“…the object of your inquiry is blocked by a small yet permanent influence. Nothing can be done externally. Salvation, if it exists, lies in work on the Self.”
— R.L. Wing, The I Ching Workbook
It is a personal tradition of mine to cast a yearend I Ching hexagram, and today’s could not have hit the mark any truer. It is No. 9, traditionally titled “The Taming Power of the Small” (Wilhem/Baynes) or “Passive Restraint” (Legge).
2020 has been the year of the small. Consider that the size of an average viral microbe is about 0.000019685 inches. As for the microbe of our Year from Hell: it’s a lot smaller than a dust mite or the thickness of a single hair.
So the oracle is telling us that this tiny invader is not going away merely because we’re turning a page on a calendar. Yet at the same time, the writing is about a “permanent influence” — not a permanent presence. That is to say, the microbe’s influence will always be with us, within us; even long after its reign of illness, death, fear, and isolation have ended.
This, in fact, accords with the predictions of most scientists on this score: whether through the combined effects of social adaptation; herd immunity induced through vaccination; and the simple passage of time — the refreshing “rain”* of freedom from the microbe’s oppression will come — perhaps even before the end of 2021.
But it’s not going to be an easy path from here to there. And it will require what is perhaps the most alien and panic-inducing response imaginable to the Western mind: the ability to do nothing. I’m going to post, below, a brief 10 minute snippet from a lecture by Alan Watts on this topic, which contains his uniquely incisive perspective on this matter.
Isn’t this exactly the advice that Hexagram 9 is offering us? “Great schemes are out of the question,” is the oracle of this moment. It is a peculiarly Eastern insight going back to the original poet-philosopher of the East, Lao Tzu and his concept of “wu-wei”, or “unforced action”:
Unforced action, constant and eternal: Tao ceaselessly moves, but appears to be still.
When the hearts of the president and the power-broker perceive and accept this truth, it will be the dawn of an era of transformation.(from Ch. 37, Tao Te Ching, my unpublished translation)
So, aside from telling us that not much has changed in 2,500 years in the affairs of human ego and institutional power — Lao Tzu also reminds us of the opportunity that appears amid a historical moment of great oppression and tragic suffering. We just have to learn to trust both ourselves and one another enough to stop the drama and move (or be still) with the needs of the time.
If we look at some of the recent global statistics from the pandemic, we find a remarkable coincidence that may reflect my point about this peculiar Eastern wisdom and its applicability to this kind of a historical moment. I found these numbers posted on Twitter about 5 days ago:
Compare the performance of Southeast Asia — specifically Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan — to the USA. The disparities in deaths and deaths per population are astonishing, even if you assume a Margin of Error as great as, say, 10% in these data. It’s something that can’t really be demonstrated or proven out, so I’ll simply note the coincidence and let you draw your own conclusions about the influence of culture on a people’s capacity for enduring a great trial, free of the impulses of conflict and conquest.
But our culture has adopted, as usual, the language of competition, combat, and conquest. Never before have our political leaders and their media voices sounded so inanely ridiculous as they have this year: I actually heard someone promising to “beat this virus into submission.” If only microbes could laugh, America would be a deafening, piercing hum of microbial hilarity.
Again, in the East they have long understood this better than we do: that you can’t “beat” a force of Nature or pound it into submission. You can, however, adapt yourself and your life to its presence and be there for each other. You can realize that salvation (if, as Wing wonders, it actually is possible) arises through the endurance born of flexibility rather than the opposition born of enmity.
This contrast is reflected in the spiritual beliefs and practices of East and West. In religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Hinduism, the hidden world and its helping presences are rarely perceived as boss-gods or the patriarchal tyrants of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Eastern cultures, the help that comes from Heaven is more a spontaneous reaction of Nature to its own forces and movements. The human task in this is to fit oneself and the movements of one’s own life into that flow of natural action and reaction. And that may include abandoning or altering many ingrained habits and practices that have become very comfortable to the modern mind (of both the East and the West) — everything from the compulsive consumption of animal flesh (especially from factory farms) down to the simple handshake.
But if we start by viewing Nature as our enemy, we’re already off on the wrong foot and won’t have the capacity to look in the mirror and ask ourselves the questions whose answers might lead us through and out. We don’t have to love what is happening; we just need to be open enough to understand it, and then to adapt ourselves to the dynamic of the moment.
We don’t get that, even when we appear to making some show of it. I watch the political gatherings in Congress: some members are masked and distanced; others are open-faced and sitting in close groups. The men in the professional sporting events are more ridiculous still: I laugh every time I see the coach on the sideline pulling his mask off to shout instructions or insults at players or refs. Because, you know, you just can’t be heard with a slim layer of cloth over your mouth.
So we’re not adapting — not consistently, not sincerely, not with a view to anything beyond mere appearances. And so we come off as tragic idiots; the rest of the world laughs at us through their tears.
*The Hexagram’s opening text reads, “Dense clouds [but] no rain from our Western regions.” It’s a metaphor depicting an oppressive condition of heaviness, humidity, and darkness, which is unrelieved by the cloudburst of cleansing, refreshing rain.