Before you start reading this article, or anything anyone writes about how to consult the Yijing, do bear in mind that there are no rules for this. All I can share is what I’ve found works best in readings, for myself and for other people: the approach that will help you get really clear about your answers and confident that you’ve understood them. I may get quite emphatic about this at times, but I’m still not telling you the rules.
I once played in a string orchestra directed by a helpful professional violinist who said that on his gravestone he would like the inscription,
“Use less bow!”
Not that this would always solve our problems, but it was surprising how often it did.
My own gravestone inscription is not yet chosen, but it might be,
“Do fewer readings!”
If there’s space at the bottom, you can add, “(and take your time)”.
The trouble with follow-up readings
Basically, talking with the Oracle is a lot more like talking to a person than it is like using a search engine. If you type variations on the same question into a search engine again and again, you’ll get the same answer every time. But if you had an audience with a sage, you wouldn’t expect them to behave the same way. Actually, you don’t even need to think about the imaginary Sage: just consider how you would respond if someone asked you a question and then, after you’d answered, kept on asking you more or less the same thing. You’d give them as straightforward and helpful an answer as you could at first, and then you might try a few different ways of explaining your answer from different perspectives, and eventually you might ask them why they weren’t listening, or just change the subject.
Sometimes I look at a great long string of readings someone has done and see this happening step by step, from the straightforward explanation through the different perspectives to the challenge. But more often, I’ll see an initial clear response, and then what follows is more like the experience of using an old radio, where it gradually drifts off the station and the signal is more and more drowned out by static.
I think most people know that asking the exact same question again and again is ‘frowned upon’ in Yi-land – that you shouldn’t expect it to work well, and you might expect to get slapped down with Hexagram 4. But it’s also very possible to ask a string of what appear to be different questions, but actually aren’t. For instance…
- When will he come back to me?
- How can I get him to come back to me?
- What will happen to his relationship with her?
- What is our future together?
- Can I expect him back by Christmas?
And so on. Or,
- What if I take the job?
- What about sending this acceptance letter?
- Would the job be stressful?
- What would it be like to work there?
- What about what my friend told me about working there?
And, again, so on.
Here’s the thing: your first reading will almost always have answered those extra questions. You just need to take the time to understand it.
Remember, the Yi gives you very detailed, nuanced, specific descriptions. It’s not limited to just labelling ideas as good or bad – in fact, it will pretty much never tell you that something is good or bad without also explaining why. So please don’t skip over all the imagery and stories to reach the ‘good fortune’ or ‘misfortune’ and then cast another reading!
Before you cast another reading to clarify the first one (which, as I’ve been saying, it often doesn’t), it’s worth spending lots of time and attention on the original answer. And by ‘lots’, I mean at least half an hour of intensive thought and exploration, and preferably much more. You could speak your question out loud and read all the text out loud as an answer to it. You could ask yourself Really Obvious Questions about its imagery. (‘A horse? What’s a horse? Why is it useful? What do people use them for? Why would anyone want one? What difference would it make?’) You could spend time visualising the landscape created by its trigrams. And you can sleep on your reading – and that may be the best interpretation advice I can give you.
When follow-up readings are a good idea after all
“Once you have a sense of what the answer’s saying, you may still feel you need more insight. Then you might consider if there’s a follow-up question you need to ask. For instance…
‘What about accepting the job?’ might lead to follow-up questions such as,
‘What effect would it have on my relationship with x if I accepted?’
,‘What would the new workload be like?’
– not to mention,
‘What would it mean for me to turn down the job?’
(When you’re standing at a crossroads, it’s often interesting to have a look down both the roads you might take.)
The idea of a follow-up reading is to read its answer together with the previous one to get a more complete picture – not to replace a reading you didn’t understand, or didn’t like.”
Probably the best bit of that quote is at the very beginning: a follow-up reading is one you cast after understanding your first reading, or at the very least, after spending plenty of time with it, reflecting on it, engaging with its imagery and getting a few possibilities in mind for how to apply it. Then you may find you have new questions about specific aspects that you hadn’t considered before.
I think asking about alternatives makes for the most useful follow-up readings – at least when you only have a couple of choices. Any time you’re asking, ‘What if I do this?’ it’s also possible to ask, ‘What if I don’t?’ This isn’t always obvious, especially if the alternative actually amounts to doing nothing and just carrying on as before. But it’s worth asking about that too. (‘What if I don’t send the email?’ ‘What if I don’t try to make the relationship work?’ ‘What if I don’t change my diet?’)
Just looking at the Oracle’s description of the two alternatives, it may be very clear to you which you prefer. If it isn’t, you might add a touchstone reading: ask the Yi for its advice. What would be a good guiding principle to bear in mind?
A particular note of caution about follow-up relationship readings. There is a special slippery slope here, and I have seen many people slide helplessly down it into a morass of doubt. You might interpret your first reading as telling you something about someone’s inner world, and then you cast a second reading to ask why they would feel like that, or why they would believe that, or what would persuade them otherwise, and so on. This way lies horrible confusion every time. Please don’t do it. Go and talk to the person instead. If you don’t feel you can talk with them, then perhaps the Oracle can help you to start having that conversation. It certainly can’t substitute for it.
And one final bit of advice. Before you get drawn too deeply into a series of readings, it always helps to ask yourself why you’re asking – that is, what difference you expect the reading to make for you. After you’ve phrased your question, try completing the sentence, ‘I need to know this so I can…’ For example, ‘I need to know what it would be like to work there so I can decide how to respond to this job offer.’ And then try doing the same again, just to see if there’s another layer. ‘I need to know this so I can understand how he feels…. and I need to understand how he feels so I can…’ – and so on.
I hope this is helpful!