Consciousness & the Trigram (Part 1)
A Theory regarding the Ancient and Mysterious Trigrams of Bagua
This is an overview of a theory about the ancient Chinese trigram symbols and their prenatal and postnatal arrangements.
The origin of these symbols is obscure and dates back to the earliest days of Chinese civilization. Throughout their long history these symbols have been used by a variety of cultural traditions. They are associated with systems of diagnosis and treatment within Chinese medicine and represent fighting techniques within martial arts. In feng shui the trigram arrangements are used to determine auspicious spatial orientations. The trigram is the basic building block of the yijing’s hexagrams, which are often consulted as a divination device. Four of the eight trigrams appear on the South Korean flag and they are occasionally referred to in historical and philosophical texts.
Although much has been written about these symbols a complete explanation of their exact meaning is elusive.
A coherent theory must explain why each combination of broken yin & solid yang lines are associated with specific traditional concepts:
☰ Heaven “creative”
☷ Earth “receptive”
☳ Thunder “arousing, shake, shock, quake”
☴ Wind “gentle, penetrating”
☲ Fire “clinging, brightness”
☵ Water “abysmal, darkness”
☱ Lake “joyous”
☶ Mountain “stillness”
A complete theory must also explain the structure and significance of the prenatal and postnatal arrangements:
An understanding of this subject requires some familiarity with the trigram symbols, the concepts traditionally associated with them, and their placement in the prenatal and postnatal arrangements. If you are new to the subject, a pdf file of necessary background information can be found here.
Note: Throughout this article reference is made to “material” and “spiritual” domains. Few people have difficulty with the term “material” but some may balk at anything “spiritual”. It would be evasive and overly technical to use a term other than “spirit” because the concept is deeply embedded within the tradition being discussed. However, for the sake of any rationalists who might otherwise be willing to read this work — please try substituting “observer” for “spirit” and “observed” for “material”. The observer denotes the realm of the "experiencer" — that animating spark which brings life to matter. The observed denotes the realm of whatever is experienced — the phenomena that provides the observer with meaning and purpose. It’s the interaction of the observer with the observed that allows for an experience of sensation and thought.
This theory is based upon the proposal that each trigram represents an elemental state of mind, with each of the three lines corresponding to one of the three realms of time (past, present and future). The trigram’s structure and poetic tradition can be interpreted in a coherent and consistent manner when viewed through the lens of this model:
These are not arbitrary associations: the correspondence of each line to a time domain derives from the traditional terms associated with each trigram (discussed in detail below). The solid yang line is traditionally translated as “firm” (suggesting “firm-mindedness”) and is therefore taken to indicate the attentive focus of the mind. The broken yin line is thus taken to indicate inattention or unawareness (traditionally translated as “yielding”).
This relates to a commonly seen association of yang = order & yin = chaos. Yin’s yielding inattentiveness tends to produce chaos (e.g. absent attention your home will become a chaotic mess). The mind pays attention for the purpose of putting things in order (i.e. whatever conception of order is held by that particular mind).
Order requires an awareness of Present circumstance, a memory (Past) of ordered form and the functions required to achieve them and the capacity to imagine a Future wherein the Present approximates the ideal held within memory. In its quest to create order the mind may focus attention on any combination of past, present or future. ☰ ☳ ☴ ☲ ☵ ☱ ☶
The mind may also suspend its attentive involvement with time as denoted by ☷ (a technique common to many meditation practices):
In the following section each trigram is listed with its traditionally associated poetic terms. Each case illustrates that the trigram can reasonably be seen as representing a mind within time (as per the above model).
WATER "abysmal, darkness"
A state of mind with attention focused solely on the Present.
The Present exists between Past and Future — consequently we take the middle line to signify the Present.
The Present is what’s currently happening — a never ending flow of being we call “now” and which we experience as perception. The Water trigram suggests a mind focused solely on the present, with no attention paid to past or future. Why is this state of mind associated with the terms “water”, “darkness” and “abysmal”?
Consider what it’s like to experience present sensations without any context from prior events, or any sense of where things are heading. In this state of mind you’re completely absorbed in the current phenomena: a flood of sensation without orientation. Is this not like the endlessly transmogrifying flow of water? Without memory or ability to theorize it’s impossible to make sense of anything. It’s like falling into an abyss, a dark bottomless pit.
A state of mind with attention focused solely on the Past.
The moment a Present event occurs it immediately gets parked in the past. The Mountain trigram has a single firm line on top. Why is this symbol associated with “stillness”?
When we attempt to put the past in order we create a fixed notion of what happened. If we cannot create a stable mental image in memory the past is thrown into question and no stable image can be formed.
When we speak of “the past” we are referring to two things:
- The unchanging record of all actual prior events.
- Whatever we might think prior events to be.
Our ideas of the past may bear little resemblance to what’s actually occurred. Nevertheless our English word “past” signifies both actual and remembered events. Likewise, the Mountain trigram can represent actual events or memories of actual events (although memories are often inaccurate and always incomplete).
Ideas of the past may change — but actual events cannot be changed. Stillness is therefore an appropriate term to describe the past. Even our idea of the past seems like an immovable foundation — until some new information comes along and changes our mind.
When the mind reconsiders the past it’s not a ☶ state of mind. To change an idea of the past requires that memory be actively modified in the present (this state of mind is Wind ☴ where the focus of attention is on present and past together). Mountain ☶ represents a stable concept of the past (even if it’s only for the time being).
The past sets the stage for whatever’s going on now and for whatever is yet to come. The past is like an immovable (still) theatrical backdrop within which all present action is played out. Similarly, a mountain is a looming mass that defines the landscape around it — just as our histories (stories of the past) tend to define our preconceptions and beliefs. Mountain ☶ is a set of preconditions we take as a given, forming an edifice and context we do not presently question.
THUNDER "arousing (shake, shock, quake)"
A state of mind with attention focused only on the Future.
Thunder’s associated concepts are “Arousing”, sometimes translated as “shake, shock or quake” — evoking the potential for ground-breaking changes.
The future is the realm of all potential change. We may have ideas of what the future will bring — but what actually is going to happen is anyone’s guess. Attempting to create order in the future is a tricky business — our worldview is likely to shake and quake if we place too much faith in our ideas of the future.
Hearing thunder in the distance arouses our concern — we become more alert and vigilant when we feel something significant is about to happen. A loud crack of thunder immediately causes all thoughts of past and present to be suspended while we wonder what’s coming…we experience shock and may even quake in fear if we feel unprepared for the future we imagine.
LAKE (valley, marsh) "joyous"
A state of mind that seeks to unify Present with Future.
The Joyous Lake ignores the past in its attempt to unify Present and Future. This trigram is sometimes translated as “Valley” or “Marsh” — all terms that indicate a place where water collects and life congregates. Lakes, fertile valleys and marshlands are habitats for dynamic and diverse life because of the presence of water — but not the flowing water represented by the water ☵ trigram.
Lake is a large body of pooled water, a reservoir that contains enough supply that we might feel secure and joyous about our prospects. When we see that we have what we need and that there’s enough going into storage for the future we feel positive about the future. It’s the union of the present with our hopes for the future that create the feeling of joyousness.
Everyone wants joy to continue for as long as possible, and when we’re enjoying ourselves we don’t want to be reminded of the past (hence the broken line in the past position at the top). Lake ☱ can be thought of as a party-going state of mind: “forget the past and enjoy yourself — for as long as possible”. Concerns from the past can bring any party to an abrupt end, so they are ignored for as long as the good times keep rolling.
WIND "gentle, penetrating"
A state of mind that seeks to unify Present with Past.
The Wind is called “gentle” and “penetrating” because its present action is patterned on prior events. This state of mind joins past with present and is not concerned with the future. It attempts to maintain existing conditions by following the established order — new things are ignored.
When previously existing operations are repeated they penetrate more deeply. It’s only through long repeated exposure to the wind that its effect is noticed. ☴ is not a strong wind like a hurricane — it’s a gentle breeze. It’s gentle because it has no intention to change anything. Nevertheless, over long periods of time even the mildest continuous action can incrementally cause significant modifications to a landscape.
Each state of mind has its unintended consequences. No state of mind is able to produce results completely consistent with its intentions. Thus we see a symbolic system that corresponds very nicely with reality.
A state of mind unifying Past, Present and Future.
Heaven is called “creative”, representing the birth of new phenomena: past present and future are united as one — which is the precise condition all successful creation requires. When something new comes into being it has to be built upon the foundation of the past — it must also be able to persist into the future and it must also be more than a fantasy — it has to actually exist in the present. If any of these conditions are absent then nothing new can come into being.
Creativity is often experienced as a flash of insight or inspiration where all of a sudden everything comes together into perfect order — with something new arising out of it (just as the entire universe is now thought to have arisen out of some primordial big bang flash).
Many of us experience our own microcosmic creative moments in social life, artistic endeavors or (if we’re lucky) occasionally at work. Heaven ☰ can sometimes result in the whole world changing as a new thought brings about new forms: the wheel, the firearm, the telephone, the helicopter, the computer terminal…all have changed the world because of three time-related factors: they were built upon the foundation of what came before them, they were manufactured into a present reality and they persisted, propagated and adapted through time.
Heaven ☰ is also the state of mind associated with The Creator of the Cosmos who (some believe) can see All Time as One.
A state of mind with no attention placed anywhere.
The Receptive Earth indicates a mind state of absolute detachment, with no focus of attention in time whatsoever — free from all mental activity. When the mind is completely empty it becomes fully receptive. Many Taoist texts explicitly refer to Earth ☷ as the foundation for meditation practices. Emptying the mind acknowledges the absolute truth that the cosmos is beyond human understanding and that we are humble creatures within it. From a materialist point of view this state of mind is “empty-headed”: dull, aimless and without merit. From a spiritual point of view, this state of mind is the submissive and responsive elemental substance within which Spirit resides — and from which Creation emanates.
FIRE "clinging, brightness"
A state of mind that seeks to unify Past with Future.
Fire has solid top and bottom lines indicating a mind attempting to create order from past memories and future possibilities. Fire’s associated concepts are “clinging” and “brightness”. When we want to illuminate a situation we withdraw ourselves from Present activities to make room for contemplation. We consider future possibilities in light of past events. In our effort to envision things we become absorbed in abstractions, clinging to them and hoping they might lead to a better future (or help us to avoid a terrible future).
We speak of a “burning desire”, Fire being traditionally associated with desire in practically all cultures. Our thoughts tend to cluster around our personal concerns: ambitions, desires, wants and fears.
This is why the Fire trigram takes the dominant position in the postnatal arrangement, which represents the drama of the individual ego absorbed in the apparent world.
Fire ☲ is the mind state of all aspirations (both positive hopes and negative fears). It’s an abstract yearning for (or worry about) an imagined future outcome based upon an interpretation of past events.
The broken middle line indicates that the present is being ignored or sacrificed. No ambition can be achieved without sacrificing some precious present possession. It is no coincidence that offerings are made to sacrificial fires. Yet at the same time difficulties are more likely to transpire if we turn a blind eye to what’s presently happening.
This example illustrates that the states of mind represented by the trigrams are not inherently positive or negative and may encompass a wide range of common experience. The trigram simply indicates a mental configuration within time. We may think of hopes and fears as being opposite to each other. But from the point of view of this model they are essentially the same ☲ state of mind.
We can think of bagua's symbolic system as a language consisting of two letters (yang — , yin — -), eight words (the trigrams) and two sentences (the bagua arrangements). This is about as simple as a language can get. Nevertheless — the implied concepts that flow from this limited language can become somewhat complex. To understand the implications of this language requires fluency: a firmly embedded understanding of the meaning of both letters (solid and broken lines) and the words (the eight trigrams). Only then can the bagua sentences start to make sense.
In Part 2 the prenatal and postnatal arrangements are described in detail.
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 Here we are only talking about the mind’s intention, not the resulting outcome. If attention results in chaos it’s merely ineffectual attention and/or misplaced attention. States of mind exist independently from result.
 It’s interesting here to note a quote attributed to Aristotle: “to perceive is to suffer”.
 ☴ doesn’t focus on the future — but it’s action influences the future nonetheless. All states of mind have some influence on present and future events, regardless of their intention. But no state of mind can influence the actual past. Only ideas of the past can change.