I is for I Ching

Memory is often unreliable. I remember my first tentative steps into astrology. I remember wanting a tarot deck when I was a child, and a friend introducing me to the tarot in college. I remember buying my first set of runes. But for whatever reason, I have no clear memories of deciding to learn the I Ching. There’s just a snippet of memory from my twenties: poking around in a used book store, trying to find a used-yet-pristine copy of the Wilhelm-Baynes translation. (No luck for years on that front.) But why I was looking for it, why I had decided it was something I wanted to learn more about? Forgotten. Although I bet it was the words. When every other system I knew required that I interpret pictures or runes or angles between planets for insight, I’m guessing that the idea of something that would just tell me in plain English what I needed to know was immensely attractive. Of course, as anyone who’s read a poem knows, just because something is in simple words does not mean it’s easy to understand, but that was another lesson for another time.

Cover of Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching
The classic. Finally got one of my own.

Perhaps because language is involved, the I Ching feels more human to me than other systems. I’ve heard that you should approach the I Ching as though you were respectfully asking an honored elder for advice, and that’s the sense of personality I get from it. Indeed, the personality feels the same regardless of the translation I’m using, and translations may be scholarly, psychological, approximations of the original Chinese, casual English, and so on. Adding to the sense of personality, the I Ching is said to discourage repeated or trivial questions by giving Hexagram 4 as an answer: “Youthful Folly.”

The I Ching consists of 64 hexagrams, figures made up of six broken and solid lines. Each hexagram is accompanied by text: a main reading for the hexagram as a whole, followed by a reading for each of the six lines.  To use the I Ching, you must first find the hexagram for your question. You do this by building a hexagram one line at a time. Starting with the bottom line, think about your question while you toss three coins. The combination of heads and tails you get tells you whether to draw a yin line (- -) or a yang one (—) and whether the line is changing or unchanging. When you’ve got your first hexagram, you create a second hexagram by switching any changing lines to their opposites, yin to yang, yang to yin. You may sometimes get a hexagram with no changing lines, suggesting that the situation you’re asking about is relatively stable right now. Look your hexagrams up in your chosen I Ching. Read the main text for your first hexagram, the text for any changing lines you may have gotten, and the main text for your second hexagram to get your answer.

I Ching trigrams
The eight trigrams (click to enlarge).

Yes, I was and am attracted to the I Ching because it is a text. But natural symbolism runs through that text. Each hexagram can be seen as being made up of two trigrams, upper and lower, and the eight trigrams are named for various natural forces: heaven, earth, fire, water, thunder, wind, mountain, and lake. Although some translations don’t explicitly refer to the natural imagery, it’s part of the meanings of the hexagrams. For instance, Hexagram 35 is made up of the trigram for fire over the trigram for earth: the sun rising over the earth. The hexagram is about easy progress and growing clarity. On the other hand, Hexagram 36 is the opposite, with earth over fire, and the meaning has to do with being eclipsed and hiding one’s light in order to survive.

Other divination systems are great for getting to the bottom of what’s going on in a situation, looking at motives, and even (in the case of horary astrology) looking for lost items. I wouldn’t say that these are the I Ching’s strengths—it will try, but these answers may be more obscure. But when you are at the point of figuring out your next step in a situation, the I Ching is often clearest when offering advice. Find a translation that speaks to you—which is like finding a tarot deck with art that clicks with you—and get to know this honored elder.

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