Nature’s Crystal Ball – The Yi Jing (I Ching)

This article was written originally for The Dragontree


Of all the ancient books that are still widely read, one of the most unique is the Yi Jing (often referred to by its old spelling, I Ching), The Book of Changes. It is unique for the fact that it has been preserved for about 3000 years, yet it’s not a religious text. It’s more of a study on Nature and how the qualities and dynamics of the natural world exist also in the human world. But the most unique part is that people use it to predict the future.

My Qigong teacher, Master Hui-Xian Chen, told me and my classmates that it is silly to use the Yi Jing this way. She insisted that it should just be a learning tool, and that people who look to this book for answers about the future can stop trusting themselves. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the book in this manner as long as one maintains the right perspective.

Let’s go back to the basics first. There are a few fundamental concepts ancient Daoists came up with to explain how the world works. First and foremost is Dao, which I explained (sort of) in the previous article. Dao could be thought of as the Oneness that unites everything. Next is the concept of Yin and Yang – the Twoness that gives rise to all of the many things of the world. In a nutshell, Yin and Yang are adjectives used to describe the opposite ends of a spectrum. The closer something is to the Yin end of the spectrum, the more tangible, solid, stable, internal, cold, unmoving, contractive, low, and dark it tends to be. The closer to a thing is to the Yang end of the spectrum, the more intangible, ethereal, airy, high, changeable, external, expansive, warm, and light it tends to be.

Everything falls somewhere along this spectrum, and everything has both Yin and Yang qualities. The sky is relatively Yang, because it’s intangible and high and changeable. At night it becomes more cold and dark, and therefore more Yin. However, even at night, the sky is Yang when compared to the earth, which is solid, low, more stable, and therefore much more Yin. The sunny side of a hill is more Yang than the dark side. The surface of the ocean (active, warmer, brighter, more superficial) is more Yang than the bottom (cold, dark, less active). The Yin-Yang symbol (called a taiji tu) illustrates the way Yin and Yang and interconnected and mutually supportive.

The Yi Jing is such an ancient book that it began with the simplest of symbols: a solid horizontal line to indicate Yang and a broken line to indicate Yin. If we were to make stacks of three such lines with all the different possible combinations of Yin and Yang, we’d get eight outcomes (Yang-Yang-Yang, Yang-Yin-Yang, Yin-Yang-Yin, etc.). These represent eight fundamental qualities of Nature, and the three-line combinations used to depict them are called trigrams.

First we have Sky (also translated as Heaven), made up of three Yang lines, because it’s the most Yang. Next we have Earth, made up of three Yin lines, because it’s the most Yin. And in between, we have Fire, Water, Wind, Lake, Thunder, and Mountain, each made of different measures and orders of Yin and Yang.

When two trigrams are combined, one stacked on top of another – Wind over Water, Earth over Fire, Fire over Earth, Water over Wind, etc. – a more complex dynamic results from the interaction of these forces. These six-line combinations are known as hexagrams, and there are 64 possible hexagrams. These symbols have names such as Peace, Conflict, Stagnation, Danger, Attraction, Limitations, and Insight, and the Yi Jing has much to say on these states, as they occur both in Nature and in human arenas, such as relationships, politics, and business. The book discusses what it means when each of these qualities is prevailing currently in one’s life.

As I said, my teacher, Master Chen, emphasized studying the Yi Jing to know these primal forces – how they wax and wane and shape our lives. In this way, we can understand how best to conduct ourselves in order to take advantage of opportunities that are available or to pass unscathed through a period of difficulty.

But the text was originally used for divination, and this is still its most popular use, so I’d like to say a bit about what I think of this. When using the Yi Jing this way, a person typically meditates on a question (I like to write it down) and uses some method to choose a random hexagram, which the questioner reads and interprets as an answer to the question.

While this probably sounds pretty woo-woo to most people, I have used the Yi Jing this way for insights many times, and nearly always the response I get is helpful, if not eerily accurate. My idea of how this might work begins with the belief that we are all connected a vast facet of the mind known as the “superconscious,” an awareness and intelligence that extends far beyond the thoughts and memories that are unique to the individual whose body we occupy.

When we ask a question of the Yi Jing, we are essentially making an agreement with the superconscious mind that goes something like this: “I am going to ask for insight on something. You’ll have this palette of 64 qualities through which to express a response that my conscious mind can understand.”

In actual practice, a Yi Jing reading doesn’t usually yield just a single hexagram as a response. The method for arriving at an answer produces not just Yin lines and Yang lines, but also Yin lines on the verge of becoming Yang lines, and Yang lines on the verge of becoming Yin lines. Thus, we usually end up with a hexagram that contains one or more “changing lines,” which leads to a second hexagram.

The Yi Jing includes commentary not only on the significance of each hexagram, but also what it means for any of the six lines to be changing. So when we ask a question and get a response, we consider the commentary on the first hexagram (which is usually taken to refer to our recent past or our current circumstances), the commentary on any changing lines (the most dynamic and changeable part of the reading, representing the transition), and finally the second hexagram (which is usually taken to mean where we’re headed, or the circumstances we’re coming into). Even without counting the commentary on changing lines, for a typical Yi Jing reading that produces two hexagrams there are 4032 outcomes possible.

If you’re interested, I encourage you to get a copy of the Yi Jing and give it a try. Of the many translations available, my favorite for beginners is called The I Ching Workbook, by R. L. Wing. If you get this book, there’s one error (in my opinion), which is how the author describes using coins to produce a reading.

I believe it should go like this: First, write down your question. You’ll get better at phrasing your questions over time, but a good approach is to use wording such as “How should I conduct myself with regard to [situation] in order to achieve the greatest [balance, happiness, harmony, etc.]?” or “What is the nature of [some situation]?” (Wing offers some advice on question writing in the introductory material.)

Second, get three of the same kind of coin, and then hold the question in mind while shaking the coins in your hands. Drop the coins. Two tails and one head means a Yin (broken) line. Two heads and one tail means a Yang (solid) line. Three tails means a Yin line that is going to change into a Yang line. Three heads means a Yang line that is going to change into a Yin line.

Third, draw the line. The first coin toss gives you the bottom line. You’ll shake the coins five more times, each of which will be drawn parallel to and above the first line, so that you end up with the sixth line at the top. Draw a Yang line as a solid horizontal line. Draw a Yin line as a dashed line (a line with a gap in the middle). For changing lines, draw them in their original form first, and make a dot or star next to them to remind yourself the line is going to change. Shake the coins and draw five more lines.

Fourth, if you had any moving lines, redraw the whole hexagram next to the first one, but this time, draw the changing lines as the form they’re changing into. For instance, for a changing Yin line (three tails), in the first hexagram you’d draw it as a Yin line, but in the second hexagram you’d draw it as a Yang line.

Finally, look up what the one or two hexagrams you drew mean. If you have just one hexagram, read the text for that hexagram, and then read about the significance of receiving this hexagram in “unchanging” or “static” form. If you have two hexagrams, read the text for the first hexagram, then read the text for any changing lines (remember, line one is at the bottom, and line six is at the top). If there are multiple changing lines, check to see if any of the moving lines are considered “leading lines” – lines of particular significance. If so, these are usually considered to carry more weight compared to other changing lines. Finally, read the text for the second hexagram (but not the text for the particular lines).

If the whole idea of asking for advice this way seems just too weird, see if you can get behind the idea that you’re just asking your higher awareness to express itself through this method. If that’s still too out there, consider simply reading the text in order to better understand these fundamental states of being, or meditate on what might be the right thing for you to hear at this moment. If you have an interesting experience, I would love to hear about it.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten



All material copyright 2017 Peter Borten, All Rights Reserved