Hilary Barrett, I Ching

When Yi is neutral

September 30th, 2014

A couple of months ago I wrote about ‘Essentials for Yijing readings‘ and included that old favourite hobby horse of mine: the commentary is not the answer, along with some examples of commentary – Wilhelm’s, Karcher’s and mine – that was decidedly not what the oracle said.

All three examples I came up with were from lines where Yi’s original words were strictly neutral – no value judgements at all: 9.3, 17.2 and 28.5.

‘A cart losing its wheel spokes.
Husband and wife avert their eyes.’

‘Bound to the small child,
Letting the mature man go.’

‘Withered willow sprouts flowers,
Venerable woman gets an upright husband.
No blame, no praise’

It seems especially hard to talk about these lines without adding our own value judgements, even without noticing we’re doing it.

‘Withered willow sprouts flowers,
Venerable woman gets an upright husband.
No blame, no praise’

Yi clearly and specifically says no blame, no praise – that this is not a situation that can be judged. And yet it’s fantastically difficult for us not to judge. The older woman is not going to have children – so this renewal and rejuvenation isn’t productive, and unproductive things are bad. We even make unfavourable comparison between the withered willow’s flowers and the shoots of line 2: this may perhaps not be doing any harm, but it isn’t going anywhere; flowers may be nice, but they’re not productive. Which is, of course, not true – but in any case, who decided productivity was an absolute standard?

Or take 17.2  –

‘Bound to the small child,
Letting the mature man go.’

‘A mistake’ says Karcher; ‘throws himself away on unworthy friends’ says Wilhelm. Maturity and respectability, they assume, are always Good Things. And, naturally, they usually are; this is the same ‘mature man’ who brings good fortune and no mistake to the Army, in the oracle of Hexagram 7. But the line doesn’t say ‘misfortune’ or ‘shame’ or ‘constancy means regrets’ – it only describes holding to the child and letting the mature person go.

I recently saw this line describe a situation where ‘letting the mature man go’ was unquestionably the right course of action: the established confidence of an elder was not required; spontaneity and the ability to learn were.  This is probably an unusual application – maybe next time I see the line, I’ll need to change tack and cling to the mature one. The thing is – I don’t know which way will be right, and the line doesn’t say.

And back to 9.3 –

‘A cart losing its wheel spokes.
Husband and wife avert their eyes.’

Maybe I’m the only one who turned this into a sign of ‘total collapse’ – and that would be because I set a high value on clear and open communication, so its absence seems to me to be obviously a Bad Thing. Only… again… the line doesn’t say so; it doesn’t say ‘pitfall’ or ‘shame’ or even ‘constancy, regrets’. It just describes a situation where connection is lost and progress cannot be made (because the wheel without spokes won’t turn).

Here are two (originally public) readings from my logs of experiences with this line:

He has started a new company, asked for someone’s business, and is awaiting their decision. How to act until they decide?

She’s in a long distance relationship, and he’s asked her to move in with him, leaving her family and job behind to become dependent on him. She only wants to take such a big step if it’s likely to lead to marriage, but doesn’t want to ask him his intentions. Would moving in with him lead to a proposal?

You can see the basic dynamics of the line in both these situations. There is a great weight of emotion and need – for new business, for relationship security – and it’s not being communicated. We might think that in the first case it’s better not communicated (‘I really need you to decide, I have bank loans to repay!’ – true and sincere but unlikely to help matters…), while in the second, communication is vital before she even thinks about acting. But the line doesn’t say either of those things.

And that, I think, is part of what it means to get into conversation with Yi and respond to a reading: finding our own emotional-moral-intuitive response to the images it offers. Jumping to the commentary can mean missing that moment of connection altogether.

Anyway… when my publisher kindly gave me permission to include my translation/commentary in the journal software, I leapt at the opportunity to make a few changes. The commentary on Hexagram 9, line 3 now reads,

“Things come apart. The spokes are such a small component of the cart, yet when they’re lost it comes to a halt. Husband and wife avoid one another’s gaze: where you would expect communication and rapport, there is an inner disconnection.

There is more strain than the spokes can hold; there may be more truth, more emotional intensity, than the structures for communication can sustain. Sometimes it’s wise to break the connection and let the wheels stop turning.”

I hope that’s better…

© Depositphotos.com/urban_light

photo © Depositphotos.com/urban_light

Living Connection

September 8th, 2014

Thinking about why we’re creating the journal software,  I found myself writing a sort of personal creed. Here it is –

Living Connection

Nothing definitive – of course – but heartfelt. If you like it, please share it freely.

Danger – good fortune?

September 5th, 2014

I’m just coming to the end of the ‘omens’ section as I revise and enlarge ‘Words of Change’, my Yijing glossary. This involves testing out ideas by looking at every instance of each omen, along with all the example readings I can find. Since I’m going into more detail this time around, I’ve been looking more at contexts and associations – for instance, how ‘danger’ quite often appears as ‘constancy, danger’, but sometimes as ‘danger, no mistake’ or even ‘danger, good fortune.’

So… you have a new course of action in mind, and you consult the oracle: ‘What about doing this?’
And the oracle says, ‘Danger.’

That’s a clear and helpful answer. This seems like the kind of thing that should be in the job description for oracles: warn the unsuspecting querent when they’re running into danger, so they can back off.

Only Yi may also say, ‘Danger, no mistake’ or ‘Danger, good fortune,’ and what are you to make of that?

35.6 for instance, has both:

‘Advancing with your horns.
Holding fast, use this to subjugate the city.
Danger, good fortune, not a mistake.
Constancy: shame.’

li, dangerFirst, what’s ‘danger’? The old forms of the character clearly show a hidden scorpion. It also has the early meaning of pain and illness (Richard Kunst suggests that’s illness that’s like being in bed with a scorpion), and the angry ghosts that cause illness.

The Dazhuan makes a connection between ‘danger’ and the plight of the Zhou people struggling with their more powerful opponent, the Shang. (Confusingly, the name of the last Shang king is also transcribed as ‘Zhou’.)

“Did not Yi arise at the end of Shang,
when Zhou was at the peak of its powers,
when King Wen strove with Zhouxin?

Thus, the statements speak of danger.

Danger encourages peace,
complacency provokes downfall.

This dao is very great:
no possibility is omitted.

Caution from beginning to end
looks for No misfortune.”

Richard Rutt, Zhouyi.

This makes clear why Wilhelm often translates ‘danger’ as ‘aware of danger’ when it’s coupled with a positive omen. (In 35.6. he has ‘to be conscious of danger brings good fortune.’) Whether you’re considering military perils or hidden scorpions, the most important thing is to be aware of where and what it is. (The same is true for disease demons, where the first task is to identify which ancestor is angry so they can be pacified.)

It’s natural that you’ll sometimes encounter dangerous circumstances even when your proposed action is ‘not a mistake’. A strong implication of ‘not a mistake’ is ‘there’s nothing wrong with this idea in principle.’ It may be the right thing to do; it may have the potential to yield real results – it just doesn’t go smoothly. Take 44.3, for instance –

‘Thighs without flesh,
Moving awkwardly now.
No great mistake.’

I believe that refers to Yu the Great, the Chinese flood hero, whose work is the supreme example of something worthwhile that’s also perilous. ‘Danger, no mistake’ is a time to weigh up risks against possible benefits, without losing sight of either. (One unfortunate response to these lines is to dismiss the danger – ‘Oh, now I’m aware there’s a risk I can go ahead anyway, it’ll be fine.’)

Another example, 38,4:

‘Opposed, alone.
Meet an inspiring man.
Joining together in trust,
Danger, no mistake.’

The dangerous element here (as in 24.3) is the emotion involved: loneliness and the yearning for connection. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with longing to ‘join together in trust’, nor that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the man or the relationship. It’s simply a moment to be aware of how that longing affects your choices, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice (zhi gua 41).

Danger is about immediate circumstances, which, in a way, is why it’s often associated with ‘constancy’. Danger requires you to be aware of what’s around you; constancy is being true to something within you – an insight, a commitment, sometimes (as with rams and rats) your own nature. It’s how you can endure and persevere despite encountering difficulties, and more often than not, in the Yijing, that’s a good capability to have. Only, sometimes, there’s a fine line between loyalty and bull-headedness, and you need to find a new balance between inner conviction and sensitivity to your surroundings. ‘Constancy, danger.’

When Yi says ‘danger, good fortune,’ at least it’s clear that it will be worthwhile to continue: you can survive this one. In practice, the good fortune seems to come with the increased ‘awareness of danger’ and willingness to take on present, personal responsibility. (The phrase comes in 18.1, 27.6, 35.6 and 37.3, and the assumption of responsibility is a theme in all four.)

So back to 35.6, and its long list of omen words –

‘Advancing with your horns.
Holding fast, use this to subjugate the city.
Danger, good fortune, not a mistake.
Constancy: shame.’

Advancing with the horns – with bullish determination. This is the basic ‘make hay while the sun shines’ mindset of Hexagram 35 taken to an extreme – ‘I’ll make this happen no matter what – chaaaaarrrrge!‘ This energy can well be applied to a specific, big task, like subjugating a city. It’s dangerous in all the ways that ‘no matter what’ mindset always is; it’s ‘good fortune’ because it can achieve something substantial that you might not accomplish any other way, and ‘not a mistake’ when the goal to which it’s applied is good in itself. But constancy – promoting this from a tactic to apply in a specific case, to a rule to live by or way of being – would be shameful.


Example reading after a dream

August 26th, 2014

Since I wrote about ‘Four ways Yi works with dreams’, I’ve been on the alert for how this conversation’s working for me. Here’s an example from my journal.

I’d been divining – and worrying – about how I was going to promote the journal software. I’ve never been very good at selling things, not so as to make actual money – and if I fail to do so this time, I’ll be letting Justin down (not to mention all the people who would benefit from the software and won’t know about it). So – I worry, and divine, and read up on ‘product launches’.

There’s a ‘guru’ for those: a highly successful expert who advocates having your product available for only a few days so it becomes ‘urgent’ for people to buy it, having  a huge build-up to that, and also emailing people umpteen times during those few days – three times on the last day, he says. Well, this is not exactly my style – there is really no universe in which I would inflict that on people, and I can’t imagine fabricating some kind of specious time limit – but (I thought/worried) there must be something I could be learning from him about using the power of urgency to motivate people…

That night I dreamt,

“The setting: a grim tent encampment, the ground all rocks and mud. (It’s astonishing I have somehow managed to keep clean.) I am watching the leader talking. He displays CCTV film of a house’s front entrance and says, ‘Let’s listen to the music in this house.’ The sound is heard of a happy, light-hearted counting song – in English, though the listeners recognise it as Brazilian or maybe Catalan. The local language, anyway.

I think this song sounds much too happy for the regime; they won’t like it. Sure enough, they don’t. The leader says this is how the evil imperialists undermine the nation, with their corrupt languages, and this must be replaced by our own great language.

I know this episode (it’s become a TV show) is about teaching Russian, or enforcing it, so this must be how it starts. It’s somewhere between sinister and ridiculous.”

I titled the dream ‘Russian Regime’ – and then I thought that my unconscious was probably making an atrocious pun, and this was about a totalitarian regime of rushing. The whole dream makes a lot of natural sense that way – keeping clean in the mud, suppression of natural language, of light-heartedness, especially light-heartedness about numbers. So I went straight back to Yi and asked specifically,

‘What do I need to understand about using urgency in the software launch?’

Yi answered with Hexagram 35, Advancing, changing at lines 2 and 4 to Hexagram 4, Not Knowing.

‘Advancing, Prince Kang used a gift of horses to breed a multitude.
In the course of a day, he mated them three times.’

…is there a joke in here about the ‘three email day’ of the guru’s launch model?

Probably. The thing is, both these hexagrams have a feeling of urgency. In 35 it’s ‘make the most of the opportunity you’re given’ – a positive, celebratory kind of urgency. In 4 it’s altogether needier. In fact…

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

…those repeated consultations look uncomfortably like ‘portrait of insecure person repeatedly asking people to like what she’s selling’. (Back in 2012 we did a ‘first consultation’, a survey, and received some 250 responses that did indeed ‘speak clearly’.) And there’s certainly an allusion here to the three email day, isn’t there?

So… asking is good, doing your best and making the most of the moment is good; anxiously pestering people is counter-productive. I already knew the second part of that; what I needed to see was the distinction between 35 and 4.

And from the lines –

‘Now advancing, now apprehensive.
Constancy, good fortune.
Accepting fine armour,
Blessing from your ancestral mother.’

I recognise the ‘apprehensive’. I’m most comfortable when vanishing into the background; running a business is really not like that – and nor’s Hexagram 35. The gift and blessing of the armour… yes, I think I know it. (One of those understandings that’s too involved and personal to share.)  It becomes very clear to me that the point of the armour is not to avoid being afraid, but to make it possible to be constant anyway.

‘Advancing like a long-tailed rodent,
Constancy: danger.’

I’ve always thought the key to this line is that the rodent spoils the stored grain. From the rodent’s perspective, as it scurries round the store picking up one grain at a time, it’s making great progress. Which is quite true as far as it goes; it’s just that the rodent can’t see the true scale of the store. Constancy in rodent-mind is dangerous. I can’t think of a better image for using dodgy ‘urgency tactics’ on people I have a real connection with.

(Looking simply at the line positions, taking a cue from something LiSe said on the last Change Circle call: it’s good to have constancy when I’m centred on relationship and how I’m connected – the focus of line 2. It’s not good to have constancy when I’m thinking line 4 thoughts about ‘what I can do here’ – that is, about marketing tactics.)

So there it is – questions prompt dream; dream prompts reading; reading brings encouragement, reassurance and some key distinctions – and so it goes on.


Line positions and the moment of divination

August 15th, 2014

Talking about ‘line positions’ sounds painfully dry and academic. (Not least if it makes you think of the formulas about line correspondence and so on.) What to call them instead? ‘Hexagram layers’? Too much like a trifle. Maybe ‘line voices’, or places to stand, ways to engage…

What I’m trying to say (!) is that looking at the positions of the changing lines, just seeing where the action’s happening, is a way they can come to life for you. It can get you started thinking of them as different voices, different people or parts of yourself. I’m more kinaesthetic than visual, so I’m likely to look at a line 3 changing and feel its energy and tension around the diaphragm.

In preparation for our next Change Circle gathering (coming up on August 23rd) when we’ll be looking at readings in the light of which lines are changing, I started running searches in my own journal. I’d bring up all the readings with line 1, or lines 1 and 5 (and so on…) changing, and see what patterns I could recognise. One thing became clear quite quickly – it’s no use looking for patterns in this as you might for a specific hexagram or line text. There’s no situation or theme that all line 1 readings have in common. But it does seem that, each time, the line-1 self is asking the question, or the question arises in a line-1 kind of moment: the positions of the changing lines describes what’s active in the moment of the question.

And this makes sense, because that’s how I would describe the yang pattern of change (the one where you represent each changing line as yang and the unchanging ones as yin): how you enter into the reading, some truth about the moment of divination.

Line 1 questions – for instance – are about things barely beginning. Or, as A.A. Milne put it, ‘When I was one, I had just begun.’ We toy with possibilities, feel our way in – have inklings, don’t analyse them, try something on for a day – more gut feeling than thinking things through.  (The yang pattern of change with just line 1 changing: 24, Returning and the Turning Point, closing the borders at winter solstice to listen for the first whispers of germination.)

Line 2 questions seem to me to be about connecting – its attitude reminds me of a toddler’s arm reaching up (and up!) to find an adult’s hand. A lot of these readings happen in the middle of an ongoing relationship – to a person, an issue, an organisation, or even an oracle. The change patterns with line 2 moving are yang 7, the Army, and yin 13, People in Harmony – each in their own way about connections with a purpose.

Instead of plodding on through lines 3-6 one at a time, let me take a detour – what if I have lines 2 and 5 moving? Then – in the examples from my own journal, anyway – I seem to be searching for a balance between what I feel, or what I’m spontaneously drawn to, and what I choose. I have quite a few .2.5 readings about people I read for or support in other ways, and how far to commit myself. Then there’s also one about buying and using a business book from an author I like and admire, when I was wondering how far his ideas would be useful in my (quite weird) business.

The change patterns for a .2.5 reading are yang 29, yin 30: Repeating Chasms and Clarity. I think the key here is ‘holding your heart fast creates success’ – or ‘the connected heart makes the offering.’ The heart is active at line 2, but there also needs to be a deliberate, autonomous choice, connecting lines 2 and 5. Perhaps this begins to weave that net of understanding of Hexagram 30.

So here’s a beginning (a line-1-changing kind of post!) for looking at readings in terms of line positions. More on the 23rd! We spend these calls looking at a few readings people bring along through the lens of one particular interpretive tool. If you’d like to bring a reading, please post it in advance to the call thread. (And if you’re not a Change Circle member, there is of course still time to join!)

A few essentials for Yijing readings

August 3rd, 2014

Building blocksResponding to emails from someone struggling with his readings started me thinking about the basic principles of interpretation – the real essentials. Of course I have picked up a bunch of background knowledge along the way, and it all contributes, but people can do perfectly useful readings without most of it. There are a few building blocks, though, without which I couldn’t begin to interpret anything. Here are the ones that come to mind:

The changed hexagram is not usually the future

Oh, thank heavens for Stephen Karcher, from whom I first learned this. Plenty of people have to work much harder to reach the same conclusion – and plenty more must give up on the oracle altogether because the idea that ‘second hexagram = future’ creates so many readings that are perfect gibberish.

The second hexagram of a cast – the one you see when the changing lines are changed – can be direction, context, theme, ‘what it’s about for you’. Any of these things can be in the future – especially, of course, if you asked about the future. None of them has to be.

The line takes precedence over the hexagrams

If the hexagram says ‘good fortune’, the line says ‘pitfall’, then what you are asking about is an ill-omened option or position, even though it’s in a basically positive setting. The line is not ‘contradicting’ the hexagram; it’s focussing in on your question.

Yi works rather as you would guiding a half-blind elderly lady along the street. (This is something I do each Friday, so it comes to mind as an example!) ‘Yes, we have time for the bank – no problem, it’s just along here on the left,’ you say. And then, ‘Look out, mind the puddle!’ ‘Look out!’ does not contradict ‘no problem’, and the line does not contradict the hexagram.

The commentary is not the answer

I have ridden this hobby horse round and round the site for years, but I’m always happy to give it another outing. You would not have a conversation with a friend by taking a poll of what half a dozen other people think he’s trying to tell you – let alone other people who have never met you and have no idea what your conversation is about. So why would you set out to interpret a reading by scanning commentaries rather than sitting with what the oracle says?

(As for the authors who think it a grand idea to ‘simplify’ the Yi by removing its images altogether and replacing them with their own circumlocutory waffle, because of course they know everything that image could possibly mean under any circumstances… need I go on?)

In particular, the reading is only as good or bad as the Yi says it is – no matter how alarming the commentator found it. Some examples – equal opportunity, three authors –

Wilhelm/ Baynes, 28.5

‘A withered poplar puts forth flowers.
An older woman takes a husband.
No blame. No praise.’
‘A withered poplar that flowers exhausts its energies thereby and only hastens its end. An older woman may marry once more, but no renewal takes place. Everything remains barren. Thus, though all the amenities are observed, the net result is only the anomaly of the situation…’

Yi actually goes to the trouble of specifying, ‘No blame, no praise.’ The line is like a poem, a mystery removed altogether from human judgement. Wilhelm’s take on it is just depressing – it seems he doesn’t approve of anomalous situations. (What if the flowers are beautiful? What if the woman is happy?)

Karcher Total I Ching, 17.2

‘Following. Tied to the Small Son,
Letting go the Experienced Husbandman.’
‘This is a mistake. You have picked the wrong influence to follow. You will end up alone, without anyone to trust. All you can do then is adapt to whatever crosses your path.’

Wow. You could easily miss that the line says nothing about whether this is good or bad. Are there never any benefits to being child-like?

In defence of Karcher and Wilhelm, they are both following the tradition represented by the xiaoxiang, the commentary on the line that’s part of the Yijing. It calls 28.5 a ‘disgrace’ and for 17.2, in Karcher’s translation, says, ‘This means having nowhere to join helpful companions.’ In other words, it’s a commentary adding value judgements that weren’t in the original – but at least it’s an ancient and venerable commentary.

But not all modern commentaries are based on the xiaoxiang. For 9.3,

‘A cart losing its wheel spokes.
Husband and wife avert their eyes.’

– another line without good or bad omens – the xiaoxiang only says ‘this is a sign they cannot keep their house in order’. So does that always have to mean,

‘Things come apart. The spokes are such a small component of the cart, yet when they are lost the whole system collapses. Husband and wife avoid one another’s gaze: where you would expect communication and rapport, there is an inner disconnection…’

– ?
(Yes, that one’s mine. Considerably more catastrophic than the original – especially since it turns out that sometimes, avoiding direct contact is the best way to avoid emotional escalation. I managed to make it sound like an unmitigated disaster…)

And speaking of things that are not the answer…

All the technical extras are not the answer, either

– not the fan yao, not the nuclear hexagram, not the complement or shadow or ideal or paired line or nuclear story or sequence. These are helpful context. Back to guiding the elderly lady:

‘Did you see where my bus pass got to?’
‘I think after you found your umbrella, you took it out of your purse and put it in your pocket.’

Your answer was not ‘umbrella’ or ‘purse’. Likewise, the fan yao is not Yi’s answer.

(It’s depressing to see people who can’t accept the line they received running through the line pathway to find something easier. ‘In the field, no game’ (32.4) means exactly what it says: what you’re hunting for isn’t here. It doesn’t mean, ‘The king makes offerings on Mount Qi. Good fortune, no mistake.’ (46.4).)

Readings take time

Sometimes you will ‘get it’ at once. Often, you won’t. This does not mean it didn’t work; it means you need to spend time with the reading, sleep on it, let dreams and synchronicities contribute to your understanding, and let understanding evolve. It will. This is how it works.

(I think I was helped a lot by coming to this from the study of literature. I was never going to understand Eluard or Rilke at first glance, so I wasn’t too shocked when I needed some time for readings, too.)

Child-like questions plus imagination unlock the meaning

…and some background knowledge helps, too. But without the willingness to ask simple, silly little questions about the images, you can’t get started at all. ‘Why would an older woman want to marry?’ ‘What’s the difference between a small child and an experienced husbandman?’ ‘What happens to a cart when it loses its wheel spokes?’ ‘What’s a cart?’

Trust the oracle

Yes, it works. Yes, it has given you an answer you can use; no, you do not need to second-guess your first response. (Part of trusting the oracle is trusting yourself to respond.) You just need attention, patience and a lively curiosity.

Announcing: new Yijing and dreams journal software coming 15th October

July 31st, 2014



It took longer than planned, but the Resonance Journal software is now available for download.



Announcing… at last… with fanfare…

The Yi-plus-dreams-plus-signs journal software – that’s been in a sousaphone-sized pipeline for a while – is really taking shape now.

We’ll be calling for half a dozen beta testers in mid-August, and after some final tweaking the software will be available to buy on October 15th*.

The core idea of the software is that dreams, Yijing readings, journalling and insights are all part of the same conversation, and so they all belong together. Hence you should have a way to store, search and explore them together – and that’s what this will be. A simple tag cloud, a Yijing cast history, and an ‘advanced search’ with specialised Yi-features make it possible to discover a lot of hidden connections.
And yes – it is for both Windows and Mac.

If you have questions, please ask!
(*The finish date is subject to the project’s chief ((and only)) programmer’s house-move going as planned. He should be happily settled in by then.)