If you know me, chances are that at some point I’ve talked your ear off about some outdoor adventure I had in Montana, involving everything from wolverine encounters to getting attacked by a goshawk. Well this post will also be a little “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”-ish, but it involves more elemental ideas. Recently I’ve been having dreams about mountains and cougars, which for me represent challenge, danger, personal power, love, protectiveness, and intense fear of failure/the unknown/loss. This makes sense due to the great changes in my life right now. But I realized I am getting caught up in the details too strongly, that I’m missing the forest for the trees, and that in order to move forward correctly I must remember a simple yet important quality: joy.
In the YiJing, the Lake represents Joyousness.
This hexagram, like sun, is one of the eight formed by doubling of a trigram. The trigram Tui denotes the youngest daughter; it is symbolized by the smiling lake, and its attribute is joyousness. Contrary to appearances, it is not the yielding quality of the top line that accounts for joy here. The attribute of the yielding or dark principle is not joy but melancholy. However, joy is indicated by the fact that there are two strong lines within, expressing themselves through the medium of gentleness.
True joy, therefore, rests on firmness and strength within, manifesting itself outwardly as yielding and gentle.
THE JOYOUS. Success.
Perseverance is favorable.
The joyous mood is infectious and therefore brings success. But joy must be based on steadfastness if it is not to degenerate into uncontrolled mirth. Truth and strength must dwell in the heart, while gentleness reveals itself in social intercourse. In this way one assumes the right attitude toward God and man and achieves something. Under certain conditions, intimidation without gentleness may achieve something momentarily, but not for all time. When, on the other hand, the hearts of men are won by friendliness, they are led to take all hardships upon themselves willingly, and if need be will not shun death itself, so great is the power of joy over men.
Lakes resting one on the other:
The image of THE JOYOUS.
Thus the superior man joins with his friends
For discussion and practice.
A lake evaporates upward and thus gradually dries up; but when two lakes are joined they do not dry up so readily, for one replenishes the other. It is the same in the field of knowledge. Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force. It becomes so only through stimulating intercourse with congenial friends with whom one holds discussion and practices application of the truths of life. In this way learning becomes many-sided and takes on a cheerful lightness, whereas there is always something ponderous and one- sided about the learning of the self-taught.
Here is the story part:
This year the mountain snowpack reached a short-term record, so the thaw came later in the summer than usual- rivers still raged and mountain meadows still glowed brilliant green well into September. We started our trip on a warm September morning to make the 6 mile jaunt to an alpine lake, and immediately upon passing the trailhead we heard a huge thunk. We jumped in alarm, but soon discovered that a bizarre twin-conjoined pinecone full of pitch had happily leapt out of the tree towards us. Maybe I was being romantic but I took that as a good sign. The rest of the walk up was pleasant- the flowers were out in full force and the valley smelled amazing, encouraged by the intense high-altitude sunlight.
We trotted up rockslides, past large stands of angelica, gentian, arnica, michaud’s mugwort, and many other healing herbs that I can now appreciate from a medical standpoint as well as aesthetically. When we got to the lake we immediately searched for mountain goats, but it appeared deserted. Usually we hear pikas announcing their resonant ‘cheeps’ but heard nothing. We slowly meandered around the perimeter of the large lake, thinking about lunch and possibly a nap in the brilliant sun.
After my family settled down in a meadow for lunch, I decided to explore the lake itself. Since the weather was so hot and it was late in the season, the lake had significantly warmed. Normally the lake water imparts the painful-bone type of cold sensation immediately, quickly followed by the hypothermic sensation in less than a minute. Its depths harbor enormous trout that were seeded into the lake via a helicopter drop (yes they just let large masses of fish plunge hundreds of feet into a lake). The surviving trout have grown gigantic and most of them elude fishers’ best attempts year after year, including my own.
On this day, the shallow perimeter of the lake was warm enough to wade in, and the drop-off allowed for a shallow dive with muscle function only partially compromised. I’m a big fan of jumping into cold lakes and rivers, but I certainly don’t have the tough skin of a true outdoorswoman, so I took my time wading along the shore. Small fish materialized from the sand between my toes, nibbled at my feet and darted away- then they came back for a second ticklish nibble. I didn’t know the fish in this lake were so playful! From a scientific standpoint they probably enjoyed the salt on my skin, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy anthropomorphising them, right?
I made my way around a stand of waist-high willows to a small sandy beach, stretched out on the shore, and wondered if anything interesting would happen this trip. I only had a short time visiting the woods this year, but even with limited time I hope to see something amazing- an animal I’ve never encountered before, animals behaving in an interesting way, or possibly discovering a cave or nearby hidden spot that I’d never been to. As I was lying there idly pondering, a great wind swooped down from a snow-covered rockslide and ruffled the lake, tingled my skin and shook the willows over my head. I began to feel giddy, and my breathing slowed down.
This may sound odd, but wind in high mountain passes and valleys can inspire a whole host of feelings in people, depending on an indefinable mixture of place, weather, season, and intention. I may venture into strange territory here, but I have found that particularly windy areas inspire feelings of humility and even a sense of threat if the force of wind is strong enough. The power of wind is mysterious; it can literally shake people to their core or sweep them off their feet, which is undesirable on passes or any precarious position with a steep drop. In Chinese Medicine, wind is seen as a conveyor of ‘external evils,’ which is currently interpreted as something like a virus invading our bodies, pollen inciting an allergic reaction, or any kind of dangerous influence penetrating the body (chemical, nuclear, and environmental toxin exposure fits here).
For the same reason that wind can be seen as a threat, it can embody profoundly beneficial qualities. Wind can reach places that other things cannot. The wind carries smells and chemical messengers that allow ecosystems to communicate in an incredibly complex way, uniting insects with flowers miles away and alerting bears to the presence of a ladybug swarm a few valleys over. For humans, wind can bring the smell of rain, fire, animals, or a field of berries, and its presence or absence can tell us about the lay of the land. In the wilderness, we rely on wind to send us messages about our environment, and to ensure our own survival within the ecosystem of which we are a part.
When I’m in the presence of a strong wind out in the wilderness (granted that it didn’t have beginnings in my brother’s trail snack), I reflexively pay attention for signs of danger. I hadn’t thought about this until just now, but it has become an instinct for me to check, due to the times I’ve smelled bears, wildfires, or the pre-lightning storm smell of ozone- and been forced to act upon that information quickly. When none of those smells are communicated, the next instinct is to check for food or water.
Well here I was, glorying in the center of a flowering valley, on the shore of a pristine lake, with tiny healing herbs encircling the shore (the fuzziest yarrow I’d ever seen, small alpine strawberries, tiny arnica, shrubby willow). It sounds cheesy because it was. Cue the terrible Disney song ‘colors of the wind.’ Everything around me was sending messages of safety, security, fertility, and tranquility. At that time, that particular place was incredibly ideal for humans to visit. A month later or a month earlier would have created an entirely different picture, but at that moment the alpine basin created a space in which humans could find themselves at ease.
Back to the wind and the lake. As the wind swept across the water, sending a sheen of darkness sliding along the surface, I suddenly felt in my bones the absolute connection of all the elements of this glacier-fed lake. Thanks to the water for providing such a beautiful display of the wind which allowed this feeling to be born and transmuted into joy. Even the sand on which I lay reflected all elements of the basin precisely: it was composed of tiny pieces of driftwood, iridescent insect exoskeletons, rounded crystals, and bits of the mountain’s bones that had been ground finely by glacier and then lapped by water. I found mountain goat hair on a tiny yarrow plant nearby, and watched dark shadows circle in the depths of the lake.
Back to the YiJing:
“The trigram Tui… is symbolized by the smiling lake, and its attribute is joyousness. Contrary to appearances, it is not the yielding quality of the top line that accounts for joy here. The attribute of the yielding or dark principle is not joy but melancholy. However, joy is indicated by the fact that there are two strong lines within, expressing themselves through the medium of gentleness.”
The trigram shows two ‘yang’ lines followed by one ‘yin’ line. The strong yang lines to me represent the active ability of the lake to nourish its surroundings, and the inherent power of the alpine lake which pours out into a torrential waterfall. The yielding yin line creates an open space in which to recognize subtleties of one’s surroundings, in order to act correctly in response. The wind can only travel through open space, and it is this wind that brings information and connects the infinite elements in social discourse. At the same time, the yin element is the one that embodies manifestation, while the yang element embodies action. I interpret the melancholy aspect of the yin line to allow one to face an inherently unjust reality in order to allow manifestation to happen correctly and in a way that considers all sides. This manifestation in the realm of social affairs is shown to be grounded in the firmness, strength, and inner truth represented by the inner yang lines.
The lake is fed continuously by the snowmelt all summer. The wind that I felt sweep down to brush my skin originated from a large rockslide covered in snow, which would soon be dusted with a new layer of snow as autumn began. The act of replenishing this lake has allowed the valley to thrive, and the lake in turn can nourish the plants surrounding its shores, the valley below, and the plains that the river irrigates 40 miles away. The expression of this interaction itself occurred to me as pure joy, with each element and each plant seemingly using every bit of its being to live exactly in that moment. The alpine environment is brutal, and moments like this are rare. All of the life in this region faces great adversity, which brings me to another beautiful aspect of this trigram:
“When, on the other hand, the hearts of men are won by friendliness, they are led to take all hardships upon themselves willingly, and if need be will not shun death itself, so great is the power of joy over men.”
It seems to me that this nourishing alpine valley was showing me why humans exist. The infinite moment of clarity came and went, and it left a roaring of wind in my ears followed by complete silence. Then I began to notice the lapping of the lake, the tiny movements of plants, the glint of fish rising, and my own breath. I felt so happy that all I could do was smile and breathe some more. This moment continues to nourish me during times of adversity, and it encourages me to treat each person with respect. We are all seeking this joy, which is the most tender and most powerful quality of social discourse. Note: I was not under the influence of any psychedelics during this experience, just happy.
I became giddy enough after the wind swept across the lake several times, that I built up my courage to dive in. I began to walk out into the drop-off, and each time I prepared to dive the wind kicked up strongly, catching me as I dove.
I could see the small fish skittering through the sand as I flailed ungracefully toward shore, slightly more frozen after each dive. I felt all of my tissues slow their metabolism, and I caught a taste of how fish must feel in winter. Then as I warmed up on shore, I felt the sun re-designing my flesh in a pattern of joy, as circulation returned and I began to feel slap-happy.
Of course any time one shocks the body like that, a sense of relief is felt when the body is recovering, but the elements of the day seemed to flood me with a sense of playfulness. The interaction of wind, water, fish, and light while I was swimming gave me the sense that I was actually playing with the lake itself, in a kind of game. This joyful game seemed to me like an expression of how the valley itself communicated- at its heart, a giant grin, a game- all the old sayings are true!
Now take this idea into the year of the Black Water Dragon! Be powerful and creative, find success and return from failure, but keep in mind the need for, and the power of, joy.