Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Yi debugs a plugin

June 12th, 2016

I’m not sure what kind of geek it takes to appreciate this reading – probably something quite extreme – but I think it’s brilliant and wanted to share.

The background: a helpful programmer had fixed up a WordPress plugin for me, for use in the redesigned version of Clarity (still a work in progress). It all worked fine until I tried to add a sidebar to the page displaying the plugin output. Then the sidebar suddenly ceased to work as a sidebar – it was ‘displaced’ to the bottom of the page.

I set out to troubleshoot this through trial and error. Tried removing the plugin display from the page – sidebar displayed correctly. Replaced plugin display on page – sidebar displaced again.

So it had to be something about the code generated by the plugin causing the problem – but what? There’s nothing in the source code to say it has to display at full-width, or indeed to set any width at all. No funny css classes, either; it’s all very simple stuff: a heading, some divs, some paragraphs.

I have the same layout with the same right-hand sidebar on my new free reading results page, and that works… doesn’t it? I cast an online reading just to check the sidebar was where it should be on the results page. What to ask? How about, ‘Why doesn’t that sidebar work?’

Answer (with the sidebar in place next to it): Hexagram 8 with line 6 moving:

‘Seeking union without a head.

After a bit more puzzling, I found the problem. The code generated by the plugin ended with ‘</div>’, but there was no corresponding opening ‘<div>’. Seeking union without a head of its own, the stray tag had prematurely closed a wrapper div before the sidebar.

You wouldn’t necessarily think a 3,000 year old book could debug your WordPress plugin for you…


Why is it called Change?

June 8th, 2016

(Background to this: the ‘Yi’ in ‘Yijing’ (aka the ‘I’ in ‘I Ching’) means ‘change’. Why would an oracle be called ‘change’?

A sensible explanation might be that the Yijing’s lines and hexagrams change, and maybe this was what made it different from its ancient sister-oracles that also used hexagrams. Change is what this oracle does and what it represents: 4096 kinds and qualities of change.

What follows is not a sensible explanation.)


Eternity isn’t time without end; it’s timelessness.

If eternity were an ocean of being, then all of time could float on its surface.

Eternal being is equally present in any moment in time. If time ran in a circle, eternity would be the point at the centre: equally close to every point on the circumference. (So if the soul is eternal, then talk of ‘past lives’ must be a bit of a misnomer. Another life might be ‘past’ or ‘future’ relative to this one, but they’re all present to the soul.)

So… why time? What does the creation of time really create?


(…growth – unfolding – stories to tell… )

Change is the embodiment of time, and it’s where and how we live.

Change does for eternity something like what language does for consciousness: it articulates it. It gives it a voice.

(Etymology of oracle: from Latin orare, to speak.)


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