Moving Forward, Stepping Back (Scattered Thoughts)

I. For the past couple of years I’ve been reading the I Ching by the traditional method of counting bundles of yarrow stalks. The I Ching is known as a form of fortune-telling, but it doesn’t offer an image of the future so much as guidance in the present. It provides a frame for looking at present circumstances, making meaning from them, and making decisions moving forward. As a text by itself, it is a beautiful and lucid commentary on the patterns of nature (human and otherwise). When I think of the I Ching I think of the ideas which are the most counter-intuitive to Western philosophy. The I Ching always advises understanding and acknowledging present circumstances, rather than fighting against them; sometimes the most beneficial step forward is to take a step back, or not to move at all.

I counted yarrow stalks on Wednesday morning, and my reading was the image of Obstruction (☵ water, the abysmal, over ☶ mountain, keeping still.) The meaning of this hexagram is exactly what I’ve just described: the way forward is blocked. The only way to progress is to step backward, and to understand how we got here in the first place. What it is that we really want? How do we choose a better path forward next time? (I think we all need to think about these questions moving forward, but that’s not what I want to write about today.)

I’ve gotten this reading more than once recently. You could argue that it’s message is vague, generic, or even cliché (which is essentially what I just did), but that doesn’t disqualify it from also being correct. This is what makes the I Ching a valuable resource: it’s rooted in the idea that history can and will repeat itself over and over. Our present circumstances are unique, but by no means are they new. The same warnings hold true again and again, and however grave the circumstances, I think that these words are always appropriate:

Difficulties and obstructions throw a man back upon himself. While the inferior man seeks to put the blame on other persons, bewailing his fate, the superior man seeks the error within himself, and through this introspection the external obstacle becomes for him an occasion for inner enrichment and education.

II. I spent Wednesday morning alone, and silent. I read the I Ching. I biked through the park. I wrote a lot in my journal. And I spent some time at the Art Museum making more sketches of the Buddha sculpture that I’ve been studying so much this semester. (I’m beginning a series of etching plates, using a smaller, more intimate image of this Buddha.) This little act was particularly meaningful, and not just because of what the image means to me. Rather, simply because I needed to not be alone, I needed to be doing something to keep my hands and my mind busy and focused. I needed prayer, I guess, more than meditation.

Reading the I Ching and sketching the Buddha, these are ways for me to step back, not only away from the immediate present, but into a deeper human past. It’s there that I find the knowledge that allows me to move forward, without anger, without blame.

III. I’ve been touched by the genuine care that people have been showing each other these past couple days. In my classes and meetings, much of the time has been spent sharing our feelings and fears. But I’m also very aware of how privileged I am to be an artist at a university where I can afford to spend my day in private and community reflection. If I am frustrated by one thing, it is the feeling that we (as a country) cannot afford to stop, just for one day, to breathe. And I wonder how much different today would be if we had more time—and not just on election day—to look at ourselves and at each other.

IV. Along with my meditation practices, I also try to practice simple acts of kindness. For the past several years I’ve made a habit of smiling at everyone that I meet throughout the day. This isn’t something I’ve ever talked about, and I don’t think that it alone makes me a good person. I do it because it makes me happier and I hope that it makes others happier to.

On Wednesday morning, while biking through the park smiling at strangers, it struck me how trivial this little act is, but a the same time, how terribly important. I’ve always known that my individual actions will never make a significant difference on a national scale. But I’ve never felt more strongly that what is needed most is kindness at the most fundamental level. Yes, at some point, we need a deeper kindness, a more practical understanding, but isn’t a smile a good place to start?

V. Of course I’m always trying to be the superior man, but I need to write these words to remind myself what that really means.

VI. Looking back, one more time: In the Indian epic, the Ramayana (I’m reading a novelization by Ramesh Menon), the hero Rama must find a way to cross the ocean to reach his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the demon king Ravana. Rama sits in meditation for three days, but when Varuna, the lord of the ocean, doesn’t answer his prayers, Rama fires his divine arrows into the sea with such ferocity that the earth shakes and the oceans threaten to burn away.

I like this image in contrast with the image of the Zen monk in meditation, purely in detachment and equanimity: Right now I need a kindness so fierce that the earth shakes. I need a kindness so deep that no one will look away.