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The relatable oracle

handprints on cave wall

I went away for a week this summer and met a lot of new people. As you can imagine, the “what do you do?” conversations are always interesting for me.

“What do you do?”
“Divination, with the I Ching.”

And once we had got past the “you do what with the who now?” part of the dialogue, I kept thinking how strange and extraordinary it is that I can do this work with something 3,000 years old. The life of the people who wrote this book was unimaginably different from ours. Really, what are the chances that they and we could talk to the same oracle?

It’s true that the differences do make their demands on us if we want to work with the Yi now. To understand its imagery, it helps to learn some history, or at least to use our imaginations (a lot). We need to try to project ourselves into a world where nothing – including information – travels faster than a horse. Where wealth might be measured in cattle and sheep, and food security extends only as far as the next harvest, and – hardest of all to imagine – your survival hangs by the thread connecting you to the kindness of your ancestors. (If the thread breaks, if they are alienated, the harvests will surely fail.) Rain makes the crops grow. Unseasonal thunder is the voice of heaven. Tigers can eat you.

And yet despite this gulf, my experience of the Yi is of something entirely intimate and knowable. The conversation continues…
“How does it answer questions?”
Well, unless they seem really interested, I’m not going to go too far into lines and hexagrams. That always sounds vastly more complicated than it is, especially if you don’t have pen and paper handy. So, instead I say…
“It shows you pictures and tells you stories. For instance…”

And then I find I’m actually spoiled for choice with examples. “Suppose someone asked about taking on extra work and it told them that the house’s roof beam was buckling under the weight…” Everyone understands that; we all know how it feels. We even use the same metaphors in modern English: being under strain, overloaded and at breaking point.

At a very simple level – we share our embodied experience with the original authors. This becomes really obvious with Hexagram 31, or 52, where the best way to understand your moving line is often to walk around the room ‘doing the actions’, as it were. What does influence in your big toes feel like? What happens if you still your calves but can’t check your momentum? The basics of human life haven’t changed: we get hungry, we walk or ride, we carry burdens, we swim, or sink. It all feels the same.

And then there are the animals. Horses are still prey and herd animals, hugely strong, hypersensitive to the tiniest cues; cattle are still startlingly docile for their huge size. Tigers still exert a strange fascination that seems to override our most basic sense of self-preservation. Some of us will need to do some research for some of the animal imagery – I grew up in London suburbia, so I certainly needed to – but none of this is alien.

And more subtly, as with that bending roof beam, we naturally use some of the same metaphors. We still identify light as understanding, even if we can go for months or years now without experiencing real darkness; we feel the distinction between home and the world outside; we all understand life and the passing of time as a journey.

It’s simply an oracle for humans, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s why explaining the imagery as if to a Martian can be so helpful in getting inside it, because it takes us into that simple, shared human experience.

And speaking of getting inside the imagery… that’s a lesson topic and a recurring theme in all our reading practice throughout the Yijing Foundations Class, which I’ll be teaching again starting in October. You can read all the details here, and if you might be interested in joining the Class, please sign up for notifications on that page, so I can let you know when the doors open.

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