28: Great Excess (Ta Kuo)
This post is #28 of 64 hexagrams in a series of posts about the I Ching, an ancient Taoist text that has many ties to the Tao Te Ching. For those of you new to this series, you may want to start by reading my post called “What is a Hexagram?” that helps to explain more about the general idea of the I Ching. If you are just starting this series, you may want to take a look at some of my other posts on the I Ching.
As I think of this hexagram, I think about my front yard – a gardener’s nightmare. It is completely overgrown from several summers of neglect! I took the photo above in a cave in Puerto Rico. It is a perfect example of my front yard and of this hexagram.
This hexagram is about being unbalanced. The other day I was having breakfast with a friend of mine and she was talking about housecleaning. She said if you handle things as you notice them, they don’t become a big problem. But if you ignore things, they quickly grow out of hand (like the weeds in my garden?) You get overwhelmed and then you have trouble keeping up with it all. Isn’t that so true? If we are trying to keep our kitchen clean, the mess can quickly get out of hand if we forget about our commitment to our goal.
In Hua Ching Ni’s interpretation of this hexagram, he explains that it is important to stay on your spiritual path. If we allow ourselves to get distracted by many of the myriad things life offers us, we will not achieve our spiritual goals. When I read this chapter a few days ago, I struggled to understand how this advice applied to my life. In my study of the I Ching, I have noticed that it frequently takes me several days to grasp a concept being shown to me. So I let it go and then came back to it to see what had come to the surface.
While my front yard is certainly not a spiritual path, per se, it represents the essence of great excess in my life. With Taoism, much of the practice is around seeing these sorts of patterns in your daily life. In Ni’s interpretation, he reminds us to stay flexible, soft, calm and patient. I need to practice this with myself when I get overwhelmed. I tend to be hard on myself sometimes because I feel like the spiritual path is supposed to be all the “important stuff” and keeping my sink clean or weeding the garden don’t seem to count. But this hexagram reminds me that they do.
I enjoyed Deng Ming-Dao’s interpretation of this chapter. He went further to explain that great excesses are our teachers if we chose to learn from them:
“Great excess. Only the truly great can cope with it – and no one becomes great without being tested by great excess.” ~Deng Ming-Dao, Hexagram 28, The Living I Ching
This reminds me of something that I learned reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book I read recently about developing your memory. The author, Joshua Foer, was trying to become the U.S. Memory Champion from only a year of study and had come to a plateau in his training. No matter what he did, his ability to memorize cards did not improve. So he asked his coach and his coach recommended that he start tracking his own scores and to write down what he learned from his practices. It seems that, tracking your progress is a way of moving beyond these plateaus. Can we track our progress with our spiritual goals as well? I am curious to explore this idea further.
Deng Ming-Dao explains that the word Kuo in Chinese (part of the name of this hexagram) has an alternate meaning of “a crossing”. He likened it also to a snake shedding its skin. We become better human beings when we can surpass our own barriers. The “great excess” that we experience is sometimes represented by our outgrowing old patterns of behavior that no longer fit us.
The “great excess” highlighted in this chapter can also mean death. Like the Death card in Tarot, there are many ways to interpret death. Sometimes it is an actual death, but more often it is the death of an older, outdated part of yourself. Like another friend explained to me, death can also be about revisiting parts of your inner child that are not yet resolved.
As I connect this information about the extreme changes of death to Ni’s chapter on remembering your spiritual path, it occurred to me that his reminder to stay on your path is most important during times of extreme changes in your life, such as a death of someone close to you. While we cannot control the external circumstances of our lives, we can control our own behavior and choose what is best for our spirit in any given moment. Extreme changes are very difficult to navigate, but it is these changes that will challenge us to put our spiritual practices into action. But, unless we have been practicing improving ourselves on a daily basis, we will not have the strength to withstand these tumultuous times. We will crumble. Crumbling isn’t necessarily bad. Things often crumble to make way for a new beginning. And, like Deng Ming-Dao said, “no one becomes great without being tested by great excess”.