Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Just one thing

February 1st, 2016

I spend a lot of time exploring and writing about the endless depths of Yijing readings. There are those little seeds of meaning hidden in the etymology of individual characters, the long resonances across the structure of the Sequence, the pictures to be painted with trigrams and stories to tell with nuclear hexagrams, the mythical allusions, the many layers of distinction between the cast hexagram and its pair, its complement, its shadow… – and all that just for the single hexagram, never mind the complex tapestries woven by changing lines. No wonder a single reading can provide more than enough to think about and use for a month (or two, or twelve).

However… this kind of very, very deep dive isn’t the only way we use Yi – not even the usual way – and perhaps it isn’t a ‘better’ way, either. We don’t have to understand everything that the reading is saying: we just need to understand one thing, and use it.

For instance…

Anticipating an awkward meeting with feelings running high – advice?

Hexagram 21, Biting Through, changing at line 6 to 51, Shock

‘Shouldering a cangue so your ears disappear.

So I went into the meeting with the one idea of listen better and don’t respond to emotional reverberations by blocking things out. And that was what I needed. (Admittedly, I wouldn’t immediately associate 21.6 with a response to emotional extremes if I hadn’t given some thought in the past to its connection with Hexagram 51 – but that isn’t super-complex analysis, either.)

What if I take on this additional task?

28, Great Exceeding, changing at line 3 to 47, Confined

‘The ridgepole buckles.

Take it on, and you will buckle under the pressure. One look at the reading, one message: dismiss the idea.

Before another meeting, to find the way forward – advice for the group?

Hexagram 60, Measuring, unchanging

One idea: work out Measures sustainable for all. Make no agreements or rules that don’t accommodate human limits.

In each of those cases, taking that one thing from the reading was enough. Now the decision’s made, the meeting’s over, and Yi has made the difference. But even for ongoing situations, that ‘one thing’ is of great value –

A client is making a difficult request and I’m not sure how to respond. What to do?

19, Nearing, unchanging

This reminds me at once, irresistibly, of a dictionary definition of ‘client’ that Sean d’Souza often points to: ‘A client is one who comes under your care, guidance and protection.’ Now, this reading – appropriately enough for the hexagram! – is not at all ‘finished’, because the situation isn’t finished. I need to revisit the idea of ‘ending in the eighth month’, for one thing. But I already have my one guiding principle for the whole interaction.

These are not thorough, comprehensive readings – they’re incomplete, picking up on just a fragment of what Yi had to say. And… if we take that one thing and use it, that’s enough. We’ve done the reading, we’ve reconnected with the truth, and we’ve used it to change something. Divination happened.

one thing

Hexagram 20: the Tower?

January 18th, 2016

::::||Hexagram 20 is called Seeing – but if your I Ching experience began with Wilhelm, then you’ll be familiar with the idea that the shape of the hexagram itself is a picture of an ancient tower:

‘A tower of this kind commanded a wide view of the country; at the same time, when situated on a mountain, it became a landmark that could be seen for miles around.’

Wilhelm mentions a ‘variation in tonal stress’ that gives the hexagram name, guan 觀, a double meaning, and seems to imply that this double meaning is both ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’. But guan means both ‘seeing’ and – in a different tone – ‘tower‘.

Scott Davis agrees about the hexagram shape –

‘The hexagram shows a raised architectural structure with four broken lines beneath, indicating the tower’s balanced support, two yang lines on top indicating the elevated platform from which one views surroundings from a height.’

– and goes so far as to refer to the hexagram as ‘Tower’. (This wouldn’t work so well in a translation – see the moving lines. ‘Tower my life, advancing-withdrawing’?)

The principal use of such a tower would be to observe the heavens and align human activity with its rhythms. Observatories were built for this purpose in China as early as 2000BC, and Waley thought 20.4, ‘Seeing the glories of the realm,’ might mean observing heavenly portents.

I came across a story of the building of guan towers in Han times, in Picturing Heaven in Early China by Lillian Lan-ying Tseng. Emperor Wu of the Han went to great lengths to meet immortals to learn their secret, without success. His advisor told him that instead of chasing after immortals, he should draw them to him – by building towers that would attract them. And so, in 110BC, Wu had built the guan of Wind and Cinnamon and the guan of Longevity.

Of course this is all from long after the Yi was written – and as far as I know, Zhou rulers weren’t so fixated on immortals and immortality. But isn’t it interesting, this underlying idea that you would construct a tower to attract spirits? To me, Hexagram 20 seems to begin with the power of unclouded attention to draw the spirits closer. ‘Washing hands and not making the offering’ is a way of ‘constructing’ that quality of attention – creating a space with a drawing, magnetic power. The yin lines are open to receive; the yang lines are pulling what they observe into that space.

As for how guan towers were constructed, Tseng says,

‘The mural in an Eastern Han tomb at Anping, Hebei, depicts a sky-scraping watchtower standing in a walled city. The watchtower is a wide-open, one-story wooden structure on an earthen terrace. The watchtower apparently gains its soaring height from the earthen terrace, not from the wooden structure itself. The structure could be a guan tower on an earthen base or a tai terrace with a wooden shelter.’

As she explains it, the technology may not have existed to build a very tall wooden building, and so the height of an observation tower had to come from its pounded earth mound. The mound for the Temple of Longevity is still 6 metres high.

We can surely assume that Zhou guan towers would be constructed the same way: wood over earth, just like the component trigrams of Hexagram 20.

sky at night

Four things I learned about Yi last year

January 12th, 2016

Last March I explained how I don’t know the first thing about Yi (namely, why these line-patterns mean these words).

I’m happy to report that I still don’t, and I’m still lit up with curiosity and fascination for this strange and beautiful old creature we call Yi – and I think there’s something to be said for this state of mind. There is so much to learn it’s ridiculous.

Here are some things about Yi I did learn – or fully appreciate – in 2015.

Trigrams really are pictures

If you start by seeing the yang lines as heaven-force and what acts and the yin ones as earth-space and what’s acted on, a lot becomes clear. I mentioned this in the video clip about xun in this post.

The Yi is literature (also, the Sequence is amazing)

That means it’s an exquisite creation as a whole, with internal structure and correspondences and unfolding themes. I’ve always known this, of course, but last year I kept being reminded of it. There was Gert Gritter’s beautifully elegant discovery about the Sequence, and I also re-read Scott Davis’ The Classic of Change in Cultural Context which is full  of fascinating Sequence insights. Another ‘discovery’: the Sequence is more amazing than I ever imagined. Here are some examples.

(If you’re a Change Circle member you might have seen my long article about every Sequence pattern I know of and how they might be used in readings.)

The ‘literary’ quality is there on a small scale, too. Here’s an example from last month, about ‘theme and variations’ patterns created from simple omen words.

These things have just been sitting there waiting for someone to notice them for a couple of thousand years. All we need is the curiosity to start looking, and they become visible. (That’s something I’ve (re-)learned: to see what’s there, look.)

There’s a reason why we ask Yi for predictions

That’s a weedy sort of subheading, but I can’t quite bring myself to write ‘there’s nothing wrong with asking for a prediction’ – there still is. But there are times when the question we’re truly asking is ‘What will happen?’ Here’s a post about that.

And when facing a decision, it’s best to start by simply asking for advice

– rather than getting too clever and doing loads of readings about options. Here’s a cautionary tale – and its moral:

“Moral (maybe if I repeat myself enough I’ll remember this for next time…): when asking Yi’s help with a decision, ask the simplest, most open question first. Something like, ‘What’s the best way to do this?’ is fine. Absorb this answer into your thinking; use it to think up options. Then, if you even need to, ask about those.”

Sorry, there is no prize for recognising why I chose the following image to illustrate this post.

stream under mountain

The real meaning of synchronicity

January 2nd, 2016

Here’s an excellent article I stumbled across about the real meaning of synchronicity:

Synchronicity and the mind of God: unlocking the mystery of Carl Jung’s “meaningful coincidence”.

A quotation (among many I could have chosen):

“The universe is a reflection of an underlying spiritual reality; all phenomena express the deeper ideas and principles of which they are a “signature,” and can therefore be deciphered for their subtler significance.”

In other words – yes, you can say synchronicity is ‘meaningful coincidence’, but the simple existence of synchronicity is itself meaningful. The fact that your dreams and readings can speak the same language – and more than that, your waking life can be as eloquently symbolic as a dream: what does that say about the true nature of waking reality? (The author of the article, Ray Grasse, wrote a book titled The Waking Dream: unlocking the symbolic  language of our lives – which sounds like something I want to read.)

This underlying truth is something to wonder at and delight in – and also simply something we need to know to work with Yi. Otherwise, things can get very confusing when it shows up:

‘I asked this question about my work/health/relationship [delete as appropriate], but the answer seems to be about my relationship/health/work. Is Yi changing the subject? Why? How can I tell which it’s talking about?’


‘I’m doing this reading for my friend, but the answer is definitely talking to me about the situation I’m in right now that has nothing to do with her. So how can I tell whether the reading is for me or for her?’

In both cases, the reading is both. Both about your work and your relationship, or answering both you and your friend. There is a reason why you have both the work and the relationship issue, or why you and your friend connected over this reading at this moment: ‘The universe is a reflection of an underlying spiritual reality’ of connection and correspondences. You’re experiencing the reality through these many forms – and seeing it embodied in that one pattern of six lines. That’s what Yi does.

It’s a sad sign of the times that our first thought in the face of such synchronicities is that something’s gone wrong, or at best that this is a problem and a puzzle to be solved, whether the reading is about x or y – as if the elephant has to be either a rope or a pillar.



Giving readings more space

December 29th, 2015

giving readings more space

I’ve been blessed with some wonderful reading clients over the past year, and I’m hugely grateful for the experience. I’ve witnessed clarity dawning, knots untying themselves, blocks dissolving – Yi at work. I love it.

And… I realise there’s something I need to tweak a bit to create more space for the reading to happen.

Four things I’ve found work really well:

Readings in conversation – by Skype or phone – because readings actually are a conversation, not a monologue, so a real-life conversation turns out to be their natural element. (If you can’t have a spoken conversation we can use text chat, and if that’s not possible we’ll work out a way to do this by email – but still as a conversation, not an essay!)

The opening call to discuss the background and find the question. Last time around, I had someone email me the day after his opening call to say that now he knew the question, he found he also knew the answer, so could we cancel the reading? We did. There’s magic just in knowing the question you’re truly asking. Then you can begin to see how it’s being answered – by a Yijing reading, and in other ways.

The month-long shared exploration of the reading, with the review call at the end. This gives us more time to reflect and get deeper into the reading – I ‘carry’ it with me and keep my eyes and ears open for new insights – and creates a space where we can experience the reading doing its work. And also…

The integrating questions – ridiculously tiny little emails, just a question or two, that spark substantial insights. I especially enjoy it when a client emails me back in response to these and we can get into conversation.

Two things I’ve found could be better, that I want to change:

Squeezing the whole reading into one call. Yes, if we take the full 90 minutes I can cover all the essentials, but a) I’m going through thinking, ‘Oh, no time, better leave that part out for now’ and b) the client sometimes senses the pressure of how much there is to communicate and starts apologising for interrupting me, which is ridiculous because whose reading is it anyway? and c) the whole thing can feel like a giant information-dump.

That’s especially true if you’re completely new to Yi, not familiar with the basic structure (hexagrams, changing lines etc) – but really, even if you know Yi well, there is just so much in a reading. During the month that follows I’ll email some of the parts I missed on the call, but this really isn’t as good as talking about them – and then when we speak again for the review call I’m quite often left thinking, ‘I wish I’d included that, it would have been really helpful!’ Which is daft, because it wouldn’t have been helpful at all – it would have been entirely lost in the flood.

Limiting it to just one reading. 99.98% of the time this works beautifully – as a rule, the questions you have about a reading are all answered by that reading – but sometimes there is a complementary question that obviously needs asking. Or sometimes Yi’s answer to the first question may forcefully redirect you to ask something else. In these cases, it’s silly to be stuck with just one. Also, I sometimes find myself on an opening call working to dispel a sense of artificial pressure to find the ‘One Right Question’.

So… here is how the newly-tweaked readings will look when I open in a few days’ time:

We start the same way –

  • you download the ‘Ways of Opening’ pdf (see the bottom of this page) and use it to reflect on your question,
  • and then we talk
  • and then you decide whether to go ahead with a reading

And then…

  • in our first reading call we cover the essentials of the reading
  • and I’ll still send you the ‘integrating questions’ emails because people have repeatedly told me how valuable those are
  • but we’ll also have four further weekly calls for deeper exploration of the reading, to talk about how it applies and how you can use it in the moment, to answer your questions, and also to discuss (and if necessary ask Yi) any related questions that come up.

So there will be more space and time to explore: you’ll have a clear sense of the framework and core message of the reading and be able to relate to and use its insights within that context.

The price for this expanded reading service will be £200 – or £150 for Change Circle members – or four instalments of £52.

A final note: while this post is about the reading service I offer, you can also ‘rewrite’ it to be about what you can offer yourself when you cast a reading. A long journalling session to find the question you’re truly asking (the ‘Ways of Opening’ download is free)… an hour or so set aside to reflect on the reading… time in your calendar to come back to it and see how it connects into your unfolding experience, and so on. Not every reading calls for this kind of deep exploration, of course – but when one does, give it space to unfold.

Where readings happen

December 20th, 2015

Reading a book about healing, I came across two diagrams of the relationships between external events and emotional response. The first, very simple, diagram, showed our common misconception. It had two boxes, one for ‘external events’ and one for ’emotional response’, and an arrow pointing from events to response. That’s our everyday idea of how it works: ‘he made me so angry’, ‘public speaking is frightening’, and so on.

The corrected version of the diagram has a third box added – ‘interpretation’ – and arrows leading from external events to interpretation, and from interpretation out to emotional response. But the diagram’s also gained an extra dimension: it’s divided horizontally into conscious and unconscious, and the ‘interpretation’ box is below the threshold of awareness. All we’re aware of, in the normal run of things, is the two boxes above the surface: ‘external events’ and ’emotional response’.

It occurred to me that the third, ‘interpretation’ box is where Yijing readings act: dynamically reshaping our response with entirely new images and stories to think in – and not only emotional response, of course, but actions, beliefs, and maybe eventually our whole being.

Of course, there are plenty of ways of working on that ‘interpretation’ box. But most of them involve a kind of fishing expedition, using questions as hooks to haul up as much interpretive thought as we can. (Why is public speaking frightening? Because everyone will be looking at me. Why is it frightening to have everyone looking at you? Because they will judge me. Why is it frightening if they judge you? …and so on, perhaps back to some primal survival instinct about being excluded from the tribe.) Then we can assess its truth, and experiment by trying on alternative interpretations.

All this is valuable, and it can all happen in a reading: asking on the basis of one interpretation, receiving an image that forces you to stop and think and rewrite your ideas. Maybe the relationship that you thought of as a trap is a Vessel – or vice versa – or the objective you’re pursuing is like a fleeing horse. Or – I’ve had this one a couple of times this year – maybe the people you’re struggling to build friendship with are best described by Hexagram 44, and not interested in any such thing. ‘Aha!’ moments ensue, thinking changes, emotional response and behaviour follows.

However… I’ve found that a lot of what happens with the oracle stays inside the image; it never surfaces above that threshold of awareness. As a couple of people I read for recently said, ‘I haven’t exactly been working on the reading, it’s more that it’s been working on me.’ It’s like ‘dream work’ – which for me has at least as much to do with allowing the dreams to do their own work as with any interpretation I might come up with. (And then, of course, dream imagery and hexagram imagery may be one continuous fabric.) I had my eyes opened to this aspect of ‘Yi work’ years ago, when a client told me that the whole situation had transformed utterly since her reading – and she couldn’t remember a word of my interpretation.

Readings happen both above and below the surface.



Contrasts of Hexagram 6

December 13th, 2015


Hexagram 6 is called Conflict, or Arguing; its name also means bringing to court and calling for justice. Fittingly enough, it’s best understood through contrasts and oppositions. The authors of the oracle seem to have thought so, too: its Oracle is laid out as a series of contrasts:

There is truth and confidence, blocked.
Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.
Fruitful to see great people,
Fruitless to cross the great river.’

I think this begins with a contrast between ‘truth and confidence’, which above all is the connection that’s the basis for relationship (more on that in Language of Change), and ‘blocking’, which means obstruction – a hole stopped up, stifling the flow through. The opposition between these two pinpoints a frustration of Arguing: truth not brought to expression. Sometimes this is directly apparent: a truth that can’t be communicated, a relationship where certain things may not be said. At a deeper, simpler level, it’s the basic sense that this is not right – not just the emotional reaction of dissatisfaction, but truly knowing that the situation could be better.

(There is another way to punctuate this opening to get a different translation: ‘There is truth and confidence. In blockage, be vigilant…’ That would make the contrast between ‘truth’ and ‘blocked’ less prominent.)

The contrasts continue: good fortune as opposed to pitfall; fruitful as opposed to fruitless. What are the distinctions being made?

‘Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.’

‘Vigilance’ is a beautiful character: its components are the heart, and yi, change (the name of the book). To have a change-heart in the centre is good fortune. There’s a distinction between stopping halfway and driving through to the bitter end – but more than that, good fortune comes of being poised and alert in the centre, aware of change and capable of moving in any direction. (At the centre, you’re equally close to all points on the periphery – all possibilities are equally available to you.)

The Tuanzhuan (Commentary on the Judgement) says that ending means pitfall because ‘arguing does not allow accomplishment.’ This is a core theme of the hexagram: Arguing is not a way to achieve things. It’s a way to say, ‘This isn’t flowing, this doesn’t fit… let’s try something different.

‘Fruitful to see great people. Fruitless to cross the great river.’

What’s the nature of the contrast between seeing great people and crossing the river?

Great people, in the Yi, are distinguished by their ability to see more. (Again, see the entry in Language of Change.) The elders, leaders, even diviners, can see both sides of the argument and the full field of possibilities. Einstein may or may not have said something to the effect that, ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’ Seeing great people, in a time of Arguing, means accessing a different level of consciousness.

Often, when discussing ‘see great people’ with a client, I might suggest consulting with one’s wiser self – for instance through the playful ‘thought experiment’ of having a conversation with the self of ten years in the future, who resolved this situation long ago. With hexagram 6, though, my first suggestion would be to talk to another person, because it’s so hard to turn off the inner polemic for long enough to become aware of alternative views. Hexagram 6 is time for marriage counsellors, coaches, arbitrators, wise friends who will not get sucked in… after all, ‘Arguing’ does translate as ‘bringing to court’.

So seeing the great person implies stepping back, finding an overview. seeing more than just your own objectives. Crossing the great river, on the other hand, represents an irrevocable commitment to a single course of action – not least going to war. It requires uncompromising focus: ‘This way and no other way, no matter what.’

The Tuanzhuan says succinctly that crossing the great river here means ‘entering into the abyss’. The one who crosses the river has decided to ignore many things she needed to know. She lacks perspective and understanding – so she’s sunk.

Even more contrasts…

The text contrasts truth with obstruction, centrality with ‘to the bitter end’, overview and perspective with narrow focus. Structural contrasts, with other hexagrams, amplify and add to this – giving us more of a sense of what Arguing isn’t, so we can see what it is.

Complement: 36, Brightness Hiding, and openness

Change every line of Arguing, and you have Brightness Hiding, its complementary or opposite hexagram. You can see the basic similarity in the ‘shape’ of these two situations: truth obstructed, a status quo that isn’t right. The difference is in the response: Hexagram 36 hides the light; Hexagram 6 brings the dispute to court.

The roots of the character song, Arguing, give a good sense of its meaning: its components are speech and gong, which means both a duke and also ‘fair, unbiased’ and ‘public, open to all’. Hexagram 36 hides its insight – pretends not to know. Hexagram 6 wants to get the problem out in the open to resolve it. There’s no keeping it to yourself here – and also no keeping it from yourself, which can happen with 36. Arguing names the problem and makes it explicit.

Contrasting pair: 5, Waiting, and progress

If you look at Arguing from the reverse perspective – in other words, if you turn the hexagram upside down – you see Hexagram 5, Waiting. The Zagua, the Wing dedicated to contrasting pairs of hexagrams, says,

‘Waiting means no progress, arguing means no connection.’

Hexagram 5 has to do with waiting on, attending to, inviting what you need towards you through the quality of your attention. Waiting has truth and confidence – no ‘blocking’ here – and finds it fruitful to cross the great river, a manifestation of commitment. I think waiting, done well, is a way of aligning with dao. Not a way of ‘making progress’ relative to one’s environment, but of connecting with it.

The word ‘connect’ here means kinship, intimacy and affection – things Arguing, with its ‘truth blocked’, doesn’t have. But perhaps, just as Waiting seems to be a way of connection, so Arguing might be a way of progress. Not of arriving, not of accomplishing anything, just of moving forward. Waiting might connect with the processes of change, but Arguing actively pushes against the status quo.

Shadow: 59, Dispersing, and difference

Still another contrasting hexagram: hexagram ‘minus 6’ in the Sequence (ie counting backwards from 64) is 59, Dispersing. This (a discovery of Stephen Karcher’s) is the Shadow of Arguing: precisely the wrong way to think about it.

Shadow hexagrams are tricky – they can seem like the only sensible way to think about the situation. When there’s conflict, wouldn’t it be a natural, positive response to seek a single unifying current that flows through the situation, sweeping away its divisions? Really, shouldn’t we be aiming to dissolve the differences that block the flow?

Well… no. Arguing needs its distinctions; it needs to be able to say, ‘No, not like this,’ so it can move against the flow. This is expressed most clearly in its trigrams, with water flowing down and away below heaven:

‘Heaven joins with stream: contradictory movements. Arguing.
A noble one, starting work, plans how to begin.’

Arguing also requires enough distance from the emotions involved to have a clear overview – to ‘see the great people’ and plan a new direction. (Dispersing tends to mean free, uninhibited emotional flow.)

In practice, this movement against the flow can show up across a broad emotional spectrum. Raging indignation is a possibility: like Gong Gong in his fury stirring the waters to beat against heaven – this is not right, this is not just, this cannot be.

The Sequence from Hexagram 5 says (perhaps wryly), ‘Drinking and eating naturally mean arguing.’ That can point to a desperate fight for resources, Arguing just to have your basic needs met. But within the Sequence, it’s also part of the story of a newborn – naturally ignorant, needing to be fed – which conjures up pictures of someone who really will not eat spinach purée, because he’s become aware of how it tastes to him: he knows his own mind. Arguing begins with ‘truth and confidence’, after all.

So there can be rage, furious refusal – or, with a little more poise and maturity (‘vigilant and centred… seeing great people…’) there can simply be the growing awareness of what a coach might call a ‘toleration’. ‘This isn’t ideal, but I can put up with it… but then again…’ – and there is an itch to change. Such awareness might even emerge as curiosity: ‘It would be good if this were different; how could it be different?

The repeated message of Hexagram 6, from its oracle through to (especially) line 6 is that there’s no such thing as conclusively winning an argument. Or to look at this idea from another angle: when you’re arguing, when you can see and want something different, seeking to win is a misapplication of this power. Arguments are not meant for winning; winning is the wrong thing to do with an argument.

It’s only the fifth line that offers unambiguous good fortune –

‘Arguing: good fortune from the source.’

– and this is the line where Arguing joins with hexagram 64, Not Yet Across. It’s arguing with the constant awareness that nothing is complete, nothing is decided, and it’s not good to be in too much of a hurry to cross the river. So in practice this kind of arguing is open-ended, creative and inquisitive. ‘The noble one, starting work, plans how to begin.’ (This is one of several hexagrams where the Image reads like a commentary on the fifth line.)  It’s not looking for a ‘win’, but wondering, ‘How to tackle this now? and what about now? And now which way?’