Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Scary readings

This is a topic that came up in the I Ching Community with reference to weekly and annual readings – how people can be frightened by them, maybe scared into paralysis by a sinister-looking line – and it got me thinking about the scariness of readings in general.

What is it that’s frightening about readings?

Obviously, predictions of doom are scary – as anyone who’s ever hesitated to ask for fear of what the oracle might say is well aware. But  predictions of possible, but not-quite-fated doom are more so, I think. There’s something you could do to make a difference, but how can you tell if you’re doing it right? As LiSe once said, negative lines are something like mother saying, ‘Don’t run into the traffic’ – but which way is the main road?

And actually, this isn’t only true of unpleasant lines. Any reading that tells you there’s something you could do to make a difference brings on a sense of responsibility – and it’s rare to get a reading that promises x (good or bad) will happen completely regardless of what you do, isn’t it?

So having realised this was more complicated than I thought, I turned to Yi for help. What is it that’s frightening about readings?

Yi says it’s Hexagram 9 unchanging

That’s not the answer I was expecting. After I’d cast the first three lines, I was thinking I might receive Hexagram 1: the sheer creative power of readings, if you pause to become aware of what you’re doing, is daunting. But no – in practice, it’s Small Taming.

‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from my Western outskirts.’

It’s not the cosmic power that’s frightening, it’s our position in relation to it: the small farmer under the dark clouds, knowing something is coming, but it’s not time yet. In casting the vessel, Hexagram 9 (with Hexagram 10, and facing 44-43) has to do with creating the relationship to heaven that’s needed to complete the work of casting. We need natural resources, and our own commitment, but beyond that we need the less quantifiable, less manageable gift that is connection to spirit – blessing, the favour of the spirits, maybe just good luck. The farmer, looking up at those clouds, knows this very well. He begins the process that continues in Hexagram 10: learning to work with the power of heaven.

Small Taming is on the face of it a much milder, gentler hexagram than 10, Treading. I’m usually glad to see it: the down-to-earth message of small-scale cultivation, the reminder that I can only do what I can do. However, those clouds can bring an anxious, oppressive atmosphere – especially for someone who is eager for greater clarity and certainty (like, for instance, someone consulting an oracle).

Work makes me nervous

Interestingly enough, there’s no promise of doom in Hexagram 9. On the contrary – it foreshadows mandate to come: the clouds will come from the West, the Zhou will be empowered to march on the Shang. There is work to be done now, and there may well be bigger work in future. I don’t know about you, but this prospect makes me nervous – not least because if Yi’s shown me how, and then I don’t get it right, whose fault is that?

So for me, Hexagram 9 represents all the readings that say, ‘Yes, this can be done, and it will take work’ – especially since the particular work they require is often something I’m not naturally inclined to do. And also, they tend not to tell me when my efforts will pay off:

‘If I get to work digging this field, when will it rain?’
‘Later.’

There’s an awkward mixture of knowing and not knowing here that’s not at all reassuring.

Choice: also scary

Small Taming represents an awkward, intermediate stage: you’ve chosen your place, your fields to dig; you have work to do, but the outcome is still under a cloud. That is, it comes after choice – following from Hexagram 8:

‘Seeking union naturally has occasion to tame things, and so Small Taming follows.’

Make your choice, find the centre to flow from, and naturally you start to gather things around it, to ground it in reality. You start to build fertility in this soil, plant these seeds… Small Taming implies a choice made.

I think we make this choice when we consult. Sometimes asking a ‘What if I…?’ or ‘How can I…?’ question is a first real, inner shift towards commitment. Asking an oracle is not quite the same thing as just entertaining the idea. And even with quite open-ended readings – ‘What should I be aware of this week?’ – we are still saying, ‘Here I am, in this reality.’ (I’ve a feeling that the imaginary world of all the other places we might have been is altogether easier to inhabit.)

The nuclear hexagram of 9 is 38, Opposition – and I’ve noticed that the experience of a nuclear hexagram is often more vivid in an unchanging reading. It has to do with ‘seeing differently’, the uncanny, the unfamiliar, the not-quite-understandable – and also the gulf between how I imagine it, and how it is.

Something indefinable changes when you leave the realm of possible scenarios and come into contact with how it is. (And if you’d been led around blindfolded for hours – or years – and finally the blindfold was taken off, wouldn’t you hesitate for a moment before opening your eyes?) You can’t go back. (No, not even by casting another reading…)

The shadow hexagram of 9 (hexagram ‘minus 9′) is 56. In response to a reading, thinking of this as something you’re ‘just passing through’, en route to a future destination, is exactly the wrong way to engage with it – exactly what gets you stuck. It makes the reading all about the destination, not the present; it reduces your interaction with your present reality to the bare minimum: not changing it, not changed by it.

And that can be a problem with readings: we approach them wanting to know what’ll happen, or even how to reach a destination, and this can leave us ungrounded, divorced from the only place we can do anything.

The upside?

The downside to fear of readings is obvious enough: background anxiety, or at worst complete paralysis: my weekly reading says something bad, so I’m staying under the duvet until it goes away. Or there’s avoiding readings altogether (or just readings on some particular topic), for fear of what they might say – being more comfortable in maybe-land.

Could there be an upside? I think so – at least to a healthy respect for what we’re getting ourselves into here. If I ask, I’ll be told. How much reality do I feel up to; how much commitment am I ready for?

Besides… if I ask ‘what if I do x?’ and get told,

‘Confused return, pitfall.
There is calamity and blunder.
Using this to mobilise the armies: in the end there is great defeat.
For your state’s leader, disaster.
For ten years, incapable of marching out.’

…for instance, there’s no harm in setting out to understand why it’s such a bad idea after deciding not to try it.

And some suggestions

So how not to be overwhelmed by scary readings? I think Hexagram 9 contains some hints:

‘Wind moves above heaven. Small taming.
A noble one cultivates the natural pattern of character.’

The clouds are dark, but you can keep working, keep following a reading’s advice, keep it in mind and let your awareness be shaped by it, as the winds are ‘shaped’ by heaven. And the unchanging character of this reading suggests you do this for its own sake, not with a view to anything else.

For me, working with a reading starts before I cast it, with some awareness of my expectations, fears and reasons for asking. (When I re-open for business with readings in a week or so, the first step in the process will be an ebooklet called ‘Ways of Opening’ that walks you through this kind of preparation.) It means I’m entering into the relationship – taking up my hoe – willingly.

I’m not sure why I never find weekly or annual readings frightening. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, or my innate, incorrigible optimism. Maybe it’s the awareness that none of my worst moments have been predictable anyway – readings have helped me through them, but I’ve never ‘successfully’ predicted anything really nasty for myself.

I think it’s also that I’m willingnot to understand a reading right away: if an open reading says something ominous I can’t currently recognise, I don’t spend too much time trying to predict how or where this might show up. Instead, I work on letting the reading change my perceptions – treating it as a kind of ‘radio tuner’. (I need a new metaphor for this. How many people nowadays have ever tuned a radio by turning a dial?) So I’m not trying to predict the future, just to be more closely aware of its seeds in the present. An open reading becomes a process of gradual discovery.

More generally… do readings; do readings about small-scale, definitely non-frightening things; keep a journal. Build up your experience, and with it a realistic confidence in your powers of ‘tuning’ and recognition. Oh, and talk to other readers: there are probably many people who’ve had the same nasty line and are still at the I Ching Community to talk about it.

What would you suggest?

Because of that incorrigible optimism, I expect I’m missing some things here. Any advice from experience? Or thoughts on Hexagram 9 unchanging?

24 Responses to “Scary readings”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I think hexagram 9 is quite an apt answer. I wonder what Yi would say if you asked it “are weekly/yearly readings a good/helpful way to consult ?” since the open reading often engenders the most fearfulness as there’s no way of knowing where to look for it’s manifestation.

    Plus did you look at the nuclear story ? The lower nuclear is hex 43, the core, you looked at, hex 38, the upper nuclear is hex 37. I wonder why hex 43 is the beginning of this story and in what way hexagram 37 is what we learn from this nuclear story ? Do you have any ideas about that ?

  2. Trojan Says:

    that was me BTW accidentally anonymous again

  3. Hilary Says:

    That’s OK, you’re recognisable ;)

    I actually deleted the bit on nuclear story because a) the post is too long and b) I didn’t have a previous post explaining them to link to, or couldn’t find one. So – yes. 43 sounds like the moment of choice: I will cultivate this land, not some possible land somewhere; I’ll ask this question and work with this answer. I think it goes some way to explaining how 9 can be worrying: you know where you stand and what you have to work with, but still don’t know about those clouds.

    37 – a good thing to learn after 38 – how to be at home with all of it – generally requires enlarging the sense of ‘home’.

  4. Trojan Says:

    Well I like the way you have interpreted hex 9 as applying to this question.

    I suppose one day you may need to do a Blog post on the Nuclear Story so you can link to it. It was fully explained in Change Circle.

  5. Geoff Bush Says:

    Fire is hot. This does not make it “unpleasant.” If one puts one’s hand in the fire it becomes unpleasant or worse not because of the nature of fire but because one did not heed one’s own senses. The I Ching is your senses.

  6. Hilary Says:

    Very true. It’s just that life would often be (or seem!) easier if fire weren’t hot, and so it can be alarming to be told that it is.

  7. Lisa Says:

    Scariness = dark storm clouds hanging over one’s head. Perfect. There’s a tarot card much like that, only it’s swords hanging overhead, points down. Never connected those two before, actually.

    Have to differ a bit with Geoff, above. Fire really is unpleasant because of the nature of it. Yes, if you purposely put your hand in fire, expecting somehow not to get burnt, you’re an idiot – but how many burns are caused like that, really? Fire is scary because if the least thing goes wrong with or around it, very bad things can happen. A cup of water falls on the floor, so what. An ember lands on your carpet, your house burns down.

  8. Trojan Says:

    I’m at a loss to see how Geof’s post relates to anything in the blog post ? Can’t seewhat that statement has to do with anything that was said ?

  9. Hilary Says:

    I think Geoff may have been challenging the idea of an ‘unpleasant reading’, if an ‘unpleasant reading’ is like a fire: only nasty if you stick your hand in it, or drop an ember on the carpet come to that.

    Dark clouds aren’t ‘unpleasant’ in any objective way, either. They presage rain, sometime, and as small farmers rain is what we want. But the post was about subjective experience.

    Anyway, I don’t have any problem with comments that are just peripherally related to the post. Diversions are often more interesting than the original.

  10. Lisa Says:

    I guess what I was mostly objecting to is the notion that fire is only unpleasant if you do something egregreiously stupid with it like stick your hand in it – try selling that philosophy to someone who’s lost their house or a loved one in a fire, for most of the kinds of reasons those things happen.

    But it was a metaphor and metaphors are imperfect. I get the idea that scary readings are scary mostly if you let them get to you. I do know from personal experience that “radio tuning” is absolutely necessary. I’ve had a couple hex 23 readings that at first made me jump out of my skin, until I realized all it meant was I should physically “separate” (split apart) two things.

    But then again…Yi once gave me a string of off-topic hex 23s when it really did mean something important was physically splitting apart. Had I been able to stay calm long enough to figure out what it was trying to tell me, I could have prevented it. But of course I just panicked – “these are awful readings and I don’t know what it’s talking aboooouuuuuut!”

    And…we do need rain, of course. And symbolic storm clouds, or swords, hanging over you are helpful if it spurs you to do something about them. But when you can’t, or you don’t know WHAT the problem is, it’s just plain scary.

  11. Hilary Says:

    Yes, exactly. Maybe I should have mentioned somewhere in the post the option of asking a second question – a ‘please tell me more about where I should look for this danger/ pitfall/ calamity’ kind of question. Mind you… splendid idea in theory, might or might not work mid-panic…

  12. susannah Says:

    It could be said that nothing is inherently “bad” since all things have a positive and a negative expression, and we will perceive that expression according to our own viewpoint and our personal choice and values.
    Fire warms us when it’s cold, gives us light in the darkness, cooks our food, keeps wild beasts away. The forest fire is part of the cycle of nature, clearing the way for new growth.
    Fire is said to represent creativity, intuition, action.
    Prometheus stole fire from the gods and thus began human civilisation.
    And yes, if we don’t respect it or understand what it is capable of, fire will burn the house down, hurt us, consume us.
    Just as the water promised in those dark clouds could feed the crops, quench our thirst, cleanse us of dirt, baptise us; or it could deluge the plains, submerge the crops, wash away the house, give us cholera, drown us.
    In hex 9, the salvation of water, the feeling element, doesn’t come until the last minute. Until then it’s only dark clouds in the sky, the air element, the intellect. Hence thoughts that are dark, worrying, scattered with a nervous energy caused by the brain. It is impossible to relax, to think straight.
    The tension is palpable. It feels ominous, frustrating. Nothing comes right. I’m jumping at the shadow of my own thoughts and perceptions. I can’t actually do anything, I have to wait for this thing to reveal itself. And I don’t know if it’s friend or foe. Will it save me or destroy me? Yup, that sums up a scary reading!

    There is, of course, good advice contained in Hex 9 for dealing with scary readings. Firm determination within, gentleness and adaptability without. Restraint. Perhaps we call this stoicism?
    susannah´s last blog post ..Scary readings

  13. Hilary Says:

    Hi Susannah!

    Yes – what you said. Personally I’ve always liked receiving Hexagram 9, but seeing other people receive it and not be happy – precisely because of that tension – was an eye-opener.

    I like the way you put the hexagram together with the Western idea of ‘elements’. Seems like a good fit.

  14. SJM Says:

    Readings that unnerve essentially do one the favour of emphasising one’s lack of constancy. As Confucius said, without constancy one cannot divine. So one can take this as a warning that any interpretation attached to a reading that has unnerved you is the imagination working overtime and is not to be relied on. Still, one will doubtless still be unnerved by it.

    The Yijing teaches one to be constant through many different types of change. You realise you have come some way in this when lines that used to get the better of you are received with the same equanimity as the rest. The corollary of this is that situations in themselves no longer have the power to shake your constancy. You react to events all the same, such that your judgment is no longer influenced by fear states.

    One also ceases to project events on slim evidence, but rather looks at the facts as they stand. The irony is that one is most capable of divining when one no longer has the need to. But this is perhaps as it should be. Obviously a diviner who is carried away by what the oracle says is in no position to actually form a judgment of what it is saying.

  15. SJM Says:

    Another factor is because one is divining for a set period, rather than ‘the time’ (which is passing), so naturally one will feel stuck in the same pattern for a whole year or something, and so therefore fear the lack of escape when it isn’t a particularly joyful hexagram. A friend of mine once divined his ‘life hexagram’ and got ‘A tied-up sack’. What is one to do with that? That’s not to say it hasn’t been accurate for the past 40 years… but a gross simplification nonetheless.

  16. Hilary Says:

    So one can take this as a warning that any interpretation attached to a reading that has unnerved you is the imagination working overtime and is not to be relied on. Still, one will doubtless still be unnerved by it.

    Well, yes. It’s in part the feeling of uncertainty (being in the dark, under the clouds) that makes it unnerving.

    And conversely – the fear of being trapped by an annual reading might come of the belief that one’s already understood all there is to be understood about it.

    2.4 for a ‘life’ reading sounds more than a little like Yi making fun of the question.

  17. Lisa Says:

    SJM:

    “What is one to do with that? That’s not to say it hasn’t been accurate for the past 40 years… but a gross simplification nonetheless.”

    Hilary:

    “2.4 for a ‘life’ reading sounds more than a little like Yi making fun of the question.”

    Unfortunately, reading these comments has made something click.

    It might be just Yi having fun (we can’t know), but to SJM’s point, is there actually any requirement that we be able to do something with it?

    I once asked for a “life reading,” and got an unchanging hexagram. It has proven to be both accurate and intractable (at least so far, and I’m in my 50s). And it would have to be a gross oversimplification, wouldn’t it – I asked Yi to sum up my whole life in one reading.

    My attitude towards the reading has always been (1) anger, and (2) phooey – both of which have been colossally unproductive.

    But I do have to give Yi credit for telling me something about my life that is central to it. Maybe, the value in it should be just understanding that there *isn’t* anything I can do about it. Accept it, make the best of it, try to see those as something other than patronizing platitudes…

    (Hmph. Will have to let that simmer.)

  18. SJM Says:

    To clarify, the ‘life hexagram’ I mentioned wasn’t as a result of asking as one would ask a question, but rather a technique of deriving a natal hexagram.

    Although I have no interest myself in divining anything other than ‘the time’ (shi), effectively ‘right now’, and regard any question put in terms of ‘a weekly reading’ or ‘an annual reading’ as actually referring to ‘the time’ but subsequently inevitably misinterpreted according to the naive form of the question (in the sense of a naive understanding of the notion of time), it is nonetheless true that any hexagram reflected on over a long period will be appreciated in greater depth and will seem to reveal greater relevancy to one’s life. But this is essentially conforming to the image, rather than the image revealing something inherent. Of course, by that point, there is little effective difference, save to the extent that real freedom remains a possibility through insight into what has been created. We create what would have been created anyway, but to do so knowingly isn’t abdication of will it is the only possible use of will. One chooses to do what what has no choice but to do. This is quite a different thing to supposing one is free to do anything, but only discovering later that this was an illusion. This is exactly the difference between free will and no free will.

  19. Lisa Says:

    …I had an actual comment written, but really there’s just a couple things:

    “This is quite a different thing to supposing one is free to do anything, but only discovering later that this was an illusion.”

    Anyone who seriously thinks they’re free to do anything is either quite young (understandable), or an idiot.

    “We create what would have been created anyway…One chooses to do what what has no choice but to do….[this] isn’t abdication of will it is the only possible use of will.”

    Isn’t this the sort of thing we say to ourselves to make ourselves feel better? Except that it makes //no logical sense//, and deep down we know that?

  20. SJM Says:

    Isn’t this the sort of thing we say to ourselves to make ourselves feel better? Except that it makes //no logical sense//, and deep down we know that?

    It’s essentially an interim statement to appeal to the mind. There is no way of expressing the final understanding because there is no-one to understand it. Suffice it to say that the whole notion of ‘will’ is irrelevant and what I said was essentially addressing some lingering sense that it still has meaning. But if that has already been transcended then there is certainly no need to pay it lip-service. But conditioning is strong and so sometimes, yes, we do say things to ourselves to make us feel better, just as we say things to ourselves to make us feel worse, typically denying the things we say to make us feel better. The whole thing is a vicious circle best discarded at the earliest opportunity.

  21. Lisa Says:

    So much better to use quote tags (assuming I do it right!)

    [quote]The whole thing is a vicious circle best discarded at the earliest opportunity.[/quote]

    Discard in favor of what?

  22. Lisa Says:

    Aaand I didn’t do it right. How did you do that? :)

  23. SJM Says:

    Discard in favor of what?

    Discarding is just getting rid of and not primarily in favour of something else, but if you want to look at it that way then In favour of not indulging repetitive mental patterns seen to be futile.

    (The quotes are done using HTML blockquote tags.)

  24. Lisa Says:

    Will ponder.

    Thank you!

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