”Perhaps,” my friend said, “divination is not about predicting the future”.
“What is it for, then?” I asked.
My friend shrugged. “Perhaps it is about imagining new possibilities”.
Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes
Will Buckingham, 2015
I consider myself a rationalist, and yet for the last 3 years or so I have installed an I Ching app on my iPhone and have used it fairly regularly. Here is my attempt to explain why, and how I think it may be useful to others, too.
I Ching, as explained in Wikipedia, is an ancient divinatory text (dating back to the Western Zhou period: 1000–750 BC). It consists of a way to generate a random number between 1 and 64, and a brief description of the "meaning" of each resulting configuration. There are also specific rules so that you can use the actual 1-64 result as a descriptor of the present situation, and from it to get a second value (again 1-64, but you are guaranteed not to ever get the same value) which represents how the situation will evolve.
Pretty nifty, except for the fact that the texts are not exactly clear. The most common English version is a translation of a work in German by Richard Wilhelm - in itself popularised (so to say) by Jung.
Yes, when you approach the I Ching today you are, more often than not, using an English version from the 50s of a German translation (1923) of a Chinese text hailing from 3000-odd years ago. What could possibly go wrong?
Here is an example of the text you have to make sense of - the full text of Hexagram #47 (why this? I just like the number, so I picked it at random without knowing what it says):
困 (kùn), "Confining". Other variations include "oppression (exhaustion)" and "entangled". Its inner trigram is ☵ (坎 kǎn) gorge = (水) water, and its outer trigram is ☱ (兌 duì) open = (澤) swamp. (Wikipedia).
Oppression. Success. Perseverance. The great man brings about good fortune, no blame. When one has something to say it is not believed.
There is not water in the lake: The image of Exhaustion. Thus the superior man stakes his life on following his will.
Things can (and will) be much more complicated than this, of course. But this is not very important - not for how I suggest using the I Ching for, at least: in fact, the more obscure and impenetrable the response, the better.
I am aware that modern sinologists claim that the I Ching translations are not faithful, just like the translations of Sun Tzu's Art of War but again, I do not think this to be relevant for me.
The I Ching has fascinated a large number of people in the West, from Borges to Philip Dick - among these C. E. Jung who actually "discovered" the text and made it popular in the West, once remarked: "Even to the most biased eye, it is obvious that this book represents one long admonition to the scrutiny of one's character, attitude, and motives."
As I said at the start, I consider myself a rationalist (and I lean towards Stoicism to boot) - if you add to this the fact that I work as an Analyst, you can understand that I have plenty of tools to try to analyze alternatives and even trying to build "realistic" scenarios to plan about future events.
I can use Balanced Scorecards, create a weighted matrix or one of the methods suggested in the technical literature.
The problem is that real-life still makes you face problems that do not have a perfectly rational answer. Or maybe they have one, but some personal, deeply ingrained bias makes it impossible for us to see these. Or maybe it makes an alternative, no matter how improbable (and irrational) too compelling to be discarded.
These situations are usually linked to moral or emotional elements, and there is no way to use a classical decision-making process to come out of the quagmire.
Depending on your character you may not even be able to notice that you are stalling, and wasting precious time without being able to decide what to do (or what to avoid).
- Should you make that call?
- Would it be better not to invest your time/money in that endeavor?
- A random coincidence offers you an opportunity to get back in touch with that person … maybe the phone number is still good…
Consult the Oracle.
You will get one of its patented dumbfoundingly obscure responses, something like…
Splitting Apart. It does not further one to go anywhere.
The mountain rests on the earth: The image of Splitting Apart. Thus those above can ensure their position only by giving generously to those below.
Statistically, you will probably get at least one "changing" line, like:
Six at the beginning means: The leg of the bed is split. Those who persevere are destroyed. Misfortune.
And from that you will be able to arrive at another Hexagram, representing what will happen as a consequence of your action:
The Corners of the Mouth. Perseverance brings good fortune. Pay heed to the providing of nourishment and to what a man seeks to fill his own mouth with.
At the foot of the mountain, thunder: The image of Providing Nourishment . Thus the superior man is careful of his words and temperate in eating and drinking.
(again, I chose the moving line and therefore the subsequent hexagram totally at random…)
This is a pretty good example of the ambiguity of the I Ching response: notice how the description of the current situation looks negative and suggests not to do anything (It does not further one to go anywhere) while the outlook is positive if you decide to act anyway (Perseverance brings good fortune).
And why is this useful? Because it will make your own "hidden" bias come out in the open, and you will decide to do what you wanted to do in the first place. If you are a cautious person and are somehow timid in taking the initiative, you will consider the first part as a warning. Also, you will quickly conclude that "perseverance brings good fortune" means "persevere in not falling for this kind of bait and everything will be fine".
A less risk-averse person will interpret this in the opposite way: "you will experience a temporary setback, but then things will work out in your favor - call her and invite her out for dinner: The image of Providing Nourishment ".
That's all. I Ching is useful precisely because it does not predict the future (you may also be interested in reading François Jullien on what sets apart the I Ching from other divinatory methods, btw) in the purely mechanical sense of the term. Maybe it used to work reliably 3000 years ago, and we lost the proper way to interpret it. It can still work fine today to help us to recognize what we want to do when facing some sort of conundrum, though.
Just remember that you should never re-cast the I Ching if the result is "unsatisfactory" to you. This includes answers that look completely divorced from the situation you are in. I Ching commentaries famously address this with a sort of parable: when students do not understand the words of their teacher, they will keep asking the same question again and again. The teacher's duty is to answer in increasingly obscure and baffling terms, because if the student does not understand it means he is not ready yet and should work diligently with what he received, instead of trying to get an easier way out.
One more thing. Some of you may be familiar with The Dice Man - a 1971 novel that explores the idea that men should abdicate decisions to blind fate.
I disagree with the premises of the novel, and I am not suggesting anything remotely similar here. In the novel, you were supposed to write down 6 possible things, roll a die and then do whatever was written to the side of the result. Your own "free will" was limited to choosing what to write at the start, so if wrote down something immoral, or even illegal, you had to be pretty sure that you would act accordingly if the die dictated that. On the other hand, you were also claiming that whatever happened was "the will of the die" and you considered yourself innocent of any wrongdoing. A nice way to act out your basest instincts regardless of the consequences (the book is fun and I suggest you read it anyway, though).
For me using the I Ching is categorically different: even if you end up deciding that the best way out of the current situation is to harm someone else either directly or indirectly… that will be your own decision (the Oracle, btw, never gives a response that advises or even suggest morally dubious actions like theft or violence).
I Ching is just a way to suggest you a different perspective and break out of your analysis paralysis. But rest assured that whatever course of action you will take comes from you and you alone.
A little aside
I later found about a nice article (a PDF originally published in 2003) about the danger of trying to analyze situations in an analytical way - if you don't feel like reading it completely, you can just jump to the very end which for me captures the same problem I decided to address with my use of I-Ching.
In any case, here is a good quote to whet your appetite:
Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.”
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”
- The uncertainty machine - Forget prophecy and wisdom. Using the I Ching is a weirdly useful way to open your mind to life’s unexpected twists [Will Buckingham - Aeon.co]
- Divination as a Decision Tool: Can Superstition Help Us Make Better Decisions? - My article inspired author Charles Chu to elaborate on the same topic.
- A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching - despite not knowing Chinese Ursula Le Guin penned a (very personal) translation of the Oracle. You can find something about it in the linked article (I will try to incorporate her book in my own use of I Ching, too).
- Common mistakes to avoid when using I-Ching - this site (by Joel Biroco) has a more traditional (or maybe esoteric) approach to I-Ching. There are probably hundreds of website discussing I-Ching as a "proper" divination tool, and I do not consider myself qualified in delving into that, but I think that this specific page gives some good advice in general about using I-Ching and it is pretty compatible with my "method".
- A Fortune Teller in a Modern Metropolis - An article about a man working as a fortune teller in modern China. He uses I Ching, along with other traditional esoteric stuff like geomancy.
- I-Ching Lookup by number - A quick and easy chart to look up your hexagram by number, with links to explanatory reading.