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,’
‘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.
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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.
From the blog
The ‘powerful woman’ problem
In Hexagram 44, we are encountering, meeting or ‘coupling’ with a powerful woman.
‘Coupling, the woman is powerful.
Do not take this woman.’
To ‘take’ her means to seize, as one might seize a criminal, but in this usage it’s something like the old-fashioned English, ‘taking a woman in marriage’ – maybe with overtones of bringing her under control in the process! And that’s exactly what you should not try to do. Why not? The Commentary on the Judgement says,
‘Do not take this woman: it cannot last long.’
– which is pretty clear: she can’t be absorbed into your life, she won’t fit, not in the long run. This is the stuff of brief encounters, not an enduring relationship. (See this post for more about this ‘not fitting in’ of 44.)
In this post, I’d like to tackle two questions: how to recognise what the ‘powerful woman’ represents in your readings, and how you might respond to her. (And in the process respond to requests for me to write about 44’s moving lines.)
Who is she?
I’ve run a search in my own Yijing journal for all the readings with Hexagram 44, as both primary and relating hexagram, and also looked through some notes on other people’s readings, to help paint a portrait of this ‘powerful woman’. When people receive Hexagram 44, what are they encountering?
There was the story Mary ‘Midaughter’ Halpin told, in which Hexagram 44 predicted a storm and she only just brought her boat to shore in safety. There are readings about an addiction, or perhaps the addictive personality.
There was a logically-minded man ‘meeting’ the idea of someone taking divination seriously and having no idea what to do with this. But then there was also the querent who ‘met’ the realm of emotion, sexual desire and messy humanity invading the realm of abstraction created by (far too many) Yijing readings.
And there was someone receiving demands for debt repayment, and the tennis player encountering an opponent whose game he couldn’t read.
In all these cases, the ‘powerful woman’ showed up as an irruption of unmanageable reality, perhaps of chaos – something unplanned-for, disruptive, and also potentially creative.
I’ve received 44 as primary hexagram again and again when encountering people I can’t… quite… cope with in the way I’d imagined. (Another kind of ‘irruption of reality’!) I’d be trying to maintain a harmonious relationship with people who simply didn’t want one.
Tradition says the powerful woman seeks to dominate, and for some of these people that actually was their only priority. I was running round looking for ways to make friends, while they were simply looking for ways to defeat me. But others were simply in a fragile mental state, driven by powerful emotional needs of their own that had nothing to do with me or the issue I was concerned about. In one of these journal entries I wrote,
‘You can no more have a stable friendship with that than you can with a flood – so you just have to do the best you can – which isn´t always so great…’
I needed to understand that these people’s motivations were not the straightforward, rational ones I was attributing to them, and – above all – that the kind of harmonious relationship I was trying to create just wasn’t available.
(The mistake I was making in a lot of these situations is nicely summed up by the Shadow hexagram: 21, Biting Through. It looked to me as though there was a specific obstacle to relationship, that I could argue out like a lawyer and bite through; then things would fit together and work perfectly, like good teeth. This was not a useful way to conceive of the situation.)
As relating hexagram, 44 quite often represented an aspect of myself: some irreducible will, or intent, or desire that isn’t available to rational thought; an inner imperative that might change everything.
Sometimes it isn’t clear exactly whom or what the unmarriageable woman represents. There’s a reading about some software, with many attempts to imagine how I’d incorporate it into my way of working – as you might guess, that never happened. Likewise, there’s one about someone else’s organisational system, that wouldn’t work for me. So who’s who in these readings: was this about me meeting the software/ system, or the system meeting me? For the purposes of interpretation, it really doesn’t matter: the point is simply that this is not relationship material. That option doesn’t exist.
Her portrait in trigrams
The trigrams of Hexagram 44 show the wind below heaven, so I’ve been trying to visualise that:
Mary Halpin’s reading of the storm comes to mind, of course. With the whole force of heaven behind the wind, everything is really going to be moved.
What can you do with this?
Hexagram 44 represents the arrival of an uncontrollable, unpredictable great force. The Oracle text tells us we can’t marry this; it doesn’t tell us what we can do with it, probably because there is no dependable, universal answer. What do you ‘do’ with a tornado? Admire its power, stay out of its path if you can, and let it pass. That’s often the best message we can take from a Hexagram 44 reading, too.
However, the power of Coupling isn’t solely destructive. That much is clear from the name of the hexagram, which shows a woman giving birth – perhaps it means the heir, or the woman who gives birth to him. (Here’s Harmen’s article on the subject.) This could also be generative power: witness the fertility imagery in the line texts, the fish in the basket and wrapped melon.
As you read the lines, especially the wonder of line 5, 44 looks like a fertile chaos: there could be a baby; it could generate a whole new world, if it could just be contained and shaped with sufficient care. Maybe. Sometimes.
How could we respond to Coupling?
Be like the prince?
‘Below heaven is the wind. Coupling.
The prince sends out mandates and commands to the four corners of the earth.’
The prince uses this heaven-powered wind to transmit mandates that reach to the corners of the earth. Or perhaps ‘uses’ is the wrong word: perhaps he’s understanding the true nature of the energy involved and engaging with its power to bring creative change.
Perhaps you can align yourself with this wind – and also, perhaps you can’t. People aren’t generally advised to take their glider up in a tornado, after all.
There are signs of the prince’s kind of engagement in the line texts, too. (As so often, the Daxiang authors seem to have been inspired by the lines, especially line 5.)
The first sign of 44 as ‘mandate at work’ comes at line 3, which I believe alludes to Yu the Great and the injuries he suffered as he struggled to conquer the floods:
‘Thighs without flesh,
Moving awkwardly now.
No great mistake.’
This line isn’t about the honour of receiving the mandate for this work, nor the glories of success, but the whole miserable struggle inbetween: we see him stumbling and limping along (‘the image of someone starved and worked to death,’ says Stephen Field), and Yi only comments that this is ‘no great mistake’. (A joke on ‘Yu the Great’? Could be.)
Line 5 –
‘Using willow to wrap melons.
Containing a thing of beauty,
It comes falling from its source in heaven.’
– captures more of a sense of gifts from heaven. Literally, this is talking about using willow to shape a growing gourd for use as a bottle. As an image, of course, it looks like a successful pregnancy. (The willow in 28.2.5 is to do with sex and fertility, too.) The ‘thing of beauty’ is ‘structure, composition, rules’, and in the context of this line, which changes to 50, the Vessel, I reckon it refers to a new constitution.
It’s a very beautiful line – and, in practice, I’ve found that the gift that falls to you here is not necessarily something you have a use for – not as things stand.
When these two lines, 3 and 5, change together, you have the properly-tentative background of Hexagram 64, Not Yet Across.
Can you contain the Coupling power, bring it under control? That’s the first positive recommendation of the hexagram:
‘Held fast by a golden chock. Constancy: good fortune.
With a direction to go, see the pitfall:
A scrawny pig can be trusted to kick and struggle.’
That’s the only time we see ‘good fortune’ in Hexagram 44: when it’s being contained and held fast. If you identify with the impulse, let it become your direction, then you look a great deal like that pig. Stop and steady the ship; beware of unconscious desires that, left unchecked, might end up running the whole show.
In the I Ching Community some years back, this line described the attitude a man was taking to his very demanding mistress after his wife had given birth to twins. In the end, after some stopping and starting, he no longer responded to her.
The other line I think has to do with containing and controlling is line 6:
‘Coupling with your horns.
Not a mistake.’
This one, overwhelmed and probably not thinking too clearly, goes in with horns lowered to wrestle things into some sort of relationship. ‘Shame, not a mistake,’ says Yi, sounding (to me) pretty unenthusiastic; perhaps this is the best you can manage.
When those two lines change together, you have the paired hexagram, 43, Deciding. Someone is quite decisive and determined about how Coupling shall be. Will that work? Perhaps.
Use it as basis for a relationship?
And finally, there are lines 2 and 4, the two about fish traps. This is a fertility image and omen: a basket lowered into the river to catch fish. If you trap some, this bodes well for a marriage and future fertility – as in line 2:
‘In this basket there are fish.
Not fruitful to entertain guests.’
So the omens are good, or at least not actively bad; now, you need to hold onto the potential and not get ahead of yourself. Margaret Pearson thinks of this as the early stages of pregnancy, to be safeguarded with quiet and Retreat (Hexagram 33, revealed by this line change). SJ Marshall pointed out to us that ‘entertaining guests’ also means the bin rite, performed to introduce the new bride to the groom’s ancestors: you don’t want to go that far yet, just on the strength of a few fish. Drawing on both these ideas, I wrote in my book, “What you do not have is a guarantee of results. It is far too early to introduce your hope to a wider context and expect it to bear fruit. For now, it should have your inner space to itself, free from premature expectations. You can best care for any long term possibilities by not presuming on them.”
But in line 4 –
‘In this basket, no fish.
Rising up, pitfall.’
– there are no fish, so there’s no possibility of starting anything. As the fourth line, this one may have a positive, ‘What can I do with this?’ attitude; as the line joining with Hexagram 57, Subtle Penetration, it’s moved by a desire to integrate the new energy: ‘How can I use this, make it part of my plans?’
The short answer is that you can’t, because you don’t have a relationship with it. It’s not that there are no fish in the river, but there are none in your basket; it’s not that there is nothing new, it’s that you need to connect with it consciously, as something new that doesn’t slot into the space you had for it.
(Somewhere in the I Ching Community archives, someone asked about the ‘energy’ between themselves and another person and received this line. 18 months later, they still hadn’t spoken.)
These two ‘fish basket’ lines together change 44 to Hexagram 53, Gradual Development: the hexagram of marriage and the geese flying home together. Coupling coming home, building a long-term relationship, is simply not reliable. Perhaps there’s conception, but perhaps there isn’t even that. Exactly as the Commentary on the Judgement says, ‘It cannot last long.’
I hope this post will make sense. It’s something I thought of in the small hours of the morning when I couldn’t sleep, and started counting complementary hexagrams instead of sheep (as you do…) –
Here’s a picture of the Sequence of Hexagrams:
Hm… maybe that could do with some explanation:
Each complementary pair (including the ones that are inverse pairs as well) is represented with ( ).
Every other pair is represented by an arrow: facing forward if that pair’s complement is ahead of it in the Sequence, facing backward if it’s behind it. You can think of it as which way the hexagrams are ‘looking’ to find the patterns that complement them.
The curly brackets don’t represent hexagrams – they just enclose groups of hexagrams that are one another’s complements. The big, orange brackets enclose the Vessel Casting group, 3-50; the others enclose hexagrams 7-16, 37-40 and 51-60. (I could have added more brackets around 51-64, but I thought we’d got enough to be going on with.) If you’re a Change Circle member, you may already be aware of a lot of very lovely – and very meaningful – patterns and reflections created inside those curly brackets that I described in the Exploring the Sequence book last year.
The little blue letters identify some interesting moments.
Now of course, you’d expect more of the hexagrams in the first half of the book to be looking forward to find their complements, and most of those in the second half to be looking back. The fun starts when you look at the exceptions: the moments when the expected flow forward or backward changes direction.
At ‘a’, you get the first hexagrams to look back to find their complement. Since we entered the Vessel Casting set, each pair has been looking forward – until you reach Hexagram 12, Blocked:
That turns us around to look back. I’ve written about this structure, and the historical moment I think it encodes, in Exploring the Sequence – but even without that level of detail, isn’t it interesting that Hexagram 12 should be the one to compel us to look back?
We start looking forward again at ‘b’. That’s Hexagram 19, Nearing:
We go past the complementary pairs at the end of the Upper Canon – 27/28, 29/30 – and into the Lower Canon, where (at ‘c’) we find the first backward-looking arrow for a while – at Hexagram 33, Retreat,
…which as you see is the complement of 19. 19 is about going forward, and 33 is about going back. (Also, from hexagrams 19/20 to 33/34 inclusive makes eight pairs. ‘Arrival at the eighth month…’?)
The letter ‘d’ marks a unique moment, when complementary/opposite hexagrams are adjacent in the Sequence without being part of a complementary pair. By this point it might not surprise you that this moment’s marked with Hexagram 38, Opposing.
As you can see from the arrows, this is another moment of changing direction. Travelling south and west instead of north and east, perhaps. Coming instead of going, as you might say: turning around.
‘Above the mountain, there is water. Limping.
Noble one turns himself around to renew his character.’
(Hexagram 39, the Image)
From then until the end of the Vessel Casting pattern at Hexagram 50, every pair is ‘coming back’. It takes a full-size Shock to flip us around again and make us look forward.
Really, you might think someone had done this on purpose.
Once you start looking at where individual pairs find their complements, there’s more to see. For instance, the greatest distance between two complementary pairs is that between 3 and 50: it takes a long time to complete a Vessel. The second greatest distance begins with Hexagram 5, which has to Wait until Hexagram 35 for its complement. (Oddly enough, 3/4, 5/6, 35/36 and 49/50 are eight of the twelve ‘Steps of Change’ reached by changing single lines in 63/64, at the very end. The remaining four are 37/38 and 39/40, the closest complements.)
(And isn’t the third-biggest distance between 21, Biting Through, and 48, the Well, two hexagrams about closing or bridging a gap?)
(Add your own parentheses ad lib; there is so much to this book that we haven’t yet seen. I can’t recommend it as a soporific, though.)
I’ve left a longer gap between posts here than I intended, mostly because March has been very full of ’cello-y things. Still, there’s a reading from one of these that cast a new light on Hexagram 31 line 3 for me, so I can at least share that with you…
The background: I’d signed up months ago for the ’Cello Day. This is a lovely occasion where a very mixed bunch of amateur ’cellists get together and are taught by a superb, kind professional. As well as group work, there is a quasi-masterclass, in which a few people volunteer to play something and get individual feedback. Thoroughly scary, but a rare opportunity; I signed up, and had been working on the piece I wanted to play since Christmas.
And… then I learned that there would be no pianist available. What I wanted to play was very much a duet with the piano, so that the ’cello part on its own would sound very lonely and a bit daft. Should I persist with that, or switch to some solo Bach (for ’cello alone)? I prepared both, dithered and divined about which to play, and didn’t actually decide until the day to go with Bach.
So that’s why I have a reading in my journal titled, ‘Just Bach?’ Yi answered with 31, Influence, changing at line 3 to 45, Gathering.
A smidgen more background: I was playing the prelude to the D minor suite, which is an intensely emotional piece: I can’t play it without being moved – not even performing in front of a group, where I’d normally be too scared to be aware of anything much else. So you can see the Hexagram-31-ness of the moment in that. (The 45 is a combination of the setting, the amount of time I’d spent preparing, all I’d learned earlier in the day and wanted to integrate… which all meant I was emotionally invested in more ways than one.)
The line warns,
‘Influence in your thighs,
Holding on to your following
Going on, shame.’
It’s an odd, awkward line, about being pulled in opposite directions. (Aside: so are some other third lines in the mountain trigram – think of 52.3, or 33.3.) ‘Influence in your thighs’ suggests that your legs are walking you. You see something you want and your legs carry you towards it automatically. Or in my case, the music was ‘playing itself’ and my hands were following.
And then at the same time I was trying to be mindful of what I’d learned that morning about how to create a good sound. The teacher had spent a long time with us breaking down what we did automatically, so that each tiny component part was brought into consciousness and we became aware of the difference it made.
Anyway… for the most part, I played OK – except when, sometimes, I made an unpleasantly forced sound. The teacher (bless him) observed that ‘mostly’ the sound was nice and free – and when it wasn’t, that was because my shoulder was ‘locking’. I think I know what he means: I’m still moving the bow, but against the resistance of my own muscle tension.
Why? Because part of me’s moving more or less automatically, and part of me’s trying to exert conscious control over those automatic habits, to ‘hold onto my following’. I can do that with one note and nothing else to think about – but not so much mid-performance.
Back to Yi’s image: you might walk mindfully, making every movement fully intentional, if you went slowly enough. But if you tried to achieve the same level of control while racing down a hill (after a cheese, for instance), it’s safe to assume you’d fall flat on your face. We can have automatic processes moved by emotion, or conscious control, but if we try for both at once we tie ourselves in a giant knot.
Looking at the line this way gives me a different perspective on it. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the ‘influence in your thighs’, nor yet with the ‘holding on’: it’s the combination that has you falling over your feet. Hence, a wise response to the line isn’t necessarily going to mean either ‘getting a grip’ or ‘letting go’: it might just mean becoming better integrated. (Practising good bowing technique, for instance, until it becomes habitual and unconscious.)
Lately, I’ve been writing a series of sunny posts about how Yi helps: how it brings understanding and insight, of yourself as well as other people; how it triggers little inner shifts that can change your life; the odd magic of everything falling into place.
And… let’s be honest… that’s not everyone’s experience with Yi all the time. Readings can feel simultaneously utterly vague and far too complicated – the condition also known as information overwhelm. You draw a blank with a reading and go looking for help. You don’t see how the first book or forum post you come to corresponds to your question, start comparing and contrasting, and get frustrated trying to find a core meaning you can apply to your life.
And even if something does resonate, you may still be left wondering where on earth these people get their ideas from. In short, you have no confidence in your ability to interpret your own readings, and you’re stuck.
Everyone can learn to understand their own readings. You know the name of the oracle, Yi, translates as ‘Change’, but it also means ‘easy’. There is a reason for this.
Everyone can get stuck.
Three reasons why we get stuck
I can think of just three reasons for all the overwhelm and confusion that’s generated around readings:
not knowing what you were asking,
not taking time with the answer, and
not understanding the reading’s basic structure.
Not knowing what you were asking
This is the easiest sticking point to overlook, because by the time its effects become visible – when we’re looking at the answer – we have so much else to think about: hexagrams, lines, trigrams, imagery, and 101 interpretations of each. But to engage with the reading at all, the first thing you need to do is read it as question and answer:
‘What do I need to do?’
‘Retreat and See’
‘What if I tried that?’
…and so on. And it’s the same if I’m getting distracted in the middle of a reading by deep-diving into some obscure hexagram relationship: I need to go back to the question and ask how is this answering that? How does it clarify that?
This is not about ‘asking the right kind of question’! It’s about knowing what you’re asking – because that also means knowing what you’re asking Yi for. If you asked ‘What if?’ then you’re asking for a picture of what would happen, what you’d encounter along that road. If you asked ‘How can I…?’ then you asked Yi to describe you: what you need to do, or how you need to be.
The form of words you use for the question doesn’t matter, so long as you know what you’re asking for.
More on this – ways to find your question, with experiments and exercises to dig in and explore what you’re really asking, four kinds of question to avoid (starting with the muddling ones), questions that go deeper… – in the second module of the Yijing Foundations Course.
Not taking time with the answer
If your reading doesn’t make sense to you at once, this is OK. It doesn’t mean you’ve done it wrong, or it hasn’t worked, or you’re no good at this. It just means you need to read it through, mull it over and also just give it some time to sink in.
(I’ll do readings for people on the spot if need be, but I much prefer to have the question and answer a day or two before. That way I can read through, ponder a bit and sleep on it. Sleeping on a reading is the closest we have to sprinkling it with Magic Aha! Dust™ – highly, highly recommended.)
The initial confusion can even be part of how Yi works. First you think you know how to think about the problem; then Yi turns all your ideas upside-down and inside-out and puts them through a fast spin cycle until you have no idea what you’re looking at; then, later, you see with new eyes as the answer becomes clear. To get beyond your old ideas, you need that disorientating middle phase.
Spending time with the answer is not the same as spending time trawling through commentaries, or following links from the I Ching Community hexagram search, wonderful though that is. Those are not your answer, they’re what everyone else and their cats have to say about it. Your answer’s simply the hexagrams themselves and the words of the Yijing. (If you’re not sure whether you’re reading the words of the Yijing or someone’s commentary, see ‘How to recognise a good Yijing book‘.)
Not understanding the basic structure of a reading
Those first two reasons are quickly and easily unstuck: know what you’re asking before you ask; take time with the answer. This third sticking point is trickier and takes longer, but it is absolutely worth the time and effort.
To a beginner, a Yijing reading can look like an undifferentiated lump of text, with the hexagrams just acting as a kind of look-up key. Probably some parts of it will speak to them – that’s why beginners realise ‘Wait, this works!’ and keep going. But it’s also quite likely that the text-lump will contain some internal contradictions.
‘Blocking it, non-people.
Noble one’s constancy bears no fruit.
Great goes, small comes.’
‘Resting when blocked.
Great person, good fortune.
It is lost, it is lost!
Tie it to the bushy mulberry tree.’
‘Advancing, Prince Kang used a gift of horses to breed a multitude.
In the course of a day, he mated them three times.’
– for instance. Are you blocked? Resting? Or blessed with a gift of horses and breeding them three times a day?
‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost drawn the water, but the rope does not quite reach the water,
Or breaking one’s clay jug,
‘The well is muddy, no drinking.
Old well, no birds.’
‘The well: clear, cold spring water to drink.’
Small goes, great comes.
Good fortune, creating success.’
So is it broken jug and pitfall, or Flow and good fortune? And is there water to drink, or not?
To understand the first of those examples (12.5 to 35) you need to know the difference between primary and relating hexagram – there’s a quick overview of that here, and the fifth module of the Foundations Course is dedicated to a full explanation. For the second, you also need to be aware of how energy moves up through the lines of a hexagram, and has a different feel to it at each layer – more on that here (and in modules 6 and 7 of Foundations).
The key to all this is to realise that the hexagram itself isn’t just a look-up key to find the text: it’s the bones and nerves of the reading. It carries meaning in itself – as you become aware of how trigrams and lines work together, you start to get a visual and kinaesthetic sense of your reading. And, crucially, it tells you how and where the different parts of the text apply and how they relate to one another.
Yet another note:
When I say ‘basic structure’, I really do mean basic. You can explore the structure of a Yijing reading forever, but all those fascinating extras are just that: extras. They’re not the answer; they’re simply contexts that cast light on the answer and make it easier to see. All you need to understand to get unstuck are the relationships of the two hexagrams and the moving lines that join them.
How to get unstuck
Know what you’re asking.
Take your time.
Learn about the basic structure of a reading.
That’s all. 🙂
Help getting unstuck
I’ve mentioned the Yijing Foundations Course in this post… OK, I’ve plugged it mercilessly… because this is exactly what it’s for: removing the obstacles that stand between you and clear, confident readings; providing the essential foundations for a reading, without the optional extras. Here’s a quick preview (click any image for a larger version):
Some people are happy to go through a course like this at their own pace; some prefer a more structured class environment, meeting up with the teacher for Q&A sessions and connecting with and learning from fellow students. So I’ll be running a Foundations Class later this year for a small group of students. This will be entirely online, with live video classes and a students’ forum for support.
Would you be interested? If so, please sign up below and I’ll let you know dates and details as soon as I work them out:
Sign up to be notified of Foundations Class details
Writing lately about ways Yi helps reminded me of possibly my favourite chapter of the Dazhuan (the ‘Great Treatise’, 5th and 6th Wings of the Yijing):
‘Yi is a document that should not be set at a distance.
Its dao is ever-changing,
alternating and moving without rest,
flowing through the six vacant places,
moving up and down without rule.
Whole and broken lines change places,
with no consistent principle:
alternation is all that happens.
Going and coming within limits
gives warning without and within,
shedding light on trouble and its causes,
not as a guide or teacher, but like a parent at one’s side.
First study the statements,
and ponder their purport;
then principles will emerge;
but if one is not the person intended,
the dao will not apply automatically.’
This is quoted from Richard Rutt’s translation – which I appreciate because it lets you read through without interpolated commentary.
Rather like the ancient text of the oracle itself, I think this passage only looks like a set of unconnected statements, and has its own internal logic.
Yi is not to be set at a distance:
it does not operate according to fixed rules – there is only change
it’s not like an instructor or guardian, but like your father and mother
and if you’re not ‘the person intended’, it does nothing
Those are three ways it can’t be set at a distance. To begin with, if Yi operated by fixed rules, you could use like a predictable tool that always behaves in the same way – like arithmetic, or a washing machine. It doesn’t, and so you must be close to it (or let it come close to you) to hear what it says.
Then it is ‘not like a teacher or guide‘ – which is quite startling, because we often do speak of Yi as if it were a teacher. Some even refer to what-speaks-through-Yi as ‘the Sage’. But… you are not close to a Sage: you follow their guidance and do what they say without question.
That’s an attitude to Yi I find disquieting: when someone says, ‘I wanted to do this, but Yi said not to, so I didn’t,’ I often feel there is something wrong. It’s odd in a way, because I trust Yi’s guidance absolutely in my own life. Yet it always seems important that it should at least be possible to have a conversation with Yi that goes like this:
‘How about doing this?’
‘It would be a trainwreck.’
‘OK. Thank you. I still feel it’s something I should do, so I’m doing it anyway.’
Paradoxically, I think this – reserving the right to our own trainwrecks – makes for a closer, more intimate relationship with Yi. If the Oracle becomes the arbiter of decisions, so that you automatically and without question do what it says, then you’re actually ‘setting it at a distance’ from your own intuition and moral sense.
The Dazhuan says Yi is not like a teacher but like ‘father and mother Nearing’ (the verb used is the name of Hexagram 19). Despite the cute illustration for this post, I don’t believe this means you have to be like a small child to Yi’s adult – however much it may feel like that at times! No – this is the relationship of an adult to their parents, or their parents’ spirits: made of love, respect and complete attention, but not knee-jerk obedience.
There’s a twist in the tail of this passage: first it tells you there are no rules or constant principles to Yi but change; then it says that if you study and reflect, ‘principles will emerge’ after all.
Wang Bi’s solution is to say that the ‘constant law’ you will find is change itself, which is an elegant interpretation. I have a feeling, though, that this may be following on from what was said earlier,
‘The Yi has no thought, no action. It is inert and motionless, but when activated it penetrates every cause under heaven.’
The Yi doesn’t have intrinsic principles; it has to be ‘activated’. When you pay attention to what it says and consider what it could mean – in other words, when you are considering your own reading – then ‘principles will emerge.’
Then the final line follows naturally: if you are ‘not the person intended’, in other words if this is not your reading and Yi is not speaking to you personally, then it does not apply.
The passage literally says something like, ‘If not its person, the dao does not act hollowly.’ I like Lynn’s translation: ‘the dao will not operate in vain.’ If you set the Oracle at a distance and treat understanding it as a theoretical exercise, then the dao cannot and does not engage with such emptiness: there is no reading, nothing happens. But if you let Yi be as close to you as a parent and reflect on what it’s saying to you, then it speaks.