The Yijing as a whole is a rather disconcerting book. It can say things we don’t understand, or, worse, things we understand perfectly well but don’t want to know. A reading can be reassuring, can reinforce your thinking, or it can give you a real jolt.
‘I have had this truly brilliant idea, how about it?’
Or it might pour cold water on a whole series of brilliant ideas until you’re compelled to go back and question the assumption they all start from – or it might answer your question about some utterly intractable problem by saying there is no real problem at all. This is when we may find ourselves yelling at the book, or possibly jumping on it. (In a reverent way, of course…)
This is all comical – especially when it happens to someone else – but I don’t believe any of us actually likes these experiences. We arrange most of our lives nowadays to avoid disconcerting surprises, so can’t we bring Yi up to date in this regard?
Here are some ways to do this, from the simplest to the more involved. You may find you are already proficient at at least one of them; years of practice mean I’m good at quite a few.
The simplest method: don’t divine
You can, of course, cast a reading and then forget its existence. I’ve found this works surprisingly well. (Warning: friends who ask after your readings may sabotage this at any time.)
However, it is more straightforward to forget to cast in the first place. If a given course of action or attitude is unquestionably the only way, then the possibility of divining about it need never cross your mind. (Warning: those same friends may innocently ask, ‘What did Yi have to say about this?’)
An elegant solution is to decide that Yi is not to be treated as an oracle at all, but as a book of wisdom. Then you need not cast a hexagram; you can choose the one you feel applies, and avoid all the perils of the unknown.
Sarcasm apart, this actually has the potential to be a way of deep understanding: recognising the seeds of developments, knowing how they will unfold. The Yi is sometimes used this way in the Zuo commentary, where a wise person who recognises a hexagram pattern will know what developments to expect.
And on the other hand, it also has the potential to transform Yi from an oracle into sock puppet. (‘Clearly to learn more about my brilliant idea, I should study hexagram 14.’)
If you have cast a reading
…then defusing, taming or otherwise making your reading safe will be trickier. Though once again, it’s surprising how much we can do this entirely unconsciously.
An honorary mention should go here to all the various casting rules and methods that simplify a reading down to a single moving line. That way, the reading can’t represent alternative choices or inner conflict: you’ve restricted the range of things the oracle can say, hence ‘domesticated’ it a bit.
But in practice, what we often do is to use some tool or method that’s a wonderful support to engaging with a reading, and use it instead to replace the reading.
You’ll probably find most of these examples quite absurd. All I can say is that I have done some of them and seen all of them done.
You could try extemporising on trigram associations and never getting around to reading the text. This actually works in a surprisingly similar way to choosing your own hexagram: you can use it to develop your own thinking about the topic (and again, this can be genuinely helpful), but given the vast menu of possible associations with each trigram, you will naturally tend to choose the ones that resonate with your pre-existing ideas.
‘How about my brilliant idea?’ 54.
‘The inner trigram, which corresponds to me as questioner, is lake: I am full of joy about this and can be light-hearted about it, not take it too seriously. The outer trigram, which describes action in the world, is thunder: I should act swiftly, decisively and energetically. Conclusion: I should put my inner excitement into action without worrying and without delay.’
Or suppose the answer were 24.6:
‘The inner trigram is thunder – there’s my creative impulse and desire to act swiftly – and the outer trigram is earth, with the top line changing. So should I take this outer earth as a sign I should be more patient? Maybe – but then again, it could also indicate that the field is open to me, the world is ready to support and grow my idea like a field waiting for a seed. Besides, the top line changing implies an excess of passivity, and since this is the final line, it must be time to bring that to an end. I should stop waiting and go ahead. It’ll be like using my inner energy to break the surface of the soil and start ploughing.’
Now… I have deliberately used a few simple trigram associations and simple methods here to come up with interpretations that directly contradict what Yi says. (Note: please do not, in fact, plough ahead with any brilliant idea that Yi describes with Hexagram 24 line 6.) It would no doubt also be possible to use other associations and more complex methods to come up with interpretations that agree with the text. The thing is, you could go either way, and in practice you’re going to follow the path of least resistance, and the reading is probably not going to surprise you.
Alternatively, if you’re an experienced user, you can draw on your own associations with the hexagram instead of what it says:
Experienced user: What about my brilliant idea?
Hexagram 54 unchanging
Experienced user: “Ahh, yes… the second of the great and resonant Marriage hexagrams, the marrying maiden who facilitates the relationship and makes it possible, with the story of Diyi’s daughter, the second wife who will eventually give birth to the heir…”
(This also shows up in ideas of ‘bad hexagrams’ and ‘good hexagrams’ – getting Hexagram 29, for instance, thinking ‘bad idea’ and going no further than that – never asking what kind of idea.)
You can use your repertoire of interpretive tools:
Advanced user: What about my brilliant idea?
Hexagram 54 unchanging
Advanced user: “Aha, the nuclear hexagram here is 63, Already Across, showing that the development of this is already underway and the key is to keep a beginner’s mind.”
(Actually the most commonly-used interpretive tool for reading-taming is the fan yao, the ‘opposite direction’ to the line received. ‘54.6? Ah, so my doubts will prove unfounded in the end and this will be a successful partnership.’)
For beginners, who don’t yet have this kind of experience or toolkit, there’s always the option of browsing through commentaries (or forum threads) for a comfortable interpretation. A ‘positive thinking’ I Ching, perhaps, or one that’s all about introspection with nothing about action (or vice versa, depending on which you prefer to avoid!).
Actually, finding a commentary that makes 54 unchanging sound like a good idea is tricky, but I managed it: the ‘version for optimism‘ stuffed into the corner of my bookcase dubs 54 ‘Affection’ and gives as its main text, ‘I live the purpose of deep, joyous caring.’
This might be a good moment to mention what Yi actually says with hexagram 54:
‘Marrying maiden. To set out to bring order: pitfall.
No direction bears fruit.’
It’s easy to recognise this kind of thing, and feel very superior about it, when someone else is doing it, but it’s actually very hard to avoid it altogether. Nobody likes having their view of the world contradicted by reality – and here we are, consulting an oracle, getting into conversation with reality. Of course we will come up with ‘taming’ strategies to handle the results.
…and to complicate matters further, more or less any one of those strategies – working with trigram associations, or personal associations with hexagrams, or fluent application of interpretive tools, or even good-quality commentaries – can also be ways of engaging more deeply with a reading.
Maybe the best we can manage is to try to notice what we’re doing? That, and leave some windows open, as it were, through which new light could fall. Regular open (question-free) readings are one way of doing this; friends who ask awkward questions are also a treasure.