...life can be translucent

4, Not Knowing

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This has to be one of the more uncomfortable and frustrating hexagrams to receive. And then there is its reputation as the Yijing’s way of issuing a reprimand when you ask too many questions. It’s true that that’s what it sounds like:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young learner, the young learner seeks me.
The first consultation is clearly informative.
The second and third muddy the waters,
Confusing, and hence not informative.
Harvest in constancy.’

But it would be a mistake to get ‘stuck’ on this reputation. For one thing, Yi is not like some irascible grandparent who gets fed up with being questioned – and anyway, its repertory of rude responses to misguided questions is much more impressive than this. More seriously, there is so much more to be learned from Not Knowing.

It’s worth knowing that this hexagram often dramatises someone else’s perspective, warning you that this is what you’ll encounter. It’s not an uncommon scenario when someone receives hexagram 4: they’ll be in a hurry, eager for answers, while the person they’re questioning is reluctant. If they keep on asking they may provoke a negative emotional response – anything except the answer they were hoping for. (Here’s an audio file with some examples of this.) And Not Knowing is the very opposite of Radical Change (Hexagram 49): this role of the ignorant petitioner is not something you can transform by force of will.

But the real question is, why would we want to? It’s only when you don’t know that you can learn anything: the position of the learner is an honourable one, not an embarrassment to escape. The Judgement says firmly that there is ‘harvest in constancy’; the commentary on the Judgement says that ‘his will (the questioner’s) responds to mine’. So when you’re sure that Yi is speaking directly to you through the judgement (rather than enacting someone else’s response), there’s no need to feel dismissed. There is actually encouragement here to keep learning – only not by clutching for answers.

Not Knowing stands at the very beginning of our experience – the second half of the Yijing’s first inverted pair of hexagrams, where yin and yang intermingle for the first time. Hexagram 3, Sprouting, expands its range of possibilities, but stays rooted:

‘Sprouting: seeing, and not letting go your dwelling place.
Not knowing: disordered and also clear.’

The young ignoramus steps out into the world, and finds it to be much bigger and more confusing than she ever imagined. I was strongly reminded of this the other day when I dipped into a beginners’ book on NLP (neuro-linguistic programming). Learning, it said, started with ‘unconscious incompetence’ – when you don’t even know what you don’t know – and progresses into ‘conscious incompetence’. At this stage,

‘You know enough to know that you are not very good and it takes a lot of your conscious attention. This stage is uncomfortable, but it is also when you are learning the most.’

So Not Knowing is not an embarrassment, but a stage of learning. It may even be a stage that passes naturally in its own time as your understanding develops: the nuclear hexagram, Returning (#24) indicates that at heart this is about awareness that grows from inside. And the Image suggests that this comes about not so much through the answers you can get, as through experience:

‘Below the mountain, spring water comes forth. Not Knowing.
The noble one uses the fruits of action to nurture his character.’


That beginners’ NLP book: Principles of NLP, Joseph O’Connor, Ian McDermott

Further listening:

Experiences with Hexagram 4

…and reading:

Hexagram 4 and seeking meaning


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