...life can be translucent
Menu

Confidence in Change

For some 3,000 years, people have turned to the I Ching, the Book of Changes, to help them uncover the meaning of their experience, to bring their actions into harmony with their underlying purpose, and above all to build a foundation of confident awareness for their choices.

Down the millennia, as the I Ching tradition has grown richer and deeper, the things we consult about may have changed a little, but the moment of consultation is much the same. These are the times when you’re turning in circles, hemmed in and frustrated by all the things you can’t see or don’t understand. You can think it over (and over, and over); you can ‘journal’ it; you can gather opinions.

But how can you have confidence in choosing a way to go, if you can’t quite be sure of seeing where you are?

Only understand where you are now, and you rediscover your power to make changes. This is the heart of I Ching divination. Once you can truly see into the present moment, all its possibilities open out before you – and you are free to create your future.

What is the I Ching?

The I Ching (or Yijing) is an oracle book: it speaks to you. You can call on its help with any question you have: issues with relationships of all kinds, ways to attain your personal goals, the outcomes of different choices for a key decision. It grounds you in present reality, encourages you to grow, and nurtures your self-knowledge. When things aren’t working, it opens up a space for you to get ‘off the ride’, out of the rut, and choose your own direction. And above all, it’s a wide-open, free-flowing channel for truth.

For I Ching Beginners -

How do you want to get started?

There are two different ways most people first meet the I Ching. There’s,

‘I’m fascinated by this ancient book and I want to learn all about it,’

and there’s,

‘I need help now with this thing (so I’ll learn whatever I need to know to get help with The Thing).’

Learning about the I Ching, or learning from the I Ching?

In the end, these two ways aren’t actually different. It isn’t possible to do one without the other, and people end up wanting both: the ‘learn about Yi’ people draw on its help more as their knowledge grows; the ‘learn from Yi’ people find they want to know more, once they’ve got the help they need.

But... they are different at the beginning:

Not a beginner?

Welcome - I’m glad you’ve come. Clarity’s here to help you deepen, explore and enjoy your relationship with Yi. You might like...

And so you can get to know some like-minded Yi-enthusiasts and we can keep in touch, do join Clarity

Hello, and thank you for visiting!

I’m Hilary - I work as an I Ching diviner and teacher, and I’m the author of I Ching: Walking your path, creating your future.

I hope you enjoy the site and find what you’re looking for here - do contact me with any comments or questions.

Clarity is my one-woman business providing I Ching courses, readings and community. (You can read more about me, and what I do, here.) It lets me spend my time doing the work I love, using my gifts to help you.

(Thank you.)

Warm wishes,
Hilary”

From the blog

A short story

In typical Yi style, this is a very short story:

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

These are lines 56.4 and 57.6, and they have a direct textual parallel: gaining then losing property and axe (or axe-money). (Ignore the way I translated it with ‘your’ in 57.6 – it’s the same three words, ‘one’s property axe’, in both lines.)

Oddly enough, I only started paying attention to this because it was pointed out by Geoffrey Redmond – the one who maintains that ‘the unit of meaning is the phrase’ in the Zhouyi. He writes of 57.6,

‘This line refers back to the traveler’s money that was lost in the preceding hexagram, 56.4. It is unusual for themes in a hexagram to continue in another one. Most likely, this phrase was simply misplaced from the preceding hexagram.’

So naturally, I assume that the phrase wasn’t misplaced, and see where this takes me.

In the first place, I think this is a story, not just a contrast. To start with, there is no small-scale structural relationship (lines, trigrams) between these two lines to suggest a parallel or contrast; they’re simply adjacent in the Sequence. (And this part of the Sequence contains more than one reflective pattern revolving around themes of history, culture and transmission.)

From 56 to 57, the Xugua (‘Sequence’ Wing) says,

‘The traveller has no place where he is accepted, and so Subtly Penetrating follows. Subtly Penetrating means entering in.’

The traveller at 56.4 has only a temporary shelter; 57.6 is going further and further in.

Simply reading the two lines as a story already casts light on them: my heart is not glad, in 56.4, because I have an inkling of the loss to come. (This is one of those striking, resonant uses of ‘my’ that creates some distance from the protagonist of the line. Perhaps it is the oracle’s heart not glad, or a wiser narrator’s.) And if 56.4 is anticipating, then 57.6 might be remembering – coming from 56.4, it was never entirely, decisively confident of owning property and axe, and goes endlessly digging for certainty.

Line pathways and connections

Let’s keep exploring…

56.4 and the tides of history

56.4 changes to Hexagram 52, Stilling – naturally enough, since this ‘place to stay’ is where the traveller comes to a halt. The name of Hexagram 52 shows a solitary human figure, turning away. This is stilling as a response or reaction to movement, not as a permanent state.

Reading across the paired lines…

‘Feng is flooded with darkness
At midday, seeing a froth of light.
Your right arm broken,
Not a mistake.’

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

…the traveller’s situation reflects the person stymied by events in 55.3 – in the dark, not seeing where to go, incapacitated. To me, the lines seem to share a sense of helplessness, being overtaken by events. The traveller hasn’t quite been overtaken yet, but there’s an uneasy sense that he will be, soon. It’s his property and place to stay today, but it could be someone else’s tomorrow.

In practice, I usually get 56.4 when there’s a creeping anxiety and a fear of losing ground – as if I might need to run faster to stay in the same place. It’s almost as if having whatever-it-is now creates the possibility of losing it. I might need to pause and ask myself why I’m not more contented.

The inner lines for this pathway – 52.4 and 51.3 – don’t have the same disquiet:

‘Stilling your self,
No mistake.’

‘Shock revives, revives.
Shock moves without blunder.’

In both of these, there’s a sense ‘things are unfolding as they should’. There may be shock, but it’s timely, it’s doing its work; still yourself, no mistake, no need for you to be running about. And in fact, 55.3 has the same insight: ‘Your right arm broken – not a mistake.‘ Events unfold, there’s not a lot you can do about them, and this is all as it should be. 56.4 is the only line in the pathway that hasn’t got this message – perhaps because attaining shelter, property and axe is the full extent of the traveller’s ambitions?

57.6 and the bottomless Well

56.4 changes to 52, whose name in Chinese shows a human figure. 57.6 changes to 48, the Well – something much bigger.

‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost reaching, but the rope does not yet draw water from the well,
Breaking one’s clay jug,
Pitfall.’

The well requires human effort, but it also dwarfs us. People come and go, but the water is always there, whether you reach it or not. Human efforts, and decisions, and property, are ‘relativised’: even cities are moved, but not wells. The well construction might belong to everyone, but the water table is timeless, and no-one can own it.

57.6 is joined with 48.6/47.1:

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

– lines bringing an awareness that the water table might be over your head. ‘Penetrating under the bed’ comes to mean digging endlessly into something bottomless and shapeless. If 56.4 is hanging on by its fingernails to property and self-determination, 57.6 loses its grip and falls into the endless underground waters. You can’t hold onto ‘your stuff’ in the well, because the whole idea of ownership loses its meaning.

For me, 57.6 tends to mean that I’m over-interpreting other people’s behaviour and worrying too much about their opinions. (I also had it once to describe a day when I got somewhat lost on the London Underground – chiefly because I kept asking directions instead of looking at a map.) ‘What will they think of me?’ is certainly a bottomless, endless question; ‘How to please all the people, all the time?’ is another one, and a good place to lose my grip on my own convictions and have them washed away. I think the line has a more general application, though: it’s about anything that relativises you and yours by putting it in a much bigger context. That could be other people’s opinions, or the passage of time, or even the vastness of nature.

The paired line, 58.1, is very much the ‘other side of the coin’:

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

‘Responsive opening: good fortune’

Subtly penetrating under the bed comes (I think) of a desire to be completely aligned, in complete harmony, with no friction or discord. When the same desire for alignment is turned around and directed outward towards someone specific – as in conversation – then it is good. ‘Responsive’ here is the same word that describes the crane’s young in 61.2, who ‘respond in harmony’ to her call. Its meanings include ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘composing a poem in reply’. So this line’s a healthy extrovert, in comparison to 57.6’s neurotic introvert.

Stories we might tell

What stories might we tell around 56.4 and 57.6? As many as there are readings with each line, of course… but one that seems to me to be murmuring along in the background is that of Zhou and Shang. Hai, the original ‘traveller’ of 56, was a Shang ancestor. His descendants would found a great dynasty – but it would only be a temporary shelter, for they were to lose the Mandate and the Zhou would receive it.

The traveller has his place to stay and things he owns, but there’s still an atmosphere of unease. Someone (that mysterious speaker whose heart is not glad) is aware that events move on, and just because you have this now doesn’t mean you will be able to hold onto it forever.

The protagonist of 57.6 is so intent on exploring the depths – of time, or the collective reality, or the riches of nature – that she finds she has nothing of her own. Scaling up and scaling up, she loses herself from view.

This region of the Sequence (49/50, 54.5, 55…) concentrates on Zhou history – not the ins and outs of military strategy, but rather how they received, owned and implemented their Mandate. This little story of lost property might be asking, sotto voce, ‘Oh, so the Mandate is yours, is it? On what scale?’

The broader perspective that makes your personal experience just one part of the whole can be useful: it allows you to create harmonious exchanges, in 58.1. And it can be reassuring, as in 55.3 and 51.3: I may be stuck, but the wheels of history are turning as they should. Or it can be disconcerting: I have this now, but for how long? And ultimately, if you zoom out (or penetrate in) far enough, your experience and ownership disappears altogether. I think of the idea that people ‘own’ ancient woodland, or of ‘owning’ a ‘cello whose lifespan is measured in centuries. It’s laughable, of course – but also essential: someone has to keep the ‘cello safe from the central heating this winter.

sand running through fingers

One of many interesting things I found in Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography was an account of Zhu Xi’s approach to divination.

Zhu Xi (1120-1200) wrote firmly of Yi’s identity as an oracle, not just a ‘book of wisdom’. In addition to creating the yarrow method we use now, he also prescribed considerable ritual to be used with it. There are ritual ablutions, a dedicated divination room and table that you approach from the east, passing the yarrow stalks through the incense smoke… it’s all a long way away from ‘visit web page, click button’.

What caught my attention most of all was the quasi-prayer to be recited before the reading, especially its last line:

‘Availing of you, great milfoil, with constancy, I, [name], because of [topic], wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information.’

(Emphasis added.) There are echoes of this prayer in an invocation recorded in the 19th century. Prior to consultation, the temple diviner addresses the gods:

‘A man is now present who is harassed with anxieties, and is unable to solve his doubts and perplexities. We can only look to the gods to instruct us as to what is or is not to take place.’

Here is the same core assumption: the querent has a problem that only the oracle can solve. And although I’ve never counselled anyone on the correct placement of an incense burner relative to their yarrow stalks, this is advice I recognise. Yijing divination is for things we cannot know in other, more ‘normal’ ways. If you can learn the answer by…

  • consulting a doctor
  • buying a pregnancy test
  • consulting a lawyer
  • using a search engine
  • making a phone call
  • …and so on…

…then do that. The answer you get this way will be altogether more use: less open to interpretation, more likely to give you peace of mind, easier to act on.

Having said that… yes, I fail to take this advice all the time, too – or at least, I take it with a liberal pinch of interpretation…

For example, a month ago I had a great chunk of enamel fall off a back tooth. After a week or so of treating this with great TLC I was unsure whether the tooth was a) hardening and stabilising or b) decaying – and dealt with my uncertainty by asking Yi what was going on in there.

My friends enquired why (on earth) I did not go to my dentist, who could obviously answer this question far more straightforwardly. Well… because I had a whole lot of ‘doubts and perplexities’ along the lines of, ‘The dentist will want to drill and refill, but the drilling would damage the tooth’s capacity for self-repair, but that’s only relevant if it even has any chance of repairing itself in its current state, and if it hasn’t then I should get the dentist to re-fill it quick before I lose the whole tooth…’ and so on. Caught in that kind of endless loop, it feels natural to me to ask Yi. However, unless you share my strong fondness for dentinal tubules, my hesitation over seeing a dentist is going to appear quite insane.

A more familiar example would be the wise advice:

‘Never mind asking Yi how he feels about you, talk to him!’

This is generally very good advice indeed, but if someone wants to have an idea what’s going on before taking the plunge into such an excruciatingly difficult conversation, can you blame them?

The basic principle that we should ask Yi only when we cannot resolve our anxieties any other way is a good one; applying some logic and old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother told her, isn’t common) to the issue might prevent much confusion, and much wear-and-tear on the yarrow stalks.

But really, this isn’t just about where to find good information: it’s about knowing how best to change our inner state. What can bring you sufficient confidence and peace of mind to move forward, engage with the issue and get on with life? Sometimes that’ll be an expert opinion, and sometimes the kind of change of perspective that only a reading can create.

smoke rising from incense burner

My publishers have asked me to come up with a short introduction outlining the history of the Yi. So – wanting to do a good, thorough job – I have started by reading Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography. It’s a fascinating book, very readable, and it’s given me much more insight into the tradition and influence of the Yi through the millennia.

And… here’s its final paragraph, listing all the things he can imagine might happen to the Yi in future:

What, then, does the future hold for the Yijing, both domestically and internationally? No one can answer this question with certainty, of course, but it will probably continue to serve as a source of inspiration for creative thinkers, East and West, as it has for many hundreds of years. It will also continue to be studied by Chinese scholars as a foundational cultural document, with possible practical applications in the modern world. And it will no doubt continue to be translated by foreigners eager to understand and transmit its arcane wisdom for scholarly purposes or commercial gain. Perhaps most important, it will continue to offer us new opportunities for the comparative study of the lives of great religious books – how they came to be born, how they evolved, and how they traveled across space and time. By engaging in such comparisons we will not only learn more about other cultures; we will also assuredly learn more about ourselves.

And there ends this nice, erudite book. The Yi can be an artistic and cultural inspiration, or an object of commercial or scholarly interest, especially for comparative studies.

Can anyone here think of anything else it might be? Maybe even some other way it could help us learn more about ourselves?

Good grief.

Hexagram 48 line 6 says,

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

Bradford Hatcher, who has dug more wells than your average Yijing scholar, suggests that this is an artesian well, one where the water rises spontaneously. That certainly fits with my experience of the line, and also seems to me to fit with the hexagram it changes to: 57, Subtly Penetrating, with the water flowing unseen through strata deep in the earth.

Only I just noticed something that goes under the capacious heading of, ‘Turns out the people who wrote the Yi knew what they were doing, who’d’ve thought?’

My ‘who’d’ve thought?’ moment came when I looked again at the Wikipedia article on artesian aquifers, while also looking at the paired line: Hexagram 47, Confined, line 1.

(Aside: to find the paired line, draw your hexagram and mark the line that’s changing; then rotate the paper 180 degrees, so that you’re looking at the same pattern of lines from a different angle. If you draw Hexagram 48 with line 6 changing, and then change your angle of view like this, you’ll find yourself looking at 47.1. Same line, different perspective.)

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

Each of these lines is in the trigram kan, associated with deep pits and flowing water: line 1 at the very bottom of the valley, line 6 at the top of a water column. Line 1 to line 6 – the most distant of line pairs.

Now… here is a diagram from that Wikipedia article:

By Andrew Dunn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Andrew Dunn
(Would you believe it, water trapped in porous rock strata is technically known as a confined aquifer?)

There you have it: at the very bottom of the valley, below the water table, you can dig a ‘gathering well’.

In the cross section, you can see the strata: one flowing line between two containing ‘banks’ of impervious rock, like the lines of kan. Move the uppermost inactive layer, and the water rises. Hexagram 57 describes the way the water seeps inward through the pervious rock; its pair, 58, describes pools and reservoirs, and also rising and breaking through.

The whole thing is not just mentioning an artesian well, it’s showing us a diagram of how it works – watch the line move, and it’s even an animated diagram.

In other news, I have looked at these lines for going on 20 years without noticing any of this. So as I file this observation under, ‘Turns out they knew what they were doing, who’d’ve thought?’ I’ll cross-reference with ‘How much more am I missing?

By and large, we know what sort of thing we expect Yi to say (though not, heaven knows, what it will say): ‘Here’s what you’re doing’ or ‘here’s what would happen’ or ‘here’s how to cope with that’ – something along those lines, describing or advising. Only every now and then – just eleven times, in fact, in the whole book – it speaks in a different way: it says ‘I’.

The best-known example is the first in the book, the Oracle of Hexagram 4:

‘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.’

The ‘I’ and ‘me’ here are the same character, 我, wo, which translates I/me/my/we/us/our.

(I’ve linked them to the etymology and definition at Richard Sears’ invaluable site, in its shiny new incarnation. One effect of his website update has been to hide the donation button, but you can find it here.)

There are many stories of people mucking around with the Yi, asking the same question repeatedly, and pretty much jumping out of their skins when they receive this hexagram. You thought you were just playing with a book, and now suddenly an oracle is talking to you. You’re not the only person here.

So in this case, ‘me’ is surely the voice of the oracle itself. In practice, it’s very often the voice of the universe at large (maybe not such a different idea): yes, you want answers; no, there are no more to be had, so keeping on asking like this is counter-productive. I’ve also seen several readings where ‘I do not seek the young ignoramus’ seemed to be words spoken by another person: an exasperated parent, a reluctant tech support department, a man who just isn’t that into the woman who keeps messaging him.

Something similar happens at 27.1:

‘Giving up your own spirit tortoise,
Gazing at me with jaws hanging down.
Pitfall.’

Here there’s a contrast drawn between your sacred tortoise and my jaws. Normally, I would read this as a warning from the oracle about forfeiting your own inner knowing. However, the line can, as in Hexagram 4, also lend words to other people and entities – anywhere you might be looking for nourishment that you already own. It still has that strong sense of someone speaking.

Who’s speaking? Is it always Yi, or the cosmos?

I don’t think so, no. Take the oracle of Hexagram 9:

‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.’

(And the same phrase about clouds without rain used in 62.5.)

I’ve translated this one ‘our Western altars’ because this time the words seem to come from the Zhou people as a whole: our altars. Still, spirits (probably spirits of nature – earth, mountains, rivers, directions) could also claim these altars as their own, so who knows?

But things get clearer in 20.3.5:

‘Seeing my own life.
Advancing, withdrawing.’

‘Seeing my own life.
The noble one is without mistake.’

We only ever read these as being our voice, the querent, in a state of heightened self-awareness. This, says Yi, is what you need to be saying to yourself. (Changing these two ‘my own life’ lines together shows you Hexagram 52, Stilling – a picture of introspection.)

Again in 42.5:

‘True and confident, with a benevolent heart,
No question: good fortune from the source.
Truth, confidence and benevolence are my own strength.’

This is a line of tremendous power. It has a strong sense of implicit speech marks: with these qualities, these can be your words. This is what you should be able to say.

So this is quite different: not words addressing the querent, but words for the querent to speak, at a moment of heightened self-awareness.

That quality of heightened awareness seems to be quite a common feature of ‘me’ lines. I think it characterises 48.3, 50.2 and 56.4:

‘Well is dredged, no drinking.
This makes my heart ache.
It can be used to draw water,
With the king’s clear vision
People together accept its blessing.’

 

‘The vessel contains something real.
My companions are afflicted,
Cannot come near me.
Good fortune.’

 

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

In each case, the speaker has a strong, independent awareness of the situation: clearer insight into the well than the king or the people; confidence untouched by the companions’ anxiety; not glad even when the traveller is apparently secure. It’s like an omniscient – or at least more knowledgeable – narrator, telling the story from a higher vantage-point.

Who is this narrator? You can hear it as the querent – or as the oracle itself. In practice, in readings, it quite often turns out to be our inner knowing. 56.4: ‘I’ve got everything, I ought to be happy, yet somehow I’m not.’ Here and at 48.3, Yi can help people reconnect with their heart’s intuition, and perhaps understand why it says what it says. Perhaps this ‘me’ comes from the intersection of inner knowing and oracle voice?

And finally, there’s 61.2…

‘Calling crane in the shadows,
Her young respond in harmony.
I have a good wine vessel,
I will share with you, pouring it all out.’

…which surely is just the song of the cranes.

From the I Ching Community

A short story

In typical Yi style, this is a very short story:

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

These are lines 56.4 and 57.6, and they have a direct textual parallel: gaining then losing property and axe (or axe-money). (Ignore the way I translated it with ‘your’ in 57.6 – it’s the same three words, ‘one’s property axe’, in both lines.)

Oddly enough, I only started paying attention to this because it was pointed out by Geoffrey Redmond – the one who maintains that ‘the unit of meaning is the phrase’ in the Zhouyi. He writes of 57.6,

‘This line refers back to the traveler’s money that was lost in the preceding hexagram, 56.4. It is unusual for themes in a hexagram to continue in another one. Most likely, this phrase was simply misplaced from the preceding hexagram.’

So naturally, I assume that the phrase wasn’t misplaced, and see where this takes me.

In the first place, I think this is a story, not just a contrast. To start with, there is no small-scale structural relationship (lines, trigrams) between these two lines to suggest a parallel or contrast; they’re simply adjacent in the Sequence. (And this part of the Sequence contains more than one reflective pattern revolving around themes of history, culture and transmission.)

From 56 to 57, the Xugua (‘Sequence’ Wing) says,

‘The traveller has no place where he is accepted, and so Subtly Penetrating follows. Subtly Penetrating means entering in.’

The traveller at 56.4 has only a temporary shelter; 57.6 is going further and further in.

Simply reading the two lines as a story already casts light on them: my heart is not glad, in 56.4, because I have an inkling of the loss to come. (This is one of those striking, resonant uses of ‘my’ that creates some distance from the protagonist of the line. Perhaps it is the oracle’s heart not glad, or a wiser narrator’s.) And if 56.4 is anticipating, then 57.6 might be remembering – coming from 56.4, it was never entirely, decisively confident of owning property and axe, and goes endlessly digging for certainty.

Line pathways and connections

Let’s keep exploring…

56.4 and the tides of history

56.4 changes to Hexagram 52, Stilling – naturally enough, since this ‘place to stay’ is where the traveller comes to a halt. The name of Hexagram 52 shows a solitary human figure, turning away. This is stilling as a response or reaction to movement, not as a permanent state.

Reading across the paired lines…

‘Feng is flooded with darkness
At midday, seeing a froth of light.
Your right arm broken,
Not a mistake.’

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

…the traveller’s situation reflects the person stymied by events in 55.3 – in the dark, not seeing where to go, incapacitated. To me, the lines seem to share a sense of helplessness, being overtaken by events. The traveller hasn’t quite been overtaken yet, but there’s an uneasy sense that he will be, soon. It’s his property and place to stay today, but it could be someone else’s tomorrow.

In practice, I usually get 56.4 when there’s a creeping anxiety and a fear of losing ground – as if I might need to run faster to stay in the same place. It’s almost as if having whatever-it-is now creates the possibility of losing it. I might need to pause and ask myself why I’m not more contented.

The inner lines for this pathway – 52.4 and 51.3 – don’t have the same disquiet:

‘Stilling your self,
No mistake.’

‘Shock revives, revives.
Shock moves without blunder.’

In both of these, there’s a sense ‘things are unfolding as they should’. There may be shock, but it’s timely, it’s doing its work; still yourself, no mistake, no need for you to be running about. And in fact, 55.3 has the same insight: ‘Your right arm broken – not a mistake.‘ Events unfold, there’s not a lot you can do about them, and this is all as it should be. 56.4 is the only line in the pathway that hasn’t got this message – perhaps because attaining shelter, property and axe is the full extent of the traveller’s ambitions?

57.6 and the bottomless Well

56.4 changes to 52, whose name in Chinese shows a human figure. 57.6 changes to 48, the Well – something much bigger.

‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost reaching, but the rope does not yet draw water from the well,
Breaking one’s clay jug,
Pitfall.’

The well requires human effort, but it also dwarfs us. People come and go, but the water is always there, whether you reach it or not. Human efforts, and decisions, and property, are ‘relativised’: even cities are moved, but not wells. The well construction might belong to everyone, but the water table is timeless, and no-one can own it.

57.6 is joined with 48.6/47.1:

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

– lines bringing an awareness that the water table might be over your head. ‘Penetrating under the bed’ comes to mean digging endlessly into something bottomless and shapeless. If 56.4 is hanging on by its fingernails to property and self-determination, 57.6 loses its grip and falls into the endless underground waters. You can’t hold onto ‘your stuff’ in the well, because the whole idea of ownership loses its meaning.

For me, 57.6 tends to mean that I’m over-interpreting other people’s behaviour and worrying too much about their opinions. (I also had it once to describe a day when I got somewhat lost on the London Underground – chiefly because I kept asking directions instead of looking at a map.) ‘What will they think of me?’ is certainly a bottomless, endless question; ‘How to please all the people, all the time?’ is another one, and a good place to lose my grip on my own convictions and have them washed away. I think the line has a more general application, though: it’s about anything that relativises you and yours by putting it in a much bigger context. That could be other people’s opinions, or the passage of time, or even the vastness of nature.

The paired line, 58.1, is very much the ‘other side of the coin’:

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

‘Responsive opening: good fortune’

Subtly penetrating under the bed comes (I think) of a desire to be completely aligned, in complete harmony, with no friction or discord. When the same desire for alignment is turned around and directed outward towards someone specific – as in conversation – then it is good. ‘Responsive’ here is the same word that describes the crane’s young in 61.2, who ‘respond in harmony’ to her call. Its meanings include ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘composing a poem in reply’. So this line’s a healthy extrovert, in comparison to 57.6’s neurotic introvert.

Stories we might tell

What stories might we tell around 56.4 and 57.6? As many as there are readings with each line, of course… but one that seems to me to be murmuring along in the background is that of Zhou and Shang. Hai, the original ‘traveller’ of 56, was a Shang ancestor. His descendants would found a great dynasty – but it would only be a temporary shelter, for they were to lose the Mandate and the Zhou would receive it.

The traveller has his place to stay and things he owns, but there’s still an atmosphere of unease. Someone (that mysterious speaker whose heart is not glad) is aware that events move on, and just because you have this now doesn’t mean you will be able to hold onto it forever.

The protagonist of 57.6 is so intent on exploring the depths – of time, or the collective reality, or the riches of nature – that she finds she has nothing of her own. Scaling up and scaling up, she loses herself from view.

This region of the Sequence (49/50, 54.5, 55…) concentrates on Zhou history – not the ins and outs of military strategy, but rather how they received, owned and implemented their Mandate. This little story of lost property might be asking, sotto voce, ‘Oh, so the Mandate is yours, is it? On what scale?’

The broader perspective that makes your personal experience just one part of the whole can be useful: it allows you to create harmonious exchanges, in 58.1. And it can be reassuring, as in 55.3 and 51.3: I may be stuck, but the wheels of history are turning as they should. Or it can be disconcerting: I have this now, but for how long? And ultimately, if you zoom out (or penetrate in) far enough, your experience and ownership disappears altogether. I think of the idea that people ‘own’ ancient woodland, or of ‘owning’ a ‘cello whose lifespan is measured in centuries. It’s laughable, of course – but also essential: someone has to keep the ‘cello safe from the central heating this winter.

sand running through fingers

One of many interesting things I found in Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography was an account of Zhu Xi’s approach to divination.

Zhu Xi (1120-1200) wrote firmly of Yi’s identity as an oracle, not just a ‘book of wisdom’. In addition to creating the yarrow method we use now, he also prescribed considerable ritual to be used with it. There are ritual ablutions, a dedicated divination room and table that you approach from the east, passing the yarrow stalks through the incense smoke… it’s all a long way away from ‘visit web page, click button’.

What caught my attention most of all was the quasi-prayer to be recited before the reading, especially its last line:

‘Availing of you, great milfoil, with constancy, I, [name], because of [topic], wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information.’

(Emphasis added.) There are echoes of this prayer in an invocation recorded in the 19th century. Prior to consultation, the temple diviner addresses the gods:

‘A man is now present who is harassed with anxieties, and is unable to solve his doubts and perplexities. We can only look to the gods to instruct us as to what is or is not to take place.’

Here is the same core assumption: the querent has a problem that only the oracle can solve. And although I’ve never counselled anyone on the correct placement of an incense burner relative to their yarrow stalks, this is advice I recognise. Yijing divination is for things we cannot know in other, more ‘normal’ ways. If you can learn the answer by…

  • consulting a doctor
  • buying a pregnancy test
  • consulting a lawyer
  • using a search engine
  • making a phone call
  • …and so on…

…then do that. The answer you get this way will be altogether more use: less open to interpretation, more likely to give you peace of mind, easier to act on.

Having said that… yes, I fail to take this advice all the time, too – or at least, I take it with a liberal pinch of interpretation…

For example, a month ago I had a great chunk of enamel fall off a back tooth. After a week or so of treating this with great TLC I was unsure whether the tooth was a) hardening and stabilising or b) decaying – and dealt with my uncertainty by asking Yi what was going on in there.

My friends enquired why (on earth) I did not go to my dentist, who could obviously answer this question far more straightforwardly. Well… because I had a whole lot of ‘doubts and perplexities’ along the lines of, ‘The dentist will want to drill and refill, but the drilling would damage the tooth’s capacity for self-repair, but that’s only relevant if it even has any chance of repairing itself in its current state, and if it hasn’t then I should get the dentist to re-fill it quick before I lose the whole tooth…’ and so on. Caught in that kind of endless loop, it feels natural to me to ask Yi. However, unless you share my strong fondness for dentinal tubules, my hesitation over seeing a dentist is going to appear quite insane.

A more familiar example would be the wise advice:

‘Never mind asking Yi how he feels about you, talk to him!’

This is generally very good advice indeed, but if someone wants to have an idea what’s going on before taking the plunge into such an excruciatingly difficult conversation, can you blame them?

The basic principle that we should ask Yi only when we cannot resolve our anxieties any other way is a good one; applying some logic and old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother told her, isn’t common) to the issue might prevent much confusion, and much wear-and-tear on the yarrow stalks.

But really, this isn’t just about where to find good information: it’s about knowing how best to change our inner state. What can bring you sufficient confidence and peace of mind to move forward, engage with the issue and get on with life? Sometimes that’ll be an expert opinion, and sometimes the kind of change of perspective that only a reading can create.

smoke rising from incense burner

My publishers have asked me to come up with a short introduction outlining the history of the Yi. So – wanting to do a good, thorough job – I have started by reading Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography. It’s a fascinating book, very readable, and it’s given me much more insight into the tradition and influence of the Yi through the millennia.

And… here’s its final paragraph, listing all the things he can imagine might happen to the Yi in future:

What, then, does the future hold for the Yijing, both domestically and internationally? No one can answer this question with certainty, of course, but it will probably continue to serve as a source of inspiration for creative thinkers, East and West, as it has for many hundreds of years. It will also continue to be studied by Chinese scholars as a foundational cultural document, with possible practical applications in the modern world. And it will no doubt continue to be translated by foreigners eager to understand and transmit its arcane wisdom for scholarly purposes or commercial gain. Perhaps most important, it will continue to offer us new opportunities for the comparative study of the lives of great religious books – how they came to be born, how they evolved, and how they traveled across space and time. By engaging in such comparisons we will not only learn more about other cultures; we will also assuredly learn more about ourselves.

And there ends this nice, erudite book. The Yi can be an artistic and cultural inspiration, or an object of commercial or scholarly interest, especially for comparative studies.

Can anyone here think of anything else it might be? Maybe even some other way it could help us learn more about ourselves?

Good grief.

Hexagram 48 line 6 says,

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

Bradford Hatcher, who has dug more wells than your average Yijing scholar, suggests that this is an artesian well, one where the water rises spontaneously. That certainly fits with my experience of the line, and also seems to me to fit with the hexagram it changes to: 57, Subtly Penetrating, with the water flowing unseen through strata deep in the earth.

Only I just noticed something that goes under the capacious heading of, ‘Turns out the people who wrote the Yi knew what they were doing, who’d’ve thought?’

My ‘who’d’ve thought?’ moment came when I looked again at the Wikipedia article on artesian aquifers, while also looking at the paired line: Hexagram 47, Confined, line 1.

(Aside: to find the paired line, draw your hexagram and mark the line that’s changing; then rotate the paper 180 degrees, so that you’re looking at the same pattern of lines from a different angle. If you draw Hexagram 48 with line 6 changing, and then change your angle of view like this, you’ll find yourself looking at 47.1. Same line, different perspective.)

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

Each of these lines is in the trigram kan, associated with deep pits and flowing water: line 1 at the very bottom of the valley, line 6 at the top of a water column. Line 1 to line 6 – the most distant of line pairs.

Now… here is a diagram from that Wikipedia article:

By Andrew Dunn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Andrew Dunn
(Would you believe it, water trapped in porous rock strata is technically known as a confined aquifer?)

There you have it: at the very bottom of the valley, below the water table, you can dig a ‘gathering well’.

In the cross section, you can see the strata: one flowing line between two containing ‘banks’ of impervious rock, like the lines of kan. Move the uppermost inactive layer, and the water rises. Hexagram 57 describes the way the water seeps inward through the pervious rock; its pair, 58, describes pools and reservoirs, and also rising and breaking through.

The whole thing is not just mentioning an artesian well, it’s showing us a diagram of how it works – watch the line move, and it’s even an animated diagram.

In other news, I have looked at these lines for going on 20 years without noticing any of this. So as I file this observation under, ‘Turns out they knew what they were doing, who’d’ve thought?’ I’ll cross-reference with ‘How much more am I missing?

By and large, we know what sort of thing we expect Yi to say (though not, heaven knows, what it will say): ‘Here’s what you’re doing’ or ‘here’s what would happen’ or ‘here’s how to cope with that’ – something along those lines, describing or advising. Only every now and then – just eleven times, in fact, in the whole book – it speaks in a different way: it says ‘I’.

The best-known example is the first in the book, the Oracle of Hexagram 4:

‘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.’

The ‘I’ and ‘me’ here are the same character, 我, wo, which translates I/me/my/we/us/our.

(I’ve linked them to the etymology and definition at Richard Sears’ invaluable site, in its shiny new incarnation. One effect of his website update has been to hide the donation button, but you can find it here.)

There are many stories of people mucking around with the Yi, asking the same question repeatedly, and pretty much jumping out of their skins when they receive this hexagram. You thought you were just playing with a book, and now suddenly an oracle is talking to you. You’re not the only person here.

So in this case, ‘me’ is surely the voice of the oracle itself. In practice, it’s very often the voice of the universe at large (maybe not such a different idea): yes, you want answers; no, there are no more to be had, so keeping on asking like this is counter-productive. I’ve also seen several readings where ‘I do not seek the young ignoramus’ seemed to be words spoken by another person: an exasperated parent, a reluctant tech support department, a man who just isn’t that into the woman who keeps messaging him.

Something similar happens at 27.1:

‘Giving up your own spirit tortoise,
Gazing at me with jaws hanging down.
Pitfall.’

Here there’s a contrast drawn between your sacred tortoise and my jaws. Normally, I would read this as a warning from the oracle about forfeiting your own inner knowing. However, the line can, as in Hexagram 4, also lend words to other people and entities – anywhere you might be looking for nourishment that you already own. It still has that strong sense of someone speaking.

Who’s speaking? Is it always Yi, or the cosmos?

I don’t think so, no. Take the oracle of Hexagram 9:

‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.’

(And the same phrase about clouds without rain used in 62.5.)

I’ve translated this one ‘our Western altars’ because this time the words seem to come from the Zhou people as a whole: our altars. Still, spirits (probably spirits of nature – earth, mountains, rivers, directions) could also claim these altars as their own, so who knows?

But things get clearer in 20.3.5:

‘Seeing my own life.
Advancing, withdrawing.’

‘Seeing my own life.
The noble one is without mistake.’

We only ever read these as being our voice, the querent, in a state of heightened self-awareness. This, says Yi, is what you need to be saying to yourself. (Changing these two ‘my own life’ lines together shows you Hexagram 52, Stilling – a picture of introspection.)

Again in 42.5:

‘True and confident, with a benevolent heart,
No question: good fortune from the source.
Truth, confidence and benevolence are my own strength.’

This is a line of tremendous power. It has a strong sense of implicit speech marks: with these qualities, these can be your words. This is what you should be able to say.

So this is quite different: not words addressing the querent, but words for the querent to speak, at a moment of heightened self-awareness.

That quality of heightened awareness seems to be quite a common feature of ‘me’ lines. I think it characterises 48.3, 50.2 and 56.4:

‘Well is dredged, no drinking.
This makes my heart ache.
It can be used to draw water,
With the king’s clear vision
People together accept its blessing.’

 

‘The vessel contains something real.
My companions are afflicted,
Cannot come near me.
Good fortune.’

 

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

In each case, the speaker has a strong, independent awareness of the situation: clearer insight into the well than the king or the people; confidence untouched by the companions’ anxiety; not glad even when the traveller is apparently secure. It’s like an omniscient – or at least more knowledgeable – narrator, telling the story from a higher vantage-point.

Who is this narrator? You can hear it as the querent – or as the oracle itself. In practice, in readings, it quite often turns out to be our inner knowing. 56.4: ‘I’ve got everything, I ought to be happy, yet somehow I’m not.’ Here and at 48.3, Yi can help people reconnect with their heart’s intuition, and perhaps understand why it says what it says. Perhaps this ‘me’ comes from the intersection of inner knowing and oracle voice?

And finally, there’s 61.2…

‘Calling crane in the shadows,
Her young respond in harmony.
I have a good wine vessel,
I will share with you, pouring it all out.’

…which surely is just the song of the cranes.

Join Clarity

You are warmly invited to join Clarity and -

  • access the audio version of the Beginners’ Course
  • participate in the I Ching Community
  • subscribe to ‘Clarity Notes’ for I Ching news

Join here!

Clarity,
PO BOX 255,
Witney,
Oxfordshire,
OX29 6WH,
United Kingdom

Phone/ Voicemail:
+44 (0)20 3287 3053 (UK)
+1 (561) 459-4758 (US).