Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Book of stories: myth and legend

May 17th, 2016

If you think about it, some stories play a big part in our conversation even though we never tell them in full. With a story everyone knows, you don’t need to tell it, you only need to allude to it. So ‘No, he isn’t Prince Charming’ becomes a short way of saying, ‘This is not the story of Cinderella: he isn’t going to single you out, lift you out of your humdrum existence into a palace of happily-ever-afters…’ and so on. We do something similar if we talk about Londoners reacting stolidly to terrorism with ‘the Blitz spirit’, or if we call a source of temptation a ‘serpent’.

Alluding to our shared stories is a tremendously succinct way to invoke a lot of meaning in just a word or two. Naturally the Yi – possibly the most succinct book in the world – uses this.

Only this makes for tricky moments in interpretation, because story-sharing is a tenuous thing. Even in the examples I just gave, the ‘serpent’ won’t mean so much to you if you’re not from a Judaeo-Christian culture, and my idea of ‘Blitz spirit’ is already a lot hazier than my father’s might have been, because he was there to help clear the rubble. (He never mentioned any ‘spirit’, but I’ve inherited his fear of the sound of air-raid sirens.) In fact… if you’re younger than I am, or American, the Blitz probably isn’t a ‘shared story’ at all.

So if I can’t even be sure what stories I might share with readers of this post, what are my chances of knowing what stories might have been shared by the first users of the oracle? And in readings, when do I get to say, ‘Here Yi is clearly referring to this story,’ when is it better to stick with, ‘This would probably have reminded a contemporary reader of this story,’ and when am I just making stuff up?

Inscription in the base of the Kang Hou Gui (British Museum)Scholars look at historical records and other ancient texts and find possible allusions. For instance, we can be fairly sure that the prince receiving horses in Hexagram 35 is Prince Kang, because of the inscription on this vessel. SJ Marshall read the history of the Zhou conquest and identified the name of Hexagram 55 with the garrison capital Feng; Stephen Field, because he’s also translated Tian Wen (‘Questions of Heaven’, a poem made up entirely of questions about Chinese myth and cosmology) is especially well-placed to recognise its characters and stories in the Zhouyi. (In fact his book is a superb source – the best I know – for both historical and mythical allusions, and gives far more detail than other sources.)

So the diviner sits on the back of the scholars, like the wren riding the eagle, and finds she can give people new stories to think in – an essential part of divination. On the face of it, the question for a diviner seems to be less ‘can I know this is a real reference?’ and more ‘will this help?’ But I’m still careful only to tell the stories I’m sure of, and ignore associations that seem to be simply the translator’s invention. Stories are powerful things – and people base their understanding and decisions on what the oracle says – and the only thing I can be sure will help, frequently in ways I can’t imagine, is what the oracle says. Diviner beware.

Here are some stories I would definitely tell as part of a reading:

The Zhou Conquest, of course, the book’s one big unifying story: the modest little Zhou people receiving the Mandate of Heaven to overthrow the Shang rulers. This is recent history for the book’s first users, rewriting their whole world, and it colours the ancient text vividly: crossing rivers, the struggle in the northeast, western neighbours, strange alliances, the long historical resonances of the marriage of King Yi’s daughters (no wonder 11.5 changes to 5!), and of course the big moments: 49, 55.

Linked with this story, there’s Prince Ji in 36 and his mirror image, Prince Kang, in 35. Then Wu in 55 also has his reflection from a much earlier time: the Shang progenitor King Hai in Hexagram 56 (and 34, and maybe also 23).

And reaching further back into mythical times, there’s Yu the Great, conqueror of floods and banisher of demons, limping on through 8, 39, 43 and 44.

A wren from the British LibraryI think those are the stories I would rely on, though there are plenty of other tantalising hints, and there must surely be much more that we’ve lost. Perhaps a contemporary reader would have known who was attacked by bandits in 5, or who shot the hawk in 40.6…

Yijing, Book of Stories

May 12th, 2016

Opened book, open pathsStories are a big part of how readings work. When we’ve gone round and round the situation a few (dozen) times in our thoughts, and everything is stale and stuck, Yi says, ‘Imagine, it’s as if…’ – and everything changes. How I got here, where ‘here’ is, what paths might be open to me now – it all looks different.

Stories are a richly eloquent way for the oracle to say, ‘You are here’  and reveal a whole landscape that was hidden. And they’re a language we all speak – one we all think in, all the time. We don’t just live our lives, we tell them. I travelled into London at the weekend, and came home with a story to tell of getting lost on the Underground – my own woeful little travelogue. It has misunderstandings, helpers and guides, toil, suspense (would I still catch my train?), escape (Persephone?)… all packed into 40 singularly ordinary minutes. And the daily routine is no different – an endless stream of roles and sagas and casting questions.

Sometimes the story Yi tells echoes the one we’re telling ourselves; sometimes it twists it just a little; sometimes it blows it sky high. If I ask about a situation that feels like a burden of responsibility I must carry (so my story’s all about heroic struggle to bear the load), perhaps I’ll receive Hexagram 28 line 4 – bearing up under the weight, conscious of the dangers of too much stress and strain. Or there might be 7.3, or 40.3, each telling a rather different story about carrying a burden. Or I might get 59.1.2 – what if I have the whole story upside-down, and this thing I’m labelling a burden is actually what carries me and keeps me afloat?

Those are all examples of Yi telling tiny stories, little vignettes in a single line.

‘Shouldering a burden while also riding in a carriage
Invites the arrival of bandits.
Constancy, shame.’

A film studio would spin that out to at least twenty minutes, don’t you think? Misunderstanding, incongruity, consequences, reaction… Yi covers the lot in eight words, and we follow along with pages of commentary.

But Yi has so many other ways to tell stories. Trying to think of them all…

  • those little one-line vignettes
  • allusions to the culture’s big stories – both history and myth
  • the individual steps of the Sequence of Hexagrams (‘Here’s how you reach this place.’)
  • the huge narrative arcs of the Sequence – ‘you are here’ on the grand scale
  • multiple moving line readings that unfold one line at a time
  • the ‘nuclear story’ within each hexagram
  • the stories told through the connections between readings

…what have I missed?

(I might come back to these and look for examples of each kind of story-telling in readings.)

Questions of choice

April 28th, 2016

choicetreeI spend a lot of time thinking about what we ask the Yi and helping other people find their questions. This is a bit odd, because finding the question really isn’t complicated at all. It’s not a matter of devising a question nor even really of deciding on one, but of finding it: discovering what you’re already asking.

I think it’s one of those things that are simple but not necessarily easy. And when it isn’t easy – when your question doesn’t leap to the eye – then talking to yourself helps to unearth it. It works well to ask yourself questions.

The simplest one is, ‘What do I need to know?’

(It’s worth digging a bit more into the answer to that one, to test its truth. Why do you need to know this? What difference will the answer make?)

Another good question question: 

‘Where is my choice?’

One way I sometimes help people find questions is through the application of some quite dry logic, to find just where they’re perched among the branches of their ‘decision tree’ –

‘If I do x, I could do it this way or that way or maybe that way, and I could do that now or later and when should I tell my friends…?’

– well, your question might be about how to do x, but it might be about whether to do it at all. We often need to disentangle ourselves from the twiggy bits to get back towards the trunk of the decision and find the choice we have now.

This kind of ‘decision reading’ seems to be only a small subset of possible readings. Certainly the ‘decision tree’ approach isn’t always the most effective way to find someone’s true, heartfelt question. (You might end up barking up the wrong tree altogether… 😉 ) However… while not all readings are ‘decision readings’, it’s hard to think of any reading that isn’t about choice.

There is always a choice somewhere. It’s not necessarily ‘what to do’, of course – there may not be anything to be done, or you may not have much meaningful choice in your actions. But you’re still consulting Yi about a choice – maybe how to be with the thing, how to think about it, how to relate to it…

And if you’re getting tangled up in the ‘decision tree’, it may be that there’s a prior choice of how to be and relate.

For example – I’ve been sunk deep in redesign work for months now, and while I’m making respectable progress, ye gods and small fishes is this taking ages. What should or could I be outsourcing, and to whom, and how could I avoid having an experience like last time (outsourcing to an ‘absentee web designer’), if it’s even possible to be sure of avoiding people like that…?

But before I get embroiled in what and how and even whether to outsource – where is my choice, really? I think it’s in how to think about what I’m doing, as I spend hours and hours every day up to my neck in templates and css files. Is this wise? Is this self-sabotage? Time-wasting? Is it some other thing I haven’t imagined? I don’t want to start taking decisions about what to do next until I’m more settled in my attitude to what I’m doing.

So my first question was What am I doing with the redesign? (and my second one was …and what should I be doing with it? closely followed by how about hiring this person to help with the forum menu?)

(What I’m doing, by the way, turns out to be Hexagram 31 changing at lines 4 and 5 to 15 – in other words, not self-sabotage nor yet completely off-track, though with some to-ing and fro-ing. I’ve added a note to WikiWing about line 4.)

Yijing as the Source of Nine Star Ki – London course

April 27th, 2016

This sounds interesting: a two day course in London on 9 Star Ki astrology and its roots in the Yijing. If you’re interested I would recommend getting in touch with the organisers soon, as they’re only taking six students. Click the image for more information:




Could Stripping Away be painless?

April 17th, 2016

Hexagram 23 is called Stripping Away. The old character shows a knife, and a less-clear component that might be a well winch or a bag for filtering wine, separating the wine from the dregs. As LiSe shows, that blends into the meaning of the whole. But the knife component is very clear – in etymology and in experience.

When you receive Hexagram 23, something is coming ‘under the knife’. The traditional version of the etymology says the knife is carving, cutting away what is not required. That’s often the lived experience of the hexagram: something outworn, something no longer of use, is cut away. The difficult part is that until the knife comes down, we might have been quite attached to our plans/ideas/self-image/social position/security/relationship… etc. The ‘stripping away’ might feel something like being skinned alive.

Living through this hexagram can be excruciating – but it isn’t necessarily so. This depends on two things – scale, that I wrote about the other day, and also on the degree of attachment. That’s the message of the Image –

‘Mountain rests on the earth. Stripping Away.
The heights are generous, and there are tranquil homes below.’

That isn’t an Image of pain and loss, but of kindness, generosity and peace. Mountains don’t develop neurotic attachments to ‘their’ minerals, and so the valley below is well-nourished.

Funnily enough, that mysterious ‘wine-bag’ part of the hexagram name is also a loan for three characters meaning the place at the foot of a mountain (see Harmen Mesker, Cutting Through Hexagram 23). Such a place might be in the mountain’s rain-shadow, arid and deprived, but it could also be – on the other side of the mountain – particularly moist and cool. I think the Image authors were imagining a fertile, sheltered valley.

How interesting that of all the Image texts in the book, this is the only one with no explicit human protagonist: no noble one, no ancient kings. Of course ‘heights’ implies upper social strata, but it literally only means ‘above’, the opposite of ‘below’. The human element – that part that can say ‘this is mine!‘ – is stripped back and disappears into the landscape.

Tradition says that the mountain rests on the earth like a government rests on the people, and this hexagram portrays a bad government that has eroded its foundations, exhausted popular support and is on the verge of collapse. It needs to practise generosity, because the society’s very structure is being pulled apart. (‘Pulling apart’ is Minford‘s name for the hexagram in his Part I, ‘Book of Wisdom’.)

It’s not about propping up the status quo with a pre-election tax cut, though: this scene, the mountains above the valley, shows that erosion is a natural constant: it’s just what happens. If we could participate in a spirit of generosity – if we were a little more like mountains, a little less attached – Hexagram 23 might be painless.

Generous heights and a tranquil home below

Hexagrams and their scale

April 14th, 2016

big dog, small dogI started work recently to research a post on Hexagram 23, Stripping Away – a hexagram of loss, whether that means painlessly shedding what’s outlived its usefulness, or having something you’re very much attached to torn away. Looking through a dozen reading experiences with this one, I was struck again by how much hexagrams don’t describe scale.

Just on this blog, I found three readings I’d shared with Hexagram 23. They were, in order:

  • auspices for using a certain technology during a webinar. (I persuaded myself I could use it anyway, and it failed impressively.)
  • foreshadowing my mother’s death after a debilitating illness
  • describing turning out my wardrobe

This kind of list is one reason why it’s not sensible to worry about receiving Hexagram 23 – or 29, or 47. They tell you the shape of things, not their size.

(Of course the same is true of ‘nice’ hexagrams – but it isn’t really in human nature to look at Hexagram 14, say, and confidently expect a lottery win, whereas people do greet Hexagram 23 with dread.)

23? Stripping Away is happening – something is being taken away. 47? Something is Confined, shut away. 29? A deep dive, a recurring ‘learning opportunity’ (heh), calling for absolute commitment.

A hexagram is like a living diagram of energy flows and structures… or like a detailed relief map, but without the little ‘1:10000’ scale marking in the corner. If your reading for the week ahead shows Repeating Chasms, you know you’re entering a space with this shape –

– but you don’t know whether it’ll be a vast windswept landscape of ravines and torrents, or something more like our back lawn. (It has moles.)

Looking at this logically, from the outside, it might make you wonder what the point is. Why consult an oracle that might not differentiate between major surgery and a bruised ego?

But knowing it from the inside, this reveals something about how a relationship with Yi works. Pragmatically, we usually know the scale from our question. Hexagram 23 for a new computer? You might lose your data. Hexagram 23 for a new business venture? You might lose your house – or your belief in your own competence – or both, of course.

And at a deeper – and still more pragmatic – level: Yi helps now, in the present; readings show you where you are. I don’t need a reading to tell me ‘this is life-changing’ or ‘this is ordinary’; I need it for the ‘energy diagram’ that shows me the nature and shape of the time, and how to navigate my way around it.

What is resonance?

March 26th, 2016

I imagine anyone who’s lived with Yi for a while has also got used to the idea that the world around them gives them signs, and often these signs resonate strongly with readings. I had a ‘big’ Hexagram 10 reading a few years ago, and saw tigers everywhere. (Pictures of tigers, I mean. This is rural England, and there are – fortunately – limits to synchronicity.) You might have Hexagram 53 and hear the migrating geese flying overhead. Dreams and readings speak together, too: you might dream of losing your bag on the train and cast Hexagram 40 line 3. You might have the feeling that all these things – readings, dreams, the waking world – are made of the same resonant stuff, and all play the same chord together.

What got me thinking about this now was the experience, a few days ago, of being the resonant stuff used to play the chord. I was talking through a reading with a client, about the ‘king in his temple’ – that phrase that appears in hexagrams 45, 55 and 59. As I try to make that concept easier to relate to, I often add another image, like ‘bringing the king into the temple is like completing an electrical circuit, so the current can flow.’ But on this occasion, for no particular reason I was aware of, I said instead, ‘It’s like putting the key into the lock.’ And the reading’s owner visibly jumped, because she’d dreamt the previous night that she was trapped in a confined space, handed a key and told that only she could unlock the door and release herself.

Hearing the chord played is one thing; being played like an instrument myself is another.

So I thought to ask Yi about the whole thing. What is resonance?

Yi answered with Hexagram 58, Opening, changing at lines 2 and 5 to 51, Shock.

changing to

Isn’t that a beautiful reading?

58, Opening: the hexagram of communication, of exchange. Inner and outer lakes: the inner conversation of the heart, the outer conversation with the world, and the constant circulation between those two –

‘Lakes joined together. Opening.
A noble one joins with friends to speak and practise together.’

(It seems to me the ‘friends’ in question might just as well be dream teachers or migratory geese.)

And our experience of resonance in 51, Shock, the hexagram of repeated thunder: that moment of abrupt realisation, and re-realisation – this is speaking to me. The matrix of our usual comfortable assumptions about how the world works breaks open. Inner and outer shocks echo one another; this wakes us up; we jump.

Thunder resounds through the lake and its surface vibrates: lines 2 and 5, the lines at the surface of inner and outer lakes, are moving. Yi paints us a moving picture of resonance as it happens.

That means the two lines’ individual steps of change are the two hexagrams combining thunder and lake: 17, Following, and 54, the Marrying Maiden.

I was actually half-expecting to receive Hexagram 17 in response to this question, because I’ve seen it describe the phenomenon of synchronicity a few times before. There is a current flowing through things; if we’re aligned with this we experience the alignment as synchronicity. 58.2 shows Opening’s way of Following:

‘True and confident opening, good fortune.
Regrets vanish.’

This is one of several places in the Yijing where fu – truth, confidence, trust – stands in contrast to regrets. Regrets mean separating myself from the present moment, wishing I were in some fictional realm instead; fu means full presence. Naturally, regrets vanish in the presence of trust. Here’s resonance at work: opening and following, experiencing the deep rapport with what-is we call synchronicity. Total participation.

And… there is also line 5, joined with Hexagram 54:

‘Trusting in stripping away,
There is danger.’

Interesting, that resonance also comes with this health warning. What might be stripped away? Hexagram 54 – the hexagram for the girl who’s married off as a second wife, and has no say in the matter herself – suggests it’s self-determination.

I think this is a recognisable danger – something we can do with both readings and signs, and especially with the combination of the two.

‘I was going to fly to visit my mother for her 90th birthday, but a bird crashed into the window, so I knew I shouldn’t risk it.’

‘It’s true he never contacts me, but I saw a pair of swans dancing together in the park today. That’s the universe giving me a sign that our love is forever. And driving home, I happened to look at the clock in my car just when it said 11:53!

And so on. If we place our trust in signs, human discrimination, intelligence and good old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother used to say, isn’t common) may be stripped away. There is danger.

Of course, this line only observes ‘there is danger’; it doesn’t say this means disaster. Sometimes in the Yijing it’s worth persisting despite danger. Very occasionally, the marriage of Hexagram 54 can lift you to a higher level of being, to participate in something greater than you would ever have attained alone. So perhaps trusting in what strips away autonomy is a way to become a ‘bride of creation’. (Or perhaps it isn’t.)

Thunder over the lake