Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Theme and variations

December 6th, 2015

snowflake crystal

From its first appearance in the first words of the Yi, the creative flow through the four characters yuan heng li zhen is tangible. Its power is felt in the other five hexagrams with the whole, uninterrupted formula.

But the natural cohesion of the four-word formula can also be felt in the hexagrams where it doesn’t appear – where the formula’s interrupted or partial. Because these words belong together so strongly, anything that breaks their flow stands out and asks to be noticed.

An instance of this I’ve probably mentioned before: Hexagram 4 begins,

‘Not knowing, creating success.’

A lot of hexagrams start this way: hexagram-name heng. The name of the hexagram takes the place of yuan in the original formula, suggesting that this hexagram is itself a way of making a successful offering. And we know, of course (especially after hexagrams 1-3) that heng is meant to be followed by li zhen: creative engagement flowing on to fruition, with clear and steadfast intent –

‘Not knowing, creating success,
Constancy bears fruit.’

This is almost what happens – except that the formula is interrupted:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

And this interruption consists of the repeated questioning of the young ignoramus. The hexagram doesn’t just describe how such importunity interferes with the oracle’s speaking, it shows us how it happens.

Hexagram 18 has a different relation to yuan heng li zhen. It begins,

Gu. Yuan heng li…
‘Corruption. Creating success from the source, fruitful…’

We know – especially after hexagram 17 – that zhen, constancy, comes next: li zhen, constancy bears fruit.

‘Corruption. Creating success from the source.
Fruitful to cross the great river.
Before the seed day, three days. After the seed day, three days.’

So ‘cross the great river’ comes in place of zhen: it breaks the pattern.

Hexagram 17 (‘yuan heng li zhen, no mistake’) is about Following the creative flow; 18 is about a pattern that must be broken. The hidden currents of Corruption are creating the same pattern of experience again and again; they must be interrupted, there must be a change of direction to carry through the creative potential of yuan heng… . Again, the hexagram doesn’t just tell you what’s needed, it shows it by breaking the pattern – and breaking it with exactly the phrase that means ‘go against the current, do what doesn’t follow.’

One more example of the deliberate use of the mantic formula: its partial use. Thus for instance Hexagram 14 says only,

‘Great Possession.
From the source, creating success.’

I believe this emphasises that 14 is the stuff of beginnings: raw material, like wealth or talent. How this might be used is an open question.

There are also three hexagrams that begin [name] li zhen – constancy bears fruit. The first of these is 26, Great Taming:

‘Great taming,
Constancy bears fruit.
Not eating at home, good fortune.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Just as Great Possession is a hexagram of potential and beginnings, Great Taming is a hexagram of stored potential brought to fruition by long hard work – of implementation over time.

The other two pure ‘li zhen‘ hexagrams are 30, Clarity, and 34, Great Vigour. And here’s something interesting: this variation on the yuan heng li zhen theme is part of a much larger pattern. These three hexagrams are part of a group of 10 that Scott Davis calls the second ‘big little’ set (after the hexagrams called ‘Great’ and ‘Small’). I’ve described the perfect symmetry of this group before. Its central axis is the pair of 29-30, Repeating Chasms and Clarity; the ‘trigram theme’ that frames it, in hexagrams 25 and 34, is the relationship of thunder (initiative, action) to heaven (creative power, ultimate reality). I have a sense that this section of the Sequence is tackling the question, ‘How can we build a life based on both ways of knowing: 29 and 30, “below” and “above”, the “connected heart” and clear insight?’

And here we have the two ‘great’ hexagrams of this section, Great Taming and Great Vigour, equidistant from Clarity, and each affirming that ‘constancy bears fruit’ – not forgetting that zhen isn’t mere doggedness, but holding to the truth in divination.

(A final note:

‘Great Possession.
From the source, creating success.’

seems to call, and, two decades later,

‘Great vigour,
Constancy bears fruit.’

to respond.

33 introduces the response with a contrast to the ‘great’ hexagrams, promising small harvest in constancy: dun heng xiao li zhen. And 36 and 37 bring a kind of coda: they follow the ‘[name] li zhen‘ formula, but with an added qualifier: hardship-constancy bears fruit; woman-constancy bears fruit.)

What I find so extraordinary is that this – on both the small and large scale – is exactly the kind of pattern that I learned (over 20 years ago!) to recognise in great literature. Words used not just to describe an event but to enact it, so you can’t read them without having the experience. Meanings that dance across great arcs of pattern and structure. I didn’t expect to be finding this in a book 3,000 years old, so close to the rudimentary beginnings of written language – one that’s regarded by plenty of perfectly respectable scholars as fragments assembled by chance, or jottings from a diviner’s notebook.

Yuan heng li zhen

November 30th, 2015

Hexagram 1 says yuan heng li zhen – from the source, creating success, constancy bears fruit.

Hexagram 2 says yuan heng li pinma zhi zhen – from the source, creating success, a mare’s constancy bears fruit

The remaining hexagrams can be seen as ‘children’ of these two – 62 ways of blending their natures – and most of them also contain fragments and variations of the yuan heng li zhen formula. However, there are another five hexagrams that contain it just as in Hexagram 1, in full and without qualification: hexagrams 3, 17, 19, 25 and 49 – Sprouting, Following, Nearing, Without Entanglement, Radical Change. What’s special about these hexagrams?

Yuan heng li zhen is a potent formula. Each time, it gives the sense of a creative drive through to realisation: something that ‘wants to happen’. But since we’re no longer in the pure yang of hexagram 1, but out in the mixed, conditioned world, each hexagram adds warnings or reassurances to qualify the creative formula.

Hexagram 3 –

Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
Don’t use this to have a direction to go,
Fruitful to establish feudal lords.’

Yes, it wants to grow – now give it the means to reach out and expand and put down roots.

Creating success from the source; constancy bears fruit.
No mistake.’

Yes, it follows; life flows as it should (even if it doesn’t keep to your schedule).

Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
Arrival at the eighth month means a pitfall.’

Yes, it becomes fully present and realised. This is a process.

‘Without entanglement.
Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
One who is not upright commits blunders,
And it is fruitless to have a direction to go.’

Yes, it moves as it should. What do you think you’re doing?

‘Radical change.
On your own day, there is truth and confidence.
Creating success from the source, constancy bears fruit.
Regrets vanish.’

Yes, it changes. This is your change, and it’s real.

If there’s a unifying theme, it seems to be respect creative power in motion – which is not so far away from the dragons of Hexagram 1.

…which is perhaps not so surprising. Let’s start at Hexagram 17, Following, made of the trigrams zhen, thunder, inside and dui, lake, outside –


The Shuogua, the Wing that describes the trigrams, says that, ‘Zhen is thunder and dragons.’ So the trigrams of Hexagram 17 look a lot like the dragon that sleeps in the lake during winter.

The Image authors might have had this in mind, too:

‘At the centre of the lake is thunder. Following.
A noble one at nightfall
Goes inside for renewal and rest.’

(If resting in the season for rest is good enough for dragons…)

The other yuan heng li zhen hexagrams are 3, 19, 25 and 49…

  • 17.4 changes to 3
  • 17.6 changes to 25
  • 17.3 changes to 49 (and the thunder in the lake becomes li, light – is that an eye opening under the water?)

That leaves 19, which is the da bagua, ‘big trigram’ hexagram, made by doubling each line of zhen:

|:: ||::::

Perhaps yuan heng li zhen is a kind of warning sign: caution: dragon at work?

The elusively simple Hexagram 1

November 22nd, 2015

Hexagram 1 is so simple it’s tremendously hard to get to grips with. The simplicity starts with its shape –


– six solid, ‘yang’ lines, pure and whole, light with no shade, no nuances, no spaces, no ‘picture’.

The significance of those six solid lines is a bit easier to see in contrast to Hexagram 2, Earth: six open, yin lines:


‘Creative Force is firm; the Earth is open.’ (Zagua) Solid lines act; open lines are acted on, or in. Because earth is open, we can work it – dig, shape, plant, change what grows. But ‘the heavens move ceaselessly’ and time passes, and there’s nothing here we can act on.

The simplicity continues with the text. Whereas Hexagram 2 burgeons with imagery – the mare, the noble one finding her way between confusion and the shining light of a ‘master’, compass points, partners, peaceful homecoming – here is the whole oracle of Hexagram 1:


– all five characters of it, qian yuan heng li zhen.

From the source, creating success.
Constancy bears fruit.’

What is qian?

The name of the hexagram, qian, isn’t very approachable. Harmen Mesker, someone we can rely on to tease out the ancient meaning of a character for us if anyone can, says he ‘doesn’t know how to translate it’.

His deep dive into qian concentrates on the left and upper right parts of the character, which he finds represent the banner raised at the centre of a settlement, with all the buildings facing towards it. So qian is the centre, the focus, the source of identity; you look to it and arrange your life around it. This fits well with qian‘s association with heaven, sun (a component of the character) and stars: you look to them to know what time it is and order your life accordingly. The staff of the banner may also act as the gnomon of a sundial.

Stephen Field’s excellent Duke of Zhou Changes calls Hexagram 1 ‘The Vigorous’ and says, ‘Qian‘s meaning is derived from the lower right hand element in the graph depicting the “twist” of a newly emerged sprout. The full character means “to shoot upwards,” and refers to the vigor of new spring growth.’ I’m not sure, but I think this is the one element of the character Harmen doesn’t regard as germane to the meaning.

I think both meanings – banner and sprout – come together in the hexagram. It means both absolute truth – the answer to all ‘why?’ questions – and also how that truth makes itself known:  in motion, with endless creative vigour. Truth in motion is Creative Force. It moves stars; it makes acorns grow into oak trees. The Tuanzhuan for hexagram 1 says,

‘Clouds pass, rain falls, the variety of beings flow into form.’

(Bradford Hatcher’s translation)

Creative Force is ineluctable and irreducible. It will not change itself for us – which is why qian is the focus, and we must build around it.

And finally – well, actually not remotely finally – the character qian appears in the text of the Yi. In 1 line 3, ‘the noble one qian qian to the end of the day’ and is still alert at nightfall. This line’s change shows Hexagram 10, Treading (the tiger’s tail). The picture arises of relentlessly driven creative energy – the artist who forgets to eat or sleep because he is so perilously, breathtakingly close to Creative Force. And in the fourth and fifth lines of Hexagram 21, qian means ‘dried’, as in sun-dried meat. Perhaps 1.3’s noble one will also be ‘sun dried’ by exposure to such relentless power – ‘burning out’, we’d call it – but the line says this is no mistake.

Yuan heng li zhen

Yuan heng li zhen – which I usually translate ‘from the source, creating success; constancy bears fruit’ – are fundamental words to the Yijing, subtly combined and varied through most of the hexagram texts. Because they appear so often, it’s easy to pass over them and look for something more colourful and easier to relate to. Which would, of course, be a mistake.

Yuan means source, first or primary – like the founding ancestors. Although it’s often translated simply as ‘great’, in readings it points to something that’s great because it’s at the origin, connected to source. In human terms, think of inspiration, the reason why, the original big idea. (But the idea of yuan could be much bigger than that. Everything has a source.)

Heng is normally translated ‘success’; its ancient meaning has to do with offerings. But ‘offering’ isn’t a complete translation, because heng is a two-way thing, like ‘conversation’ in English: it means both the people making the offering and the spirits enjoying it – the shared meal. If you think about it, an offering both made and received is pretty much the definition of success. Any action with heng connects into deep reality to become spiritually potent – it works as a shared meal with the spirits.

Yuan heng is translated as a single phrase: ‘creating success from the source’ or ‘primal offering’. It’s an accepted offering open and connected to source – successful action empowered by its originating idea.

Li quite literally means ‘fruitful’: the old character shows the grain as it is cut. Li action bears fruit – has results – ‘furthers’, in Wilhelm/Baynes.

Zhen, like heng, has both an ancient meaning and a derived one. Originally it means ‘divination’: the whole act, the full conversation of asking or bringing one’s intent and receiving an answer. From here comes the idea of ‘constancy’: the oracle’s answer fully received, inwardly known, and requiring you to hold to it. The whole divination – from the original clear intent, through the oracle’s advice and affirmation, to internalisation of the response – all needs to translate into consistent, steady action.

Li zhen is also a single phrase: li qualifies zhen, meaning ‘fruitful divination’ – but that means not just ‘nice, positive answer’ but that the whole divination bears fruit.

The complete expression, yuan heng li zhen, occurs in just a select few hexagrams. When it does, it points to a tremendous creative drive at work, from the source through into reality. Something wants to happen, to become manifest.

Most of the other 63 hexagrams contain variations on the yuan heng li zhen pattern, and each variation carries meaning. But hexagram 1 is the theme for all those variations: the pure pattern of divination-becoming-action (or truth-becoming-action), with no qualifiers or conditions. It’s the same simplicity that’s embodied in the six active yang lines: all light, no shade. The Wenyan Wing says of qian, ‘Its true greatness lies in the fact that nothing is said about the means by which it furthers [li].’

Its greatness lies in this – and frankly, so too does the difficulty in really engaging with this hexagram in readings. Heaven has no ‘handles’ for us. What to do with hexagram 1 in a reading beyond saying, ‘Oh, there must be lots of creative energy involved…’?

Riding dragons

For specifics, naturally you look to the moving lines – and there, more often than not, you find dragons. (The dragon isn’t named in lines 3 and 4, the ‘human positions’ of the hexagram, but he’s implied, especially at line 4.) If someone’s having difficulty getting a feel for hexagram 2, I might recommend that they spend time with horses to understand the ‘mare’s constancy’. With hexagram 1… this is obviously trickier

There are two stories told about hexagram 1’s dragon. SJ Marshall in The Mandate of Heaven explains the annual cycle of the rain dragon: how it overwinters underwater in a mountain gorge, wakes in spring and flies over the fields, bringing the vital rain. When the people see the first clouds begin to gather, they climb the mountain, make noise and throw things into the lake to anger the dragon into waking so that those clouds will bring rain. (He’s found records of such rites continuing into the 1930s.)

Thus at line 1 the dragon is still asleep underwater; at line 2 the clouds appear; at line 4 the dragon is leaping from the abyss, and by line 5 the rain has come. All of which makes good sense when you consider the simplest meaning of qian in the Yijing itself: ‘dried by the sun’. Qian is drought, and requires rain magic. The hexagram overall is about bringing rain – awakening potential into action.

But there’s also a bigger and more remote dragon here: the Azure Dragon, a vast asterism whose journey across the night sky governs the farming year. In midwinter it is entirely hidden below the horizon, dormant in the waters beyond the end of the world. In late winter the dragon’s horn rises above the horizon at dusk; through spring it emerges, and by summer solstice the whole dragon from horn to tail is ‘flying in heaven’. Stephen Field in The Duke of Zhou Changes  translates line 6 as ‘setting dragon’, literally ‘necked dragon’: the dragon’s head has disappeared below the horizon, decapitating it. And then (in the text linked with all lines changing) the dragon with no head is ‘gathered’ entirely below the horizon: ‘As the seasons progress, the Dragon completely disappears below the western horizon where it fights for supremacy with the Heavenly Turtle (Corona Australis). The prognostication of “good fortune” portends victory for the Dragon and the rebirth of the year.’

These seem to me to be two parallel images of the same essential dragon, overwintering both in the local Dragon Pool and in the watery abyss beyond the world. Where they seem to differ is in how we can relate to them: observing the constellations as your almanac and acting accordingly, or actively setting out to wake the dragon. (Marshall suggests translating 1.1 as ‘Submerged dragon is of no use,’ implying that you should be waking it up – but the negative used in this line is typically an imperative, ‘Do not!’) Observe and obediently follow celestial timing, or invoke the powers of nature with magic?

Reading through the Wings on Hexagram 1 helps answer this question – by revealing it to be a false dichotomy. Following celestial timing is not a passive thing:

‘Great light completes then begins
The six positions are by season fulfilled
Seasons to mount the six dragons
And with these to master the skies.’
(Tuanzhuan, Bradford Hatcher’s translation.)

This is about timeliness: watching the dragon, always being able to answer the question, ‘What time is it?’ and know the right action for the moment. (Yuan heng li zhen – pure divination.) And if you know what is right in the moment… then you might also know the power that creates rightness – qian. You might be said to be riding the dragon.

This image comes with ancient echoes: KC Chang in Art, Myth and Ritual describes how certain animals, not least dragons, ‘served as the helpers of shamans and shamanesses in the task of communication between heaven and earth, the spirits and the living.’ In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, riding dragons is ‘invariably associated with agents bringing messages back and forth between heaven and earth’ – such as a hero who returned to earth from his audiences in heaven bringing a particular set of songs.

The Wing authors’ choice of image echoes the same understanding: if you can ride dragons, you are in communication with heaven. ‘Riding’ (the verb’s the same one used in the Yi for ‘driving’ a team of horses) suggests mastery, but plainly doesn’t imply that you impose your will on the dragon – rather, it’s that your will and the dragon’s will are the same. And so your intent resonates with Creative Force and your action is timely.

…and isn’t that what magic is? You begin your rituals at the Dragon Pool not on a whim, but when you see the first clouds. Watch the heavens, and you know when to make magic. And then –

‘The heavens move ceaselessly.
A noble one in his own strength does not pause.’

– it’s your own strength that is ceaseless, because to be in harmony with the time is to be powerful. The Dazhuan, in its list of culture heroes who ‘probably got their idea’ from particular hexagrams, says of the ancient sage kings: ‘The Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun let their robes hang loosely down, yet all under heaven was well-ordered. They probably got the idea for this from Qian and Kun.


Hexagram 1 in readings

Each line that changes in Hexagram 1 is an opening: solid becoming open, creating space for action. When none of the lines is changing, there is no such space, only unbroken Creative Force. Quite often this means something like, ‘Potent idea! How could it become manifest?’

When lines in 1 change, the relating hexagram is an exact map of the openings for manifestation: the field of action for creative force, the form it can flow into.

And the experience of Hexagram 1 as relating hexagram itself may be of a much bigger reality – larger scale, longer term – that puts your experience, efforts and motives into perspective. Depending on the situation and your action (in other words, depending on the primary hexagram and which lines must change to give this relating hexagram), it might magnify the power of your endeavours and work as a blessing; sometimes it might reveal your inadequacy or untimeliness. But it always seems to say – ‘there is another, bigger way to see this.’

A final note: talking about qian in general terms as I’ve done here, it always sounds vast and splendid: dragons, heaven, creative drive, absolute truth. In readings, it’s not necessarily so grand. Stars, dragons and oak trees have qian, and so too do laundry, bookkeeping and cabbages.

A shared dao of 21 and 48

November 14th, 2015

Complementary hexagrams are paradoxical things. On the one hand, there is no hexagram more different from 21, Biting Through than 48, the Well:

21, Biting Through

48, the Well

Every line is changed, so they have nothing in common. If it’s time to bite through, then it is exactly not time for well-maintenance.

And on the other hand, this means that complementary hexagrams are – visibly, obviously – the same shape, like a mould and its casting are the same shape. They share a pattern, and meet at every point to form a whole.

What is that ‘whole’? The best description I have is that it’s the single dao of their shared pattern.

I believe each hexagram with its complement will express a single dao. Coming to understand each one is proving to be a slow process – but every now and then I get a hint of one.

I think the single dao of hexagrams 21 and 48 is the imperative to do whatever work’s required to connect with what sustains us, by joining above and below.

Here’s the train of thought that got me this far:

21 is generally known as a pictorial hexagram derived from Hexagram 27, which is literally called Jaws. 27 shows the upper and lower jaws and the teeth between them. (The trigrams draw the same picture: the upper jaw is still (mountain) and the lower jaw moves (thunder).)

21 shows the ‘jaws’ picture with the addition of one yang line at the fourth place, which represents both the obstacle between the teeth and the action of biting through it.

27, Nourishment/ Jaws

21 zhi 27


‘Biting into dried, bony meat,
Gains a metal arrow.
Constancy in hardship bears fruit.
Good fortune.’

(A metal arrow is not just any obstacle: it adds a whole new dimension. Find it, and not only can you swallow this mouthful, but you have the means to get your next meal.)

48 is the ‘negative’ of the picture in 21 – so you could say it’s derived from Hexagram 28, but with one extra yin line added at the fourth place.

28, Great Exceeding

48 zhi 28

21.4 is the obstacle and action between above and below – so what’s 48.4? It’s the space that connects above and below. It’s the well-shaft.


‘Well is being lined,
No mistake.’

Paralleling 21.4, this isn’t just about the space, but the activity to hold it clear. It’s a subtler, less vivid reflection of the dao of uniting above and below to reach sustenance.

The fan yao of each line shows something more about their themes –

21.4 is reflected in 27.4:

‘Biting into dried, bony meat,
Gains a metal arrow.
Constancy in hardship bears fruit.
Good fortune.’
‘Unbalanced nourishment,
Good fortune.
Tiger watches, glares and glares.
His appetites, pursues and pursues.
No mistake.’

The power behind ‘biting into dried bony meat’ and ‘constancy in hardship’ is the tiger’s fierce persistence. 27 isn’t only about finding a balanced framework of nourishment, it’s also about the blazing, transforming desires that animate the framework (and for ‘animate the framework’ you can read ‘power the jaws’).

48.4 is reflected in 28.4:

‘Well is being lined,
No mistake.’
‘The ridgepole at its peak, good fortune.
If there is more, shame.’

‘Sustenance’ means what sustains – what holds up. That’s a theme of 28 – what kind of structure holds up under stress, and what energies renew its strength.

These lines seem to ‘unfold’ the single dao of 21-48 (and that of 27-28) to explore the relationships it generates between desire, sustenance and structure.


‘Language of Change’ Yijing glossary

November 4th, 2015

I’ve just made Language of Change available separately. It’s a Yijing glossary covering common phrases, words and omens (‘crossing the great river’, ‘feudal lords’, ‘regrets vanish’…) and also some key concepts (centrality, offerings, marriage…), and it’s available in pdf (digital) format for £7, here.

This is the same glossary that’s included inside the Resonance Journal and with Change Circle membership – so, er, don’t buy it if you already own one of those. But if you don’t, and would like some high-quality imagination food to nourish your readings, then… have a look. (There are umpteen months of research and thought distilled into Language of Change and I’m quite proud of the results.) There’s a full contents list and sample entry on the product page.

I just want to know if it’s going to happen

October 27th, 2015

mists over mountains

The well-known problems with asking for a prediction

Often, wanting a prediction is a thin veneer over what we really want. Sometimes I’ll encounter a beginner who wants more than anything to know what to do or how to be now, but who feels obliged to ask what’ll happen, because isn’t that the kind of thing you’re supposed to ask an oracle?

Logically, it’s hard to see how the real question could ever be ‘What will happen?’ because knowing the future, on its own, makes no practical difference in the present. Some years ago, when my Mum was seriously ill, I thought of asking Yi for her prognosis – but digging a little deeper, found that what I really wanted to know was what on earth can I do with myself? I think that’s very often the hidden question: if you feel the need to know the future so you’ll know what to do now, you’re really asking, ‘What to do now?’ – so ask! As well as being a simpler, more honest approach to the oracle, this gives you an answer you can use – an answer that can create change.

Asking ‘What will happen?’ can be a sign of disconnection. ‘The future’ that can be predicted is imagined as something quite separate from us – there’s no sense of an unfolding process of creation in which we might be involved. It’s not just that we don’t see how to apply our own strength or will – if that were the issue, we’d be asking ‘How to…?’ – but that we don’t see how our strength and will has any part anywhere at all. This is profound alienation: like standing on the banks of the river of life, watching it flow past, and keeping our feet dry.

Asking for a prediction seems passive, and logically like a waste of a good question… but does it even make sense? This depends on your point of view, of course. The more fatalistic you are – the more you believe that some things are just destined to happen to you and some are not – the more it makes sense to ask for predictions. I’m more inclined to think of people as mostly the authors of their own lives, so a lot of prediction questions just don’t make sense to me – they don’t seem to acknowledge the real world.

For instance, when maybe ten years ago I had a client who wanted a prediction, I talked with her about her question choice: how it was really a bit like asking, ‘Will I ever stand on the summit of Everest?’ It can’t happen unless you intend it, prepare and try. How there wasn’t already a carved-in-stone future where this happened or it didn’t – there was only a process of her moving towards it, or not.

She understood what I was saying and agreed, and we went ahead with a reading about how she could become ready and move towards what she wanted. At the end, feeling I’d done rather a good job interpreting and communicating the reading, I asked if she had any remaining questions. And my client told me politely and resignedly that the reading was very interesting, but ‘really I just wanted to know if it would ever happen.’

In other words – the reading had not reached her and had not helped. So much for ‘logically’, so much for ‘sense’, and so much for ‘an answer that can create change’.

Never, ever again have I tried to talk someone into asking a completely different question. If someone asks for a prediction, I will scratch a little at their question to see if there’s another one hiding beneath it – ‘What difference would it make to know that?’ – and then I accept what they’re asking. (The preliminary call before a reading is no longer about ‘helping to choose the best question’ but about ‘finding the question you are asking‘.)

The human desire for predictions isn’t going away. It’s something to respect, and try to understand.

Why do we want to know the future?


Why do we want to know what will happen? Actually, I think we don’t – not quite. That really would make for a tedious, pointless life, wouldn’t it? If you know it all in advance, why bother having the experience? What we want is to feel that our desires might be aligned with reality – in other words, we want hope.

As I said, asking for a prediction can be a sign of disconnection. It’s also a sign that we want to connect – even if only to dip a toe into the river. These questions express a will to re-engage – if that will weren’t present, we wouldn’t be asking at all. We’ll try navigating the realms of possibility, if someone will just give us even a fragment of a map.

In theory, this could be part of a logical decision-making process: if what I want’s possible, I’ll persist in trying; if not, I’ll divert my attention to something else. Lines from an elementary computer program: ‘If… then… else…’.

In practice, I don’t believe logic has much to do with it at all. For one thing, it’s a rare human being who can truly redirect their attention and energy just because that would be the rational thing to do. No… that’s a matter of emotional readiness, and we can set up camp at the crossroads for a long time before it arises. It’s much more likely that we’re divining as a way to court that readiness, tentatively and experimentally.

Engaging with the unknown

It’s difficult, not knowing what’s going to happen. This seems to me to be a very basic human experience: there’s a process going on here that’s outside my realm of knowledge; I want to connect with it and participate in it, enter into its realm and get a glimpse of how it unfolds. So I divine. (It doesn’t matter if that process might be ‘the game animals are migrating’ or ‘the stock market’s moving’ or ‘my boyfriend’s changing’ – the impulse to divine is much the same.)

Divining lets us engage our will with the unknown. Even a partial, blurry vision of the future has the power to move us in the present. Without seeing the future harvest, how could we go out in the cold to plough? The vision is the first step to full engagement in creating. With the idea that this is possible, we can form an intention, and then we can start exploring ways to make it manifest.

…and the uncontrollable

The other difficult thing about the future: it’s not in our control. If I don’t go hunting, I know I won’t catch anything – but I might not catch anything even if I do. And in practice often you want to ask what’ll happen because what you want isn’t happening (is making a real habit of not happening, in fact). So there’s an atmosphere of weary helplessness at that camp at the crossroads, and maybe letting the intention go starts to look possible, after all.

Then asking ‘What will happen?’ is still a way of creating a present stance: something to lend new shape and power to how you engage.

So… what to ask?

This seems a good moment to remember that the question we ask is important for us – so we know what we’re asking about and can listen better. The Yi will give us the answer we need anyway. So the distinction between ‘prediction questions’ and ‘advice questions’ has a lot to do with how we listen, and not much to do with what Yi can say.

Even then… recently I’ve done one reading where the person was asking ‘what will happen?’ but received the answer as ‘how to be’ and one where the person was asking ‘what to do?’ but received the answer as both advice and ‘what will happen’. And both did unquestionably receive the answer: these were readings that ‘landed’ – unlike that early effort with the woman who just wanted to know if it would ever happen.

My mistake there was to try to push her straight to ‘How can I?’ when she didn’t know whether she could at all, and had no way to bridge that gap between ‘if’ and ‘how’. The right response to all those problems with asking for a prediction isn’t to substitute a different, more proactive question, any more than a brisk jog is a good cure for a broken leg.

Also, at the opposite extreme, there can be a certain arrogance behind ‘How can I?’ – insisting that the universe dispense the required answer, regardless of what’s real. (A wise friend once described this as treating Yi as a mail-order catalogue.) Such questions can be every bit as disconnected as ‘what will happen?’

Yet it’s still good to question the impulse to ask for a prediction. Perhaps there’s a simpler question behind it about how to be, now. Or perhaps a fog of insecurity is obscuring direct experience: ‘I can’t let myself want this until I know for sure I can have it.’ There’s a tremendously fine, grey line, though, between that and ‘I’ll be able to invest in this once I can see it’s possible for me’ – between postponing life until we know for sure, and being able to believe – or suspend disbelief.

There isn’t a right question, or even a better question. But in each case there’s an honest question that allows the fullest engagement with life, and that – I think – would be the one to ask.

(Note: a reading behind much of this article:
Question: ‘Yi, why do we ask for predictions?’
Answer: Hexagram 45, unchanging.)

This means something

October 11th, 2015

A thoroughly useful guiding principle for both diviners and translators: this means something. For diviners with/ translators of the Yijing, the principle needs elaborating: this means something, whether or not I have the faintest glimmerings of a clue what it means.

That should really be inscribed in every Yijing book and journal. Probably the most common beginner’s mistake is to look at a reading, not ‘get it’, and give up. The experienced user does sometimes look at the reading and ‘get it’ right away, but more often than not the only difference is how you persist through the confusion. You sleep on it, ask questions about it, search for related readings (easy as falling off a log with the Resonance Journal), and just keep on listening – because you trust the oracle.

This principle of trust gets interesting when the oracle’s advice goes against ‘common sense’… but for now I’d like to write about something a little geekier/yeekier. What happens when you extend it into the depths of the Yi’s text and structure and keep on assuming that ‘this means something’?

One thing that can happen is delusion. Let me just get that out of the way – we humans are good at seeing meaningful patterns, whether or not there are any. There’s even a term for it: apophenia, seeing meaningful patterns in random data, a term first coined to describe the early stages of schizophrenia.

So yes, we can deceive ourselves. We can weave a tight net of ‘meaning’ that entangles and traps us – or newly-recognised meanings can be like opening doors and flooding light. The possibility of delusion isn’t a reason not to go looking for meaning.

One thing is sure: if you start out from the assumption that something doesn’t carry meaning, you can’t learn anything from it.

Take, for instance, the Sequence of Hexagrams. It’s still commonly said among Yijing people who should (I feel) know better that this is a mostly random arrangement. They’ll concede that the hexagrams are arranged in pairs and the beginning and ending are deliberate (starting with pure yang and pure yin hexagrams, ending with yang and yin completely mixed), but that’s about all there is to it.

No, it really isn’t.

I’ve been re-reading Scott Davis’ The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context, a book filled with such beautiful ideas and discoveries about the Yi that it’s well worth wading through the Academese it’s written in to find them. He works on the principle that the Sequence and the text are a single fabric rich with meaning. And because he looks, he finds.

A simple example from his book:

Hexagram 5 line 6 changes to 9; 9.6 changes to 5. Hexagram 5 is about Waiting, traditionally thought of as waiting for rain. 5.6 says

‘Entering into the pit.
There are uninvited guests,
Three people come.
Honour them: in the end, good fortune.’

Three uninvited guests, and then in the end good fortune. Three hexagrams, 6, 7 and 8, and then in the end Hexagram 9. 9 line 6: ‘Already rained, already come to rest…’

A more complex and richer example, also from his book:

Hexagram 18 speaks of three days before and three days after jia. What’s jia? Literally something like ‘seedburst’, it means ‘beginning, new start’, and is the name of the first day of the 10 day week.

The hexagrams are grouped in 10s throughout the Sequence (you can verify this for yourself with a glance at how the trigrams are distributed). Suppose the first hexagram of a decade is like the first day of a week: then jia day relative to hexagram 18 is hexagram 11.

Hexagram 11 says, ‘Small goes, great comes.’ Three ‘days’ after hexagram 11 is hexagram 14, Great Possession. Hexagram 12, on the other hand, says ‘Great goes, small comes.’ Three ‘days’ before 12 is Hexagram 9, Small Taming.

(Aside: Davis doesn’t suggest this, but you could also think of this as pointing to the jia day after 18: Hexagram 21. 18 happens to fall three ‘days’ before it. That’s interesting too, but not so elegantly woven into the fabric of the whole as Davis’ discovery – there’s much more about it in his book.)

If you find yourself counting to and fro on your fingers through the Sequence… you’re not the only one. If hexagrams can play the role of days, or uninvited guests, what else could they do?

Here’s one I stumbled across the other day.

We know that hexagrams come in pairs, mostly created by inversion of the same pattern of lines. So Hexagram 42 is really just 41 looked at from a different angle. By the same token, 42 line 2 is really just 41 line 5 looked at from a different angle. (You can demonstrate this by drawing hexagram 42, marking line 2 changing, then rotating the paper through 180 degrees.)

41 and 42 are a nice example of a pair because their names – ‘Decrease’ and ‘Increase’ – make it clear they belong together. The same’s true of the text of 41.5 and 42.2:

‘Maybe increased by ten paired tortoise shells,
Nothing is capable of going against this.
From the source, good fortune.’

‘Maybe increased by ten paired tortoise shells.
Nothing is capable of going against this.
Ever-flowing constancy, good fortune.
The king uses this to make offerings to the supreme being: good fortune.’

Both of these lines change to Hexagram 61, Inner Truth.

A little background: I’ve been working with this book full-time for about 20 years, and I’ve never noticed anything remarkable about this before, except that the paired lines have paired text. Specifically, I never saw any significance in there being ten pairs of shells – because it never occurred to me to look. I accepted the general consensus: numbers in the Zhouyi have no particular meaning beyond ‘some’ and ‘a lot’. But… what if this means something?

Tortoise shells are objects used in divination. Can I think of another object used in divination – one that, as these lines not-so-subtly remind me, comes in pairs? I think I can. And if I increase 41-42 by 10 pairs of hexagrams

reflective tortoise