– or, How just a Smidgen of Background Knowledge can take you a Surprisingly Long Way.
As soon as you start talking with the Yijing, it’s apparent that there are things here you don’t understand. ‘Crossing the great river’, for instance. You probably don’t make a habit of wading rivers, especially not rivers big enough to drown you, so what on earth does Yi mean by saying it would be fruitful to cross one now?
Well… you read commentaries, engage your child-mind (who knows that you’d only try to wade a big river if you were really sure about it), maybe pick up a bit of history (oh, or a glossary – can’t miss the opportunity to plug that), and you get an idea of what it means to cross the great river.
I think it’s actually harder to get inside the imagery that sounds more familiar. People email me from time to time to ask the meaning of ‘cross the great river’, but no-one’s emailed yet to ask what ‘hunting’ means, or ‘taking a woman to wife – presumably because we all already know what those mean.
Except that, of course, when it comes to these images in the Yi we actually have no clue. After all, most of the readings that feature marriage as an image-to-think-with don’t involve romantic relationships, any more than most of the readings that mention ‘crossing the great river’ involve waders. We need that background knowledge more than ever – not necessarily an encyclopaedic amount, but just enough to nourish the imagination and let us start to respond to the reading.
An example – I see quite a lot of Hexagram 31, Influence, in readings about handling emotions – sometimes other people’s emotions picked up empathically, sometimes my own.
‘Influence, creating success.
Constancy bears fruit.
Taking a woman, good fortune.’
Marry? Why? How? Whom? How is marrying supposed to help me handle this [terror/ restlessness/ joy/ nameless emotion] (delete as appropriate). This is beyond fuzzy.
But the picture starts to clear as I reflect on how, when a man married in ancient China, he took his wife into his home. So to ‘take a woman’ is to take her in and make space (or find space, or recognise that the space was always there) for her inside.
Also… that the same verb ‘take’ means literally taking something in your hand, and is used of an idea, to mean ‘apprehend, grasp’. So there’s the idea of grasping and owning the emotion (wherever it came from), of getting a grip on it.
So if I imagine myself as the man taking a wife (and if you can’t imagine yourself in the opposite gender – men, too – you are certainly using the wrong oracle) then I have a sense of taking hold of the emotion, accepting it and allowing it in, having space for it inside myself and my daily life. (This might seem obvious, but it makes a difference for me: my default mode would be ignore it, push it out, and find a distraction.) And, of course, I can expect this to change everything – he couldn’t bring the woman into his home and then continue just as before.
And conversely, if I had Hexagram 44 instead on the same topic –
‘Coupling, the woman is powerful.
Do not take this woman.’
– I would know that this was too powerful for me and I shouldn’t attempt to own and internalise it. For instance, I think if I saw this in a preliminary reading about a prospective client (I sometimes ask Yi ‘how could I help x?’ before we first talk), I might apologetically decline to work for them, because I wouldn’t be up to the task of ‘taking on’ their experience.
There… one small example of the difference even a smattering of background knowledge can make by opening a door into a reading.