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21, Biting Through

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A reader emailed me this question:

“At the moment I keep getting 21 ‘biting through’. It puzzles me because I never really know if it’s a positive ‘biting through’ to move onwards, or a negative ‘something’s biting me through’.

It probably hits other people in the same way, so perhaps it’s a good one for you to write about?

With all good wishes,

As a rule, ‘Biting Through’ is something you do, not something that happens to you. It always indicates that there is a problem to be tackled, and usually you are the one who needs to get your teeth into it. The basic pattern of this hexagram, which you can understand at all levels from personal to social, is the presence of some obstacle to unity, like something tough between your teeth. It may be some deception or a third party keeping a relationship apart, or some obstacle such as self-deception dividing you from yourself: in all cases, it has to be bitten through to restore wholeness and make things work again.

There are two words to this hexagram’s title: ‘gnawing biting’, shih, and ‘(biting) together’, ho. Early characters for shih show a bamboo-shaman (a diviner with yarrow stalks) and a mouth; that for ho has another mouth, and a pot with a close-fitting lid. So we have divination that reaches the truth with words, and a perfect ‘bite’ – a healthy, effective unity.

This is about getting to the truth – especially, getting through illusions of separation. Divination with the surviving yarrow oracle, the I Ching, certainly has a way of cutting through dividing lines between ‘ordinary life’ and ‘spiritual experience’. It encourages you to take experience into yourself in order to process it and bring out its essence.

The Judgement shows this pattern more clearly on a larger scale: there is ‘harvest in going to law’. Litigation represents determination to reach truth, to encompass a situation and bite through its deceptions, as expressed by a whole society. And the Image uses the same concept: ‘ancient kings brought light to punishments to enforce the laws.’

There are two ways to understand ‘bringing light to punishment’. Tradition says (and my experience agrees) that the first and last moving lines describe someone suffering punishment: receiving either of these two could indicate that you were the one ‘bitten’ by experience. In that case, you would be trying to find some internal logic or meaning behind the ordeal, so that you could use the experience to bring out truth.

But if you adopt the perspective of the ancient kings, then you will identify with their work to create an ordered, harmonious life. This depends on the smooth combination of action and clear understanding – the two trigrams, thunder inside and fire or lightning outside. Law and penalties, when discovered through trial and error, are not enough: there is no point in punishing yourself or others for breaching unknown rules.

The Great Treatise describes an old tradition according to which this hexagram inspired the first market:

‘When the sun stood at midday, the Divine Husbandman held a market. He caused the people of the earth to come together and collected the wares of the earth. They exchanged these with one another, then returned home, and each thing found its place.’

The sun at noon shines down on the bustle of trade, and individual needs and gifts unite to create a harmonious balance, where ‘each thing finds its place’.

But as soon as someone at the market calls out ‘Finest silk!’ Biting Through starts to blend into its pair: Hexagram 22, Beauty. The sequence leading from 21 to 22 says that ‘beings cannot be united carelessly,’ and indeed the moving lines of Hexagram 22 do describe marital and courtship ceremonies. After you have bitten through to the essence, you need to find ways to express it; inner work is matched by the task of finding a true face for the world.As I started to fit that final paragraph together, the following contribution arrived in my email for my little I Ching Resources site:

“From my very first contact with the I Ching (34 yrs ago), I have felt a very strong connection and thoroughly enjoyed the process of working up a specific hexagram. But I had reached a point in a highly tormented part of my life where I should stop. I decided to burn the edition I had (gives you an idea of the state of mind I was in). I asked the oracle for any last words and “21 – Biting Through” was the answer. I was struck by the integrity of the answer: Here in its last moments before being consumed in fire, the oracle answered in truth – I was trying to “bite through” the predicament I had created. This experience was never forgotten and it taught me the example of Truth and Integrity. Twenty years later I was re-introduced to the oracle by a friend. I threw the coins. The result was “21 – Biting Through”. The oracle and I could re-establish our connection as if there was no time passage whatsoever. This taught me that Time has no dominion over certain truths…”

Further reading from the blog:

A shared dao of 21 and 48

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