The Book of Change

The last days. The last hours. I have found it hard to concentrate, despite my best attempts at unplugging and focusing on the present moment. The present is fraught.

This afternoon, between calls and texts and updates galore, I decided to help myself through this tense collective moment by doing an I Ching reading. It is a thing that I do for myself, once in a while, when I feel in need of guidance or counsel. I Ching: The Book of Change is a Chinese text of divination, completed in the 3rd century BCE. It consists of a series of hexagrams (a symbol made up of 6 lines, see below) which are generated by those who consult it using divinatory actions: traditionally, the division and counting of bundles of flower sticks (from the yarrow root) or, more commonly today, through coin tosses that are rendered into the individual lines of the hexagram.

From the little that I understand (I am still studying), the principle underlying the I Ching is that the world is constituted by Heaven and Earth (agentive forces and receptive forces) which interact and generate the cosmos in a state of constant flux and change. The I Ching rests on a concept of reality as dynamic, generative, ever-emergent and coming into being. Its use participates in, and is a part of, this reality — consulting it is what translator David Hinton calls “a distilled moment in the process of change” (2015, xi).

Given this understanding of continuous unfolding, the role of the I Ching was to help people discern where they were in a process of transformation, and provide wisdom in choosing the best course of action for the future. The I Ching is a tool of practical philosophy, consulted in the spirit of agency, making decisions, and viewing these decisions in connection with cosmological forces and processes.

Consulting the I Ching will often produce one or several hexagrams (out of a set of 64 possible outcomes) that help the reader understand a current state of affairs and discern a course of action. In other words, a reading doesn’t “predict the future” but is more of an image-rich, evocative, and poetic description of the forces that guide change in a given circumstance. If you flip through the book, you’ll notice that each of the 64 symbols is a metaphorical world unto itself. Each one explores transformation through features of nature — an element, a process, a characteristic, a particular image from the natural world, and the qualities associated with it. From the themes, symbols, and images that emerge, readers can find what is useful for them. To be sure, there are many cultural concepts that may not translate easily for modern-day users — themes around emperors and kingdoms, concepts of consciousness and its relation to the Cosmos, and gendered ideas that I continue to question. But, then again, the hexagrams describe facets of transformation that continue to resonate, evoke, and stir echoes in ways that still prove meaningful for readers today.

Well. This is a lot of preamble to say that I did a reading — not to call the election(!), but to help myself reflect throughout this week while providing myself with resources for adopting a generative outlook, come what may. SO, coins were tossed and a hexagram was made. Not an expert and very much a dabbler, I’ve taken bits and pieces, direct quoted, from different translations of the I Ching [a combination of selective translations by Richard Wilhelm (1968) and David Hinton (2015)] to constitute an I Ching poem that says something discernible to me. I welcome any thoughts from more seasoned readers and users.

The hexagram that arose reflects on the theme of Confluence, which the Oxford English online dictionary defines as the “junction of two rivers.” The themes, images, and symbols that emerged (below) feel very timely and seem to resonate with the situation and challenges ahead. They are helping me to reflect on commonality; find possibilities for union in difference; and find a center in an uncertain moment. A tall order. None of which I feel prepared for. Can I, for instance, truly appreciate and realize that “confluence begins with strangers”? Can I tend to it and nurture it “with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs”? Questions.

Anyhow. An unusual post for unusual times. I hope that you’re finding hope and solace this week.

hexagram 8

Holding together, union, junction, merging, confluence

Associated image: water on the earth, converging, flowing together

What is required is that we unite with others, in order that all may complement and aid one another through holding together. But such holding together calls for a central figure around whom other persons may unite. To become a center of influence holding people together is a grave matter and fraught with great responsibility. It requires greatness of spirit, consistency and strength. Therefore, let him who wishes to gather others about him ask himself whether he is equal to the undertaking, for anyone attempting the task without a real calling for it only makes confusion worse than if no union at all had taken place… But when there is a rallying point, those who at first are hesitant or uncertain gradually come in of their own accord….Common experiences strengthen these ties… (Wilhelm translation).

Begin in confluence, with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs, and you never go astray. Live as a vessel brimful, with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs, and you live at ease with good fortune whole and through to completion.

Begin in confluence from all that lies within you, and good fortune is inexhaustible indeed.

Confluence begins with strangers.

Inquiring at the source with shaman-flower sticks*, where you live all origins inexhaustible and on and on. How could you ever go astray? In this, you live centered as a steely mountain in cloud.

(Hinton translation)

[*traditional method of I Ching divination by dividing + counting a bundle of 50 flower stalks]