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Getting started interpreting

Give it time

First and most important: as I said in the last section, this takes time. Readings are not usually instant gratification: they’re a conversation, and a journey. I suggest you think more of listening and relating to your reading rather than ‘interpreting’ it right away. Breathe, settle in; let your imagination play with the images and enjoy them. And give your whole self – not just your intellect – the chance to engage with your reading by taking a rest, going for a walk, sleeping on it… this is not a race…

This is your reading. The answer will emerge from your honesty with yourself, your confidence with Yi and your faith in your own intuition – all things that can and will grow naturally as you get to know the oracle. What follows is a straightforward approach to interpretation that provides some fertile ground for that growth.

Read what it says

In the first place, read your question, and read the words of the Yijing as an answer – aloud is good, if you can. And just Yi’s words – don’t worry about the translator’s commentaries.

Read through your whole reading: all of the texts of the primary hexagram, any moving lines you have received, and the relating hexagram, if any. There’s a natural tendency – we all have it – to ‘selective interpretation’: concentrating on just the one small part of your answer (or, worse, of a translator’s commentary on your answer) that says what you wish it would say – or what you’re afraid it might say.

So read it all. As you read, keep remembering the question this is answering, and keep paying attention to your own response to Yi’s words. This is where the reading happens: Yi speaks, and something in you resonates in response. You don’t need to ‘work out’ the answer so much as you need to listen for it.

As you read, differentiate between the parts of the reading

Start with the primary hexagram. Here’s what your answer’s about – what kind of situation this is.

The moving lines are the core of the reading and the most direct answer to your question. If they say something different from the hexagrams, the lines take precedence.

The relating hexagram is most often ‘your’ hexagram. See if you recognise yourself and your position here.

Engage with your reading through questions

A reading’s a conversation – it begins with a question, and you bring it to life by asking yourself questions. For example:

  • What do I recognise here?
  • What does this remind me of? (Conversations, situations, habits, emotions…?)
  • How does it fit with my normal patterns of thought about this? (Or does it perhaps not fit at all…?)
  • What’s my emotional response to this?
  • If this answer were a question, what might it be asking me?

You can ask yourself about the reading as a whole and about every element of it. Each time you ask and listen for the answer, you’re hearing more your reading.

What to do if you’re stuck and the answer makes no sense

As you mull over your reading, you’re probably experiencing one of two reactions:




If it’s “aha!” – if you are enveloped by an extraordinary feeling of being understood and recognised, if deep knowledge you never imagined you had is stirring within you, if you can feel the first tremors of a great inner explosion of new ideas, if you are smiling at the book or weeping over it…

…then congratulations: you are one of the lucky and gifted few!

Most of us don’t achieve this immediate rapport with the Yijing on our first reading – I certainly didn’t!

So if it’s “Huh??”, what next?

First, understand there is nothing wrong with the Yijing, and there’s nothing wrong with you. This oracle’s been working well for some 3,000 years: you’re most unlikely to have broken it. (And your intuition is – in a way – much older, and also not breakable.) Don’t worry: given time and acceptance, this will work for you.


Don’t think ‘It hasn’t worked!’ and try again

That way lies perfect confusion and giving up in disappointment. Respect and honour the oracle – and respect and honour yourself, for caring enough to ask this question – with the gift of time and attention. Re-read. Keep a record of your reading, absorb its images, sleep on it, hold it lightly in your mind. Answers emerge when you’re ready, often when you least expect them.

Have a look at the translator’s commentary

I keep on and on, warning you against taking the translator’s commentary too seriously. It’s not the Yi, it’s just someone else’s idea of what it says, and it obviously can’t take into account your specific question. But having said that, the best commentaries are based on both long-standing traditions and a whole lot of reading experiences. They can help.

Get some help

I started the I Ching Community here at Clarity back in 2001, and its members have been sharing reading experiences and helping one another ever since, with real generosity of spirit.

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Consider asking a follow-up question

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.

Finally, consider whether Yi might be answering something else

Yi will always answer you.

This almost always means it will answer the question you put to it. This is something you can rely on – and to build a working relationship with the Yijing, you do need to place your trust in this, and assume that Yi’s answered your question straightforwardly. Otherwise there’s always the temptation to say, ‘No, that can’t be right – it must be about something else entirely!’ (A favourite one: ‘That can’t be about me, it must be about the other person!’)

But occasionally, you’ll have an answer that isn’t merely puzzling; it simply does not connect with your question – and then you need to consider the possibility that it’s speaking to you about something else. There might be something important happening (or about to happen) that you’re unaware of. There might also be something important happening that you are aware of but were trying to avoid by asking about something else – and that (speaking from way too much experience) never works. Politely avoiding difficult subjects is not something Yi does.

Don’t drive yourself spare trying to work out what your reading’s about: that will become clear soon enough. Hold the answer lightly in mind, go about your life, and let the connections happen.

…and live your reading!

Keep on giving it your time and attention – meditative and playful, imaginative and focused, waking and sleeping. 

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