I recently read Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson. It’s a brilliant book – and it has made me look at lighthouses with new eyes, and hear stories with new ears.
There’s a sort of lighthouse in the I Ching: Hexagram 20, GUAN. The form of the hexagram as a whole has the form of the trigram Mountain, and there are a lot of similarities between Guan and Mountain: they are the two hexagrams of meditation, reflection, and contemplation. Guan is composed of Wind over Earth; it has the deep stability of Earth, and the lightness of Wind, which can go everywhere.
The character is composed of two parts.
- On the left, a heron or owl with wide open eyes. A heron can stay still for hours – then suddenly they’ve got the fish! An owl can see in the dark, through confusion and chaos.
- On the right, an eye with a person below it; thus 'to see'.
Guan means to observe or examine; pronounced with a different tonal quality, it can be an observatory (where you watch the stars to see the movements of the Dao), or a temple, where you can observe the Dao through meditation (a temple is sometimes called dao guan). In meditation, we observe: perhaps the breath, perhaps a sound, perhaps our physical sensations…what is important is that our attention penetrates but does not get caught in these things, like the wind moving over the earth.
Guan is a place from which you can see into the subtleties of things, as well as getting a bird's eye view: the big picture, a global perspective without your own small stuff clouding it.
And while you are watching others, others are inevitably watching you: that’s part of the package of being in a position of altitude.
Wilhelm calls it Contemplation; Blofeld calls it Looking Down; Huang calls it Watching; Wu calls it To Observe; LiSe calls it The Heron.
One aspect of this hexagram that I find particularly interesting is the Decision:
Huang’s translation: Hands are washed, offerings are not yet presented. Being sincere and truthful, reverence appears.
LiSe’s translation: Hand washing and not yet sacrificing. Possessing true devotion.
What are they on about? Why do you need to cleanse yourself? Why do you need reverence, sincerity, truth and devotion in order to observe?
We are all of us full of inner voices chattering away: beliefs, desires and aversions – all more or less unconscious and unexamined habits that organize us into who we are. In order to listen – even to ourselves (and three of the lines tell us to observe our own lives) – we must first make a quiet space inside. Daoism speaks of the ‘Void of the Heart’ – a quiet inner sanctum from which we can listen and look, see and hear without being clouded by preoccupation. If you are going to get a call from your higher Self, you have to keep the line clear – otherwise, You’ll just get a busy signal!
So how do we get the beans out of our ears? How do we hang up the phone so the still small voice can get through?
The Decision here describes a ritual. The first part of any ritual has to do with focus and preparation, of simply being present and making a space in which the unknown can become known. It can be as simple as sitting down on your meditation mat, or as complex as you like. It can be the Grace before dinner; the writing of Morning Pages; opening the curtains; clearing your desk before you begin working -- somehow we climb the lighthouse stairs. The magic lies in the reverence, sincerity, truth and devotion we bring to the moment: our open curiosity and willingness to welcome whatever is there to be seen and heard and experienced….what will you see today?