Repetitive Entrapment


An alternative translation to Hexagram 29 from the I Ching

I’ve recently translated and contemplated this section from the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. This article is put together from my scribblings on the meaning of the symbol, taking into account knowledge from Taoist Alchemy and Chinese history, as well my experience of the Year of the Earth Dog.


Hello darkness, my old friend
— Simon & Garfunkel
Photo by Benjamin Sow on Unsplash

In the context of understanding the hexagram ䷜坎 KǍN, it is important to recognise the significance of the visual symbol. In the trigram ☵ Kǎn, the limitless potential of ☰ Qián (the trigram representing Heaven/Yáng) has become encompassed and contained by material manifestation (the broken lines are yīn, solid matter); it is an image of empty space within solid matter — hence the idea of a pit or an abyss which traps us.

And what is it that traps us?

Hexagram 29, 坎 KǍN, the Abyss

In one sense of course, it is often the circumstances that arise in the material, external world. Shit happens — our lives don’t exist in a vacuum. The temporal, real world is complex because there  are billions (if not trillions) of lives in an inter-dependent web of co-existence. The company we work for becomes insolvent and we lose our job, we lose a loved one, we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or our country is invaded by a foreign, hostile force; these are all things that happen no matter how positive an attitude we have, or how virtuous a person we are. There is often too much emphasis on personal choices and positive attitudes in the modern self-development industry. What the I Ching teaches us — and this hexagram specifically so — is that how we respond to such situations is more important than the nature of the situation itself.

But what happens when we find ourselves getting trapped in an abyss repeatedly? This is the real essence of ䷜坎 KǍN‘s teachings. And when we see after some time that there is a pattern — repetitive, habitual occurrences — then we can begin to examine whether our internal landscape is influencing our external circumstances. What is suggested is that the circumstances themselves are different (and maybe not necessarily that dangerous); but the pattern is how we react to situations we consider dangerous. That is the entrapment that happens.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night
— George Harrison

This is why I feel Alfred Huang’s choice of “Darkness” as the name of the hexagram is good. As one of the ‘timeless gua’, ䷜坎 KǍN describes an ever-present state that can occur in any specific moment.

Will we follow a pattern based on acquired conditioning, or will we cease reacting to situations in a nuanced patterned manner, and allow our true nature to guide us?

This is why the Decision states:

有孚維心亨。Yǒu fú wéi xīn hēng.
To have trust in preserving the Heart/Mind [brings] prosperity.Hexagram 29, the Decision, I Ching (my translation)

The light that emanates from our Heart/Mind can pierce the darkness of the abyss. This is also why it is really only the two yáng lines (co-rulers of the hexagram) which offer any hope in such a moment. They represent our primordial nature that, once restored, will be vital to achieving our mandated Purpose.

It's easy somehow, what once was elusive
Is calling me now
— Kansas

As much as the patterns of falling into the abyss are a sign of danger, there is also a benefit to repetition. This is evidenced by the Commentary on the Decision where it states:

坎之時用大矣哉! Kǎn zhī shí yòng dà yǐ zāi!
Employing entrapment at its [appropriate] time is great indeed!

Hexagram 29, Commentary on the Decision, I Ching, (my translation)

Choosing to enter the ravine when appropriate will help us learn and grow — especially when external circumstances are the impetus for such. In these cases, we should seek to relish such moments and use them as best as possible to learn about our Darkness, and discover what our patterns actually are, in order to learn how to transcend them. 

Well it seems like I'm caught up in your trap again
And it seems like I'll be wearin' the same ol' chains
Good will conquer evil and the truth will set you free
Then I know someday I'll find the key
— Bruce Springsteen

This is implied by the use of the character 習 in the name and the text. This character can also be used for the verb ‘to learn’ or ‘to study’, and implies learning through habitual, constant practice. There is something very educational about having patterns of behaviour, and more importantly in recognising them. These patterns would always be there, but what ䷜坎 KǍN affords is the time to examine the patterns, and discern their usefulness or not. The abyss is thus not only a dangerous place, but a threshold into our soul, a portal into the core of our true nature, and a way to teach us what it is we value. 

In this sense, it reminds me of the Hero’s Journey into the Underworld as described by Joseph Campbell. The psychological nature of the Underworld is well written about, especially by Jungian thinkers, and I am certain we’re I to go back and read Jung’s own writings on the I Ching would draw parallels between the teachings of KǍN and the realm of the Unconscious.

Darkness falls and she will take me by the hand
Take me to some twilight land
Where all but love is grey
Where I can't find my way
— Roy Orbison

In any case, ䷜坎 KǍN is a hexagram with considerable depth, and I don’t feel it is a coincidence. The element of water has always been associated with mystery and the unknown, with dreams and what they can reveal to us of our true nature. The patterns of our conditioning can one hand lead us into terrible crises; and on the other hand can also provide opportunities for growth and enlightenment. It is no mistake that the following hexagram in the sequence is the symbol for the light that inevitably emerges out of the darkness.

Sudden problems shouldn't take away the startled memory
All in all, the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you've ever seen and known
— Yes



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