Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky
Hexagram 17, SUI, is about Following. “Follow” is one of those words that carries a load of diversely nuanced meanings.
For example, as a transitive verb, it can mean “go in the same direction as or parallel to (another)”, but also “go after (someone) in order to observe or monitor”.
As an intransitive verb, it can refer to “a logical consequence” of something, or to “act according to (an instruction or precept)”; “conform to” or “treat as a teacher or guide” – but also “trace the movement or direction of”, or “understand the meaning or tendency of”.
One set of meanings implies falling in behind someone else; the other suggests a conscious and sustained awareness of a process. In the first form of following one can hitch oneself to an external engine, and fall asleep at the wheel; the second form is the essence of attentiveness.
The lines expand on this theme. Line 1 tells us that “Standards will change”, and that even “timeless” dharma evolves. No fundamentalism here! Line 2: “Bound to the little child; giving up one of maturity” contrasts with Line 3: “Bound to one of maturity; giving up the little child” -- sometimes one approach is appropriate, sometimes the other. Line 4 tells us that persisting obstinately in a direction brings misfortune, but there is no error in following the clarity of the Dao. Line 5 simply says that trusting in excellence is promising. Line 6, at least in Hilary's interpretation, speaks of the sovereign identifying his will with the source of the energy that flows into life, implying that he flows with it.
This kind of following is less like blind obedience or imitation than it is like tracking, following a string of clues. It is not passive, but is rather an active participation in a living process. Living processes are, by their nature, somewhat messy and unpredictable; life is less an efficient linear process than a creative melee of disorderly movements toward whatever the next moment brings.
If we pay too much attention to a map (which is our own or someone else's prediction of what we will find), we risk falling into a pothole, or worse. (I am told that in parts of Iceland, the landscape changes so radically from year to year that maps have to be redrawn annually). If we follow a leader (or a system of rules, or a belief system – even our own) unquestioningly, we may not notice that it is taking us somewhere that is no longer fitting, perhaps somewhere we would not have agreed to go.
This hexagram is a relationship between opposites. Thunder is pushy. Lake is joyful and lighthearted; its whims may even appear frivolous, but the oldest yang defers and adapts to the youngest yin. It’s like following a road, or a river that follows the contours of the bank: responding to the changing terrain and following the Dao, rather than trying to plough a straight line. You might have to abandon your own plans, or even the idea of making plans; you cannot impose anything, but you can go a long way riding skillfully on the currents.
The text is simple, even minimalist. It consists only of the invocation yuan heng li zhen – in other words, all the world is here – and wu jiu: no bad. If we can approach life without preconceptions, hold our agenda lightly (if at all), and adapt to changing circumstances, then we will not make a mistake.