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Layers of story

The more I look into the King Wen sequence, the more depths I discover. Take the two hexagrams that describe grand, historic events of legendary proportions: 49, Radical Change, and 55, Abundance. Hexagram 49 describes the time of revolution, when the Zhou people overthrew the Shang. And hexagram 55 has been identified with a key moment a little earlier in the story, when King Wen had died at the garrison city of Feng, and Heaven gave his son Wu the sign to forego mourning, take on the mandate, and march out.

Hexagram 49, Revolution, pairs with 50, the Vessel – an image of huge resonance for the founding of a new order. And Feng pairs with 56, the Sojourner, the experience of going outside the walls of your own city and into a land where everything does not follow from your conviction any more – where you don’t belong.

But what’s truly fascinating is what happens next. Hexagrams 51 and 52 are the doubled trigrams of thunder and mountain; Hexagrams 57 and 58 are the doubled trigrams of wind and lake. The two hexagram pairs that, uniquely, centre on pivotal moments in Zhou experience – history on the grand scale – are both followed by a doubled-trigram pair. What’s happening here?

The key themes of hexagrams 49 and 50 are change and continuity. There was an unbroken thread, in old China, of connection to the past; it ran through the living king and the deceased ancestors, and held the natural and human worlds in harmony. Make change at random, sever this lifeline, and the world would fall apart in ominous disasters, drought and famine.

And the key themes of 55 to 56 are the strength of a mandate, a calling, set against the fabric of tradition that weaves society together. When Wu decides not to mourn his father and to lead the troops, is he following the mandate, or does his breach of tradition damage the world beyond repair? What is a true calling, how will you know it, and how far can you go in following your own standard against the ways of the world? Hexagram 56 tells the cautionary tale of Hai, the nomad king whose flouting of local mores led to his death.

In these ‘legendary’ hexagrams, these themes are played out in a big story, on a grand stage. But then, they enter the subtler, more reflective world of repeated trigrams.

In hexagram 51, Shock, the world is coming apart. The sky is falling, the sky is falling. And yet, someone does not lose the sacred ladle and libation. This is the key figure of 51 – the one who ensures that what is sacred is not lost through all the upheaval. He’s not merely pitting his strength against the change, though; the Shock itself enlivens his awareness and renews his grasp. He’s received the revolution and understood it as a wake-up call. ‘The noble one in fear and trembling sets things in order and is watchful.’ Hexagram 52, Keeping Still, marks out that point of inner stillness, holding steady and being with what is really there, regardless of outer turmoil.

And when the saga of Feng and of the Sojourner enters into hexagrams 57 to 58, their dilemma is ‘processed’ in a similar way. 57 is ‘Rooting’, inner and outer seals of identity. It’s not enough in the end to hold your inner nature separate from the world, neither influenced nor influencing; you have to find your way home. And Hexagram 57’s lines do reflect the anxiety of finding your place: ‘rooting’ into inner knowledge in search of assurance, bringing out the kernel at the fifth line. Having once entered this territory of ‘knowing the seeds’ from the inside, it becomes possible to move outward and become visible again. Hexagram 58 turns such knowledge inside out, entering into relationship on the strength of these Roots.

There is, of course, a whole lot more to be said…
Still, one of the joys of blogging is having permission to share ideas with you long before they’re honed and polished. It seems to me that themes first played out by the hexagrams of legend, 49-50 and 55-56, are then revisited by the doubled trigrams – no longer as narratives, but as ways of being. It’s something we do ourselves: going over events again in our minds, re-integrating them as part of our emotional experience.

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