By Doug Marman
For over a hundred years, the bizarre mysteries of quantum mechanics have puzzled physicists. Most have given up trying to explain the strange behavior of subatomic particles. Scientists have no intuitive answer. As a result, the quantum revolution is incomplete, as I said in another article, because we haven’t gained any wisdom in our lives from this great discovery.
Lenses of Perception offers a new approach. These mysteries do make sense and we can learn valuable lessons from them. We simply need to look at quantum behavior as the result of relationships. This offers us new insights into the true nature of life.
I Ching — The Book of Changes
I’m still absorbing the meaning of it all. So, I keep running into discoveries that take me by surprise. For example, the realization just hit me that none of this is new. A deep understanding of the quantum enigma was known over three thousand years ago, under a different name.
This didn’t occur to me until after finishing my book, Lenses of Perception. As the first printed copies were being shipped, memories of an ancient book, the I Ching, unexpectedly came to mind. All at once I had the oddest idea: The I Ching and Lenses of Perception are both describing the same thing.
What a strange thought. Could this be right? I found a copy of the I Ching—Book of Changes and began flipping through its pages. The more I read, the more I saw the connection between these two books. But, how can this be?
No one knew about atoms or the subatomic world over three thousand years ago, when the I Ching was first written. How could they solve the quantum riddle? They lived in a world surrounded by animals and nature. Lightning and thunder, the life-giving rays of the sun, the cycles of life and death, day and night, and the changing seasons were all mysteries to them.
Their awareness of mechanical and chemical reactions was primitive compared to ours. But as I thought about it, I realized that this was an advantage. It helped them see some things clearer, because it made them more aware of the power of relationships. Not just their ties with people, but with nature and life itself.
Wood, Bamboo, and Elegant Stone by Ni Zan (Wikipedia)
They didn’t see themselves as observers. They were participants. Life, for them, was an experience they shared with the natural world. If relationships are the key to understanding quantum behavior, they were fully prepared to solve the mystery.
The problem we have today is that we keep trying to explain everything through third-person lenses. We learned this hundreds of years ago from Isaac Newton. It is now considered a foundation stone for all of our sciences: We study the world as outside observers. And there’s a reason why objectivity is so crucial: It’s the perfect tool for understanding cause and effect.
Unfortunately, this way of seeing fails in the quantum world. The behavior of particles can’t be explained by cause and effect. Physicists have proven this. Particles seem to defy all logic, from an outsider’s perspective. Understanding relationships, however, changes everything.
The I Ching emerged in an age when third-person perception—which we think of today as the scientific perspective—was being learned and used for the first time. However, people in those days were mostly blind to the mechanical reactions that are second nature to us today, because their lives and experiences were dominated by relationships, not mechanisms.
Centuries after the I Ching was first written, objectivity began to bloom. China shows some of the earliest efforts in the practice of science. But we see similar changes in Ancient Greece and other countries, as well. For example, in Greece, we find Pythagoras, followed later by Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, and others.
This move toward objectivity created a growth in knowledge about the world. At the same time, it decreased our feelings of closeness to nature. This is exactly what the writers of the Old Testament were getting at with the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were forced to leave when they ate from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In other words, objective knowledge was dimming their intimate connection with life.
This doesn’t mean that we should live like our ancestors. No, that’s not the lesson here. The point is that our ancestors saw the changes taking place—the shift to objectivity—and they tried to warn people about what they were losing. It isn’t necessary to give up our spiritual connection with life. We simply need to learn how to use different lenses.
All of this explains why, three thousand years ago, some people began teaching a natural way of seeing that shows us the secrets at the heart of all relationships. It turns out that these same principles solve the riddles of quantum particles. We gradually forgot this ability, as third-person lenses took over more and more of our perceptions. I think it’s time to remember.
But this story goes much further. After looking through the I Ching, it is clear that the original authors realized that the same principles that govern relationships in the outer world play an equally important role in our inner experiences as well. In other words, the same lenses help us understand the spiritual mysteries. In fact, they help us penetrate deep into the inner planes.
Let’s start by looking at the role of relationships in the physical world. In Part II, we’ll explore the inner side of this story.
In Lenses of Perception, I showed that all four of the forces known to physics, along with the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, can be explained by three different types of relationships:
- There are one-on-one connections between beings.
- There are groups that form as action teams, pulled together by a common goal.
- Large groups also create a feeling of pressure on their members that tends to align people to a norm.
The first two, above, are highly personal experiences. The third one is impersonal because it’s based on outsider perceptions—the way everyone sees everyone else. (For more details see Lenses of Perception.)
We can relate to all three types of relationships on the human level. Let’s review.
First, one-on-one relationships naturally lead to feelings of attraction and repulsion. Friendships and love affairs spring from something that exists between two people, drawing them together. This type of relationship doesn’t belong to one person or another, but to both together. It’s a shared connection and a private experience. And it’s never static. It continually changes as our understanding of each other, and the world, changes.
Second, groups that work as a unit are pulled together by a sense of “all-for-one and one-for-all.” We feel this in strong families, well-functioning teams, and the sense of loyalty we feel for the communities and companies we work for. This can be a powerful and deeply moving relationship when it inspires everyone to pitch in.
Third, large groups have a completely different type of influence on us. We call it peer-pressure, and we feel it even when no one is intentionally pressuring us. It happens unconsciously because we feel a need to adapt to the norm of society. This is why lawyers tend to dress and act alike, while actors and accountants have different styles and behavior. We try to fit in with groups because it’s uncomfortable being out of step with the world.
These three types of relationships not only play an important role in human affairs, they also define the world of subatomic particles (as shown in Lenses of Perception). For example, “entanglement” is one of the great puzzles of quantum physics. When two particles become “entangled,” their traits become aligned in such a way that the connection between them seems to reach across time and space, defying all logic. This fits perfectly with our experiences with loved ones. We feel their successes and failures, their joys and suffering, as if we’re connected, because we are.
Now, what about the I Ching? What does it say about these three types of relationships? Here is what the I Ching—Book of Changes says:
“In ancient times the holy sages made the Book of Changes thus:
“Their purpose was to follow the order of nature. Therefore, they determined the way of heaven and called it the dark and the light. They determined the way of the earth and called it the yielding and the firm. They determined the way of man and called it humane feeling and rectitude. They combined these three fundamental powers and doubled them; therefore the Book of Changes captures the signs of nature by six lines.”
Let me explain. First, by studying nature, the ancient sages determined that there are three fundamental powers behind all changes. They represent these powers with three lines.
These are the symbols used in the I Ching. They’re called “trigrams.” Each glyph has three lines, either solid or broken, creating eight possible combinations:
I Ching trigrams
Historians have discovered the use of trigrams in China in the earliest Chinese writings. However, around three thousand years ago, the I Ching went through a change: The trigrams were doubled and turned into hexagrams (six lines instead of three).
Why were the lines doubled? It turns out that the sages who first created the I Ching saw both inner and outer forces behind everything that happens. And these inner and outer influences are governed by the same three powers. However, the inner and outer worlds are different.
Therefore, in the beginning, the trigram for outer changes and the trigram for inner changes were separate. Two trigrams were needed to see a complete complete picture of the influences. That’s why these two trigrams were combined into one hexagram with six lines.
For now, I’m going to focus on the outer trigram. In Part II, we’ll look at how the inner trigram works. This should make it easier to understand the deep wisdom revealed by the I Ching about the nature of life. But first, let’s look at the history of the I Ching. It’s something of a mystery.
It is one of the oldest books in the world. No one knows when it began, since it goes back before the earliest records. Legend has it that it started with Fu Hsi, the first emperor of China (2852–2737 B.C.), but this is just a myth. No one knows.
However, one thing that is well known is that the I Ching was the inspiration behind two of China’s greatest teachings: Taoism and Confucianism. In fact, the I Ching was the well-spring for much of what we think of as “oriental wisdom.” It inspired the flowering of ancient China, leaving its mark on everything, including Buddhism, especially Zen. Its influence can still be felt today, thousands of years later.
Now, let’s listen to how a translator of the I Ching, Richard Wilhelm, explains the meaning of the trigrams:
“The eight trigrams are images not so much of objects as states of change. This view is associated with the concept expressed in the teachings of Lao-tse [Lao Tzu], as also in those of Confucius, that every event in the visible world is the effect of an ‘image,’ that is, of an idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only a reproduction, as it were, of an event in the world beyond our sense perception… The holy men and sages, who are in contact with those higher spheres, have access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to intervene decisively in events in the world.”
These aren’t actual ‘images’ or ideas, but this gives us a hint of what this is referring to. They are intuitive perceptions, as Wilhelm says. But even this doesn’t explain what they are. The I Ching tries to show us that there are three patterns behind the influences of life, both inwardly and outwardly. By contemplating the trigrams, it’s possible to learn new lenses that gives us new ways of seeing these patterns directly. This is why the I Ching produced such a powerful influence on Oriental thought. It is just as valuable for our lives today.
This is why I say the I Ching teaches the same thing as Lenses of Perception, because it shows that with new ways of seeing, a deeper understanding becomes clear.
Now, let’s study these trigrams. Are they really describing the same three types of relationships as in Lenses of Perception? I believe they are. But I’ll will warn you that we have to look behind the words to find their true meaning. This takes a little digging, but it’s worth the effort, because it helps us uncover a treasure that has been buried for over three thousand years.
The I Ching represents the “three fundamental powers” by giving them different names. Their meaning seems elusive at first. But I’ll walk you through them.
First, the power represented by the top line in a trigram is described by these words: “heaven as content.” What does this mean? What force is this describing?
We need to set aside the literal meaning of these words to see what they’re hinting at. Remember, we’re looking for a lens that makes this clear to us.
Don’t think of heaven, here, as another world. It’s referring to an influence, not a place. It is describing a specific element of change—an inner impetus that shapes life.
The philosophy of yin and yang came from the I Ching
To get a better insight, we need to hear what the ancient commentaries say. They tell us that when the top line is solid, it is called “light.” When the line is broken it is “dark.” The dynamic between these opposites, light and dark, describe this power. This is the principle that inspired the Taoist teaching of “yin” and “yang.” It tells us that opposites give rise to each other as they relate to each other. Light and dark, in the world, along with many other dualities, are considered manifestations of this power.
It still seems mysterious, doesn’t it?
Now let’s look at this in terms of relationships. Think about a connection developing between two people. It starts with an unconscious attraction. In other words, it starts in darkness. Soon, an intuitive impression—the idea of a possible relationship—emerges into the light of day, you might say.
Feeling this potential for a relationship influences them. But as soon as they realize that the feeling is mutual and real—the moment they both perceive this—it changes the way they see each other. Suddenly the future seems less clear. They’re plunged into darkness. What will happen next? The process goes back and forth as the couple, layer by layer, come to understand each other. More and more emerges into the light. In other words, this top line describes the influence of one-on-one relationships.
The I Ching calls it “heaven as content” because it comes from within. It is the inner content and substance that shapes the dynamic nature of relationships. It gives birth to attraction and repulsion, and from this springs all of the energy that propels our world. The light and warmth from the sun, the vitality of a sprouting seed, the power of storms—all emerge from this source of change. It is easy to see why the ancients saw this as the spirit of life itself—the influence of heaven—because it comes from within.
The dawning of light, when a relationship becomes real, is indeed the source of light in our world. Physicists call it electromagnetism (see NOTE below). The sages were right. The back and forth nature of relationships is also the cause of the wave action in electromagnetic waves. The alignment here with what I wrote about in Lenses of Perception is clear.
At first, when we looked at the meaning of the top line, it seemed hard to fathom because it isn’t describing an object or a thing, or even an idea. This power is a dynamic that we experience with connections. We can’t understand it using third-person lenses, because it’s invisible to outsiders. We only know it because we’re involved in relationships with life. I call it a “second-person lens,” because it’s a way of seeing the “you” in others, in relation to ourselves.
This is what physicists have been missing. They study the way outside forces influence things. They don’t see the dynamics that emerge between things, because these exchanges are private and hidden. We have to be in a relationship to see them.
Sages of the I-Ching from left to right: Emperor Zhou-Man, who wrote some of the earliest commentary on the I-Ching; Fu Hsi the mythical first emperor of China; and Confucius (image from https://universe-review.ca
Next, let’s look at the middle line. This one is just as mysterious. It’s described by the words: “man as subject.” That doesn’t make much sense, does it?
The word, subject, means the opposite of object. An object is something that seems to exist on its own. A subject exists only in relation to something else. For example, the subject of a painting is what the art is about. However, there is another aspect to this word: A subject is under the rule of someone else. This is what we mean when we say a person is subjected to another. This gets us closer to the meaning of the word we are looking for here.
The word, man, refers to mankind. Being the middle line, it says that people stand halfway between the inner expression of light and the outer world of form. Halfway between heaven and earth. This is how sages saw the human race thousands of years ago. But remember, these lines represent influences. So, man, here, is more like a verb, such as manning a post.
What makes mankind different from the other creatures of our world? We work for causes. We have goals. Working with a group of others for a purpose means taking up a role, a position in a hierarchy. This is what raises the human race. This is the power that allowed us to create civilization and modern technology. It also shows us why mankind is subjected to heaven.
This doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the middle between heaven and earth. The I Ching shows that all conscious beings are involved with all three levels of the trigram, whether we realize it or not. Rather, what this is saying is that the term, man, is hinting at the power that comes from working for a greater cause by being subjected to a higher rule.
When the middle line is solid, it represents “humane feeling,” which is the desire to help others. Caring for those less fortunate, or those who need care, is the way this power flows down from above. When the middle line is broken, it means “rectitude,” which is a sense of moral correctness—doing what is right. This is the way the power flows up. Once again, the dynamic between these opposites is the key to understanding.
Think of a leader who cares for the people he is leading, or an artist who loves her work. In these cases, the artist and the leader act as agents of change, but they soon come to learn that they’re never completely in control. The power they bring to the world comes through them, not from them. The artist, for example, is subject to the source of her inspiration. She must look up to and honor her muse. The leader must find a vision to show him the right course.
In other words, only by looking up can the leader and artist find the source for leading and creativity. Artists need inspiration. Leaders need a purpose. We find these by looking up to something larger than ourselves. This is the reason why this mode of action is in the middle between heaven and earth.
The I Ching doesn’t just see this middle power as something that belongs only to mankind. Plants bear seeds and fruit that are gifts to the world. Animals care for their young, and their offspring learn from and depend on them until they mature. All living creatures give birth and make sacrifices for the sake of the continuation of life. This is the power of the “all-for-one bond,” the most powerful force in the world.
At the level of particles, we see protons and neutrons instead of seeds. We find atoms instead of families. The hierarchical structure of nature is visible from the lowest levels to the highest, due to this power. Ancient people saw this even more clearly than we do today.
Now for the bottom line. This is the easiest one. The I Ching describes this power with these words: “earth as form.” It represents the influence of outer forms—the public world.
If the bottom line is solid, it represents “firmness.” If the line is broken, it is considered “yielding.” From this we see that the nature of this element moves from being a stabilizing force, like the ground we stand on, to a force that moves us to adapt as the world changes.
Think of times in your life when you were in-tune with society. You felt like you were exactly where you were supposed to be. That’s a feeling of firmness. Other times you realize how desperately you need to change because the world has changed. That’s the desire to yield. These experiences come from being part of an outer reality. In other words, it comes from impersonal relationships with groups. This same force, in physics, creates fields.
The I Ching tells us that there are times to stand firm, because firmness is needed in the world. In other situations, we should go along with changes, because it’s a time to be receptive to the world. We can choose our actions wisely if we see the situation correctly.
This is the whole crux of this teaching: If we see the inner influences of these three powers, we will understand the way of life and can align ourselves to it. In other words, it can make our relationship with life whole and complete. Here is how the I Ching puts it:
“The Book of Changes enables us to comprehend the way of heaven and earth and its order.
“Looking upward we contemplate with its help the signs in the heavens; looking down, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we come to know the circumstances of the dark and the light. Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and of death. The union of seed and power produces all things; the entering and leaving of soul brings about change.
“When, in this way, man comes to resemble heaven and earth, he is not in conflict with them. His wisdom then embraces all things, and his way brings order into the whole world. He is active everywhere but does not let himself be carried away. He rejoices in heaven and has knowledge of the laws of nature, therefore he is free of care. He is content with his circumstances and genuine in his kindness, so he can practice love.
“The Book of Changes includes the forms and scope of everything in the heavens and on earth. Nothing escapes it. All things everywhere are completed in it. Nothing is missing. Therefore, by means of it we can penetrate the way of day and night, to understand it. Just as spirit exists everywhere, the Book of Changes is not bound to any one form.”
All of the wisdom contained in this three-thousand-year old book can be understood with the right lenses. This is the same message as Lenses of Perception. It is strange to realize that I am restating something that started so long ago. It does indeed seem like an ancient science.
But what I’ve shared so far is only part of the story. We’ve been focusing on the outer trigram. That’s the same story I wrote about in my book. It turns out, however, that these same influences play a role that is just as important in the inner worlds. They underlie the workings of heaven as well.
This is the part of the story that I didn’t tell in my book, but needs to be told. This is also part of the teaching that was lost over three thousand years go.
Stay tuned for Part II.
NOTE: If you are interested in how these three types of relationships explain the four forces of physics, here’s a quick explanation:
One-on-one relationships between charged particles lead to attraction and repulsion, which is where the force of electromagnetism comes from. You might think that every electron repels every other electron, but physicists have shown that this isn’t true. This is one of the unique qualities of relationships—you can’t predict them.
The “all-for-one bond” on the level of particles creates the “the strong force,” the strongest of all the forces. When three quarks come together as a group, they can become so unified that the group acts as if it’s a singular particle. This is where protons and neutrons come from. When protons and neutrons unite, they create atoms. A new whole emerges from this relationship that is greater than the parts. And as we saw above, quarks don’t always bond in this way. It doesn’t happen automatically. Often, when they form a group, their ties are so weak that the bond fizzles almost immediately, while protons can have lifetimes that are almost as old as the universe itself. These relationships are completely unpredictable.
We also see peer pressure between particles, the third type of relationship. This is where “fields” come from. For example, all of the particles in our universe form a single field called “space.” Space isn’t just an idea, and it isn’t empty. It exerts a real pressure. Einstein showed that curvatures in space define the force of gravity.
We saw above how accountants, actors, and lawyers form groups with differing senses about what is normal. It’s easy to see that this can lead to conflicts between groups, since they form different ways of seeing. The same thing happens with electrons, neutrinos, and quarks. The clash between different types of particles gives birth to the last of the four forces of physics: “the weak nuclear force.” It causes particles to change types, leading to the radioactive decay of atoms. And, once again, the process seems completely random to outsiders. Physicists never know when an atom will decay. They only know its typical life expectancy. That’s why they call it a “half-life.”
The point is that none of the four forces are driven by cause and effect. This is a problem. Why are the laws of nature so unpredictable at the quantum level?
The answer is easy to see, with the right lens: It’s all about relationships. They’re complicated. You can’t predict what happens next at the level of individual beings, because attraction and repulsion comes from within. They aren’t outer forces. They’re the result of life interacting with life. This new insight completely changes the picture of what is happening in the quantum world, and it opens new doors to understanding our own lives and interactions.
If you find it hard to believe that relationships could play such a central role in quantum mechanics, then you might enjoy this recent article: Complementarity and the Quantum of Life: Nobel-Winning Physicist Frank Wilczek on Why Reality Is Woven of Opposing Truths
In the article Maria Popova writes:
“[Niels] Bohr [who has been called the father of quantum mechanics] was so enchanted by complementarity and its manifestations beyond science that he became fascinated with the unified duality of yin-yang in the Eastern philosophy — so fascinated that he placed the yin-yang symbol in the middle of the coat of arms he designed for himself, under the banner Contraria sunt complementa [Opposites Are Complementary].
“[Noble-Winning Physicist Frank] Wilczek writes:
“From his immersion in the quantum world, where contradiction and truth are near neighbors, Niels Bohr drew the lesson of complementarity: No one perspective exhausts reality, and different perspectives may be valuable, yet mutually exclusive. The yin-yang sign is an appropriate symbol for complementarity, and was adopted as such by Niels Bohr. Its two aspects are equal, but different; each contains, and is contained within, the other. Perhaps not coincidentally, Niels Bohr was very happily married. Once recognized, complementarity is a wisdom we rediscover, and confirm, both in the physical world and beyond.”
 Derived from: Richard Wilhelm, English translation by Cary F. Baynes, The I Ching — or Book of Changes, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1967, p. 264.
 Richard Wilhelm, English translation by Cary F. Baynes, The I Ching — or Book of Changes, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1967, p lvii.
 For an explanation of the three “powers” represented by the lines in a trigram, see: Richard Wilhelm, The I Ching — or Book of Changes, p 264-265.
 Derived from Richard Wilhelm, The I Ching — or Book of Changes, p 293-296.