Practice Spirituality Therapy

The I Ching

After I finished writing Retreat I kept reading a lot of books.

I followed leads that led me through marketing (the ideas I explored in TPM) and by reading I consolidated my thoughts about music (covered in The “S” Word). These days, researching my next book, I’m looking at literature that might be obvious from the content posted here at Sick Veg. Nuff said.

Some texts, however, I’ve continually found myself being referred back to. One comes across them again and again. No doubt about it, the world of written thought has a definite pyramidic structure. And at the top are texts (poems, prayers, mantras, sutras, tracts, lyrics, books) that have a few things in common. Most often they are a bit weird. Frequently they are difficult. But sometimes extreme concision can be a factor too.

The reason for their weirdness, difficulty and (in those cases usually blessed) concision is that they exist at the furthest perimeters of the usefulness of language. They are like the peculiar, tiny plants that survive in inhospitable deserts and tundra. With varying degrees of success they try to make manifest concepts that have a shape we’re not equipped to visualise. [Obligatory quantum new age observation: The best example of this dilemma in maths would be the four-dimensional cube.]

It would be theoretically possible to create large objects out of this luminous, other-worldly material but the larger they get, the structurally weaker and the less internal consistency they have. The Bible, for instance, is a huge hodge-podge of separate smaller individual attempts – where maybe a handful really stand out and are necessary: Genesis, The Book of Job (strictly for fun…), Revelations, and the Gospel of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount etc).

To return to the earlier metaphor of plants. Traversing this inhospitable environment at the outer edges of language, how would you feel if you came across, not some puny weed, but a massive ancient tree, an oak for instance? The I Ching is like that.

A diagram of I Ching hexagrams sent to the mathematician Leibniz.

Dating from 1000–750 BC it’s impossibly old but some of its central concepts are thrillingly contemporary. Most obviously it gives us the picture of a huge conceptual architecture built entirely from the humblest binary material (Yin = 0, Yang = 1). That’s like the digital universe in case you missed the obvious comparison. Do try and keep up… There’s interminable scholarship ancient and modern about the I Ching, however to get the epicentre of what it’s about it’s useful to look at the first two hexagrams.

Ch’ien – The Creative

This is the first hexagram Ch’ien, “The Creative”. It is a stack of six yang lines. It is the image of heaven. It represents dynamic force.

K’un – The Receptive.

And this is the second hexagram K’un, “The Receptive”. It is a stack of six yin lines. It is the image of earth. It represents yielding.

Everything that the I Ching illustrates happens within a framework defined by these two complimentary principles. It establishes existence as we know it happening entirely on an axis of dematerialisation and materialisation. Its implicit central argument is that everything makes sense in these terms.

The book is an exploration of 64 key situations which come about in the interaction of these two fundamental states. But the I Ching doesn’t just seek to articulate what hexagram characterises the fleeting moment, it offers profound advice as how best to exist in each of those conditions so as to embody the alignment that the Taoists called “Li”, the Buddhists “Dharma”, and the Hindus “Rta”. As agony aunt it is sine qua non.

On a superficial and totally mundane level, whatever result you get with it as a divination tool, if you can see some relationship of its counsel to your situation, then what it tells you specific to that situation would be sensible. So for instance its perennial observation: “Perseverance furthers”. In what context can that ever be construed as bad advice? Just keep going. In both our brightest and darkest hours those might be the only words we need to hear.

Sui – Following

I wrote quite objectively about the I Ching in Retreat. However, I find more and more that when I consult it it seems to nail both my circumstances and helps to specify the correct attitude to have towards them.

For instance, I asked the I Ching whether it was wise to write this post at Sick Veg about it and it gave me hexagram 17 Sui, “Following”. The Judgement read, “In order to obtain a following one must learn how to adapt oneself.” It’s like a manual for social media innit! So how does one adapt oneself? It says “…he must first learn to serve…” From which I inferred that I mustn’t forget my duty to you dear reader. And what is my duty? “If he has to obtain a following by force or cunning, by conspiracy or by creating factions, he invariably arouses resistance, which obstructs willing adherence.” From which I inferred that in this situation I should tell my small audience the truth, that I am fascinated by and use the I Ching.

This is a picture of my little I Ching kit which I have enjoyed for a number of years now. The matchbox we found in Senegal in the nineties. The coins are from Japan. The dice reminds me of happy times playing Dungeons Dragons. The ba qian method specifies an equal probability of getting either a Yin or Yang (you can do this by tossing a coin) and then (using an eight-sided dice) you calculate the probability of the moving lines. According to statisticians this reproduces the probabilities of the previously most common traditional method, the yarrow stalks.

The moving lines, or “the lines” are an extra layer of interpretations which add on top of each of the individual yin or yang in the hexagram. So for instance you could have as many as six extra notes added on top of the basic hexagram. I’m always relieved when I get no extra lines because I like things simple. However, in themselves the lines are conceptually interesting. They’re like a weather forecast which specifies of the wind “south-westerly becoming southerly” because each hexagram is a snapshot of a dynamic situation.

I would imagine if you could see the hexagram to which the lines specified the one you had thrown was changing into, then this added interpretation might make sense. If you get me…

Ok, I’ve never looked into this before, but let’s try that! When I threw Sui – “Following” I had a change specified in the fifth line. When I looked that up in the Sui lines, of my question it said: “Every man must have something he follows – something that serves him as a lodestar. He who follows the beautiful and the good may feel himself strengthened by this saying.” I took this to refer to my interest in the I Ching. And this was added like a notation to my reading.

Chên – The Arousing

If we look up the hexagram that Sui was turning into it is 51: Chên / The Arousing. Here the judgement specifies: “The shock that comes from the manifestation of God within the depths of the earth makes man afraid, but fear of God is good, for joy and merriment can follow it.” And yeah I can see that making sense as a transition…

It was this Taoist appreciation of the dynamic cosmos that so fascinated Werner Heisenberg when he invited new age physics guru Fritjof Capra to present him his working notes for the enchanting The Tao of Physics (1975). Capra said of Heisenberg:

…he had been unaware of the dynamic aspect of the Eastern world view and was intrigued when I showed him with numerous examples from my manuscript that the principal Sanskrit terms used in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy-brahman, rta, lila, karma, samsara, etc.-had dynamic connotations.

These days there are I Ching apps you can download but there’s something very wrong about them. To go back to this fundamental distinction between the first and second hexagrams – the I Ching is about life on this material plane. And in case you hadn’t realised it, in an app, or even browsing a website like this you are partially dematerialised, tethered to a higher plane. Notwithstanding this, and my love for the I Ching, I was still very amused to read this review below from Casey on the App store complaining about the poor divinatory result he got from one app. Call technical support!

Throughout my reading of books on the counterculture I’m persistently coming across descriptions of people consulting the I Ching. Most recently in Stewart Brand’s new biography. I am always delighted by the faith people put in it. Didn’t Mark Rylance turn down Spielberg on its instruction? It didn’t seem to do his career any harm… And in actual fact the I Ching is usually preoccupied with very prosaic things such as careers.

Certainly, I don’t tend to ask it terribly serious questions. These days I find it works best, not if I ask it whether or not to do something, but what my attitude should be towards certain matters. Though I did once ask it whether I should delete my LinkedIn account and was delighted when it told me to do so. OBVIOUSLY that was the right thing to do.

A few months ago when I asked it about something in particular (before proceeding to do completely the opposite) – I regretted not heeding its advice…