The Philosophy Behind Macrobiotics – Understanding Yin and Yang
When people hear the word “macrobiotics”, they think of an organic whole grain, plant-based Japanese type diet that emphasizes cooked food and shuns meat, dairy, sugar and processed foods. They also know that it has something to do with yin/yang, balance and harmony and that some claim to have used it to recover from cancer and other diseases despite the lack of evidence.
Many people do not find this form of macrobiotics appealing at all and would reluctantly consider following such an extreme diet only as a temporary measure where they had absolutely no choice (i.e., were dying of cancer). However, this narrow view of macrobiotics is such a far cry from what George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi taught about. The philosophy of macrobiotics has so much more to offer everyone than just a narrow diet based on Oriental mysticism.
A Dialectical Conception Of The Infinite Universe
George Ohsawa, in his book “Zen Macrobiotics”, described macrobiotics as:
” …the biological and physiological application of Oriental philosophy and medicine; a dialectical conception of the infinite universe.”
What does “a dialetical conception” mean?
Dialectics is based around three (or four) basic metaphysical concepts:
- Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time (this idea is not accepted by some dialecticians).
- Everything is made out of opposing forces/opposing sides (contradictions).
- Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one force overcomes the other (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
- Change moves in spirals (or helixes), not circles. (Sometimes referred to as “negation of the negation”)
The above points will be familiar to those who have studied the macrobiotic philosophy with some modifications:
- Everything Changes (and is a manifestation of an infinite universe – instead of a finite universe)
- Everything is comprised of yin/yang (opposing yet complementary forces)
- Yin changes into Yang and Yang changes into Yin
- The shape of the universe and all phenomena is a spiral
In other words, the philosophy behind macrobiotics today is none other than ancient dialetics which has both Eastern and Western origins!
Creating A Unifying Principle
Ohsawa studied the works of both Occidental and Oriental philosophers, scholars, scientists and medical doctors. In the Western dialectic theories of Hegel and others he found parallels to the Eastern yin/yang view of the universe and took the liberty to combine them into what he called the unifying principle or the unique principle. To his Japanese students he introduced dialetics and to his Western students he introduced yin and yang. In this way he was creating a unifying, harmonized and universal world view for everyone; one that married both Eastern and Western ideas into a single philosophy that could provide the key to understanding life and creating peace, harmony and happiness. Macrobiotics is only the biological application of this philosophy.
Ohsawa admonished his Japanese students who were throwing away their own traditions in favor of the Western world view, as was typical of them to do in the wake of their defeat and surrender to America at the end of World War II. He showed them how they should be proud of their own heritage and especially of their yin/yang dialetic world view. Michio was among them and in coming to America, took on Ohsawa’s mission of promoting yin and yang principles and Japanese traditions to the West. But what Michio was also doing was teaching his Western students their own heritage in the form of dialectics. Conversely, today, “Western” macrobiotic teachers live in Japan and teach the Japanese about Yin and Yang.
Understanding Yin and Yang – The Opposing Forces Of Dialectics
When people think about yin and yang, they think about opposite pairs of things such as light and darkness, hot and cold, wet and dry and so on. (Some include good and evil as part of this, but this is a mistake as yin and yang are objective descriptors and are not subjective. However, value systems, as a phenomena, occur and rise and fall in a spirallic motion – see: Spiral Dynamics) While these examples may be a way to introduce the notion of opposites they fail to convey the dynamics of dialectics. To resolve this one only has to incorporate the spirallic model of the universe when discussing yin and yang.
All phenomena in the universe occur in a cyclical yet spirallic manner. Each cycle never repeats itself exactly and is an evolutionary step forward. Spirals have only two directions: they are either contracting or they are expanding. Ohsawa and Michio assigned Yang as the contracting force and Yin as the expanding force. They also rotate in two directions and this direction changes depending on perspective. For example, when looking from above a spiral can appear to be, for example, rotating counter-clockwise while from below it could appear to be rotating clock-wise.
Since all phenomena move in a spiral then they are always in the process of transformation, moving toward either a more contracted state or a more expanded state. At the extremes these forces reverse direction such that when something reaches the center of a spiral, the infinitesimal point, it starts to then expand outward. When something has expanded into infinity and nothingness it then starts to re-materialize and start its journey toward contraction again.
The dialectic view of the creation of the universe differs from the big bang theory. The universe did not arise from a violent big bang but instead arose out of nothing and returns back to nothing and is constantly doing so at any given moment and location and it does so in a very peaceful and harmonious manner. Why it may appear that things started in a big bang is simply because the universe, as a whole, is currently expanding. Sometime in the future, that will change and the universe will be contracting.
Michio further simplified this explanation by describing these contracting and expanding (or Yang and Yin, respectively) forces in relation to our experience here on Earth. Using the Earth as the point of reference then anything going downward toward the center of the Earth is considered to be Yang and contracting which he called “heaven’s force”. Anything moving upward away from the center of the Earth he called “Earth’s force.”
In this way, all phenomena on Earth can be ascribed certain yin/yang properties in comparison with each other. The leaves of plants, growing upward and outward are considered to be yin or predominantly a manifestation of earth’s force when compared to the roots of a plant which grow downward and are manifestation of heaven’s force – yet it is the synthesis of these two opposing forces that make up the entirety of the plant. The plant, as a whole, is in a process of expanding (growing) and is therefore becoming more yin.
For additional descriptions and yin/yang classifications please refer to any books written by Michio Kushi and George Ohsawa.
Beyond Dialectics: Chaos Theory and Fractal Geometry
Until the invention of the computer, mathematicians could only imagine what fractals looked like. The ability by computers to plot and draw graphs based on thousands of reiterative calculations allowed for fractal geometric shapes to be seen for the first time. The visual result is nothing less than astounding. Simple mathematical equations reiterated countless of times with the help of a computer can generate images that mimic nature from trees and plants to mountains and clouds. The spiral is the simplest fractal form and with only slight variations can be transformed into the variety and diversity of all natural phenomena.
Nature and all phenomena, not only are shaped in spirals, but also have fractal geometry. The smallest part of a phenomena mirrors the whole of it. Also, any minute variation or influence will have a huge impact on the direction and growth of a phenomena, as proposed by Chaos Theory. With these principles of spirallic structure and formation then one can map all phenomena in the universe. In this way, for example, Michio taught about the human body as a spirallic form; demonstrating how the face can reveal what is in the body and how the head can reflect, the condition of the heart, or any other organ, and so on. (For more information see the book: “Your Body Never Lies.”)
Macrobiotics As The Biological Application Of Dialectics
By applying dialectics and fractal spiral geometry to the evolution of life Ohsawa and Michio arrived at the conclusion of the macrobiotic way of life: a food centered approach where the most logical and sustainable diet for humanity is one based on whole grains. Using the spirallic model, evolution is not a matter of selection of the fittest but instead is a transformative and contractive process where food and eating is the driving mechanism that causes things to evolve. Life evolved in a contractive spirallic process into two branches, namely, plants and animals, with humans, of the animal kingdom, being the most recent development, as the result of eating grains, which is the most recent plant development.
This evolutionary theory is explained in Michio’s first book, “The Book Of Macrobiotics.” What is also explained in that book is that, unlike the narrow diet that is portrayed as macrobiotics today, “man can eat everything.” We are omnivores and can eat whatever we like, more so than any other animal on earth. But in order for humans to continue on their evolutionary path then a plant based diet centered around whole grains is best, as concluded by Michio, since the human form and all cultures around the world developed around grain eating. Furthermore, by eating more grains and plants and less animals we are able to easier unify the opposing forces of plants and animals (ourselves), and in so doing, become more “centered” or “balanced” and at peace.
Also, according to Hufeland, who wrote the book “Macrobiotics, The Art Of Prolonging Life” in 1790s, macrobiotics views sickness, not as an enemy but as a means to prolong life. In other words, instead of viewing disease as an opposing force that must destroyed, as the medical science does, the macrobiotic approach views it as a friend and as the result of the body’s natural attempt to bring itself back in to harmony with it’s environment. This is the dialectical application of macrobiotics on healing: a view that turns an enemy into a friend and finds a peaceful resolution instead of a never ending war. It is the philosophy and way of peace.
This is the philosophy behind macrobiotics. These ideas are not specifically Japanese nor Western but are the application of George Ohsawa’s East/West synthesized version of yin/yang dialectics to biology and physiology. You will not find them by studying the yin/yang of Traditional Chinese Medicine nor will you find them by studying Hegel’s Dialectics. You may not even find them in newer macrobiotic books written by others. They are uniquely George Ohsawa’s and Michio Kushi ideas and can only be found in their books. (Look for anything written by George Ohsawa that talks about the “Unifying Principle” or the “Unique Principle.” In Michio’s works, look for anything that is explained in terms of spirals.)
Other Examples Of Dialectical Applications
For further study below are other examples of dialectical applications that one can look into.
In the field of martial arts, Aikido, or the Way of Harmony, is a perfect example of the use of dialectics. The art of Aikido is to utilize and harmonize with an opponents force and energy using little or none of own’s effort. Aikido is purely defensive . There is no offensive moves taught in Aikido. All moves are done in spirals too.
2. Spiral Dynamics
In the field of value systems, morals and ethics, the theory of Spiral Dynamics offers a practical ways on how to enhance, diffuse or elevate our values which often conflict when differing cultures meet.
3. J.S. Bach, Jazz and John cage
In the field of music, Bach and Jazz music represents the art of creating harmony with discordant sounds and by using opposite dynamics. John Cage’s work offers an exploration of noise and silence.
4. The art of M.C. Esher
The drawings of M.C. Esher introduce the paradox of the illusion of 3-dimensional worlds in two-dimensional space. His drawings are a perfect example of creating harmony where contradiction exists.
5. The dramatic works of Shakespeare
The artful writing of William Shakespeare represents the pinnacle of English dramatic literature illustrating the dynamic dance of humans and their strengths and weaknesses.
6. The Psychology of Carl Jung
Carl Jung was greatly inspired by the Book of Changes, also known as the I-Ching, the Chinese classic on Yin and Yang. The Myers Briggs personality test was inspired by Jung’s dialectic psychoanalytics.
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