My 1970s encounters with the I Ching were among the consciousness-crystallizing, life-changing events in my life.
Over the years I have come to feel comfortable throwing the coins and discovering the eerie resonances between my life and the chapters of this book of wisdom. I want to throw the I Ching, here, in front of your eyes, letting you watch me go through the discovery process. At the same time, I want to comment on the process, explaining the mechanics of an I Ching reading. I’ll also try to describe how I think this amazing phenomena points to the actual nature of ordinary reality.
Part of what I have learned, as I have introduced others to the marvels of I Ching readings, is that it helps to be in a certain frame of mind about one’s self, and it helps to work with the question to give it some background and depth, and to frame the question in the right way.
When I used to go to the I Ching for advice I had burning questions about my life, for which I could not find a good answer. This is true less often now, so I will have to discern a good question to bring to the I Ching.
Finding a good question has two parts, first understanding what kind of a question the I Ching can helpfully comment on, and second, framing my question in a way that touches the deeper aspects of meaning in my life. (Of course, MY way of using the I Ching may differ from the way others use it. In what follows I offer up something very precious to me, but I do not offer it as THE way. There are many other approaches to the I Ching.)
When I introduce people to the I Ching I help them understand what kind of advice they can expect by offering a metaphor. Imagine you are feeling the need of advice on an issue. Think of the I Ching as an old woman living out beyond the edge of your town. It will take you an hour or two to walk out there, so you wouldn’t bother asking a question which is not worth the walk. When you arrive, she will invite you inside, offer you tea, and you can ask her your question. The old woman understands the deep essentials of life on this planet and she has skill at reading your character and seeing things you would do well to approach or avoid, but she is not up to date on the latest technology or political trends. It’s worth visiting her when you have a question or dilemma which is rooted in your deepest values and in choices about the underlying directions of your life. Of course, most choices are. The trick in approaching the I Ching with your questions, is recognizing the connections between the question at hand and those deeper issues.
Framing my question. As I write this on the Wednesday after the Martin Luther King holiday in 2007, I am focused on launching this website and finding my voice as a Gaia Troubadour, so I will look there for a question to ask the old woman.
(Two hours pass, as I do other things, with the previous sentence sitting in my mind, but outside of focused awareness. Now…)
Dear I Ching, as I move into the period of my life when I share the message I carry as Gaia Troubadour, I find myself engaged in way too many activities. How can I choose among them?
[OK, good start. Try again.] (A day passes. I talk to people I trust.)
Dear I Ching, I have given myself over to guidance from the unseen world. How do I stay centered in this new relationship? I want to serve Gaia. Also, I am an individual entity and I have responsibilities for self-care, like eating and resting, and I have responsibilities to others around me. I’ve had a bout of bad back pain recently which I think is partly a response to the pressure I was putting on myself, in December, to produce material for this site.
[In the process so far, I am trying to go deeper into my issues, trying to recognize different aspects of my life that are at issue.] (Another day passes.)
Dear I Ching, I partially understand the balancing act that coordinates honoring my own needs, rhythms with service to the community and to Gaia, but I feel I’m missing something important. What advice do you have for me as I go forward in bringing this website to the attention of my community?
[Sounds good. Feels good. Take a break; do something else for a bit, and then review your question. (8:05)]
The Question: (8:40)
Dear I Ching, I am coming to understand how to balance my own needs and rhythms with service to the community and to Gaia, but I feel I’m ready to learn something new here. What advice do you have for me as I bring this website to the attention of my community?
Throwing the coins
(For many centuries, throwing coins has been the most popular way of consulting the I Ching. Originally, the Chinese coins had a hole in the middle and had an inscribed side and a blank side. I use Canadian pennies. What I consider the “inscribed side” has a dove flying overhead. The inscribed side counts as two, the “blank side,” when it comes up, counts as 3.)
My first toss of the coins yielded two inscribed sides and a blank side, 2 + 2 +3 = 7. This yields the bottom of a series of six lines, representing the results of six throws. (An odd-numbered throw yields a solid line, ___.)
My six throws of the coins yielded three solid lines and three broken lines, in this pattern:
Then I look at the chart in the back of my I Ching book and discover that I have thrown hexagram number 42, “Increase.”
(This is one of 64 signs said to have been developed by Fu Hsi, around 3000 B.C.E. The meaning of these signs, and protocols for interpreting them, developed over the centuries in China. There were regional differences and various schools of interpretation. My current favorite was written in 1796 by the Taoist adept Liu I-ming. I quote from his work, translated by Thomas Cleary:)
For increase, it is beneficial to go somewhere;
it is beneficial to cross great rivers.
Increase is adding what is lacking.
As for the qualities of the hexagram, above is wind, entering:
and below is thunder, active:
Acting so as to enter gradually, entering without either rushing or lagging, it is therefore called increase.
In the next section is, verbatim, a glimpse of non-material reality, as understood in the thought of ancient China, as understood by a Taoist writing about the time our country was founded, as translated by a Californian a few decades ago.
It is helpful to go slow here, or to come back later, when you have more time. (I considered scanning this into my computer, but decided to type it instead, as a way of centering myself for the interpretation, and more deeply immersing myself in the text.)
After presenting this verbatim section I will go back over it, below, picking out the parts that seem to speak most directly to my condition.
This hexagram represents using reduction in the midst of increase; it follows on the previous hexagram liberation. In liberation, the yang energy is active and gets out of danger, gradually growing and maturing, adding good that is lacking. However, to increase good is not possible without reducing what is not good. Increasing good and decreasing what is not good, increasing and increasing again, reducing and reducing again, until there is no more increase or decrease possible, finally reaching the state of utter good without evil, one is then done. Therefore “it is beneficial to go somewhere.”
Since beginningless time people have accumulated faults and defects, the seeds of habitual compulsion growing deeper as time goes on; now if they want to do something of benefit to essence and life, they cannot accomplish this unless they first extract the seeds of these compulsive habits. But the seeds of habitual compulsions cannot be removed all at once; there are processes, procedures. This does not admit falsehood – it requires orderly progress, putting forth effort at every step, increasing the mind of Tao, decreasing the human mentality, increasing sane energy, decreasing aberrated energy. Only when there is such reduction within increase is it possible to succeed, to make it “beneficial to go somewhere.” The benefit is simply in one’s practice producing beneficial phenomena.
But to practice what is beneficial, it is important to have a beginning and a conclusion. If there is a beginning but no conclusion, one’s acts are still of no benefit – there is no gain, but loss. Therefore the way of gain and beneficial action lies in concentrated will, making thoroughly dedicated effort, made from within difficulty and hardship. Only when one has dissolved the seeds of compulsive habit of time immemorial will one be able to restore one’s original being. Therefore it is also “beneficial to cross great rivers.”
“Great rivers are extremely dangerous; there one’s life hangs in the balance. If one can go through extremely dangerous places, then wherever there is no danger one is at an advantage. According to the qualities of the hexagram, acting so as to progress harmoniously, gradually applying effort, without rushing or lagging, this is the path of increasing and decreasing according to the time.
My commentary on what I hear the old woman saying to me
First off, I always read over the whole entry, looking at the big picture. Is the old woman encouraging of my general direction or does she counsel a significant course change? As I read, I am paying attention not only to the text but to my emotional reaction to the text. I am the sensory element, the antenna, picking up on the energy in the field. Throwing the pennies guides me to this hexagram, and then it is what lights up in me that is important, not just the words in the book.
At this big-picture level I was interested that my first iteration in preparing my question talked about being engaged in way too many activities, and that my hexagram corresponds to this, talking about reduction in the midst of increase. This is a reassuring beginning. As I skim on, I note things that seem fertile with meaning, things I will want to go back to.
I note “seeds of habitual compulsion.”
I note “it is important to have a beginning and a conclusion.”
And, “beneficial to cross great rivers.” I always like that phrase.
OK, now it’s time to settle in and go through the reading, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase.
This hexagram represents using reduction in the midst of increase; it follows on the previous hexagram liberation. In liberation, the yang energy is active and gets out of danger, gradually growing and maturing, adding good that is lacking.
[The 64 hexagrams of the I Ching are linked together in cycles of development and decline, among other things.]
However, to increase good is not possible without reducing what is not good.
This is a big theme for me. I feel that I, and many in our industrial civilization, stuff ourselves with experiences and hoard possibilities. This is tricky ground here; I don’t want to go into self-denial in a punitive way. Still, I feel I will do better with the things I care most about if I let go of some of the other things I am trying to do. Here I make an “interpretation” on the text, going beyond what it literally says, because this is where the “juicy meaning” lies for me. The literal text says “…reducing what is not good.” I interpret that to mean, not necessarily that the things I should be giving up are bad things, but that I need to be doing less of them. Reducing what is not good for me, at this point in my life.
Of course, there is also the issue of my over-use of alcohol, there’s no getting around that, or of my eating too much.
Increasing good and decreasing what is not good, increasing and increasing again, reducing and reducing again, until there is no more increase or decrease possible, finally reaching the state of utter good without evil, one is then done.
This is classic I Ching. And classic Quakers too. The early Friends claimed humans were perfectible in this life, which at the time was a heresy. I think I understood the issue once, briefly. It seemed moot in my case, since I could see there was little likelihood of me reaching perfection in this life. So I take early Quaker urgings and the above passage in the same way: “Don’t look back and feel smug about your accomplishments; let the question be always, “Is there more to do?” You are only done when you’ve reached the state of “utter good without evil.”
Therefore “it is beneficial to go somewhere.”
The I Ching doesn’t always say this. Some hexagrams counsel “Wait! Don’t make a move! Only with great care will you get out of this situation without harming yourself and others.” So I’m pleased to be encouraged in my venture of “…bring(ing) this website to the attention of my community.”
Since beginningless time people have accumulated faults and defects, the seeds of habitual compulsion growing deeper as time goes on; now if they want to do something of benefit to essence and life, they cannot accomplish this unless they first extract the seeds of these compulsive habits.
Of course the I Ching comes out of an implicit world view, complete with a raft of assumptions about the nature of the world. Here we have a glimpse into the “story” of the Taoist understanding of the world: it’s kind of like “original sin” — people might not have accumulated those faults; the faults are not part of the essence of people. But pretty close, since this has been true “since beginningless time.”
I think this “story of humanity” in both traditions is a very helpful way of representing to human intelligence some of the core aspects of our situation. Here is how I would summarize it. “Dear human, as you emerge out of childhood you find yourself struggling to get what you want, and you discover, repeatedly, that getting what you want is not as simple as you had assumed. How are we to understand this? The difficulties and impediments you are struggling with, have their roots in earlier times. They got started before you had the wit to ask, ‘what is the problem?’ And yet these deep-rooted impediments are not beyond your control, now that you begin to understand more.
“Therefore, in our story of origins we say that you chose them, those bad habits. We say that theoretically you could have done otherwise; we say you are responsible for undoing what you and your forebears did in ignorance/innocence.”
And to update this timeless story to apply to our current situation I would say, Industrial Civilization, as an unintended consequence of trying to create a comfortable life for as many people as possible, has accumulated a lot of faults and defects, a lot of habitual compulsions which are dragging us down, dragging us off the path we had intended to pursue.
And to update the timeless story to the particulars of my own case: As I try to bring forth my message as a Gaia Troubadour, I hear the I Ching saying, “You have been habitually grasping after things that do not truly nourish you. If you want to do something of benefit to essence and life you need to let go of these habits and to live out of the shining center of what you have to offer.”
But the seeds of habitual compulsions cannot be removed all at once; there are processes, procedures. This does not admit falsehood – it requires orderly progress, putting forth effort at every step, increasing the mind of Tao, decreasing the human mentality, increasing sane energy, decreasing aberrated energy. Only when there is such reduction within increase is it possible to succeed, to make it “beneficial to go somewhere.”
Oh, again(!) the advice I struggle against! “This will take time. You have to be good. There are true things and false things and to get what you hope for, you must choose well.”
And to update this timeless advice to apply to Industrial Civilization I would say, “We are acting too much out of a human mentality. As we make our million choices a day we need to be increasing our understanding of the needs of Gaia, our wholeness. We need to be reducing the aberrated energy we stoke with petrochemicals and caffeine. We need to face the habitual falsehoods in our way of life, not all at once, but through the careful observance of many different processes and procedures.”
And “Why?” I might ask, “What is the ultimate good we approach in turning away from our headstrong ways and submitting our lives to Gaia’s sway?
The benefit is simply in one’s practice producing beneficial phenomena.
I was hoping for more than that.
If I am to be content with this, I must expand it into the language I know. I must say “Humans are part of a living wholeness far beyond our comprehension. Our proper place within the body of Gaia is to do good — to produce beneficial phenomenon. Beneficial to the whole, not just to humans.”
But to practice what is beneficial, it is important to have a beginning and a conclusion. If there is a beginning but no conclusion, one’s acts are still of no benefit – there is no gain, but loss.
This I do not understand. The hair on the back of my metaphysical neck prickles with the sense of an intruder into my known world: “If this is important, then I may be in trouble.”
Let me use all the maturity I have managed to accumulate:
- I trust my intuition that the old woman has said something I should be paying attention to.
- I am able to tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing its import.
- I will use my intellect tentatively, not insisting that I create understanding for its own sake, disconnected from the larger reality I have glimpsed.
- I will accept that, as I learn my way into the meaning of this statement, I will likely make mistakes, and
- I will be forgiving of myself.
What could I be hearing from the I Ching’s lips?
I do feel I am at a beginning…
Of course, with my death, or my senescence, there will be a conclusion…
Perhaps there is a way that I understand this. Betsy and I, in some VERY serious conversations, have agreed that my planning horizon for my work as a Gaia Troubadour is the next decade, up to my 73rd birthday. I may have a productive life for many years after that. (My father’s mind was still intact, if a little spongy, up to age 83.) Still, in terms of my expectations, I am trying to make choices about what I can hope to accomplish as a Gaia Troubadour. This website is the beginning, where I work on finding my voice. Then I want to do a seminar with some of you, in the context of Twin Cities Friends Meeting. Beyond that… I am open to inputs and new vistas. What I dimly foresee, at this point, is helping to establish a “Compound I,” an organ of Gaian perception. If I can get that project underway before my mid-seventies I will be content. And the choices I make now –like publishing stuff that needs considerable editing– are based on my expectations about the conclusion of my work.
Therefore the way of gain and beneficial action lies in concentrated will, making thoroughly dedicated effort, made from within difficulty and hardship.
This is the core of my message to those of us who are here after Industrial Civilization stumbles and falls.
It is not surprising that this is also the I Ching’s advice to me, as I clear my throat to speak my truth. And I do not see these next years as easy ones for me. I have dragged my feet until relatively late in life, putting off the opening of my vision, for good reasons and bad. Now that it is almost too late, I do not expect it will be easy.
Only when one has dissolved the seeds of compulsive habit of time immemorial will one be able to restore one’s original being.
I (we) have to go WAY back. Ways of being I learned in childhood, at my parents’ knees, need to be changed. I declare myself willing. We will see to what degree I am able.
Therefore it is also “beneficial to cross great rivers.”
“Great rivers are extremely dangerous; there one’s life hangs in the balance.
I DO believe these are perilous times. I aim to live a life that does justice to my understanding. I am willing to risk scorn to speak my truth. For me, riding my bicycle on icy streets is a good metaphor for the skill and pluck I am being called to.
If one can go through extremely dangerous places, then wherever there is no danger one is at an advantage.
I hear the I Ching saying,
“This effort in the strenuous times ahead is worth it. While it will be a challenge to refashion our relationship to the natural world, and not everyone will make it (including perhaps myself), still, those who do come through will be favored by being in a harmonious relationship with Gaia.”
According to the qualities of the hexagram, acting so as to progress harmoniously, gradually applying effort, without rushing or lagging, this is the path of increasing and decreasing according to the time.
In summary, the I Ching gives me encouragement in “bringing my website to the attention of my community” and advises me that it will be a gradual process, requiring my sustained attention, “…neither rushing or lagging…” and that it requires decreasing elements in my life that work against the effort, as well as increasing the elements that support it.
How can a person raised in the religion of scientific materialism take this seriously?!
I think the first cracks in my devotion to a materialist world-view came as I confronted telepathy and other occurrences of what Rupert Sheldrake calls the “seventh sense.” I first remember being shocked by these while reading AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI, by Paramahansa Yogananda, at age 15. My gut reaction was “either this book is filled with lies, or there are huge parts of reality I don’t have a clue about.” Almost 50 years later I have no doubt that “spooky connections at a distance” need to be taken seriously. Of course people have delusions, and I surely have some myself, but the fact that people can miss the mark in recognizing information from non-material planes does not negate the reality that such information does come to us.
And for me, the I Ching is a reliable demonstration of that, not only for myself, but in the lives of many others. Every time I introduce the I Ching to someone new, quite apart from the particular content of their question, and the answer they get, and their reaction to the answer, apart from all of these, I always think I see in the learner “Oh! Where did that come from? Why do some of the phrases on this page seem to provoke echoes in the deeper chambers of my mind? Why do some of these phrases seem to resonate down the long hallways of my life?”
Friends, things are a lot more connected than our consensus reality gives them credit for. Many people know this, and some live out of that reality. Some of them are mostly deluded; some are not. But mainstream consensus reality does not give us permission to talk about these things. Mainstream consensus reality does not even have a language for them —not one which is considered legitimate. And yet these connections are all around us.
And let me testify from my own experience: when I allow myself to be touched by the implicit moral order that the I Ching offers, when I follow that part of the Old Woman’s advice which I can understand, I find myself making choices and acting in ways that are nourishing to the best parts of who I am.
I MUST be loyal to this truth. And I want to be part of a community of people who are willing to talk about these things, and to consider acting out the shared truths we can discern.
ADDENDUM, Fall 2008.
One of the features of the the coin tosses that yield an I Ching hexagram are the “changing lines.” You get a changing line when all three coins come up the same. This did not happen to me in this reading, so I did not mention it.
When I threw the I Ching on October 27, I got two changing lines. It took two entries to write the whole process up, and in the second post I explain how I understand changing lines to work.
Jan 19, 2007