Friday, May 20, 2016

Seeking Ancient Wisdom

Dear George, 
So far our year has consisted of one source of consternation after the next — car problems, a house disaster, insurance dealings, making out a will, canceling trips, medical anxieties, nightmarish politics, etc.  Sometimes if things get stressful enough, I turn to the I Ching to help think through problems.  The readings are nearly always on target and can be amazingly precise.  My brother-in-law, David Werrin, introduced us to the I Ching many years ago, and we’ve been fans ever since.  I encourage the curious reader to give it a try if you haven’t already.  

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book of wisdom.  Influenced by Confucianism, it dates back at least two thousand years and provides guidance for moral decision making and action.  One consults the I Ching by asking a question, then tossing a set of three coins six times in a row.  Each toss of the coins results in a broken or unbroken line (see the I Ching for details), and the six lines are arranged from bottom to top in a stacked hexagram like the following example: 

The six-line hexagram is divided into an upper and lower trigram, each with its own name and interpretation.  There are eight possible combinations of broken and unbroken lines for any given trigram, and consequently there are 64 (8 times 8) possible hexagrams.  Each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams has a name and an associated reading which describes a life situation, provides imagery for thinking about it, and makes suggestions about effective courses of action.  To give a more concrete sense of this, I’m going to describe three questions I recently asked of the I Ching, the answers I received, and what I made of each.  My questions have do do with our loss of our sheepdogs, a household catastrophe, and crummy hearing.  The I Ching had lots to say.  

Our Sheepdogs: Loss, grief

It’s been 10 months since Duffy died and 6 months for Mike.  The dogs remain uppermost on our minds.  I sometimes anticipate them at the door when we return home late at night or look for them in bed when I wake up in the morning.  We struggle with our loss because the dogs were so central to our daily lives, particularly in terms of giving and receiving affection.  They were also the most frequent source of Katja’s and my shared experiences of happiness, and we’re keenly aware of that void.  I asked the I Ching about dealing with my continuing sad feelings about the dogs.  

The hexagram I received for my sheepdog question is No. 43, Kuai (Break-through [Resoluteness]).  The upper trigram is Tui (The Joyous, Lake), and the lower trigram is Ch’ien (The Creative, Heaven).  Thus, the image is one of a lake floating above heaven.  The water, having floated to the heavens, breaks through and comes down again as rain.  According to the I Ching, the hexagram signifies a break-through after a long accumulation of tension, like a swollen river breaking through its dikes.  The Judgment reads:
            Break-through.  One must resolutely make the matter known
            At the court of the king.
            It must be announced truthfully.  Danger.
            It is necessary to notify one’s own city.
            It does not further to resort to arms.
            It furthers one to undertake something.  

The I Ching states that the resolution of tension must be based on a union of strength and friendliness.  We must not get entangled in negative feelings.  Rather, “the best way to fight evil is to make energetic progress in the good.”  This hexagram, the I Ching notes, is linked to the third month (April/May).  

Our loss of the dogs has definitely produced a lengthy accumulation of tension in both of us.  The I Ching reading suggests we are on the verge of a breakthrough in this state of affairs in April/May.  To accomplish this, it’s important for Katja and I to truthfully disclose our feelings to one another (i.e., make matters known to “one’s own city”) and rely on friendly cooperation.  Rather than remaining bogged down in negative feelings or acting in hurtful ways (“resorting to arms”), we need to undertake new interests and “make energetic progress in the good.”  We’ll always cherish our memories of our wonderful dogs, but now is the time to break through and move beyond grief and mourning. 

Our House: Catastrophe, angst

We arrived home at the end of the day on April 6, only to find water pouring through our kitchen and dining room ceilings from a pipe that had burst in the upstairs bathroom.  The insurance company immediately sent an emergency cleanup crew, and they spent six days drying out the walls, ceilings, and floors (which included tearing out our fairly new bamboo flooring, peeling off large patches of wallpaper, and punching holes in the ceiling).  Our first floor is largely uninhabitable, and both Katja and I remain in a state of shock.  I asked the I Ching how to respond to this household disaster.

The hexagram is Fêng (Abundance [ Fullness]).  The above trigram is Chên (The Arousing, Thunder), and the lower trigram is Li (The Clinging, Flame).  The image signals the arrival of thunder and lightning, but, as they join together, they will produce abundance and greatness.  The Judgment states:
            Abundance has success.
            The king attains abundance.
            Be not sad.
            Be like the sun at midday.

According to the I Ching, “Only a man who is inwardly free of sorrow and care can lead in a time of abundance.  He must be like the sun at midday, illuminating and gladdening everything under heaven…The darkness is already decreasing.”

A barrage of thunder and lightning has torn apart our house, and we have been wallowing in sorrow and care for the last six weeks.  However, before we know it, we will have brand new flooring in our living and dining rooms, newly painted walls and ceilings, and a fully restored first floor — better than before, a true state of abundance and fullness.  Like the sun at midday, we need to be more bright and optimistic about our imminent future.  “Abundance has success.”

Faulty Hearing: Irritation, indecision

Aside from death and disaster, my faulty hearing is my most constant source of annoyance and frustration.  That’s been going on for fifteen years or more, and I’ve remained resistant to urgings from Katja, other family members, and friends (however gentle and supportive) to consider hearing aids.  Lately, though, I’ve been reconsidering.  Several classmates at my high school reunion were enthusiastic about their hearing aids, and some of my acquaintances at the university have said the same thing.    On the other hand, I recently had lunch with two long-time friends.  One had purchased hearing aids a year ago, but he didn’t bother to wear them to lunch because they don’t help and are simply a hassle.  The second friend mentioned that his wife had bought top of the line hearing aids several years ago but had put them away in a drawer because all they did was magnify uninterpretable sounds.  Puzzled and conflicted, I asked the I Ching, “What should I do about this?”  

My hexagram is Huan (Dispersion [Dissolution]).  The upper trigram is Sun (The Gentle, Wind), and the lower trigram is K’an (The Abysmal, Water).  Huan depicts wind blowing over water, dissolving and dispersing the water into foam and mist.  When a person’s vital energy is dammed up within him or her (the dangerous condition signified by K’an, The Abysmal), gentleness serves to break up and dissolve the blockage.  The Judgment reads:
            Dispersion,  Success.
            The king approaches his temple.
            It furthers one to cross the great water.
            Perseverance furthers.  

According to the I Ching, this hexagram has specifically to do with a divisive egotism and rigidity that separates people.  As family members cooperate in a common undertaking, “all barriers dissolve, just as, when a boat is crossing a great stream, all hands must united in a joint task.”  In particular, rigidity melts away.   This only occurs, however, when “a man who is himself free of all selfish ulterior considerations…perseveres in justice and steadfastness (and) is capable of so dissolving the hardness of egotism.”  

Hmm.  It’s hard to imagine, but this hexagram seems to imply that I have been ruled by the Abysmal — selfishness, egotism, rigidity.  Though I rarely think of Katja as a gentle wind, she does have my interests in mind.  According to the I Ching, I will have success if I “cross the great water.”  This seems to suggest that I should make and follow through on a major decision.  Numerous voices in the past have encouraged me to cross the great water, and now the I Ching is joining the chorus.   I think I will come back to the I Ching again next week and make sure this is right.  I will definitely try not to be rigid.

All in all, the I Ching readings leave me in a more harmonious place.  If one wants to experiment, the public library is bound to have copies, as do Half-Price Books, Amazon, etc.   There are numerous online I Ching sites, but the ones I’ve seen are over-simplified and crass compared to the book versions (especially the Wilhelm volume cited below).  Here’s a toast to keeping ancient wisdom in our lives. 

Source:  The I Ching or Book of Changes.  The Richard Wilhelm Translation.  Foreword by C J. Jung.  Bollinger Series XIX, Princeton University Press, 1967 (3rd edition).  

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