XXIX. Water is Great if you don’t Drown

Hexagram 29. "The Abysmal (Water)"
Hexagram 29. “The Abysmal (Water)”

Arriving at hexagram twenty-nine, we come across the first symbol since the first two that is comprised of a repeating trigram. In other words, the top three lines are the same as the bottom three. In this instance, the repeated trigram – one solid line between two broken lines – represents water, which is, of course, going to be our topic for examination and discussion.

As an image, we’re seeing the cosmic nature of water on this planet. It evaporates into the sky, from whence it falls again, traveling through streams, rivers, and oceans in order to provide life to the entire planet. As with the atmosphere and the sun, without the water, we are dead. Just look at it. Look at how it behaves. It flows on and on and on, shrinking from nothing, never hesitating, filling all holes, surrounding and overwhelming all obstacles to its path.

Water. Doing what it does.

These behavioral characteristics of water is crucial to understanding – and responding to – the other aspects of the symbol. For starters, within a person, water represents the heart and the soul. It may seem contradictory to westerners, who primarily associate rationality with the “mind”, but within this eastern system, reason is associated with heart, soul, and water. But more significantly, and making things more complicated, is the association of water not just with life and pulse, but with danger. Here, then, with two symbols for water on top of one another, we are seeing danger on top of danger. Repeated danger. When danger repeats itself like this in our lives, it may become so normal that we actually get used to it, but at the same time, if we know how to behave correctly and stick to the plan, we can escape it.

What’s the plan? Again, look back at the character of water, flowing on and on. If we approach danger with the same kind of simple sincerity, just flowing on, we can discern the meaning of our present times and thus understand the way to survive it. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that flowing water doesn’t just stop like cars at a red light or a person consumed by uncertainty. In times of danger, standing still gives the threat more time to kill or wound you. So keep moving, keep filling the holes that must be filled and traversing the paths that must be traveled until the journey’s end is safely reached.

Looks pretty still. But it's always, always moving.
Looks pretty still. But it’s always, always moving.

Now, we get into some specifics. Yes, consistent presence of danger will naturally make us accustomed to it, but we can’t just accept this. If we get too used to the danger, to the point where we forget about any possibly scenario in which danger is absent, that external element of evil darkness will become a part of us, so much so that we can’t separate ourselves from it. This will lead to the finality of disaster. On the other hand, especially at the beginning of a settled situation of danger, we can’t just rush out of it as fast as we can. We have to make sure that the danger is not going to kill us. In other words, our first priority must be simple survival. We can’t accomplish huge milestones at the beginning and must be content to little victories, little survivals – essentially, content with getting through the day each day.

Perhaps, in this instance, we may find that an overabundance of ambition on our part has caused the danger itself. If we possess the wisdom to figure this part out, it is especially true that we avoid distracting focus on grand achievements. We must focus instead on the simple devices we’ll employ in order to get out of the peril in the long run. In fact, sometimes the need to be simple and small will require us to somewhat contradict one of the earlier behavioral characteristics of water – that of always flowing onward. Again, the key here is understanding. If we grasp that going taking steps forward or taking steps backward are going to lead to things getting worse, we hold firm for a moment, guarding ourselves against anything that might trick us into doing something stupid and increasing the danger. Furthermore, when we are able to flow onward, we must bear in mind that now is not the time to get bogged down with the kind of customs, traditions, and formalities that in normal times would be important and required aspects of our conduct. When things are dangerous, formal norms are going to fall by the wayside – and that is totally all right. No one will hold it against us. When we’re up against a major and sustained threat, it’s our sincerity and our heart that matter, not our etiquette.

Like several of the hexagrams, however, there is one line – the last one – that describes a situation of final loss that we must examine as an inherent possibility within sustained danger. Here is the image of a criminal in jail…and we are the criminal. This happens when, in the midst of danger, we lose our way entirely and come to a band end, with no possible escape. This, basically, is what we are trying to avoid at all costs, and we cannot avoid it if we deny it exists.

Constant goodness is needed if we are to teach others to be good. This is as true for me as the wizard as it is for you in whatever you do in life. Repetition – hopefully, repetition of the goodness inherent to water to counter the repetition of danger equally inherent – is what allows people to learn. If we want to take things to a higher level, we can’t forget this. Indeed, even danger itself is not always bad. Think of a moat around a castle. This is a powerful person making use of danger in order to protect themselves from threatening forces. If we are able to master the danger, we too can turn it on its head and make it our weapon instead of our threat.

It’s a complicated hexagram, perhaps not one well-suited for novices such as ourselves. As we go forward in our understanding, however, it is important that we come back and revisit this. Time and study may deepen our own understanding even of tricky meditations such as hexagram 29.

Shut it off when you aren't using it. Salaam.
Shut it off when you aren’t using it. Salaam.

This post is the twenty-ninth of sixty-four in our Days of Change series exploring each hexagram of the ancient Chinese I Ching one by one. To sample others in this series – or go wild and read from the beginning – go here.


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