Friday, 16 November 2007


Tree-ripened figs, Arta, Mallorca

Usually, when we think of nourishment, we think of food for the body. This is perfectly valid, but there are other kinds of nourishment that are just as important.

Friendship, kindness, love, acceptance; satisfying work; beauty and pleasure; a sense of purpose and belonging in the world – all these are nourishment for the soul. Without them, something in us starves and fails to thrive; we become less than fully human.

What does the I Ching tell us about nourishment?

Hexagram 27 is formed of Mountain over Thunder. Mountain is stillness, while Thunder is movement and activity: a blending of two opposite forces in a powerful way.

The name of the hexagram is YI, a term for the lower part of the face: the chin and mouth, the jaws. It is usually translated as Nourishment; LiSe calls it Jaws, and Brad calls it Hungry Mouth. The shape of the hexagram shows a solid line on the top, another solid line on the bottom, and an empty space in between: the image of a mouth, open to receive.

The text reads:
Persistence is promising
Study the hungry mouth
From the searching mouth to the feeding

Why should we study the hungry mouth?

People come to me for guidance and healing – that happens to be the kind of work I do. The first thing I do is to listen to them. Often, the second thing is to encourage them to slow down and make a space inside, so they can listen to themselves, and hear – from the inside – what they really need.

I haven’t yet met anyone who hungered, in his heart of hearts, for a Big Mac or the next episode of Big Brother.

We live in a world so crowded, so hectic, so full of sales pitches, that few of us give ourselves the chance to study what it is that we really need. For many people, personal time has been eroded and pinched, and much of what is left is poisoned. There are studies indicating that the average American family spends only 20 minutes a day hanging out together. Other studies show that the average American spends roughly 40 percent of his or her ‘leisure time’ in front of the television.

It doesn’t take a PhD in Nutritional Science – or Psychology – to recognize that this is not wholesome, that it will not build the flesh and bone of a human life.

“Meanwhile the world goes on”, as Mary Oliver wrote. It is all still here for each of us, “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain”, and the possibility of real love and fellowship, and satisfying work, and beauty.

The banquet is laid out before us. Why are so many people starving?

This is a real question, something to think about.

The word ‘suffer’ has basically two meanings: to feel pain or distress, and to tolerate or allow.

When an individual comes to me for help, I can help that person discover his or her real needs, and some of the factors that have prevented those needs being met. Choices open up for the person.

But I am still curious about why so many people suffer – in both senses of the word – the theft of their time, which is essentially the theft of their lives.

While writing this, I looked up the word ‘suffer’ in an online dictionary, and the first thing that came up was:

Buy Suffer
Make the most of the January Sales
Let us help you find the best deals

Why do we put up with this sort of insult – in both senses of the word: “an insolent or contemptuously rude remark”, and “an attack or assault”?

The answer – or at least a clue – might be right there in Hexagram 27: movement and stillness, stillness and movement, and empty space – and time – in which we can be open to receive.

Time was – and not so very long ago – when most people lived closer to the land, travelled less, and had more time. Much more time. Before the 1880’s, there were no standardized time zones – indeed, there was no standardized time; clocks were not synchronized; ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ were as precise a measurement of time as most people needed. People lived together and worked together: as families, as extended families, as villages. There was time to make music, to tell stories, to daydream.

In fact, the further back we go in human history, the more time there was. It is generally agreed that hunter-gatherers – those ‘primitive’ societies that occupied the overwhelming bulk of human history – needed to work only 15 to 20 hours a week to sustain themselves.

That left an awful lot of time for taking the world in: for telling stories, making beautiful things, singing, dancing, making love, dreaming, and just hanging out together – all those activities that nourish the human soul.

Modern life has plenty of Thunder and not enough Mountain. In China, Mountain implies a mindful, receptive, inner stability. The character for Mountain, gen, shows a high place, where you can get a detached perspective. The character is formed of two parts: on the top, an eye; at the bottom, someone turning and looking you straight in the face. The first meaning of the word is to resist, to turn and say NO, to refuse to be moved, or to be coerced into an action you don’t want. It’s about being centred in your true nature despite all influences that would deflect and distract you away from it.

The Rogue River Commentary on the Decision for Hexagram 52 (Mountain doubled) opens with the line “When the time has come to recapture the centre of being, the peripheral life must wait”.

Without those moments of stillness, of mindful inner receptivity, we can’t even know what we need, much less take it in and be nourished by it.

Study the hungry mouth.

And please, don’t buy Suffer – not even in the January sales.

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