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49, Radical Change

The revolution in hexagram 49 has deep roots. In hexagram 47, you experience Oppression, and turn inward to reconnect with the Well. And drinking from the unchanging source creates the imperative for change in the outer world. ‘The way of the Well does not allow not changing radically.’ Change is essential, to make the forms and patterns of life into a better Vessel. As Jack Balkin puts it, ‘You must change your life in order to make it cohere with who you are now.’

‘Radical change: putting away the past.
The Vessel: grasping renewal.’

The Vessel, Hexagram 50, securely encloses a sacred space where the energies of life can blend, interact and create new substance. Such renewal is not possible unless the old patterns of reaction have first been completely eradicated. Before renewal, revolution.

The authors of the I Ching knew this truth through a historical example: the Zhou people’s conquest of the decadent Shang dynasty. This would have been unthinkably Radical Change, to overthrow a dynasty whose power had been guaranteed by Heaven for far longer than living memory. But the revolution showed that Heaven’s mandate could change. The power to rule had left one dynasty and moved to another, like a snake changing its skin. This is the key Change of the I Ching – sudden, total, leaving no familiar ‘handles’ to grasp – the kind we attempt to map out and understand through divination.

In divination, Radical Change means very much what it says: the complete overthrow of old ways of understanding and ordering life. The Judgement says that there is truth and presence on Si day, the day of the snake: it is a time to shed your old identity, to try on new ways of being and of relating to others. The old character for Radical Change shows an animal skin: an identity and power the shaman could put on with the skin.

The new power can come from the new skin, or it might demand one: you cannot pour new wine into old vessels. The trigrams, fire in the lake, show the same idea in elemental form, ‘changing inner awareness that melts away obsolete outer form.’ (Karcher, Total I Ching) The new clarity of vision has to find expression; fire shines through the water, like the naked intelligence in the eyes animating the mask.

Tradition tells that water and fire stand in opposition here, ‘mutually suspended’ – holding one another in check. The same two trigrams in Hexagram 38, Opposition, pull away from one another; here, they are on collision course. A clash of objectives – unlike diverging visions – has to mean radical change.

In practice, the key issue in revolution is one of timing: charting the dynamics of the momentary equilibrium, finding the moment when it can or should be broken. What is ‘your own day’, when there will be truth and confidence?

The Image describes the work of finding the right moment:

‘At the centre of the lake is fire. Radical change.
In the same way, the noble one calculates the heavenly signs and clarifies the seasons.’

Wu Jing Nuan introduced me to the idea that this is about astrology. It’s one thing to rely on one’s intuition to know when to sow and reap, but what if the flowers are late or the birds sing early? The stars are a more constant, objective way to know the time. Long term, repeated patterns and objective analysis create greater security than just trusting your perceptions and intuitions, moment to moment.

Such understanding allowed the authors of the Commentary on the Judgement to fit unthinkable change into a greater scheme of things:

‘Heaven and earth undergo Radical Change and the four seasons are accomplished.
Tang and Wu changed the mandate in accord with Heaven.’

Wu founded the Zhou dynasty; Tang had founded the Shang. The chaos, upheaval and bloodshed were part of the natural order, though on a huge scale: seasons that might take many centuries to turn, but still seasons.

This may be the kind of understanding we look for when we divine – a sense of perspective, of over-arching stories that relativise our own traumas. We contain the changes within narrative and ritual – but can we be sure, even then? The core of Radical Change (its nuclear hexagram) is Hexagram 44, Coupling: the arrival of a new force with the power to overturn the old order. It shows the inner possibility that with Radical Change, you may be unleashing powers of change that you never intended or predicted.

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