actually a form of safety, and that safety is a form of risk taking.

To the Eastern mind these are not seen as opposites, but complimentary parts of the same whole. They don’t oppose each other, but together they are co-creators of existence. Without ugliness, there can be no beauty. Without risk, there can be no safety. They also understood that the two are in a constant state of transformation. Day becomes night and night becomes day. Birth leads to death which leads to rebirth (at the lowest level think of composting). Everything continually flows in a constant circle of change of complimentary opposites. Neither are they absolutes; within all darkness is some light and within everything ugly there is some beauty.
In the west, we are aware of this dualism but interpret it very differently. The opposite sides of the coin are seen as in a constant battle and we must choose sides. We judge one side as good and to be loved, and the other as bad and to be hated. So we curse the darkness, but love the light. We love birth, but fear and despise death. We treasure our safety above everything else and are paralyzed with fear of danger. Americans are taught from birth to embrace one side of the coin and reject the other. The two must not be mixed or mutually embraced.
At first glance you may think that this is an interesting intellectual idea but it has little practical value. But I have found just the opposite is true. Think about it this way, when you cherish one side of the coin, and despise the other side, you end up hating ½ of everything in existence. That’s a lot of hate, and makes it much too easy for society to institutionalize hate. It’s very easy to find examples:

  • If darkness is bad, it’s okay to turn black people into slaves;
  • If male is good then female should be seen as second-class;
  • If civilization is good and Native Americans are savages, we can slaughter them and steal their land;
  • If heterosexuality is normal, then homosexuals can be hated and denied their rights.
  • If only the spiritual is good and physical matter is bad, it is perfectly fine to destroy the planet because it is inherently evil.

A right understanding of Yin and Yang can solve all of these problems because it teaches us to embrace and honor both sides of the coin.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.” Herman Hesse

All right, that’s enough theory. Let’s apply these interesting ideas to our own lives. There are three things that most of us are terrified of:

  • Birth-Death
  • Safety-Danger
  • Comfort-Pain

Of course we are all naturally afraid of death, pain and danger, they are very unpleasant. But if we totally reject them and fail to make room for them in our lives then we give up all hope of ever actually living or knowing true safety or comfort. To live in constant fear of death is to nerve actually live, to have a constant fear of pain creates a life filled with the pain of fear; to be consumed with safety leads to a paralysis that is much worse than any danger we will ever face. The bottom line is that the effort of constantly avoiding risk, death and discomfort is much more painful than the things you are suffering in order to avoid them.

 And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. Anais Nin

Most of us live in houses because we hope they will protect us from the danger that we perceive is all around us. In our insane pursuit of safety and comfort we run headlong into our homes. They become our fortress to lock out any those horrible, awful things, lest they somehow get us. But humans were never meant to live that way and instead of becoming a fortress of safety our houses have become a prison of fear. They become a strait-jacket that sucks all the joy and pleasure out of our lives.
By becoming a Vandweller you automatically begin to balance your Yin and Yang. When you move into a car, van or RV, you are consciously embracing risk, discomfort, some danger and even the possibility of death. Let’s face it, it is riskier to live in a van and not nearly as comfortable as living in a house, but it is worth it to you because you know it is the only way to fully embrace life.
Balance your Yin and Yang. Take a risk!!

“Everyone has a ‘risk muscle.’ You keep it in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it at least once a day.” –Roger von Oech
“The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.” –Leo F. Buscaglia
“He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” –Paul Tillich

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34 Comments

  1. anna

    “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt

    • Bob

      Thanks for this quote Anna, I had not seen it before, I am so very glad you sent it! Bob

  2. Kim

    I’ve had the same thoughts and come to the same conclusions. You’ve expressed these ideas beautifully.

    • Bob

      Thank you for the kind words Kim. By reading your blog, it’s clear you have stepped far out of your comfort zone and have a very balanced Yin-Yang in this area! Bob

  3. HoboBerg

    Very well written! Thanks for the post. Its been 3 years this month since I took the leap out of the shackles of the sticks and bricks. Best thing Ive ever done.

    • Bob

      Good for you HoboBerg, from your blog I can see you truly love your life. Bob

  4. Kitty

    Thank you SO MUCH for this clear discussion. I will pass this on.

    • Bob

      Thanks Kitty, you are very welcome. Bob

  5. Calvin R

    Beautiful! I guess I am blessed in my lack of belief in “safety.” It’s not that I have some objection to it, but I see no grounds for believing that risk can be eliminated, and the sacrifice most people make in the effort to do so costs more than it’s worth. I share your beliefs, as I imagine most vandwellers do. Thank you for saying them so well.

    • Bob

      Thanks Calvin, I envy you that spirit. By nature I am not a risk taker, it is a constant effort. But, one well worth making. Bob

  6. Sue

    Bob, what and a great writing to read on waking up this morning. Puts so many things into perspective. I am a risk taker . Allways looking for adventure and not fearing much. I have a very close friend who is afraid of just about everything. Does not like to leave the home much or hometown. Fear holds her back and over the years I have seen her go more and more into a shell. Never growing. It is sad. There is so much to experrience out there. But , you have to sometimes put aside your fears to find it !!

    • Bob

      Sue, oddly enough, I relate more to your friend than to you. By nature I am much like her, if circumstances had been different, her life could be mine right now. I am so grateful that my life has worked out the way it has!!
      Now let me be totally honest, whenever I meet people like you I feel a little intimidated because you are so much like what I wish I were, a natural risk-taker, an adventurer. I really admire that! I hope you remain close with your friend, she needs you! Is there any way you can include her in a “minor” adventure? Or is even that beyond her?
      I think the key to success of all my work has been that I am Joe-Average-American. By nature I am not a geek, or a handy guy, or a risk-taker. If I can do it, anyone can do it! Bob

  7. Wandrin Lloyd

    Well written explanation of Yin and Yang. My long time (~ 20 years) tag line was: Enjoying Life Is A Matter of Balance. I was never able to properly define what I meant by that motto. However, your essay is a much better definition than I was ever able to achieve when I tried to explain it. Thanks for the great post.

    • Bob

      Hi Lloyd, glad you liked it. I think it is great that you have a Life Motto, it makes life so much easier. And that is a very good one!! It is simple wisdom handed down from mother to child since humans first learned to speak. Great-Grandmother approved!
      I heard a guy say once that we all need a North Star in our life. A point that never moved and no matter how confusing life became it was the place we went back to in order to get our bearings. That’s what your motto is for you and the principle of Yin-Yang is to me (although they sound like one-in-the-same).
      I like your blog and I signed up! Bob

  8. Sayward

    Beautifully expressed! My sentiments precisely! Looking forward to meeting more like-minded people!

    • Bob

      Thanks Sayward, I appreciate your kind words! looking forward to meeting you! Bob

  9. CAE

    Why is safety so strongly pushed in our society? Because the foundation of safety is fear. And fear is a powerful tool for control.
    I am very safe…drive under the speed limit, wear a seat belt, etc…Safety is a great thing, but not when it starts to limit you from leaving your house or doing what’s good for you soul. Actually, safety should be a tool for mitigating fear. But, from what I see in mainstream media, fear sells almost as well as sex.

    • Bob

      I agree with you totally CAE. I am not a conspiracy-theroist, but there is no question that fear is one of the most powerful motivators of human beings. When we abandoned hunting and gathering and became civilized, there was an absolute need for control over people or we simply could not live together in such large groups. A wise leader used both the stick and the carrot, but some only used the stick. The stick doesn’t work without fear and it seems like there is a shortage of carrots. Bob

  10. MichaelinOK

    This blog post said important things, especially on yin and yang, in a clear and passionate and persuasive way. Thank you for posting it.
    In that very spirit of yin and yang and balance, however, I would like to add what I think are some “other side of the coin” thoughts.
    While it is true that to avoid stagnation we must take risks, it is not true that the risks we must take involve moving out of our houses. The world and life are big and complex, and offer many other arenas for risk-taking.
    Indeed, the very people whose quotes on the importance of risks are used in this blog post–Anais Nin, Roger Von Oech, Leo Buscaglia, and Paul Tillich–surely did not give up their houses and choose to live the remainder of their lives in vans.
    Even Thoreau, famous for his individualistic and risk-taking approach to society and lifestyle, and for saying, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” built himself a little house in the woods, and wrote many things about the wonders and opportunities of staying in one place, as opposed to traveling.
    There are many faces of yin, and many faces of yang.
    Also in the spirit of balance, I think it important to consider another view on the statement this post made about conventional housing arrangements: “But humans were never meant to live that way and instead of becoming a fortress of safety our houses have become a prison of fear.”
    People advocating against nearly anything are tempted to say that “humans were never meant to live that way.” But upon what is it based to say that humans were never meant to live in houses such as those most have? Upon looking at primitive man in a tribal community? If so, surely the same critique can be said with as much conviction about living in vans, or having blogs about anything including vanliving, or having solar panels on their vans’ roofs! Indeed, humans living in strong and stationary houses is a far more ancient and close to universal human practice than are motor vehicles of any sort, including vans…not to mention satellite TV, propane stoves, Reflectix, and more. And likely the first time a bow and arrow was invented, let alone the first wagon, someone disapproved and said, “Humans were not meant to live that way.”
    As to whether humans were “meant” to live valuing freedom or security more, I don’t believe we have good evidence to conclude we were meant to choose freedom over security. Many species other than our own (who cannot be accused of coming up with artificial and unnatural practices) undeniably choose security over freedom. Herd animals and social animals of all sorts tend to conform to their group, and run from predators, instead of going off on their own for “freedom.” Even social predators like lions and wolves usually stay with their group, and conform to it, unless pushed out, or unless on a quest for a mate. And non-social animals, too, very often are programmed by nature to choose security over freedom. Many species burrow into the ground and stay there except for necessary excursions, or only come out at night, etc., in the effort to avoid predators.
    And if we look at our own species, at any point in history and in any part of the world, I don’t believe we have good evidence that more humans valued freedom than security. Most do not think for themselves on big or fundamental issues–whether what type of house to live in or what type of god, if any, to worship. People do what their tribe does. Only the exceptions have ever done otherwise. On what basis shall we conclude, then, that what is universally true is “not meant” to be?
    In short, survival and reproduction are nature’s strongest imperatives, and if nature has one rule it’s that living things are “meant” to survive long enough to reproduce and (when applicable) raise their young. Fear and the yearning for security are the most common tools of survival–and taking risks constitutes another, though less common, tool for survival and reproduction.
    We can indeed appeal to values and try to persuade others that freedom is more noble or enlivening or exciting or stimulating or fulfilling than security, but not that it is more “meant” or natural. Looking at nature, both as it reflects other species and our own, does not seem to support the view that freedom is more natural than security. And, of course, even on the matter of quality of life many will not agree with us that freedom is better for them than security.
    Personally, I am one of the exceptions who needs freedom more than security and have made unconventional choices in various arenas of life. I also aspire to live the mobile lifestyle, at least to experience it for a while to see if it suits me–and I am fiercely against group-think and pressured conformity–so I am truly sympathetic toward vanliving, and admiring of this blog’s message, overall.
    And I’ve long appreciated Bob and his independent thinking, courage, and generosity of spirit. I think it important, however, that in our enthusiasm over our choices we don’t dismiss, deride, pathologize, or in other ways unfairly malign others’ choices…but instead keep to the yin-yang awareness of different sides to issues, even those issues about which we feel most passionate.
    Respectfully,
    Michael

    • Bob

      As always, Michael, a well-reasoned, well-written and well thought out comment. I very much appreciate the amount of time and thought you gave it!! I owe you a debt for it!
      First, the only reason I would be promoting risk-taking by living in a van is because this is a blog about vandwelling. Had this been a blog about sailing, I would have encouraged people to go sailing. If it were about rock-climbing, I would have said go climb a rock! But it is written by a devotee of mobile living, to people are either living mobile themselves, or wish they were. So it is the emphasis of that post. The principle fits nearly all of life’s circumstances.
      Second, about the question of how humans are meant to live, there are actually new sciences devoted to answering that very question. They sprang into existence after Darwin popularized an understanding of evolution. They all fit under the broad heading of Evolutionary Biology, but there are subfields like Evolutionary Psychology and Evolutionary Ecology. I am intrigued by Evolutionary Psychology because I agree with its simple premise, humans evolved in a certain environment in a certain way to be a certain thing. What is that and what happens when the environment is suddenly radically changed?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology
      I have done some reading on the subject and have reached my own conclusions. Based on my understanding of the hard science, I am totally confident that humans were not meant to live in houses in cities and we are suffering horribly because we do. I could well be wrong, (I often am) but there is a lot of science behind my opinion and it is not just an idea I dreamed up out of thin air. Here are some books I recommend if you want to learn more:
      * Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins; We know much more about Hunter-Gatherer societies than you think.
      * C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life By Meridith Sabini: The term Evolutionary Psychology didn’t exist then, but I consider him to be the the grandfather of it.
      * The Depression Cure by Stephen S. Ilardi A psychologist who says that the modern pan-epidemic of depression is caused by not lining up with how we evolved.
      Your Brain on Nature by Eva M. Selhab and Alan C. Logan They compiled the many scientific studies that have been done studying how we are affected biologically and psychologically by living in cities and not in nature. It is not a pretty picture! An astounding book. A must-read if you have any interest in this topic.
      * Buddhas Brain-The practical Neuro-Science of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. in this book he looks at the biological evolution of our brain and how and why it reacts how it does in every situation. He suggests ways in which you literally can mold your brain biologically by increasing and decreasing nueral-pathways by the way you think and feel. he doesn’t directly support me, but I think if you asked him how we would be affected by waking up 365 days a year in beautiful Public land, I think he would say that was a step in the right direction to happiness by returning to our evolutionary adaptedness.
      * Dancing Between Two Worlds–Jung and the Native-American Soul By Fred Gusafson A clear look at how by living closer to our indigenous ancestors way of life we can be happier.
      Of course none of these books suggest you live in a van. But, if I said, to them “living in a van on public land was the closest way you could live to how humans were meant to live” they might agree. They would probably say you still need a tribe, and I would answer I am creating a tribe. Then they would be satisfied.
      Again, it is just my own biased conclusion, but it is an somewhat educated conclusion. Bob

      • MichaelinOK

        Bob,
        Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed response to my dissenting comment.
        You make an impassioned, intelligent, and engaging case for your position.
        As I’ve mentioned in past comments, I appreciate and admire you and your philosophy. Independent thinking people will naturally not agree on every point, and that’s as it should be.
        I will respect your position as the host of this site, as well as the general tone of this site which is not debate-oriented, and I will not post a further response in this thread on the substance of the matters we’ve begun to exchange views on. (Perhaps in future threads I will respectfully engage again in gentle disagreement, from time to time.)
        Again, thank you for entertaining a dissenting view and for taking the time to respond.
        Michael

  11. Calvin R

    Just to support what Bob said, motor vehicles are a newer development than stationary housing. But stationary housing has only been around for about 5,000 years, less in most places. For 90% of our existence (or more) humans were hunter-gatherers who rarely lived in only one place.

    • Bob

      Right you are Calvin, nomad-ism was the norm for our ancient ancestors. There were exceptions, but not many.

  12. Fred

    “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be too cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
    –Annie Dillard

    • Bob

      Those are all very good Fred, thanks for finding and sending them!! Bob

  13. Fred

    Some more food for thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know the origin of it, but I do like it and believe it.
    “A good life is when you assume nothing, do more, need less, smile often, dream big, laugh a lot, and realize how blessed you are.”

  14. Fred

    Not to bore you, but here’s one more that i think is apropos:
    “When you look in the mirror and see one more line, do you say, Oh God, or do you say, Wow, I’ve lived? That’s the choice you have”. We all have choices, Bob, and many involve some sort of risk. I wouldn’t change a thing as I’m sure many of us wouldn’t.

    • anna

      No, Fred, there is a third choice. It goes like this, “Where’s the number for that plastic surgeon?” 😉

  15. Andy

    Hi Bob
    Here is type of yin and yang. Maybe this helps some other vehicle owners. Since many of us have vehicles that are stationary for periods of time, some precautions might be neccessary. I started my van up a few days ago and for some reason it was not firing on one cylinder. It had been working fine a few days ago. After replacing the spark plugs, still no change. I started going over the engine and pulled the air filter intake off. A squirrel had built a nest in my air intake which was blocking my air filter. No wonder my gas mileage had been so bad recently. Then i found that the same squirrel had chewed on one of my fuel injector wires and that was why one cylinder was not firing. I got some mothballs and put them in a plastic bottle and hung that in the engine compartment. Hopefully that deters the pesky critter.

    • Bob

      Good advice Andy. Squirrels haven’t been a problem for me, but mice are. I get mice inside at least once a year. And while i have not had mice in the engine compartment, several of my friends have. i worked with a couple who had been campground hosts for years, and one season they went to start their motorhome up at the end of season and it wouldn’t start. Mice had chewed up their entire electrical system and it cost them 1000s to get it fixed.
      The mothballs in a plastic bottle is a good idea, well worth a try! Bob

  16. Dave the Fireman

    Great essay, Bob. Events in the United States are indicating decreasing security in every aspect. Stationary living was thought to be the safest. That is disappearing. Unless one resides in a fortified town, with walls and guards, the standard dwelling of city or suburb is now risky. It increases the moment you step outside. A fight, a crackup can occur in any parking lot and store, any line at a government agency, any amusement park or campus. Hell, I want out.
    Psychotic gunmen. There are other threats, all rooted in overpopulation and disintegration of identity. Bad driving is another risk. Ask the average commuter who spends 10-15 hours a week there. Ask if he is optimistic. Maybe, but if he’s alert, the general disintegration must be painting the future dark.
    More and more it looks like mobile and rural are the only ways out.
    Dave
    Baltimore

    • Bob

      I try to be an optimist, but there is a lot of truth in what you are saying Dave.
      Statistically we are actually pretty safe, but our insides don’t match up with our outsides. Most people “feel” less safe than ever. To me the constant sense of dread and fear is much worse than any danger we could face. Bob

  17. Cyrus Palmer

    Wow. Very inspired Bob. I know exactly what you are talking about. I encounter the same kinds of critisisims on a daily basis because of my hobbies, Brazilan Jiu Jitsu and parkour. The first response I get from people when I tell them about my hobbies is to say ‘You’re going to hurt yourself! You’re crazy !’ What you said about yin and yang sums it up perfectly. I am truly alive because I don’t let the fear of injury stop me from doing what I enjoy. I accept that I may get hurt, but my training has saved me from getting hurt many times. And my training has given me supreme confidence.

    • Bob

      Cyrus, I think confidence (that deep knowing of a truth) may be the ultimate force on the planet. As long as it is applied properly, it almost always makes your life better. Bob

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