This is the second of a series of articles on the I Ching, or Yijing, the Book of Changes, an ancient oracle, a divinatory book that played a key role in Chinese culture and became for the Chinese a map of 'heaven and earth', of the totality of existence. Much of this material is contained in the Introduction to the Eranos Yijing1. To that book the reader is referred for a deeper discussion of the concepts here presented.
Asking our true question
A consultation of the Yijing can be described as opening a dialogue with the book. The first step in opening the dialogue is asking a question. How the question is formulated is of utmost importance.
What characterizes a true question? First and foremost its emotional resonance. The emotional charge of our question is what energizes the answer we receive from the book. It's what makes the images fly, what makes them speak to us in a loud, clear voice. The answer – this will never be emphasized enough – is not in the book: it is in you, the consultant.
Yet the book is a precious helper, a catalyst for bringing unconscious knowledge to the surface. Quite frequently after meditating upon the answer we have received from the Yijing – the ancient Chinese called it "rolling the oracle's words in one's heart," we might call it "free association" – we get a sense that "oh, yes, I knew this." We knew and yet we didn't know, we knew without knowing... That's where the catalyst comes to help.
The next main point to keep in mind is that the oracular texts speak an imaginal language, they speak through images. Interpreting your answer is easier if the question takes this imaginal dimension into account. That means, e.g., that yes/no questions are not particularly appropriate: an image does not say yes or no, it is just what it is. It will be the resonance the image evokes in you that might orient you to decide on a yes/no issue: but the image is always wider, more open, richer. Let all this further dimension be included when you "roll the oracle's words in your heart."
Likewise, when confronted with an alternative, it is advisable asking about one or the other option rather than both at once. If your question includes both options, it will be difficult to decide to which alternative a given image in your answer refers to. Trust that the answer you receive about one option will shed some light on the other option too.
A formula I often use is "give me an image of..." where the sentence can be completed by indicating a situation, a course of action, a choice – or even something as impalpable as a sensation, a thought, a dream, an intuition.
Finally, don't be afraid of asking precise and narrow questions, rather than vague and vast ones. The question may seem small, but it opens the way to a larger perspective.
This is well represented by a stone slab that Olga Fröbe and C.G. Jung had placed in the Eranos garden as a homage to the "unknown spirit of the place." From the beginning they had felt that an unknown genius loci was standing behind the Eranos endeavour, and felt themselves to be channels or servants of this spirit. But, in addition to the original meaning of the monument, Rudolf Ritsema (my Yijing teacher) and I had our own interpretation of it as a symbol for the process of interrogating the Yijing. The slab carries in relief the image of an hourglass. We felt that the upper cone of the hourglass represents the process of bringing one's question to a sharp focus: all the spread out complexity of the situation sits on top, like sand ready to drip through the hourglass. This complexity or confusion must be focused through the narrow neck of the hourglass to allow an epiphany to happen. And then, surprisingly, in the lower cone the focused energy of the question opens up to a larger perspective, illuminates a larger portion of our life.
Dreaming with hands
Once we have our true question, the magic begins. We consult the oracle by manipulating fifty sticks, traditionally stalks of the yarrow plant (Achillea millefolium), according to a specific procedure. Why yarrow? I have been asked that question many times and the honest answer is I don't know. But many aspects of the plant are suggestive. The stems, dried, are light and sturdy, in spite of being empty in their core. Moving them around produces a glass-like tinkling sound, which inspired Hermann Hesse to write his Das Glasperlenspiel (full of references to the Yijing). And finally, as my wife pointed out to me, the flowerets of the plant are white with a black dot in the middle, suggesting a yin-yang interaction.
I said fifty sticks, but I could have said fourty-nine, because one is put aside right at the beginning of the consultation and does not take part in any of the ensuing manipulations. It is called "the witness," or "the axis of heaven and earth": it is the steady center of the whole operation, the unmoving pivot around which all the dramas of life take place and the search for answers unfolds. For the ancient Chinese this silent witness was actually the most important of the fifty sticks, a symbol of the consultant's meditative center.
The remaining 49 sticks get parted randomly and counted repeatedly, producing in sequence the six lines of a hexagram. The lines are ordered from the bottom up: the first line is at the bottom, the last one at the top. Each line can be whole (having a yang quality) or broken (having a yin quality) and furthermore can be stable or changing (yang transforming into yin or yin transforming into yang).
Yin and yang are fundamental categories of Chinese cosmology. Yang is associated with action, initiating, expanding, heaven, fire, sun, bright, dry, hard, male, etc. Yin is associated with form, receptive, contracting, earth, water, moon, dark, moist, soft, female, etc. All phenomena, the "myriad beings" or the "myriad things" are generated by the interaction of yin and yang.
Just as fundamental as this basic duality in Chinese thought is the idea of change and transformation. The Chinese world view is essentially dynamic and cyclical: all things constantly change, the only permanent reality is change. Thus yin and yang are not static categories. They are animated by a cyclical movement which transforms them into each other, just as day turns into night and then into day again, and the seasons follow each other in their yearly round.
The key symbol of this cyclical movement is the tai ji, where the light and dark regions are constantly moving clockwise and transforming into each other:
When the light quality (yang) reaches its culmination, it gives birth to the seed of the dark quality (yin), which at that moment begins to grow. When the dark quality reaches its apex, it develops inside itself the seed of the light quality, which at that moment begins to grow. Noon is when the sun starts setting, midnight is when it starts climbing back towards the horizon.
In the Yijing, yin and yang are represented by the broken and the whole line. The broken line is yin, supple, flexible, pliant, tender, adaptable. The whole line is yang, solid, firm, strong, unyielding, persisting. And just like the two fundamental qualities they represent, the broken and the whole line are animated by a movement that transforms them into each other. For each type of line we are thus led to consider two possibilities: the line can be "young," i.e. still fully expressing its own nature, or "old," i.e. past its culmination and ready to transform into its opposite. Altogether we have therefore four types of lines:
lao yin, old yin --- x ---
shao yang, young yang -----------
shao yin, young yin --- ---
lao yang, old yang -----o-----
The young lines are stable lines, while the old lines are transforming: they are animated by a movement into their opposite and are therefore dealt with in a special way.
Based on the hexagram we get by manipulating the yarrow stalks and on the stable or changing quality of the individual lines we are referred to specific oracular texts, which we are invited to "roll in our hearts." I.e., we play with the oracular images as if they were dreams, we let them awaken unexpected associations, we let them resonate with our situation, with our question and with the emotions they carry.
1 Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini, The Original I Ching Oracle or the Book of Changes, Watkins, London, 2005, 2018.