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The importance of the question

The importance of the question

I’ve mentioned this before, and no doubt will again… the question you ask the Yi matters.

It’s important to understand that this isn’t about choosing the right wording for your question. The words really don’t matter. ‘Argh – help!’ can be a perfectly-formed question for the Oracle, leading to a perfectly helpful conversation, provided you know what you’re asking.

This is why, when I read for people, I like to spend time talking with them – and, more important, listening to them: partly so I can understand what they’re asking, partly so I can help them clarify that for themselves.

And this is why the second module of the Yijing Foundations Class, after we’ve recapped the essentials like translation, journal and how to cast a hexagram, is all about question choice. (It builds on the section about questions in the beginners’ course.) Then comes connecting with the answer, and then the essentials of structure.

What do I mean, ‘know what you’re asking’? That’s probably easiest to explain with an example (an imaginary one) of someone who doesn’t know.

Let’s visit her inner monologue:

‘This relationship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – everyone says I should just move on, he’s not worth it – I suppose they’re probably right, but… – I feel as if circumstances are dividing us – we don’t get to see one another – it would be different if we moved in together, wouldn’t it? – if only I knew what he really felt – I want to do a reading…’

Imagine she does a reading about her relationship, and receives Hexagram 59, Dispersing.

‘Dispersing, creating success.
With the king’s presence, there is a temple.
Fruitful to cross the great river,
Constancy bears fruit.’

Hexagram 59, Dispersing

Our imaginary querent is familiar with the Yijing; she knows Dispersing has to do with ice melting, and floods, and the wind blowing over the surface of the water and turning it to water vapour. She has a clear sense of the ‘energy pattern’ of Hexagram 59: evaporation and scattering.

She can imagine herself as the king in the temple, finding the connection that flows through dispersing. And she knows that ‘crossing the great river’ implies a commitment, probably something irreversible.

So… would that commitment be moving in with him, or leaving him?

Is this advice to disperse the relationship, make it less close?

Is it saying, ‘You’re right, the relationship is being damaged by distance, it’s dispersing, and so you should cross the great river and move in together, and that really would make all the difference?’

Is it predicting that the relationship will, in fact, disperse, no matter what she does?

Or could it be responding to her wondering about what’s going on in his head, and describing how his attention is scattered and not at all focussed on the relationship? (After all, 59 is the opposite hexagram to 55: it’s not inclined to step up and take decisions.)

In short – she can do everything right: get inside the imagery, study text and trigrams, even reflect on related hexagrams, and she still won’t know what this reading is telling her, because she didn’t know what she was asking for in the first place.

The reading’s like one of those mystery photographs you sometimes find on your camera, one you took by mistake without pointing the camera at anything: it shows someone’s foot, and some floor, and you have no idea where you were or what this is.

Or – if you can remember map-reading in the days before satnav – she’s trying to read a map with no landmarks in view and no compass. She doesn’t know how to relate to it or where to start.

To avoid this blurry mess, all she needed to do was decide – before casting – what she wanted the reading to show her. She could ask for a picture of what’s happening, or for what best to do – in other words, for a picture of herself following the best path. Or she could ask for a picture from a possible future: ‘What if we moved in together?’ or ‘What if I let him go?’

And in each case, she’d know which way the ‘camera’ of the Oracle was pointing, and hence what was in the picture she was looking at. You can imagine how she might experience ‘Dispersing’ as an answer to each of these questions in turn.

So there’s a simple picture of why the question’s important. But there’s more to question choice than just clarity or confusion – there’s the deeper issue of the intent of your reading, and the ways you can deepen and expand your relationship with Yi by questioning your question habits. More on this in module 2 of Yijing Foundations…

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Every year or two, I teach an online Yijing Foundations Class. The next class starts in September ’21.

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