A More Elegant Trigram Theory (Part 1)

This new version of the theory avoids unnecessary complication by replacing the concept of time with a tightly related model of cønsciousness.

The original theory utilized the concept of Time as the basis for the trigram model.  But time is a slippery concept that’s more an artifact of mind rather than the foundational building blocks of mind states. I eventually realized that cønsciousness itself happens to break neatly into three parts each of which can be directly correlated to time.

In short: Memory is what we’re really referring to when we speak of "The Past",  Sense is the agency getting messages from "The Present" and Imagination covers a lot more than just "The Future".  

This restructuring of the theory avoids a lot of unnecessary complication and confusion (Time is inherently confusing). This adjustment becomes particularly helpful in a forthcoming paper about the bagua arrangements.

This document describes the basics of a new theory on the ancient Chinese trigram symbols and their prenatal and postnatal bagua arrangements. [Old Version Here]

The Prenatal (left) and Postnatal (right) bagua arrangements of the eight trigrams.

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 the martial arts. In feng shui the trigram arrangements are used to determine auspicious spatial orientations. Four of the eight trigrams appear on the South Korean flag.

The trigrams are referred to in various historical and philosophical texts and are the basic building blocks of the hexagrams of the Yijing (the well known but mysterious ancient book which is often consulted as a divination device).

Although much has been written about these symbols a complete explanation is elusive. A coherent theory must explain why each combination of broken yin & solid yang lines are associated with these specific traditional concepts:

☰ Heaven “creative”

☷ Earth “receptive”

☳ Thunder “arousing, shake, shock, quake”

☴ Wind “gentle, penetrating”

☲ Fire “clinging, brightness”

☵ Water “abysmal, darkness”

☱ Lake (Valley, Marsh) “joyous”

☶ Mountain “stillness”

A complete theory must also explain the structure and significance of the prenatal and postnatal arrangements:

(Note that in the above diagram the bottom line of the trigram is on the inside for the Prenatal and on the outside for the Postnatal, this potentially significant detail will be discussed in a forthcoming article).

To understand this theory requires 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 interpreting the term “material” but some rationalists may balk at the term “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.

Nevertheless, for the sake of those 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" — the one having the experience. The observed denotes the realm of whatever is experienced — the phenomena. It’s the interaction of the observer with phenomena that is the basis for this system of thought.

This theory proposes that each trigram represents an elemental state of mind, with each of the three lines corresponding to one of three basic faculties of cønsciousness. The trigram’s structure and poetic tradition can be interpreted in a coherent and consistent manner when viewed through the lens of this model (prior model in parenthesis):

“Sense” refers to all signals presently received by cønsciousness; including internal sensation & external perception (intuition too, perhaps).

“Memory” refers to the impressions caused by Sense which (while only partial and oftentimes inaccurate representations of Sense experience) allow for the retention of prior Sense information.

“Imagination” refers to the capacity of cønsciousness to generate its own signals.

These are not arbitrary associations: the meaning of each line derives from a poetic interpretation of 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 the realm of the unconscious (traditionally translated as “yielding”).

This relates to a common association of yang = order; yin = chaos. Inattentiveness tends to produce chaos (e.g. if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings they become a chaotic mess). The mind pays attention for the purpose of putting things in order. Specifically: whatever conception of order is held by that particular mind (which may appear to be chaos viewed from some other mind).1

The mind may focus its attention in any combination of its faculties:

☰ ☳ ☴ ☲ ☵ ☱ ☶

The mind may also suspend its attentive involvement with its own faculties as denoted by ☷, which is a technique common to many meditation practices.

In the following section each trigram is listed with its traditionally associated poetic terms. Each example illustrates how the trigram can reasonably be interpreted as representing a mind focusing on the three faculties of cønsciousness (as per the above model).

WATER "abysmal, darkness"

Water is a state of mind with attention focused solely on present Sense.

Sense consists of messages about what’s currently happening — a never ending flow we call “now” and which we experience as perception. The Water trigram suggests a mind focused solely on Sense with no attention paid to Memory or Imagination. Why is this state of mind associated with the terms “water”, “darkness” and “abysmal”?

Consider what it would be like to experience Sensation without Memory to provide context or Imagination to provide an idea of where things are heading.

In this state of mind you’re completely absorbed in the current phenomena: a flood of sensation without form or orientation. - just like the endlessly transmogrifying flow of Water. Without Memory or Imagination it’s impossible to understand anything. It’s like falling into an abyss, a dark bottomless hole filled with nothing but Sense.2

MOUNTAIN "stillness"

The Mountain trigram has a single firm line on top. Why is this symbol associated with “stillness”? Consider what it’s like to be in a state of mind with attention focused solely on Memory and no attention placed on Sense or Imagination.

Memory requires a fixed notion of what happened. If we cannot create a stable (still) mental image in memory, no reliable conception can be formed.

Ideas of the past may change — but actual events cannot be changed. “Stillness” is an appropriate term to describe both. Memories seem like a solid foundation until some new information comes along and changes our mind about them.

When memories change the mindstate is no longer ☶. Memories can be actively modified when Sense and Imagination are engaged. Mountain ☶ represents a stable concept of what happened - even if it’s only for the time being.

Memory 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 (memories of the past) tend to define our preconceptions and beliefs. Consider the vast mountain of data growing ever larger and more imposing every day.

Mountain ☶ is a set of preconditions we take as a given, forming an edifice and context we presently do not question.

THUNDER "arousing (shake, shock, quake)"

Thunder is a state of mind with attention focused only on the Imagination.

Thunder’s associated concepts are “Arousing”, sometimes translated as “shake, shock or quake” — evoking the potential for ground-breaking changes.

Imagination is the realm of all potential change. We may have ideas but what actually happens is anyone’s guess. Nothing arouses more hope or concern than Imagination.

When we hear distant thunder we become alert and vigilant as we Imagine something significant may happen. A loud crack of nearby thunder immediately causes all Memory and Sense to be suspended while our attention is focused on what we imagine may occur. We experience shock and may even quake in fear if we feel unprepared for what we Imagine is on its way. Our imagination often gets things wrong but without it we would have no sense of possibility.

LAKE (valley, marsh) "joyous"

The Joyous Lake ignores Memory in its attempt to unify Sense and Imagination.

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 pooled water (not the flowing water represented by the Water trigram ☵).

Lake is a large body of water, a reservoir that contains enough supply that we might feel secure and joyous about our prospects. When we Sense there is enough and Imagine this lasting we feel joyous.

Everyone would like joy to last for as long as possible, and when we’re enjoying ourselves we don’t want memories getting in the way (indicated by the broken yin line in the top position).

Joy can be real or forced. The Lake ☱ merely indicates attention placed on Sense and Imagination. Mania can reasonably be seen as having the same configuration.

The mind states as represented by this model have a wide range of manifestations. It’s best to think of them in the terms of the model with each description as only one possibility of many.

WIND "gentle, penetrating"

Wind is a state of mind that seeks to unify Sense with Memory.

The Wind is called “gentle” and “penetrating” because its present Sense is patterned on things we’re already familiar with in Memory. We are reliving something that’s already been established — imaginings are ignored.

When memories 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 breeze, gentle because without attention on Imagination there’s little to disturb the familiar routine. Nevertheless, over long periods of time even the mildest routines can incrementally cause significant changes.3

A state of mind can have unintended consequences. Outcomes rarely correspond directly to intentions.

This symbolic system is about understanding reality.

HEAVEN "creative"

Heaven is a state of mind unifying Memory, Sense and Imagination.

Heaven is called “creative”, representing the birth of something new. When all the faculties of cønsciousness are active Memory Sense and Imagination unite in an action of creation.

This formulation from the old version of the theory is hard to beat: any newly created thing must be:

  1. built upon the foundation of the past

  2. actually existing in the present

  3. able to persist into the future

If any of these conditions are absent then nothing new can come into being. Similarly we might ask how anything could be created without active Memory, Sense or Imagination (“by accident” is a good rejoinder).

Creativity is often experienced as a flash of insight or a period of inspiration wherein Sense, Memory and Imagination come together into perfect order - and with something new arising from the experience.

Sometimes we experience our own microcosmic creative moments in social life, artistic endeavors or even at work sometimes. The whole world changes as new things come into being. Think of the impact of the wheel, the firearm, the telephone, the aeroplane, this computer…

EARTH "receptive"

Earth is a state of mind with no attention placed anywhere.

The Receptive Earth indicates a mind-state of absolute detachment, with no focus of attention anywhere 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 embodies the absolute truth that the cosmos is beyond human understanding and that we are (and always will be) humble creatures within it.

From a materialist point of view this state of mind is “empty-headed”: dull, aimless, without brilliance or 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"

Fire is a state of mind that seeks to unify Memory with Imagination. Fire’s associated concepts are “clinging” and “brightness”.

Nothing illuminates Memory more than Imagination. Indeed - we cling to our Memories and enshrine them with Imaginative brilliance.

When we want to illuminate a situation we withdraw from our Senses and retreat into contemplation. We consider Imaginative possibilities in light of Memory. In our effort to envision things we become absorbed in abstractions, clinging to them in the hopes they might illuminate our life’s path.

We speak of a “burning desire”. Desire is what happens when we take a memory object and polish it with our imagination. Fire is 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 - a representation of the drama of the individual ego absorbed in its wants, desires and fears.

The Prenatal bagua arrangement features Clinging Fire in the focal position.

Fire ☲ is the mind state of all aspirations (both positive hopes and negative fears). The broken middle line indicates that the present is being ignored or sacrificed. No ambition can be achieved without sacrifice and it is no coincidence that offerings are made to sacrificial fires. At the same time difficulties are likely to transpire when we ignore our senses.

This example illustrates that the states of mind represented by the trigrams are not inherently positive or negative. Each mental state encompasses a wide range of common experience. 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.

It might be said that Water ☵ is fundamentally a subjective state of mind as it’s impossible to get distance on experience without memory or imagination. Conversely, Fire ☲ can be seen as an “object-oriented” state of mind.

We can think of this symbolic system as a language consisting of two letters (solid yang line, broken yin line), 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 its implications requires fluency: a firmly embedded sense of the meaning of both letters (solid and broken lines) and the words (the eight trigrams). Only then can one read the 2 sentences (bagua arrangements).

In Part 2 the prenatal and postnatal bagua arrangements are explored further.

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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 independent of results.


It’s interesting here to note a quote attributed to Aristotle: “to perceive is to suffer”.


☴ doesn’t focus on Imagination but it can still have an influence on Imagination. A yin line doesn’t indicate inactivity - it only indicates a lack of attention.