Meditations on the I Ching
A society that is thriving and harmonious is only as effective as the people which comprise it; and people need mutual trust and good communication in order to feel part of something alongside their colleagues. This story is my reflection on my work with one of the hexagrams from the ancient Book of Changes.
I’m writing this on the Spring Equinox. It’s been three months now on my personal journey with the I Ching (the Book of Changes). This project has been a renewal of sorts. It’s certainly improved my language and translation skills, and has taken my understanding of this ancient text to a deeper level. I’ve maintained a consistent level of creative output on a daily level, and I feel that my writing skills improve from day-to-day. More importantly has been the daily meditations on the Yao texts, the commentary on the lines, as well as the weekly embodiment of the hexagram that has helped guide my healing and growth in this time.
This week I was exploring the hexagram 同人 TÓNGRÉN, which means ‘fellowship’ or the coming together of different people in a collegiate manner to work towards a common purpose (literally, ‘together with’ + ‘people/humans’). I realised that this hexagram reveals some much-needed wisdom in today’s modern society; but also I found that in exploring the meaning of this hexagram, I gained valuable insights into a belief-pattern of mine which has plagued me for as long as I can remember. Consistent with the three-fold framework within ancient Chinese cosmology, I’m going to consider ‘fellowship’ in the social, interpersonal, and intra-personal contexts.
The community of hope
The Confucian and early philosophical Taoist commentaries of the I Ching were concerned with guiding rulers and government figures in creating social cohesion. The essential wisdom of Tóngrén was that harmony in the community can be found when people come together to work towards a common goal. The key to this was in recognising that the ‘sameness’ (another translation of 同 tóng) was in the common purpose, but the achievement of that purpose comes from different groups of people. In other words, it was about finding the commonalities amidst diversity.
Sameness is all well and good, but homogeneity was considered ‘chaotic’ in ancient China; ironic given the common Western image of Communist China being a faceless collectivist society. The upper 3 lines represent ‘Heaven’, an homogenous conglomerate, with no distinction between individuals. The lower 3 lines represent ‘Fire’, a state where distinctions and categories are made (hence it’s interpreted as meaning ‘clarity’ and intellectual knowledge). The enlightened ruler would thus group people into appropriate categories that would work together with other such groups to ultimately work together the common goal. Teams of people best suited to particular activities would be organised together. Diversity of skills, talents, and experience are essential to creating social harmony therefore; different professions, trades, industries, and ideas.
A good example of this is best illustrated by the Fellowship in Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. Each member has his own intention for being part of the group: Legolas and Gimli represent the interests of their respective races, the Elves and the Dwarves; the four hobbits each representing a different tier of Hobbit society, who can be seen as signifying the ‘common’ folk. Boromir and Aragorn both represent the Human race, however Boromir’s intentions are more parochial and nationalistic, concerned mainly with the protection of Gondor; Aragorn, although also human, represents the Numenorean bloodline, the race of kings who protected all the free-folk of Middle-Earth. Gandalf, as one of a primal race of beings (the wizards), almost semi-divine is there to protect not just all of Middle-Earth, but all of creation. Their common purpose is on one hand to protect Frodo and aid him in his mission to destroy the One Ring; at a higher level, their common purpose is to defeat Sauron and ensure their world remains free from totalitarian rule. Their individual intentions drive them to act as they do, but with the underlying common purpose. This also explains how they are able to be separated and yet continue to work towards the same goal.
When good people get together,
it creates a special feeling.
— The Black Seeds
While harmonious relationships amongst groups of people were important for social cohesion, how individuals related to each other were fundamental to this. Again, the unique nature of each individual was presupposed and desired. The ‘sameness’ comes from the purpose shared by two individuals. The Yao text for Tóngrén – the commentaries on the six lines of the symbol – give us an idea of how we as individuals can best act when trying to establish a Fellowship.
Firstly is transparency; people need to be trust each other, so communication of intentions needs to be open and honest. Being able to ‘speak one’s truth’ is a vital part of communication within a relationship. It means being honest about our differences as much as our similarities. It’s OK to have a different opinion, even if we feel we have ‘facts’ to support our point of view. Accepting that is key, because that helps us to create the space for individuals to work to their true nature. Like the saying goes, “all roads lead to Rome” – which path you take to get there doesn’t matter when you’re both heading to the same destination.
Finding similarities is just as important as honouring the differences, however; we need to be able to acknowledge both. If we go too far into focussing on the differences, we begin to create divisions where one person begins to consider their perspective ‘better’. This sense of superiority – the “I’m better than you” mentality – is what begins to drive wedges between people. This is obvious in people who begin to become ultra-critical of what others are doing, who are spending a great deal of energy trying to differentiate themselves from others.
As I’ve come to realise, ‘setting myself apart’ from others has damaged my inter-personal relationships somewhat over the years. It was always impressed on me the importance of ‘standing out from the crowd’, whether it was applying for a job, running a business, or promoting a personal brand. This is definitely a strong cultural narrative in modern Western society, the idealisation of rugged individualism, the DIY paradigm.
I’ve come to realise that taken to an extreme, this idea can be harmful, and that for some people at some times does not serve their best interests (see my related articles here and here) – at least it has been for me. However I’m not sure I could have gained this perspective without having experienced it; having isolated myself in the fortified walls of my own creation, I now have the beauty of hindsight to see the effects this has.
So the trick is finding the sweet-spot between remaining true to our nature, and yet remaining in fellowship with others towards a common purpose.
Left of centre
The part of me that wants to remain distinct from everyone else is by definition my ego. In many ways, I owe my self-gnosis to having lived my life this way. I am confident that I know who I am, what my values are, and what my perceptual biases and layers of conditioning are; of course this is an ongoing process, so there will always be a degree of learning here.
However I also have to recognise that it has also created some obstruction of my potential, in that I really don’t know how to share this potential. For the most part, my intention has always been to set myself apart from others, and have my light shining. But what would happen if allowed this light to be concealed (not snuffed out), and ceased trying to achieve personal salvation and enlightenment? What would happen if I sought to humble myself to being part of an ordinary, mundane world? What if I sought to live my life in the community as being the same as everyone else?
This has been part of the motivation for ceasing to operate my own business as an entrepreneur, and go to being an employee. Of course, I am not going to forget my true nature or my drive to achieve my personal goals; but I can also place less emphasis on them and bring some more attention to collective goals, whether this is in my inter-personal relationships, or as the member of a community.
On the intra-personal level, this is not being so concerned with the alchemical goal of revealing my primal, true nature; or the achievement of spiritual enlightenment. It seems this is the ‘Middle Way’ – conscious, deliberate seeking is as much incorrect as complete mindlessness. I can keep my uniqueness ‘inside of me’, while assimilating with my community with the aim of achieving something together.
I’d like to understand today,
Then maybe I would know who I was,
When I was when it was yesterday
So the hexagram Tóngrén illuminates the conditions when we need to be this way. There will be different moments that call us to behave and act differently to this. However this is the time now to be coming together in harmony with others. Our world is too fragmented at present, there is much division. In many respects, I see a parallel with the divisions within our global civilisation and the socio-political conditions of China during the ‘Warring States’ period. Even within the context of my personal journey with the I Ching, however, I realise that there is a division within myself, the conflict between wanting to be different, and wanting to be like everyone else. At a higher level, there is a commonality of purpose: harmony. And it’s working towards this purpose that is what helps me become whole.