Tuesday, 4 September 2007


A few months ago, I went to a party some friends organize every year, a mini-music festival over a weekend, attended by several hundred friends and neighbours. On the Saturday afternoon, it started to rain. As people took cover under a marquee, the children discovered with delight that the rain was pouring through the roof at one point. Sensible adults moved a wheelbarrow under the leak. To the children, this became a magical fountain of fun.

Hexagram 4, MENG, is one of the hexagrams that describes childhood. It is formed of Mountain over Water; at its most positive, this is an image of a spring at the foot of the mountain, and the clarity and purity of that spring: the innocence of childhood.

The character meng originally referred to dodder, a plant that is very prolific and fast-growing, and quickly covered the roofs of houses. The meaning then became extended to mean ‘covering’: veiling or hiding. A covering can provide protection; it can also conceal things, and even prevent them from manifesting. The nature of a child is not yet manifest; it is in potentio, an unknown. The process of life uncovers the brightness of the child.

The hexagram name is variously translated as Youthful Folly, Immaturity, Childhood, Covering/A Callow Youth, Not Knowing, and Inexperience.

The Chinese term qi meng refers to education; it literally means to lift the cover and reveal what was concealed. The word education itself has a similar meaning, derived from the Latin educare "bring up, rear, educate," which is related to educere "bring out," from ex- "out" + ducere "to lead". In both cases, there is an assumption that one is revealing something already inherent in a person.

Childhood is a necessary stage; not-knowing comes before knowing. It is only when you know that you don’t know, that you can be receptive to new knowledge. This stage is sometimes compared to the Fool in the Tarot; it’s inexperience rather than stupidity. The knowledge we receive depends upon the direction of our curiosity, which shapes the questions we ask and the experiences we seek.

It’s a basic principle of scientific research that we only get answers to the questions we ask, and that the way we formulate our questions is of primary importance in determining the kinds of answers we get. Learning to formulate a question that can yield a useful answer is one of the fundamental skills of the formalized learning we call research. As Francis Bacon said, “A prudent question is one half of wisdom”.

But while Meng is at least partially about education, it clearly isn’t talking about linear ‘fact-accumulation’. In fact, it may be pointing strongly toward NOT being linear, toward accessing a state of attentive receptivity that allows you to learn in a different way.

The human brain has two very different memory systems. ‘Explicit memory’ encodes event memories, including autobiographical recollections and discrete facts.

By contrast, ‘implicit memory’ records complex knowledge that we cannot describe or explain. Learning the motor coordination required for walking and performing manual operations is one example; language is another.

“Spoken language…is based on a labyrinthine array of phonological and grammatical rules that native speakers know but could not explicate; most could not even recognize the rules when spelled out in plain English…Implicit knowledge makes language structure available for automatic use but not reflection. Children learn to speak without instruction; they absorb linguistic rules as a sponge absorbs water.” (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, A General Theory of Love)
Very complex situations – like Real Life – do not yield to explicit questions. Say you are meeting someone for the first time, and you want to get to know them. You could ask them a thousand questions, and they could answer them honestly; you would know all about them, but you still wouldn’t know them. But in the asking and the answering, your implicit mind would be observing and getting to know them.

There’s more than one way to learn. In traditional societies, most skills were learned by apprenticeship. You can go to school to learn ABOUT things, but learning HOW TO do anything only comes with experience.

While it’s indisputably necessary to learn about things, maybe Hexagram4 is encouraging us to uncover our implicit memory, our intuition, our ‘knowing without knowing about’, or knowing why. The Decision says:
It is not I who seeks the young and inexperienced.
The young and inexperienced seek me
The first consultation informs
The second and third show disrespect
Disrespect deserves no information
It is worthwhile to be dedicated.
It’s the ‘explicit mind’ that asks a lot of questions. The Decision tells us not to do that. Perhaps it is saying we need to adopt an attitude of mindful receptivity that will allow our 'implicit memory' to work – that we should cultivate our ability to stay patiently with a question until it reveals its truth, and we absorb it as a sponge absorbs water. “A man has no ears for that to which experience has given him no access”, said Nietzsche.

Most of the really important things in life can’t be taught, but they can be learned.

Hexagram 4 is essentially about how to retain a healthy innocence into adulthood, but without immaturity. Not-knowing and naiveté are two very different states; an open curiosity about the natural world (including that part of it that lies ‘inside’ us) actively invites knowledge rather than denying uncomfortable realities. A great part of wisdom lies in knowing how to wonder, how to be receptive, how to notice things that don’t fit with what is already known, how to imagine new possibilities and test them against experience.


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