I’m writing this chapter in honor of my taiji partner Karl, who has been consulting the Yi Jing (I Ching) for 40 years and who now is writing a novel based on it.
I don’t have much experience with the Yi Jing—I found the first seminar in Dr. Sun’s series on the Yi Jing to be so far beyond my abilities that I didn’t take the others—but I want to share what little I do know with people who find the whole concept as silly as I once did.
The Yi Jing is an ancient Chinese book based on 64 symbols called hexagrams. You can’t really tell by looking at them, but each hexagram is made up of six lines which are said to be either yin or yang; there are 64 possible permutations of these sets of yin and yang lines—so, 64 hexagrams. There’s text that goes with each hexagram and also with each of the lines.
Over thousands of years, millions of people have turned to the Yi Jing for guidance in matters great and small. In China today, many people simply flip open their copy of the Yi Jing and choose a line of text at random, using it as a thought-for-the-day or to help them solve a problem. Clark, a member of my Buddhist meditation group, says he does this just about every day and invariably gets some insight into whatever he’s thinking about.
Karl uses, and has tried to teach me, another common system for choosing what text to read: You formulate a question and then cast a set of three coins six times, recording the pattern of heads and tails from each throw. Then you use a special scoring method to find out which hexagram to consult.
At the seminar I found so overwhelming, Dr. Sun taught a third method: You use the reactions of your body to some seemingly meaningless event, some “qi-mail” from the universe, to determine which hexagram to consult to find out what the event is telling you. I’m nowhere near having the body awareness to make this work.
However, Karl has twice done Yi Jing readings for me, and those experiences convinced me that the Yi Jing does have something to offer.
The first of the readings was probably in February—never one of my better months—after I had started studying qigong but before I was into Yi Ren. I was trying to decide whether to commit to qigong as a means of improving my health or to bag self-help and start taking an anti-depressant. (The two seemed liked opposites at the time.) It was the sort of situation where you can make a list of pros and cons and consider all the variables and possible scenarios and still not come up with a decision.
We did the second reading when I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a Yi Ren teacher.
In neither case did I get an absolute answer; that’s not how the Yi Jing works. It just gives you something new to consider, some new perspective so you can get out of your mental rut.
The hexagram I got when I asked about committing to qigong instead of an anti-depressant was Hexagram 21: “Biting Into: Eating the offering. It is advantageous to rely upon the law.” The poem that accompanied the hexagram in the particular book we used—“I Ching: The Shamanic Oracle of Change” by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay—began “Bite the bullet” and ended “The truth is the only way out.”
But I read and re-read the poem and read and re-read the text that accompanied Hexagram 21 and the hexagram from another set of coin throws, and I decided they were telling me that I should stick with qigong—which is what I knew in my heart I wanted to do but couldn’t quite bring to the surface.
Dr. Sun says that the Yi Jing (I Ching) expresses universal law. I don’t know about that. I just don’t know. But given the thousands of years it has been used and the billions of times it has been consulted, it’s got to express something pretty deep.
Perhaps, in a way, consulting the Yi Jing works like practicing qigong.
Qigong can help a person move out of the confines of their intellectual mind into a more relaxed knowing. Readings from the Yi Jing are either totally random or totally significant, depending on how you believe the universe is wired, but they can help a person reboot round-in-circles thinking.
I bought a copy of Karl’s favorite Yi Jing book, the Palmer-Ramsay version, and it is sitting on my kitchen counter, along with three pennies—but I haven’t used it. I almost did when I started writing this book, since I was beset with doubts, but I couldn’t remember how to get from flipping coins to choosing the proper hexagram. So I tried just opening the book. I read the name and the text for Hexagram 11—“Benevolence: Benevolently, the lesser ones leave and the great come. The offering is good.” Then my eye fell to the bottom of the page and I saw a line that started “The city walls fall into the moat…”
I closed the book.
I don’t know why city walls falling into a moat struck me as ominous. But the truth is, I didn’t really want the Yi Jing’s input. I was going to keep writing my book, thank you very much, and I didn’t want to risk getting any more negative input than I was already providing for myself.
Just now, in order to write this chapter, I read all the text with Hexagram 11, and also the poem—and I wished I hadn’t closed the book. Hexagram 11 feels good….
I don’t know if I will ever become as much a devotee of the Yi Jing as Karl is. I do wish I hadn’t waited 20 years to take him up on his offer to introduce me to it.