Thursday, May 19, 2016

I Ching 1: yáng & yin as the first distinction in the stuff of the world

The only constant is change. I have heard it before, and I probably didn't believe it. After all, the Rocky Mountains have been there forever and will continue to be there forever, right?

Actually, no. Three hundred million years ago tectonic forces pushed up Ancestral Rocky Mountains that preceded the range we now know. Those mountains eroded during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic, a period of at least one hundred million years, leaving extensive deposits of sedimentary rock. The reddish sedimentary rocks of the Front Range are the eroded and oxidized iron cores of the Ancestral Rockies. The current Rocky Mountains were raised between eighty and fifty-five millions of years ago. They are, as mountains go, babies, which is why they tend to be pointy and sharp-edged. The weathering that will eventually erode them away hasn't yet had time to soften their edges. So, mountains change too, though too slowly for us to see unless you go hunting for geological evidence that will eventually allow you to assemble for yourself this long history that the geologists have already worked out.

Even the universe as a whole is busily expanding. Whether the universe will eventually slow its expansion then collapse to a tiny point like the one from which it started, or if it will just expand and entropically cool into inert nothingness remains a matter for debate. Humans prefer symmetry, so we would like endless cycles of expansion and collapse punctuated with Big Bangs to redeem us from a sense of cosmic futility, but cosmologists led by Stephen Hawking currently believe that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, meaning that it has no intention of ever falling back together again.

The house where I have lived much of my life carries with it a sense of permanence because of my personal experience, but when I look around the neighborhood I see that these old GI Bill bungaloes are being torn down and replaced by extravagant three-story behemoths. This neighborhood, called "Northwest Austin" when it was built, is now considered North Central Austin. The gentrification of  the property values are soaring because of the proximity to downtown and the university area.

The world is change, and that is the significance of the formal title of the I Ching: The Book of Changes. The I Ching describes sixty-four situations that I can intuitively use to grasp a situation in the real world. The original goal here lies in providing a catalyst for intuitive understanding and an algebra of change to show into what new situations the current situation might evolve. A complete reading of the I Ching links two or more situations to draw a map of not merely how things can be understood now but how they can be understood as they undergo the inevitable change. Each of the sixty-four scenarios are described in highly metaphorical terms that the consultant must intuitively interpret as if interpreting a dream in a system that is far more Jungian than Freudian. That meaning must be worked out, much like one's own salvation, with fear and trembling.

Later, as the I Ching evolved, it reached beyond the scholars in whose hands it had evolved and fell into vulgar usage as a fortune telling system. At first, the scholars were horrified, and they condemned this misuse of their sacred text. But in time they decided that even a vulgar usage exposed its consultants to the wisdom of the I Ching, and that was better than no exposure at all.

I Ching's symbolic notation comprises sixty-four symbols in a manipulable system to represent the algebra of change. (When I use the word algebra, I use the word loosely, not in the formal mathematical system of a set of operators over a domain, but nevertheless a domain that is manipulated.) The I Ching uses horizontal lines to compose its symbols, and each line is either solid, indicating a yang value, or broken, indicating a yin value.

Six yin/yang lines compose the most complicated I Ching symbols, the hexagrams like (heaven) and  (earth). There are a total of sixty-four hexagrams. With its system of six-bit bytes, the I Ching seems almost to anticipate the digital age, but as we look deeper we will dispel this idea rather quickly. 

Certainly every human is unique, and every situation is unique, so the product of human and situational uniqueness yields an infinite number of possibilities. So the number sixty-four seems arbitrarily limiting, but in practice, especially with the engagement of the human psyche, intuition, and imagination as the heart of the interpretive process, the system proves more than adequate to describe the vicissitudes of the human condition.

In the digital age a single bit represents nothing more than a zero or a one, but in the I Ching a single line represents either a yáng or a yin. (I write yáng with the accented á in keeping with the rules of Pinyin, where the á is pronounced with a rising vowel sound.) The yáng and yin form opposing ends of the most fundamental cycle in the universe, a leitmotif that is everywhere in many guises. The concept of yin and yáng as a leitmotif is well known now because of the I Ching's popularity, but there was a time when the idea had not yet been discovered, and that is the beginning of some amazing wisdom in the I Ching. (Stay tuned! This is the first installment of articles on the I Ching that will appear over the next several weeks.).

The yáng and yin dichotomies of the world so abound that any attempt to list them would be as futile as counting grains of sand, but here is a list of a few so that you might gain a more intuitive grasp of their meanings:

parry (this yáng and yin concept in Asian martial arts is particularly developed so that the thrust is dodged and freely received so as to throw the thruster off balance. A yáng thrust only hurts the recipient if it is countered by yáng. Yin, like water receiving a punch, perfectly nullifies the yáng: you can hit water all day but you will never hurt it.)
The Yang line with its name in Chinese.
 In Chinese yáng is written as 阳. As many characters are, yáng comprises multiple radicals to form the single word. By themselves, 乃 is about being, and 日 is about the sun. Chinese teachers don't usually take the words apart like this—it would be like breaking the English word eye up into its component letters e and y, but this process is a little more interesting in Chinese. It makes sense to think of sun-being in some metaphorical rendering of yáng, especially since, by the same thinking, yin is rendered by a pair radicals that we can call moon-being:

The Yin line with its name in Chinese.
The Chinese radical 月 means moon (or it can also mean month). In the world as in I Ching, any pole by itself without its opposite is meaningless. I can't know hot if I don't also know cold. I can't know white without knowing black. Think about how when you are waiting for the movie to start in a theater, even in the dim light, the screen looks white. But after the movie starts, any part of the screen where there is for a moment no light is seen as black in the scenes of the movie. Yáng and yin and the things for which they stand cannot exist without their otherness. What's more, as I said in the beginning, everything is changing. Change is the only constant. So when you see a yang or a yin, it is somehow, quickly or slowly, becoming the other.

All yáng is becoming yin, and all yin is becoming yang.
So in the week or so that it takes me to put together the second installment of this new series, look around you and find all the yáng and yin dichotomies that you can. If you commute on the Metro to work, think about how people on the platform might be in a yin state that shifts to yáng as they board the train. Think about how the train might be in a yin state when it stops in a station and in a yáng state when it is accelerating down the track to the next station. If you're in a Metro system that has a third rail, think about how the direct current in that rail is a yáng force used to drive the train forward, while the counter-force of breaking is a yin force. Anywhere you are—not just a Metro or a freeway—but anywhere offers an infinite number of possibilities to recognize the underlying yáng and yin structure of the world. Practice recognizing some of them as a meditation to prepare yourself for the next installment as our cycles double in complexity.