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A place to watch your soul

A place to watch your soul

There’s a much-quoted passage from Wang Bi’s General Remarks on the Zhouyi about concepts and images:

“Images are the means to express ideas. …The images are generated by ideas, thus one can ponder the images and so observe what the ideas are. The ideas are yielded up completely by the images, and the images are made explicit by the words. Thus, since the words are the means to explain the images, once one gets the images, he forgets the words, and, since the images are the means to allow us to concentrate on the ideas, once one gets the ideas, he forgets the images. Similarly, ‘…the fish trap exists for the sake of fish; once one gets the fish, he forgets the trap.’ If this is so, then …the images are traps for the ideas.

…Anything that corresponds analogously to an idea can serve as its image, and any concept that fits with an idea can serve as corroboration of its nature. If the concept involves really has to do with dynamism, why must it only be presented in terms of the horse?”

(From RJ Lynn, Classic of Changes – the complete Yijing with all ten Wings and Wang Bi’s original commentary.)

Now, I know next to nothing about Wang Bi’s thought, and I’m quoting excerpts out of context – and also out of the historical context within which he was writing. I believe he was emphasising that images are metaphors and point beyond themselves, rather than necessarily trying to argue that imagery is basically redundant and can be usefully discarded in favour of abstractions.

However, his choice of words (and imagery!) does lend itself to support of that view… so here’s another quotation, in support of an alternative.

This is from James Hillman, A Blue Fire, talking about dream imagery:

“For instance, a black snake comes in a dream, a great big black snake, and you can spend a whole hour with this black snake talking about the devouring mother, talking about the anxiety, talking about the repressed sexuality, talking about the natural mind, all those interpretive moves that people make, and what is left, what is vitally important, is what that snake is doing […] The moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it, and then the person leaves the hour with a concept about my repressed sexuality, or my cold black passions or my mother or whatever it is, and you’ve lost the snake. […] See, the snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted, and you don’t need your dreams any more because they’ve been interpreted.”

So Hillman agrees that once you have the concept, you might discard the image… he just doesn’t see this as such a helpful move.

He continues:

“But I think you need them all the time, you need that very image you had during the night. For example, a policeman, chasing you down the street… you need that image, because that image keeps you in an imaginative possibility … if you say, ‘Oh, my guilt complex is loose again and is chasing me down the street,’ it’s a different feeling, because you’ve taken up the unknown policeman into your ego system of what you know, your guilt. You’ve absorbed the unknown into the known (made the unconscious conscious) and nothing, absolutely nothing has happened, nothing. You’re really safe from that policeman, and you can go to sleep again.”

There are two pages here I could happily quote in their entirety… but just three more sentences:

The image is always more inclusive, more complex than the concept.

“The images are where the psyche is.”

“The gift of an image is that it affords a place to watch your soul.”

This corresponds with my own experience from readings with Yi. Its images – made of lines, trigrams, words, deep etymological roots, allusions to myth and legend… – are not reducible to concepts, and not replaceable in the divination process. (This is why I go on endlessly about how vital it is to have a translation that gives you as much access as possible to that original richness of imagery. Even if the author has done a superlative job of expressing the a concept behind the image, this is not the gift.)

It’s one thing to consider how you need better ‘personal boundaries’ when responding to other people’s emotions. It’s something else altogether to be given the image of your self as a mountain with space for a lake. This can become part of your bodily awareness of your emotions, and allows you to change and recreate your sense of self out of this new imagery.

And again… it’s one thing to cogitate on the importance of courage and action amidst the unknown; quite another to imagine how your ‘connected heart’ could be like water flowing through Repeated Chasms. Or 40.4: understanding you need to let go control is one thing; fully experiencing the relaxation as you physically loosen your grip is different.

I think everyone who gets to know the Yi will experience this effect of its imagery. For instance, there was the time I asked about empathy (experiencing other people’s emotions as my own) and received Hexagram 31, and that mountain and lake became part of me. Yi has the power somehow to reshape your inner landscape.

I often see this at work when reading for others. Advising someone that they need to be strong and confident (not, as a rule, news to anyone) would not be the same as telling them they can change like a tiger. (A remarkable transformation to behold!) What happens here is far beyond anything I might ‘explain’ to the person I’m reading for, or anything that either of us might ‘understand’.

Perhaps this is how an image Yi offers is a different kind of gift from those that arise in dreams – not only a place to watch your soul, as Hillman says, but somehow a place, a shaping force, that allows it to change.

fish glimpsed through water's surface


6 responses to A place to watch your soul

  1. Hillman’s view is echoed in Martin Heidegger’s criticism of Plato in “Being and Time”. Plato teaches us to consider that abstractions are purest (i.e. more real). The belief that theory has more authority (and thereby value) than practice (mundane existence) has become engrained in our culture over many, many centuries. So we don’t question our drive to uncover the “overarching principle” or “underpinning truth” as it has impeccable pedigree.

    Heidegger’s thesis is that, in this process, we have overlooked the nature of being. We take possibly the most profound and influential aspect of life completely for granted. I like his view that only the continuous present moment can be “real” in any meaningful sense. Most of what we believe are true “facts” (our memories, history, scientific investigation, logical deduction etc.) are at best derivative commentary. Being fixed, like a photo snapshot, these inevitably can only reflect a limited amount of truth.

    Images work like bible stories: they are signposts and the best ones are unremittingly ambiguous. Using a different metaphor, they show “This” in some particular light, and we may or may not be sensitive too what is revealed.

    However, the problem isn’t with the concepts being fixed. Images can become stale, too. The problem is our desire to have the water-course way (the Dao) of the flowing Moment pinned down: under our control and accessible on demand.

    Unfortunately, as particle physicists have discovered, there is a trade-off between accuracy and truth. The idea that we can pursue accuracy to find truth is an illusion, with “Not Knowing” (Hexagram 4) a good antidote.

  2. (*Re-reading carefully* – oh yes. Um, ouch? 😉 )

    Thank you for the thoughts, and the framework for thoughts. I imagine you’re right that the drive to get from image to concept is the same as that desire to have it ‘pinned down’. Hexagram 29 is another good antidote to such things.

  3. Hi, Hilary or someone: What is missing from this paragraph? Is there a missing word or additional word–“if the concept involves really has to do with dynanism”, etc.

    “Anything that corresponds analogously to an idea can serve as its image, and any concept that fits with an idea can serve as corroboration of its nature. If the concept involves really has to do with dynamism, why must it only be presented in terms of the horse?”

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