In the first place, seeing an great person means finding a role model or guide. Find someone who can advise, ideally someone who’s been there and done that. Or go to the person who has more influence, make an important connection with someone who can make a difference. Richard Rutt suggests that in Zhou times it could mean ‘taking counsel, preparing for battle, parleying with enemy leaders, or consulting high soothsayers.’
(It may also have a more specific meaning: when a ‘great person’ is mentioned in the Shijing, in Odes 189 and 190, this is the one who divines the meaning of dreams. So Wu Jing Nuan in his Yijing maintained that the ‘great person’ was the diviner.)
The first advice to ‘see the great person’ – our introduction to the idea, in a way – comes in Hexagram 1, line 2:
See the dragon in the field.
Harvest in seeing the great person.
The line draws a simple parallel: seeing the dragon in the field, seeing the great person. I think that as the dragon becomes visible in the field – instead of being submerged and of ‘no use’ as it was in line 1 – the possibilities for making an inspiration a reality are starting to appear, too. So now it’s time to see the great person, who embodies what you want to see realised. She can provide the necessary vision and perspective so you see something more than present inadequacies.
The great person appears again at line 5, where the dragon is flying in heaven. I think dragons, among other things, are a line connecting present and potential. They bring the rain that turns a dusty handful of seeds into growing plants. The dragon flies in heaven revealing possibilities; the great person with her feet on the ground shows how they can become real.
So how do you recognise a ‘great person’ when you meet one? The key is in that word, re-cognise: know again. You only choose someone as a role model because they remind you of your private image of how you want to be. Or you choose an advisor because they embody something you recognise as wisdom, something you aspire to be able to access within yourself.
Seeing the great person doesn’t have to mean seeking out another person: it can sometimes simply be a matter of seeing what is great within yourself, and coming from there. (Asoka Selvarajah’s article, Who is the Higher Self?, is a worthwhile read on this.) The ideal would be to climb to a perspective above your personal involvement. This can be a remote ideal, of course, which is why we have marriage counsellors. Sometimes we do need the external image and authority provided by another person: in Hexagram 6, for example, ‘seeing the great person’ very often means ‘find someone who can arbitrate’.
One final idea (that I think I learned from Carol Anthony): whoever you’re dealing with, Yi may challenge you to see and interact with their ‘great person’.