The Power of Restraint
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The I Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient work of Chinese literature. It is considered an important part of the Taoist religious cannon. While the I Ching is most traditionally viewed as a part of a divination practice, it is also read and revered as an incredible book of wisdom. For people of faith, there is nothing in the I Ching that is incompatible with Judaism or Christianity (or really any religion), and it can be enjoyed as an incredible treatise on common sense—but the most well thought-out and deeply considered common sense imaginable. I have studied the I Ching for over two decades and, for the most part, have memorized it, and yet I must humbly admit one can never memorize wisdom.
One of the most auspicious hexagrams in the I Ching is hexagram 26 Ta Chu or The Taming Power of The Great (the I Ching is a series of 64 hexagrams—a stack of six either broken or unbroken lines - - or — ).
If you check out different I Ching translations, whether in book form or online, you will see that hexagram 26 has been translated into many different names. I like to view hexagram 26 as the wisdom of restraint. Each of the six lines covers a different aspect of restraint with an incredibly wise insight depending on your situation. It becomes, in a way, a kind of manual on how to deal with restraint when you are being restrained, how to impose restraint on yourself, and then how to restrain others or our own evil impulses. The top line, or sixth line (the hexagrams work like ladders with the first line being on the bottom and the last line being on top), is especially important and one of the most auspicious (if you are using the I Ching for divination). It represents the high sage and signals an altogether different aspect of restraint.
Roughly, in the hexagrams, the bottom two lines are the lowly of society. The third line is in a dangerous limbo between the high and the low. The top three lines are part of the powerful in society with the fourth usually representing the minister to the ruler, the fifth is the ruler or prince, and the top line is a mixed bag: it can be the sage, a ruler who has become arrogant and despotic, or the finality of a given situation. This order is important as it signals that one should definitely at all times know where they stand in any given situation.
Stop! You are not capable yet of doing what it is you want to do. This line is a warning that if you are lowly and want to try something beyond your strength, intellect, or power, it will spell disaster for you if you attempt to do it. ‘Go for it’ is a stupid axiom to apply to every situation. ‘Just do it’ is another dangerous saying. Evaluate yourself honestly. And here is where the I Ching is brutal and bears little resemblance to our cheery, modern, positive attitude society. If you are too lowly in talent or power to accomplish what it is you set out to do, it will blow up in your face, and it will be your fault.
You’ve been restrained by a force way stronger than you…and consider yourself lucky. While line two is lowly, it’s a little better off than line one in that in this case an outside force has stopped someone from doing something foolishly outside of their capabilities. The central point is that sometimes a force outside of our control restrains us from doing what we want to do. Consider yourself lucky. Along with learning that when we are restrained from a force outside of our control not only should we see it as a lucky thing (versus crying and complaining we were stopped from moving forward)—we are also instructed to use that time of restraint to work on ourselves so that we actually will have the power to achieve something down the road. Hence, not only is restraint protective (keeping ourselves from hurting ourselves), it is also nurturing, as it allows us to build strength and wisdom in order to achieve something.
Here we are dealing with working hard and self-discipline. One must understand that to accomplish something one must purposely restrain themselves from foolish actions and work very hard to develop the skills necessary to achieve what it is they seek. Holding back or restraining oneself is an important step towards achieving something. In this case, it can be restraint in self-discipline like working hard in school or at work to build the necessary qualities that you will need to achieve your goals. Essentially, line three speaks to the importance of developing good habits that will ultimately lead you being able to achieve something great. It is the superior retraining force of good habits. Once something becomes a habit its very difficult to break it—many routine exercisers understand that concept. It becomes actually difficult not to exercise.
Now we are in the upper part of the hexagram. The upper lines do the restraining while the lower lines are being restrained. Essentially, the powerful keep the weak in check. At this point, the person has achieved power and accomplishment. To keep their position in society, they must know how to restrain. The best way to restrain something is to check it before it becomes strong. If you have gained two or three pounds, look to lose them before it becomes thirty or forty. If you are starting to feel isolated, look to get back with family, friends, and civil society as it can grow into a dangerous and lonely situation. Essentially, check things when they are small before they become dangerous and difficult to restrain. Or, if there is a person who is only a little annoying but who has the capability of becoming quite dangerous it’s important to remove them from your life while they are still easy enough to restrain.
There are a lot of translations and commentary on line five that differ. Roughly, it refers to the horns of a gelded boar, meaning, a boar which has been gelded will not use his horns in an aggressive way. Some have interpreted it as meaning that you do not necessarily need to confront danger with aggressive force, or the best way to stop danger is by changing the nature of the person. I think if you are in a ruling position it is best to restrain others in the least aggressively way possible. I also think it hints at the idea of choosing indirect ways of dealing with dangerous people or situations. Sometimes, letting people riot for a few days with little interference is superior to clamping down severely on an unhappy populace. Look at the Syria nightmare.
The Top Line:
Here is the line of an exalted sage. In the opening of hexagram 26, it is said that one of the best ways to build an enormous force in oneself is to study the ancient writings of sages. Holding back in action is not bad—sometimes NOT ‘going for it’ is the wise thing—especially if we work on cultivating ourselves while we restrain ourselves. The sage holds himself back from worldly achievement and instead develops great wisdom. It would not be possible for the sage to develop such profound wisdom if he or she exerted their energy and power on worldly achievement. The sage’s wisdom is what allows people to learn how to become great and to achieve something in their lives. The irony, of course, is by intense restraint the sage becomes the ruler of all humankind and favored by God. This line is not to suggest that everyone should stop what they are doing and become a monk or a nun, it is to say that restraint is so important that it is considered the path to the most high.
Through learning the wisdom of restraint, one comes to see when to pause and build strength, and when to push forward. It reveals how one should restrain the evil in others or the evil in ourselves, and it points to the profundity and power of restraint as exemplified in the world’s greatest sages who restrained themselves in getting caught up in worldly achievement to develop wisdom for the ages.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
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