A few years ago, seven or eight years, perhaps, I started having sleep problems. Not one to pop anything that requires a prescription unless I absolutely have to, I refused to seek that kind of help: I rather feed the pharmaceutical of my own choosing. So, what’s a sleepless man to do? I reached for Melatonin. I took Melatonin every single night, in 3mg doses, for years. After all, it is a very safe and “natural” way to fight insomnia. Weird me, I didn’t get one of the most common side-effects of Melatonin: vivid dreaming. On the contrary, I know I dreamed, of course, but I couldn’t remember most of my dreams. Recalling them was just about impossible.
About four months ago I decided to stop taking Melatonin. It was just a test prompted by finishing my supply and me being too lazy to go to the pharmacy just for that and buy some more for the night. I thought Let’s try going without it. That night I slept like a teenager… Still do. The other interesting thing that happened is that I started remembering my dreams again, in detail. Trust me to row against the current of “common side-effects.”
“So what?”, most would say. Well, the thing is, after that little introduction, that I’d like to recount a dream I had the other night. It involves Cher, nudity, some wild outdoors and the hexagrams of the Yijing.
Now that I have your attention…
Cher, the artist with a long career, is a lot of things to many people, no questions about that, but, would it cross your mind she could be a self-help guru? In my dream, she was. Come to think of it, if she gets a whiff of this, I think she’d consider it and give Tony Robbins some serious competition. Although I cannot recall her exact teachings, I remember it was some sort of mix of Daoism and Naturism. In my dream, all the Daoistictalk coming from her made it somewhat natural she would use Yijing metaphors and examples. What was interesting, and odd at the same time, was that she kept talking about hexagram 38, but, what she was showing on a big screen behind her was hexagram 55.
I’ll come back to those later because they are worth mulling over within the context of the dream. In the meantime I will however continue with the dream itself. I did mention Naturism, right? Well, the thing is that at a certain point in the session, which was held either at a big mansion or a manor, we all stripped down naked and walked down the stairs and outside. There was a wood nearby with a small stream of water. it must have been a pine barren as the soil, specially around the stream, was sandy and peaty. I don’t remember seeing rocks around but rather rolling meadows.
Now, wait, this wasn’t one of those stereotypical dreams where you are suddenly naked in front of a crowd, either ignoring your nakedness or gaping at you. No, this was a mindful get naked call and prepare for whatever comes type of nakedness. Regardless, I remember going down the stairs, looking left and right and feeling totally inadequate for whatever the task was ahead. I guess that, in the privacy of my dreams, I am really shy. (Ahem, like I am any different in the waking world…)
The next thing I remember was walking alongside the clear stream and spotting two salamanders, one black and the other one white. But these weren’t just regular salamanders, they had gills sticking out around the head, something I don’t recall seeing before. After some research I found out they in fact exist and weren’t some figment of my imagination: They were Axolotl. These salamanders are native of Mexico and the name means “water monster” in Nahuatl.
Then I woke up… Quite upsetting, really, as I suspected the dream was about to get even more interesting. Dreams have a tendency to disappoint more on the account that then end than on their actual content.
Hmmm, what does all that means? I haven’t the faintest idea nor I think I can analyze it myself. Alas, I’m sure it would amuse more than a few shrinks.
What I can do is play with some familiar images in the dream. The hexagrams, for example, are rich in meaning by themselves. In combination they are fascinating. But where is the context? Most of the time, looking for context after a sign is presented to us, is like placing the cart in front of the horses. The reason we consult an oracle like the Yijing is to clarify our own obscure present context. Not sure if I should explain what ‘context’ means here but it is used in the sense of it being the sum of our own personal life and circumstances. The Yijing floats above personal contexts. Think of it as clouds up above us. When one consults the oracle, what comes down to us, sometimes as rain, at times as snow, the occasional hail, or the rare lighting strike, is the contextually charged omen. For the most part, it is a pulled answer rather than a random offering from above. As if we were half controlling the weather and decide when, but not what, comes down to us. So, what do we do when omens come uninvited? When lighting just strikes? When omens just start raining on us? Well, we try to do our best to figure them out.
I think there are a couple of ways to approach this. One is to take the hexagrams individually and see what they’re saying on their own. The other one, as the dream is suggesting, is to relate them. For that, I would take hexagram 38 as main and 55 as the relating hexagram:
Three changing lines, in positions 2, 3, and 6, take 38 to 55.
It should be noted that the use of numbers to refer to hexagrams is a very modern construct, specially in China. It is more of a Western convenience that Chinese. They were always referred by their names. Moreover, when James Legge published his translation of the Yijing in 1882, the names were the only part of the text that was left untranslated, or rather, he tried to transliterate the original Chinese characters into English. For example, the name of 38, which is 睽, was transliterated by Legge as KHWEI and used as its name, no translation. What I’m trying to say is that perhaps Legge had the right idea about the names of the hexagrams as, of all the text of the Yijing, the names are the trickiest part to translate: Once you “name” something, in an apparent vacuum of context, such as the names of Yijing hexagrams, it tends to fix its meaning. This is particularly true in syllabic languages, such as English. As opposed to English, where we can infer a particular meaning in a straight forward linear continuity for most words, Chinese characters in isolation, and Ancient Chinese in particular, behave like a fuzzy field of meanings where content is inferred mostly by context and syntax. Thus, translating the names of the hexagrams, where most of them are single characters, is an imprecise affair that’s prone to misinterpretations. Remember, the context of the hexagrams, and thus their names, is usually derived from the rest of the text attached to them as well as their constituent parts, such as the component trigrams, and not the other way around. Once meaning is fixed by a Western word it is difficult to see beyond it and a whole forest is gone behind that huge tree in front of our noses. So, what to do? Well, personally, I rather focus on the whole of the “fuzzy field of meaning” and, if and when I affix meaning to a hexagram name, it is done contextually with the situation at hand. Yes, one must make an effort and try to learn the language, even if in a specialist way.
Now, as a starting point, if we take Wilhelm/Baynes as both, one of the most serious and popular translations of the Yijing in English, we should use “Opposition” as the name for 38. However, the character has a range of possible meanings in English, viz. to “separate / separated (as separated from friends or partners) / in opposition / to squint / to stare at / unusual / strange.” Taking a look at an early bronze version of the character, I interpret the cross-like symbol beneath the eyes as being one of two things: either four hands/arms pulling in opposite directions or tree branches growing apart. It occurs to me that, being this a very particular situation, an attention demanding situation, rather than “opposition,” a meaning of “staring/unusual/strange” should perhaps apply.
Remember the eyes in the bronze character? Perhaps the name was attached to the hexagram by simple observation as there are two eyes built into it in the form of trigram Li, which among quite a few other things, such as weapons, means that (please see 38 above).
Interestingly when two Li trigrams are so closely intermingled, in five lines, there is also a chasm between them in the form of trigram Kan. Of the body parts, Kan is the ears.
The remaining trigram at the bottom is Dui and represents the mouth and speech. It also represents metal and killing, etc., as well as joyousness. Paradoxes… Indeed, if we go by the meaning of the trigrams, the overall inferred meaning of the hexagram could be separation due to gossip and arguing and thus one of the meanings of the character name. Mind you, the Confucian commentary to the Judgment rightfully calls that there are two daughters living together that have little in common, which is also derived from the meaning of the trigrams. It appears sibling rivalry has been around since mothers have given birth to more than one child.
Whole books have and can be written about the trigrams and their interaction. That is to say, it is beyond the scope of a lowly blog post, so I’ll leave that exploration in the hands of those sufficiently interested in it.
“In small matters, good fortune” (小事吉。), says the Judgment of 38. Bickering is never conducive to big endeavors…
Focusing on the lines, we have three of them changing:
- 38.2: One meets his lord in a narrow street. No blame.
- 38.3: One sees the wagon dragged back, The oxen halted, A man’s hair and nose cut off. Not a good beginning, but a good end.
- 38.6: Isolated through opposition, One sees one’s companion as a pig covered with dirt, As a wagon full of devils. First one draws a bow against him, then one lays the bow aside. He is not a robber; he will woo at the right time. As one goes, rain falls; then good fortune comes.
There is a story here. First we have someone, perhaps ourselves, who meets authority, a leader, in an alley; not by chance but by design, a planned encounter. The place is out of the way and appears to indicate intrigue. The type of place where future, furtive actions are plotted. That plotting seems to be to our advantage as we are told that there’s no blame in such an encounter. As the next scene moves forward we find ourselves the observers of something happening. A wagon, pulled by an oxen, is halted and turned back. A man, usually assumed to be the driver of the wagon, is detained and abused, tortured and marked as a criminal (I interpret 天 in 38.3 as “branding the forehead” as opposed the more commonly used “cutting the hair or shaving the head”). We can also assume those detaining him are guards, perhaps guards manning a road checkpoint, as they would have the authority to administer such punishments. Both punishments, branding and cutting a person’s nose, were two of the most common, with over a thousand menial crimes they could be applied to. The guards obviously found fault with the man and would not let him pass unscathed but, then, surprisingly, they actually do let him go on his way. Then we reappear and find ourselves antagonizing, rushing to conclusions, perhaps in the same way the guards did with the man in 38.3. Perhaps the same man is that companion whom we demonize at first sight. We are about to kill the person we believe to be a robber but something is said to us that make us change our mind and we are on our way again, into the rain, which isn’t an ominous sign but a preamble to fulfillment.
The story continues in 55. There, I’ll take the resonating lines of 38, namely 55,2,3,6, as part of the narrative. In the meantime, lets take a look at the name, 豐 (feng1). Translated as “abundance,” shows a tall dish full of wheat. It is one of those characters that have little ambiguity and what little there is, is related to “swelling,” as in lushness. Bumper crops of wheat were rare and the grain itself was respected to a fault. There is story about Cao Cao that tells that
…Cao condemned himself to death for having allowed his horse to stray into a field of grain, violating a military law that dictates any soldier who damages commoners’ crops would be executed. However, in lieu of losing his head, he was persuaded to satisfy his sense of justice by cutting off a lock of his hair. “When you pass a law, see that it is not disobeyed; if it is disobeyed, the offender must be punished.
Again we find, coincidentally, the theme of punishment by hair cutting. Even if self-inflicted, the meaning of the act is very important.
“ABUNDANCE has success. The king attains abundance. Be not sad. Be like the sun at midday.” (豐 亨。王假之。勿憂。宜日中), says the Judgement of 55. Actually, in my modest opinion, it should read “The king comes to it.” 假 is one of those polysemous characters, to such an extent that the most common modern day use and meaning of it is “falsehood, deception; vacation.” Indeed, one of the meanings in Zhou times was “‘Be great’ (of Heaven, rulers), ‘abundance’ [BI, Shi].” (Schuessler), but it is a different type of ‘abundance’ from that of 豐. It talks of a ‘possessed greatness’ that comes from social status and power and such abundance is inferred rather than implied as in 豐. Interestingly, another ancient meaning of 假 is “to come, go to, arrive” as it was related to 格 (Schuessler). It is for that reason that I like my rendering better in this context.
Another interesting character in that line is 亨 (heng1). I am one of those people that thinks that every character in the received text of the Yijing is there with a purpose, however, it has been discussed and suggested that 亨=享 (xiang3) in this context. Shaughnessy, for example, translates 亨 as “receipt” as in “I am in receipt of an ancestral sacrifice.” The meaning of “success and/or fulfillment” is inferred from there. On the other hand, 享, is related to “feasting” and also the “fragrance of grain” (Schuessler). If we follow the suggestion of 亨=享 in most if not all cases in the Yijing, then the pairing of 豐 with 享 seems to keep with the theme of “an abundance of fragrant grain” and success and happiness is also inferred from there.
- 55.2: The curtain is of such fullness that the polestars can be seen at noon. Through going one meets with mistrust and hate. If one rouses him through truth, Good fortune comes.
- 55.3: The underbrush is of such abundance that the small stars can be seen at noon. He breaks his right arm . No blame.
- 55.6: His house is in a state of abundance. He screens off his family. He peers through the gate And no longer perceives anyone. For three years he sees nothing. Misfortune.
The story continues where fulfillment starts. We find the subject of the situation enveloped in such an immediate darkness that the fullness of it excludes everything else and he can focus on things that would normally remain unseen at the instant he finds himself in (*). Alas, what he sees and tries to share is not received with appreciation but with suspicion and perhaps rejected outright by many. The subject appears to remain steadfast, in purpose and conviction, and is able to convince one in a position of authority regarding the truthfulness and timeliness of his mission and events proceed smoothly for a while. At some point, in that same time of out of place darkness, symbolized here by an abundance of underbrush so thick it obscures everything but a few gaps through which he can observe dim flashes of light, he encounters a trying situation over which he has little control and must overcome in the best possible way. Overcome it he does as he reappears in the last scene of this play as one who has achieved wealth and prosperity. The issue with such a time and situation is that the subject is corrupted by it and greed seems to be the ultimate result, to such a point that he drives those closest to him away and finds nothing but desolation for a long period of time. Not a good end for having reached a goal that cost him so much effort.
I did mention that I would “come back to those later because they are worth mulling over within the context of the dream,” didn’t I? Well, mull them over I have and I’ve no clue! Context? What context? A guru Cher hosting a Satsang session with a number of naked acolytes in a house in the woods? Hmmm, surely there is some duality symbolism in the two axolotl in the stream… They were really cute! Nah… There was indeed a message there (hexagrams) but the dream was but a fun delivering device.
(*) As for the physical possibility of something like that happening, some interpretations of this and the next line call for the chronicling of an eclipse in Zhou times, interpretation which I share. Some others, such as Bradford Hatcher’s, interpret this as the subject being deep inside a tunnel or a well, where the ambient glare is eliminated, allowing the observation of stars at midday. My problem with this is that the “polestars,” that is Polaris and the other stars of the Ursa Minor/Little Dipper constellation, from the perspective of the Zhou territory situated roughly between the 32nd to 39th North parallels, are at those same elevations over the horizon: a vertical well would never point to those stars unless near the North Pole and a deep dark tunnel would have to, not only be aligned with the North pole, but also having such an approximate inclination. Even if we consider 斗 as referring to the Big Dipper/Ursa Major, the inclination of this constellation at midday doesn’t favor such a possibility. Not something impossible but, in my opinion, much less likely than a solar eclipse.