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This means something

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

I Ching Community discussion

4 responses to This means something

  1. This is good stuff.

    To think that anything is random in the I Ching is slightly immature. And yet, in another way it is, but not really. Nothing is truly random in life though the psychologists may say otherwise. Why anyone would listen to them is beyond me, but people do. They are the so called experts. (Not really.) Quantum physics would on one level make us think things are random, but on another, not at all. Random events create complex structures because there is a higher level of consciousness behind all phenomenon.

    Not only can we delude ourselves, we can also not understand at all, and then the temptation becomes very strong to reword the question and try again. Not a good idea. The answer is to let the answer be mulled around in the mind over and over and over. Granted, by the time it does make sense, the question may have already been answered in the real world and it is too late. But the I Ching is not for everybody, at least not until they have achieved a great deal of spiritual growth. Until that time it is better to let someone else interpret for us, someone who does not have an emotional involvement in the situation. Emotions can make us very biased. But, we can keep learning and keep learning.

    Especially here. It is a good blog for study material.

  2. Thank you, Gene and Mere.

    Gene, I agree with almost everything you wrote – especially the inadvisability of rewording and trying again. But I think the I Ching is for everyone who wants to use it (which, true, is not everybody), and while getting help with interpretation is one thing, your reading is always your reading – Yi talking to you – and no-one else can recognise what it means as well as you can. Which will probably sound a bit odd coming from someone who interprets other people’s readings for a living, come to think of it…

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