This is a topic that came up in the I Ching Community with reference to weekly and annual readings – how people can be frightened by them, maybe scared into paralysis by a sinister-looking line – and it got me thinking about the scariness of readings in general.
What is it that’s frightening about readings?
Obviously, predictions of doom are scary – as anyone who’s ever hesitated to ask for fear of what the oracle might say is well aware. But predictions of possible, but not-quite-fated doom are more so, I think. There’s something you could do to make a difference, but how can you tell if you’re doing it right? As LiSe once said, negative lines are something like mother saying, ‘Don’t run into the traffic’ – but which way is the main road?
And actually, this isn’t only true of unpleasant lines. Any reading that tells you there’s something you could do to make a difference brings on a sense of responsibility – and it’s rare to get a reading that promises x (good or bad) will happen completely regardless of what you do, isn’t it?
So having realised this was more complicated than I thought, I turned to Yi for help. What is it that’s frightening about readings?
Yi says it’s Hexagram 9 unchanging
That’s not the answer I was expecting. After I’d cast the first three lines, I was thinking I might receive Hexagram 1: the sheer creative power of readings, if you pause to become aware of what you’re doing, is daunting. But no – in practice, it’s Small Taming.
‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from my Western outskirts.’
It’s not the cosmic power that’s frightening, it’s our position in relation to it: the small farmer under the dark clouds, knowing something is coming, but it’s not time yet. In casting the vessel, Hexagram 9 (with Hexagram 10, and facing 44-43) has to do with creating the relationship to heaven that’s needed to complete the work of casting. We need natural resources, and our own commitment, but beyond that we need the less quantifiable, less manageable gift that is connection to spirit – blessing, the favour of the spirits, maybe just good luck. The farmer, looking up at those clouds, knows this very well. He begins the process that continues in Hexagram 10: learning to work with the power of heaven.
Small Taming is on the face of it a much milder, gentler hexagram than 10, Treading. I’m usually glad to see it: the down-to-earth message of small-scale cultivation, the reminder that I can only do what I can do. However, those clouds can bring an anxious, oppressive atmosphere – especially for someone who is eager for greater clarity and certainty (like, for instance, someone consulting an oracle).
Work makes me nervous
Interestingly enough, there’s no promise of doom in Hexagram 9. On the contrary – it foreshadows mandate to come: the clouds will come from the West, the Zhou will be empowered to march on the Shang. There is work to be done now, and there may well be bigger work in future. I don’t know about you, but this prospect makes me nervous – not least because if Yi’s shown me how, and then I don’t get it right, whose fault is that?
So for me, Hexagram 9 represents all the readings that say, ‘Yes, this can be done, and it will take work’ – especially since the particular work they require is often something I’m not naturally inclined to do. And also, they tend not to tell me when my efforts will pay off:
‘If I get to work digging this field, when will it rain?’
There’s an awkward mixture of knowing and not knowing here that’s not at all reassuring.
Choice: also scary
Small Taming represents an awkward, intermediate stage: you’ve chosen your place, your fields to dig; you have work to do, but the outcome is still under a cloud. That is, it comes after choice – following from Hexagram 8:
‘Seeking union naturally has occasion to tame things, and so Small Taming follows.’
Make your choice, find the centre to flow from, and naturally you start to gather things around it, to ground it in reality. You start to build fertility in this soil, plant these seeds… Small Taming implies a choice made.
I think we make this choice when we consult. Sometimes asking a ‘What if I…?’ or ‘How can I…?’ question is a first real, inner shift towards commitment. Asking an oracle is not quite the same thing as just entertaining the idea. And even with quite open-ended readings – ‘What should I be aware of this week?’ – we are still saying, ‘Here I am, in this reality.’ (I’ve a feeling that the imaginary world of all the other places we might have been is altogether easier to inhabit.)
The nuclear hexagram of 9 is 38, Opposition – and I’ve noticed that the experience of a nuclear hexagram is often more vivid in an unchanging reading. It has to do with ‘seeing differently’, the uncanny, the unfamiliar, the not-quite-understandable – and also the gulf between how I imagine it, and how it is.
Something indefinable changes when you leave the realm of possible scenarios and come into contact with how it is. (And if you’d been led around blindfolded for hours – or years – and finally the blindfold was taken off, wouldn’t you hesitate for a moment before opening your eyes?) You can’t go back. (No, not even by casting another reading…)
The shadow hexagram of 9 (hexagram ‘minus 9’) is 56. In response to a reading, thinking of this as something you’re ‘just passing through’, en route to a future destination, is exactly the wrong way to engage with it – exactly what gets you stuck. It makes the reading all about the destination, not the present; it reduces your interaction with your present reality to the bare minimum: not changing it, not changed by it.
And that can be a problem with readings: we approach them wanting to know what’ll happen, or even how to reach a destination, and this can leave us ungrounded, divorced from the only place we can do anything.
The downside to fear of readings is obvious enough: background anxiety, or at worst complete paralysis: my weekly reading says something bad, so I’m staying under the duvet until it goes away. Or there’s avoiding readings altogether (or just readings on some particular topic), for fear of what they might say – being more comfortable in maybe-land.
Could there be an upside? I think so – at least to a healthy respect for what we’re getting ourselves into here. If I ask, I’ll be told. How much reality do I feel up to; how much commitment am I ready for?
Besides… if I ask ‘what if I do x?’ and get told,
‘Confused return, pitfall.
There is calamity and blunder.
Using this to mobilise the armies: in the end there is great defeat.
For your state’s leader, disaster.
For ten years, incapable of marching out.’
…for instance, there’s no harm in setting out to understand why it’s such a bad idea after deciding not to try it.
And some suggestions
So how not to be overwhelmed by scary readings? I think Hexagram 9 contains some hints:
‘Wind moves above heaven. Small taming.
A noble one cultivates the natural pattern of character.’
The clouds are dark, but you can keep working, keep following a reading’s advice, keep it in mind and let your awareness be shaped by it, as the winds are ‘shaped’ by heaven. And the unchanging character of this reading suggests you do this for its own sake, not with a view to anything else.
For me, working with a reading starts before I cast it, with some awareness of my expectations, fears and reasons for asking. (When I re-open for business with readings in a week or so, the first step in the process will be an ebooklet called ‘Ways of Opening’ that walks you through this kind of preparation.) It means I’m entering into the relationship – taking up my hoe – willingly.
I’m not sure why I never find weekly or annual readings frightening. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, or my innate, incorrigible optimism. Maybe it’s the awareness that none of my worst moments have been predictable anyway – readings have helped me through them, but I’ve never ‘successfully’ predicted anything really nasty for myself.
I think it’s also that I’m willingnot to understand a reading right away: if an open reading says something ominous I can’t currently recognise, I don’t spend too much time trying to predict how or where this might show up. Instead, I work on letting the reading change my perceptions – treating it as a kind of ‘radio tuner’. (I need a new metaphor for this. How many people nowadays have ever tuned a radio by turning a dial?) So I’m not trying to predict the future, just to be more closely aware of its seeds in the present. An open reading becomes a process of gradual discovery.
More generally… do readings; do readings about small-scale, definitely non-frightening things; keep a journal. Build up your experience, and with it a realistic confidence in your powers of ‘tuning’ and recognition. Oh, and talk to other readers: there are probably many people who’ve had the same nasty line and are still at the I Ching Community to talk about it.
What would you suggest?
Because of that incorrigible optimism, I expect I’m missing some things here. Any advice from experience? Or thoughts on Hexagram 9 unchanging?