When people ask me how they can become more fluent and confident with their readings, I always, predictably, say something about experience. Consulting with Yi is a relationship and a practice – not something you can learn how to do first, and then start doing it.
You get to know hexagrams and lines when you receive them in readings and learn their meaning from the inside. The English language is a beautiful thing, but it’s not really adequate to conveying that inner sense of the shape and dynamics of an experience. What’s the difference between the loss of solidity in Hexagram 59, Dispersing, and Hexagram 23, Stripping Away? What’s the difference between 29, Repeating Chasms, and 4, Not Knowing, as ways of being in the dark? Long articles could be written to answer those questions, but if you have learned the hexagrams from readings, you will know (in a way you never would from reading the articles).
Of course long articles and books of commentary are good things too; they have their place. But as any beginner who’s flipped from one commentary to the next trying to relate to a reading will tell you, their usefulness is limited. You can go through stacks of the things without ever feeling a personal connection. It’s true of pretty much any commentary, traditional or otherwise, that it will sometimes be truly uncannily accurate, real when-did-you-plant-those-hidden-cameras? stuff, and sometimes… nothing. Words on a page.
That’s the moment when you can go back to the words of the oracle itself, read them as if no-one had ever written a commentary, and learn directly from your experience.
Either that, or you assume something is wrong with this reading. Something wrong with your question, perhaps, so it’s answering the one you should have asked (now work out what that one was…), or something wrong with you, so it’s not answering you at all.
The problem with this approach is that, if you take it to an extreme, discarding every reading that’s hard to relate to at first, you never develop a personal relationship with the oracle. Instead you relate to the commentary and let that have the last word – invalidating your reading and your experience.
Another problem with this approach is that, in my experience (!), it’s very rare for the Yi not to answer – but very common to have to rearrange one’s ideas a bit to be able to relate to its answer, or just wait to understand – and also not unusual for it to speak in ways that no commentator has ever imagined possible.
So… I’d say trust experience, learn from it, and give it priority over the commentary tradition.
Only there are, of course, problems with this approach, too.
A single experience cannot exhaust the meaning of a line. Not that anyone would think it could, of course – but when that one experience is yours, and is a powerful experience with a great emotional impact, it can come to dominate your understanding of a line. And that can be misleading.
A line describes the deep structure of a lived moment – but many lines have nothing to say about the scale and importance of an experience, nor even necessarily its emotional impact. And those, of course – the importance of the moment and how it feels – are the things that tend to dominate our memories. We can end up associating a line with an especially potent experience, and then being just as lost as ever when the next reading with that line seems to have nothing in common with it at all.
Or rather… nothing in common at all except the line – that is, except some fundamental underlying shape to the thing, sometimes easy to see, sometimes not so much.
(What does getting your car boxed into its parking space have in common with a repressive regime? What does a computer packing up due to a melted motherboard connection have to do with the social hazards of drunken disinhibition? The answer to the first question is a hexagram, the answer to the second is a specific line. Any guesses?)
Also, sometimes the reading is answering a different question, and trying to bend it into shape round the one you asked would be worse than useless.
So how can you learn the I Ching from experience, and not lead yourself up the garden path without a paddle?
First… recognise that hexagrams and lines can have personal meanings for individuals. When a line resonates with some experience of great personal significance, Yi can use it as a private nudge, part of a private conversation. For instance, Hexagram 4 for me has to do with my information-addiction (‘if I have that book on the shelf, all my problems will be solved!’), whereas for someone else it might have more to do with a bad habit of repeatedly texting the boyfriend, or repeatedly bugging the oracle with thinly-disguised versions of the same question. So when a line with a personal meaning shows up in your reading, by all means consider whether it’s a specific reminder.
(Only don’t automatically extrapolate from your personal meaning to other people’s readings – and don’t let them do that to your readings. Sometimes encountering the person who’s had just the right experience with the line is part of the synchronicity… but not always.)
But for a clear, general meaning you need to learn from experiences – plenty of them.
Most importantly, you need an I Ching journal: something that lets you find previous experiences with a hexagram quickly – and the more ways it allows you to search, the better. I’d strongly recommend using a computer, at least to store the essentials (question and casting) so you can find them again, even if you prefer to do most of your writing longhand.
Second, you need to do readings. There’s a school of thought that argues you should reserve consultations with Yi for the most important questions, as a sign of respect. On the one hand, I can see their point; on the other, this is a little like waiting to learn to swim until you fall off a ship. I’d suggest talking with Yi about some things that are not so critical, maybe even situations that you more-or-less understand already.
Also… don’t forget commentaries! True, a great many are economically recycled Wilhelm/Baynes, and others are built from first principles (concepts of the oracle’s internal structure and what it ought to be saying) with varying degrees of sensitivity to the text. But plenty of authors are also diviners; you never know when you might be reading a distillation of experience. So differences between commentaries can be welcomed in the same way as difference between experiences: holding them together in your mind, letting the shared deep structure reveal itself in all its bare simplicity.