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.

The right tool for the job, part 2: what and why

I think that different divination tools work better for different kinds of questions. That said, I don’t make this an absolute rule of my practice. Sure, it would be nice if I could always make the perfect pairing of tool and question, but I’m not equally experienced in all the tools I’ve tried and I certainly don’t have each of them available any time a question comes up. If the need exists, I figure you can get an answer from whatever oracle you can get your hands on. But if I can manage a better pairing of tool and question, I do. I see it as a way to stay flexible, since this nudges me into using a variety of tools rather than only reading tarot cards or only consulting the I Ching. And while it would be neat if I could simply list off the basic question words (who, what, where, when, why, how) and assign a divination tool or two to each, but no, my experience isn’t that nicely organized. I tend to ask the same sorts of questions over and over, and it’s my preferred questions that I’ve ended up matching to certain tools.

What’s going on? These are the situations in which I know something is bothering me, but I’m not sure what it is. For these sorts of questions, I prefer to pull out a pack of tarot cards and use a general purpose spread to give me an overview of the situation. I could also use runes for this, but if I’m truly trying to get my bearings in a situation, I want to cover as many options as possible, and 78 tarot cards give me more detail than 24 runes. Plus, I need all the help I can get trying to figure these things out, and I find the pictures on tarot cards to be more stimulating to my imagination/intuition than bare runes.

What should I do? When I have a pretty good grasp of the situation itself but want solid advice about it, I turn to the I Ching. Since the I Ching is written text, not pictures, I find its advice and commentary comparatively straightforward even if the translation I’m using leans towards the abstract. Do this. Doing that would be ill-advised. No one is to blame for this situation. The wise person acts in this way in a situation like this.

Where is it? This category is a little different because I only started asking these questions after I found the right tool rather than the other way around. I used to not ask lost item questions because I couldn’t imagine being able to interpret a tarot spread or rune casting well enough to get a meaningful answer. And then I learned about horary astrology. Horary astrology is astrology as divination: a chart is drawn up for the time and place of a question and then interpreted according to certain rules. If the question is “Where is [item]?” the chart can be interpreted as a description of where the lost item is and if the querent will ever find it. I admit my success is rather hit-or-miss with this, although I’m still proud of using a horary chart to locate one of my entries in the state fair knitting competition one year.

Yes/no. For years, no matter what divination tool I was learning about, yes/no questions were discouraged. I suspect this was part of a broader view that held that divination was to be used for personal growth and self-understanding, and that yes/no questions encouraged querents to focus on the material aspects of a situation. When I did come up with a yes/no question, not only did I have overcome that discouragement, but I wasn’t sure what kind of divination to perform. I’d heard that pendulums were good for yes/no questions, but I have no affinity for pendulums. There were systems out there that used the tarot or runes, usually variations on comparing numbers of upright cards to reversed, but they seemed stiff and artificial to me. I’m still not comfortable using the tarot or runes for these questions, but I think the I Ching or horary astrology work well. The I Ching is not shy about labeling actions good or bad, and horary charts show whether the different elements of a question will come together or not, which pretty much shows yes or no. And of course, a divination may tell you more than that. Once I asked “Will So-and-so get the [job]?” and drew up a horary chart. Not only did I get a “no” but a description of the person who did eventually get the job.

The right tool for the job, part 1: introduction

My knife block holds a variety of kitchen knives. I rely on a 6″ chef’s knife, suitable for chopping vegetables, although I also have an 8″ chef’s knife for when I tackle butternut squash. I have a couple of paring knives, a bread knife, and a rarely-used knife for slicing meat. If I needed to reduce the number, I’d hang onto the smaller chef’s knife, one of the paring knives, and the bread knife. If I absolutely had to, I could make do with just the chef’s knife. That said, I’m a happier and more efficient cook when I can match the knife to the task at hand. Similarly, while any form of divination can be used to look at any question, I think that each form has its strengths and weaknesses, and is better suited to some kinds of questions than to others.

I haven’t seen much about this during my studies. It’s not that authors aren’t trying to compare and contrast systems of divination. Many of my tarot books talk about the Golden Dawn’s astrological correspondences for the cards. Most of the books I’ve read on runic divination have compared it to a tarot reading. Every now and then, someone discusses correspondences between the 64 I Ching hexagrams and the 78 cards of the tarot. But most of the time, these comparisons have been limited to the structures of the systems themselves; they rarely include a comparison of the uses you might put them to. When they do, it’s usually between astrology and tarot. In a tarot class years ago, the teacher told us that tarot was great for telling you what was going on, but iffy for telling you when it was going to happen, and vice versa for astrology. (Not that this stops tarot authors from passing along timing systems.) She advocated learning both systems and using them together. Well, yes, I can do both, but I almost never want to work with them together. It takes energy and concentration to do a reading of any sort, and for me, combining astrology and tarot isn’t doing half one and half the other to make one full reading, but doing two different readings back to back and being doubly exhausted as a result. Bleah.

An alternative? Try to figure out what the strengths of the various divination methods are so that I can choose the one best suited to the question. I haven’t gotten very deeply into this yet, although I find the whole idea fascinating. It takes time and effort to learn a system well enough to use it at all, and you have be using it a while before you can step back a bit and see if it works better with some questions than with others. Then you have to repeat all that for any other system you tackle. So, admitting that these are “preliminary findings,” I’ll talk what works well and not so well in my next post.