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Foundations: trusting the oracle

Foundations: trusting the oracle

When I teach the Yijing Foundations Class – which I’ll be doing again in September – I concentrate on the few really necessary basics for good readings:

  • ways to relate to all the imagery (words and trigrams)
  • understanding the structure of a reading (primary, relating, lines positions)
    and also
  • knowing what you’re asking

I know these are ‘foundations’ because I’ve seen over the years how missing any one of them will create confusion and frustration, and stymie the whole process of building a good relationship with the oracle.

But… I’ve been thinking lately about the other foundations, the ones that don’t fit so easily on a syllabus (though I hope they’re still conveyed through all the reading practice we do!). These foundations aren’t knowledge, nor even skills, but habits of mind.

I think it all comes down to trusting the oracle. Only… what does that mean, in practice?


Trusting an oracle means respecting it as an oracle, not some kind of random, Rorschach blot test. That is, knowing that it has something specific to say to you, and being willing to pay attention to its whole message.

I believe you show respect to an oracle through the quality of attention you pay it. This needs to be full, true, non-selective attention, and that means reading what it says. Skipping over the oracle’s words in favour of the commentary (or forum replies or trigram associations or what you ‘know it means’) is not respect. (More on this here – about the Yi not being a skip.)


The Chinese word fu 孚 – as in the name of Hexagram 61, Inner Truth – means truth, trust and confidence: all the ingredients of rapport and relationship. Sometimes, all that’s missing from a reading is confidence.

So often, I hear people say,

‘As soon as I read it, it made me think of…’
Oh, that’s exactly like…’
‘It feels as though it’s telling me…’

‘…but I’m not an expert, I’m not sure – I might have got it all wrong.’

No. No, you have not ‘got it wrong’. That ‘oh!‘ moment of recognition is the reading. It feels as though it’s speaking to you directly because it’s speaking to you directly, because that’s how oracles work.

You can’t get this wrong, and there is no ‘expert’, in print or online or in person, who can tell you otherwise, because this is the oracle speaking to you, not to them.

They might tell you, from their experience, that this hexagram or line normally means something else, or that 3,000 years ago it meant something else. That’s valuable information for you to remember for future readings – which has nothing to do with this moment of connection between you and Yi.

Sometimes the moment of recognition is like a lightning bolt, unmissable; sometimes it’s more of a tiny spark that needs nurturing and breathing space. (This is another good reason not to read too much of the translator’s commentary: it might smother your spark.)

In other words, trusting the oracle is also a matter of trusting yourself. A reading doesn’t exist between the covers of a book; it happens when you read.


What when there’s no lightning bolt, not even much of a spark – nothing doing?

For some people, this never happens, but most of us will feel ‘stuck’ on a reading from time to time. It’s very tempting in such moments to jump straight to browsing commentaries, or friendly forum people who can tell you, ‘this line means this‘. And these will help – sometimes, they’ll provide just what you need to unlock your own understanding.

The key, though, is learning to stop saying, ‘I don’t get it,’ and start saying, ‘I don’t get it yet ‘. Then you can go for a walk, or cook supper, or sleep on it, and let the meaning emerge. ‘Aha’ can also happen slowly. The little word ‘yet’ makes all the difference in the world – and it can be the only difference between my approach to a reading and someone who’s ‘stuck’.


This is the trickiest aspect of respect, I think: openness to the oracle’s response, whatever it says.

To awaken this kind of respect, I think it helps to conceive of Yi as a separate being, a ‘person’ in its own right. Even if you actually believe that the oracle is the voice of some layer or aspect of your own consciousness, you have to let it say things that you – your conscious self – would never have said.

And then you have to be willing to let yourself be guided, and change your plans. To start now, even though you’d feel more comfortable with an extra month’s research – or not to start now, but go back to the drawing board instead. To spend money on the risky proposition – or not to buy the super-shiny object available for a limited time only; to start the scary conversation – or not send the email you’ve been writing in your head for days.

Sometimes this will mean going against other people’s advice, or against ‘common sense’. It will often appear quite inexplicable to onlookers. Two provisos, though:

First, you have to be very sure that you’re responding to what the oracle is actually saying, not just what you wish it had said. (Though in fact, once you’ve experienced both a real ‘aha’ moment and wishful-thinking interpretation – and I think we’ve all done both – it’s not so hard to tell the difference…)

And second, the Yi was never intended to be the only guide to a decision: it doesn’t replace research, expert advice – or even common sense.

In practice, if you approach every reading with this degree of respect – knowing what difference it could make – it’s likely to mean you do fewer readings! If you know you intend to do (or not do) something, if you know that it’s the right choice for you, you won’t consult. Not because you’re worried about what Yi might say, but because you aren’t.

More Foundations

I run a Yijing Foundations Class every year or two, designed to include everything you need for fluent readings – the skills to engage with imagery, the knowledge of the structure, clarity about what you’re asking, and all the reading practice you need to build up your confidence.

See this page for more information and the full syllabus – and if you’re interested, please sign up there so I can keep you posted.

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