The modesty of water

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The Yi Jing or Classic of Change is an ancient Chinese divination manual that developed into a cosmological and philosophical classic.  In his book of collected essays ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘, the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans referred to it as “the most ancient, most holy (and most obscure), of all the Chinese classics”.

The text and it’s neo-Confucian commentary was translated into German by Richard Wilhelm in 1924, and from German into English by Cary Baynes in 1967.  The text is arranged in a series of hexagrams or sets of six lines, representing various permutations of Yin and Yang, the passive and active cosmological forces or metaphysical principles which are a common element in Chinese philosophy.

In simple terms, each hexagram is an image or symbol of an underlying pattern in reality.  Any situation or circumstance can be depicted or explained in terms of a hexagram.  While it might sound mysterious, it is in principle no different from the normal human behaviour of trying to read the ‘signs of the times’. For example, my present situation of being unemployed yet financially independent is very new to me.  There is a great deal of opportunity and potential, but it isn’t clear how best to proceed.
According to the Yi Jing, my present circumstances are like the hexagram Kan – the Abysmal.Kan is a pit or abyss, a dangerous situation, but it also denotes water, in particular the behaviour of water as it fills and then overflows and escapes an abyss.

Through repetition of danger we grow accustomed to it. Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances. It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions. Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation.

To me this suggests that because my circumstances are still ambiguous and unclear, the way head is simply to remain ‘true to myself’ and not shirk the dangers and difficulties that lie ahead. As the text continues, its relevance to my current circumstances becomes even clearer:

The abyss is dangerous.
One should strive to attain small things only.

When we are in danger we ought not to attempt to get out of it immediately, regardless of circumstances; at first we must content ourselves with not being overcome by it. We must calmly weigh the conditions of the time and be satisfied with small gains, because for the time being a great success cannot be attained. A spring flows only sparingly at first, and tarries for some time before it makes its way into the open.

This is excellent advice.  What bothers me most at this point is the thought that I ought to be striving to achieve something significant, to quickly move forward and develop my prospects easily and seamlessly.  Yet this would be to underestimate and overlook the dangers and difficulties I face. I should instead be content with gradual progress as I adjust to this new situation.

Forward and backward, abyss on abyss.
In danger like this, pause at first and wait,
Otherwise you will fall into a pit in the abyss.
Do not act this way.

Here every step, forward or backward, leads into danger. Escape is out of the question. Therefore we must not be misled into action, as a result of which we should only bog down deeper in the danger; disagreeable as it may be to remain in such a situation, we must wait until a way out shows itself.

This section reinforces the danger of any impertinent action and the need to wait for a way out to appear.

The abyss is not filled to overflowing,
It is filled only to the rim.
No blame.

Danger comes because one is too ambitious. In order to flow out of a ravine, water does not rise higher than the lowest point of the rim. So likewise a man when in danger has only to proceed along the line of least resistance; thus he reaches the goal. Great labors cannot be accomplished in such times; it is enough to get out of the danger.

As much as I would like to undertake ‘great labors’ in terms of building my writing career, furthering my PhD, and building our natural wealth, I am being too ambitious.  I should instead be satisfied that I am no longer in danger either from a soul-destroying employment, or from financial hardship.

Finally, the Hexagram Kan changes into the Hexagram Qian – modesty.  Such a change can indicate future developments, or deeper issues, but in this case it shows what follows naturally from behaving like water:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

The destinies of men are subject to immutable laws that must fulfill themselves. But man has it in his power to shape his fate, according as his behavior exposes him to the influence of benevolent or of destructive forces. When a man holds a high position and is nevertheless modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.

Modesty in practice and modesty in presentation are therefore the key to future prosperity.  Modesty is opposed to the ambition and striving warned against in the Kan hexagram.  While Kan is represented by the image of water, Qian is represented by the image of a mountain within the earth – something great and powerful yet nonetheless buried and hidden.

Together these results indicate that the correct response to my current circumstances is to put aside ambition and embrace modesty, remaining sincere throughout whatever difficulties and dangers we might face. In practical terms this modesty will emerge not only in the daily challenges of our household frugality, but also personally in resisting thoughts of ambition and striving which are out of place with our current circumstances.

After all, to strive for success at this point in time would have no natural connection to the genuine opportunities and advantages of our new circumstances.  How could success come from such an ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction?

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