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Approaching the River of Change: Wisdom from the Chinese.


One of the most memorable quotes of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus was short and simple.

"It is impossible to step in the same river twice".

This conclusion was not the result of an elaborate calculation but simply an observation of nature. Born in 565 BC, he was about 300 years ahead of the Chinese who at that time were transcribing a much more complete system for observing nature’s cycle of changes, the Yi Jing.

Can we control change? No. But if we understand the cycle, we can better navigate the change…which is why people often seek the support of a coach.

As we move closer to a 2-year anniversary of the COVID 19 pandemic, my experience has been that most of my clients are simply feeling weary (tired of the disrupt in their daily routines) and seasick – from being tossed about by the ambient negativity and uncertainty.

What will help us navigate the river of change in the months ahead?

If you were sitting alone in a canoe, I would give two oars.

Facts, data, statistics are all very useful for moving forward.

Quality information is an oar worth holding.

Any experienced business coach will provide you with tools – ideas, strategies and a framework for navigating an unfamiliar environment. Advice could range from writing a successful C.V., preparing for a job interview, networking strategies, project management advice, etc. Observe and follow the rules, the customs, the structure and eventually you will move forward towards your goal.

Leadership coaching is a bit more complex because the right path is more ambiguous. It is well known that business people rarely make 100% rational decisions. We are all influenced by our biases and to some extent our gut feelings or intuition. Who are the people we trust and why do we trust them? Do we even trust ourselves to make an important decision?

A leadership coach steps in to help executives “see the bigger picture”. A session is an opportunity to sift through various thoughts and gently turn away those which don’t hold value. A leadership coach holds space to let his or her client hear and interpret a more subtle voice of wisdom which invariably arises. Let’s call intuition the second “oar” with which to paddle.

While nothing can replace a thoughtful debriefing of an established diagnostic tool, I occasionally use the Yi Jing as a supplemental means of cultivating this often overlooked soft skill.

If we look to the Chinese agricultural calendar, we are in the 12th month. The Chinese New Year is less than one month away. The Yi Jing hexagram for mid-January is Lín – Lake under Earth. While the most common translation of Lín is “Approaching”, Alfred Huang, author of The Complete I Ching, speculates that its original meaning was “overlooking”. Earth (the upper trigram) ☷ over Lake ☱ (the bottom three lines).

In coaching this would be the meta view of a situation, standing on the earth over a lake… from a position of power or control. This is why Huang calls it the Leadership hexagram.

If you’d like to know in very simple terms what a hexagram is and my thoughts on what we could learn from Lín , read on!

Let's look at the lower trigram of Lín first – where we find - lake.

Here we see two Yang lines under one Yin. Yang is a masculine energy. It represents creativity and movement... but this trigram does not represent a river or a stream.

It is a lake and lakes are still bodies of water…with no visible currents.

In this trigram, the lake is under the weight of a frozen winter earth. (Four out of six lines for the entire hexagram). Bears hibernate in the winter and the passiveness of the earth holds and nurtures energy. Yin is feminine, frozen and passive but it will gradually yield to the first stirrings of spring.

Now, why would this be called the Leadership hexagram?

Perhaps some clues lie in the evolution of the character.

The Chinese ideogram, Lin (臨), is shown here in its Jinwen (金文) form (1000 years BC).

On the left, it shows a key or radical 臣 which means Minister, Statesman or official.

To the right three openings (literally mouths 口). Consider an open mouth to be an opportunity (or a risk!).

How could we extrapolate this into a business context?

On what “grounds” (play on words intentional) will you carry out a new plan or decision? Impulsive actions, rash decisions and gut feelings all belong to Yang energy. Should one “Strike while the iron is hot?” or is the desire to move forward premature? Has Yin become too heavy or is more patience or reflection required?

Businesses need Yang energy! Growth often requires quick decisions. Yet this desire to take action may carry undue risk. A plan may need more time and structure. The earth of Yin is not only frozen, it is fertile. We are approaching (the name of this hexagram) spring.

If this sounds a bit vague, I should say that an overview of a hexagram is NOT a reading of a hexagram. A thoughtful and revealing interpretation of requires consideration of line transformations (from present to future) within a hexagram.

Yet, this is still very much a Water hexagram…and winter is the season associated with it. Of the 5 Major elements, the Daoists have always loved water for it gentleness, its flexibility its sometimes soft, sometimes devastating power.

If you would like to understand more about Daoism and how it can bring you a greater sense of serenity and connection, consider signing up for my 2 workshops on Well-Being and Chinese Culture. Information and dates are here.

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