Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Rethinking the Well

May 14th, 2015

Lars Bo Christensen has brought out a very interesting new translation of the Zhouyi: Book of Changes – the original core of  the I Ching. I should post a full review one of these days (short version: yes, definitely buy it), but for now I just wanted to share something that’s made me think again about the oracle of Hexagram 48, the Well.

My version from 2010:
‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost drawn the water, but the rope does not quite reach the water,
Or breaking one’s clay jug,

‘The Well. The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases nor increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.’

Wilhelm says the town may be ‘changed’, but goes on in his commentary to talk about the ancient practice of moving capital cities – an idea that found its way into my translation. And Wilhelm adds an ‘if’ at the end for the unfortunate scenario of the too-short rope and broken jug, so that the meaning-structure of the oracle falls into two parts: ‘Here are some general truths about wells; however, here is what can go wrong.’

Lars’ version is very different:

‘The Well. It is bad if the village is renewed, but the well is not renewed. Without [thinking about] what they can lose or gain, [people just] come and go to the well. But the well can dry up even to the point where you cannot quite [reach down] to draw water from the well, [and prolonged use] will wear out its bucket.’

This isn’t my favourite part of Lars’ book, but – especially in his footnotes – he makes a very interesting challenge to the whole idea of translating gai 改 as ‘moving’ the city. He points out that a quite different phrase is used to mean ‘move the city’ in 42.4. Also, the character appears in 49.4 for ‘changing mandate’ – where you could say it means ‘relocating the mandate’ (from Shang to Zhou), but it’s a bit of a stretch. And 48 overall – line texts, too – is mostly about repairing the well. So he translates it here as ‘renew’.

I went to look this up. Dictionary meanings? Change, amend, transform, modify, correct, put right… – nothing about relocation. In compound words in modern Chinese it also has to do with reforming, improving, rearranging and remaking – also nothing about moving. In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, it appears three times: to mend (a worn coat), the turning of the year, and not-gai meaning ‘unvarying’. Still nothing about relocation. Hmm.

What about the etymology? The phonetic component might be a loom thread or shuttle; the signific is a hand wielding an axe or mattock – a digging tool. The phonetic component apparently had an ancient meaning of ‘unravelling’ – which makes me wonder if it was chosen for this character to suggest ‘unmaking and remaking’. (Nowadays, land-gai means agrarian reform, and gai-group is to reshuffle.)

So there is plenty of evidence to back up Lars’ view that this means not ‘you can move cities but not wells’ (not least, come to think of it, that there is no ‘may’ or ‘cannot’ in the Chinese!) but ‘you’re making repairs to your city, not your well’. What difference does this make to the oracle as a whole?

To begin with, it casts a whole new light on ‘without loss, without gain’. It is actually not convincing to say this means ‘the level of the well water never decreases or increases': water tables do rise and fall, and human activity has an effect. (Just the other day I read a triumphant story from Tigray, where the fruits of shared labour mean you now have to dig only 10 ft down to find water, when it used to be 50ft.)

Also, the meanings of the words are (sorry, Wilhelm) not just ‘decrease’ and ‘increase’. They’re loss as in mourning for the dead and gain as in getting or achieving, literally a hand grasping money. Sang 喪, losing, appears quite a lot in the Yi, and always with an object, losing something specific: partners, a helper; sheep, a horse, cattle; a ladle, a veil, a hundred thousand coins. Always a clear and unmistakable loss, never just a matter of degree.

‘No loss no gain’ starts to sound to me like inertia – like me sitting at my desk all day and not exercising. There’s no gain and no loss obvious enough to weep over, I just get gradually fatter and stiffer. If the well is falling slowly into disrepair, over the course of years or maybe generations, there is never a day when you wake up and find you have lost your well in the same way you might lose your sheep, and mourn the loss. Rather –

‘We come and go, the well wells.’

I’ve always loved the poetic simplicity of that line: just four characters of Chinese, ‘go come well well’. We have comings and goings, to and fro; the well has no such contrasts, no such running about. For me this creates the same kind of effect as a timelapse video: the well quiet and still, and human feet scurrying to and fro, accelerated to absurdity.

This is still beautiful, still reassuring… but is it also tinged with melancholy? The meaning-structure is no longer ‘on the one hand, here are some beautiful truths about wells; on the other hand, this can go wrong’ but a straightforward, single story of neglect. (Very close in meaning to Lars’ version, in fact…) I’ve always thought it odd that what we generally regard as a ‘good’ hexagram should end its oracle with ‘pitfall’*.

‘The Well. Repairing the city, not repairing the well,
Nothing lost, nothing gained,
We come and go; the well wells.
Almost reaching, and yet the rope not quite drawing water,
Your clay pitcher weakened,

(*Actually, it’s very interesting to look at which hexagrams do mention ‘pitfall’ – misfortune, bad luck – in their oracles. Not 23, not 29, not 36, not 47 – but 6, 8, 19 and 48. And the ones that have ‘pitfall’ as the last word are 8, 19 and 48. They seem to have a common theme: you have something good here, and it’s unfortunate when you mess it up.)

I don’t know the first thing about the Yi

March 17th, 2015

Well, here I am getting started teaching week 1 of the I Ching Foundations Class, so it’s hard to think of a better title for a blog post…

Oh, I know quite a few things about Yi. I know some of its history and the stories behind its words, and how its components work together, and how to interpret what it has to say. Ask me what connects 48.3 to hexagram 29 in particular, or what to make of a reading where you receive it along with lines 1 and 5, and I could probably give you a sensible answer. Ask me about all the structural-interpretive tools I enjoy using, and I could probably write a book.

The first thing about Yi, the one I don’t know: why these words with this line?

Some millennia ago, some people somehow took patterns of lines and oral traditions of myth, history and omens, and put them together. They could look at




and know that this meant ‘Well’.

They somehow brought about a confluence of many streams of wisdom, and so they created something between a great work of art and a force of nature.

I play in orchestras, and I have trouble imagining how someone like Sibelius or Mahler conceives of new worlds of sound, never heard before, in his mind’s ear. But the mind that did this? I haven’t the beginnings of an inkling; I do not think I have the right kind of thinking apparatus. If I were in the least inclined to believe in visiting aliens, they’d come in very handy here.

As an aside – yes, I’ve read Wilhelm Book III and much more along similar lines, purporting to explain the line texts in light of line correspondences, trigrams and nuclear trigrams. This is a tremendously ingenious post-hoc patchwork of explanations: there is a wheel in 9.3 because the trigram qian is round; there is a wheel in 63.1 because wheels are associated with kan. The horse of 26.3 is there because of qian, the horse of 59.1 is there because of kan – and so on. Marvellously thorough and detailed work, but not (remotely) the answer to my question, ‘How was this made? How did they know to put these words with this line?’

We can imagine words and traditions gradually coalescing around lines. An obvious example would be the threads of Zhou history that found their way into the book – but which do look, pretty clearly, like threads woven into an existing fabric. Perhaps someone cast those lines at those moments and the divination stories became part of the tradition. We do something like this nowadays, after all, sharing and remembering the more vivid stories of our experiences with the lines. But this is still a long way from perceiving for the first time that


is the Marrying Maiden.

How is that done? I thought I would ask Yi. (Really, can you think of any other source to ask?)

I didn’t want to ask this one sitting at my desk – I took the beads outside so I could stand on the ground under the sky and ask.

Yi, what happened at this confluence of myth, tradition and gua? How were you made?



Small goes, great comes.
Good fortune, creating success.’

(A bird started singing as I reached line 4.)

‘3 coin casting’ video

February 25th, 2015

I’ve taken my courage (and three shiny 10p pieces) in both hands and created another video. This one with my face in…  hiding

It’s about how to consult the I Ching with three coins. I had wondered whether to include this in the Foundations Class, when most people are already familiar with it, but not everyone is. Making this available free ahead of the class seemed a good solution.

Also, it gives me the chance to include a couple of extra downloads – a quick reference, and another booklet on ‘ways of casting’ from yarrow to donkeys.

If you’ve only ever consulted through online readings, this is for you. Hexagrams and lines make a lot more sense once you’ve cast a hexagram yourself.


Foundations for confident readings

February 18th, 2015

Thinking about the I Ching Foundations Class has got me thinking about what’s actually necessary to be able to interpret your own readings with some confidence – not with a cast-iron assurance that you’ll never make a mistake, just enough confidence that you can have a useful, creative, supportive, working relationship with the Yi. There are a lot of things it’s fascinating and tremendously helpful to know, a lot of tools that can transform understanding of a reading, lots of insights from long experience – but really, what’s the minimum you need to interpret your own readings? As that’s what I need to include in this class.


This reminds me of a story Jill Bolte-Taylor told, of how – as a grown woman – she found herself utterly baffled by the task of putting together a simple jigsaw. She’d had a major stroke – you’ve probably come across her Ted talk or her book about it – and had everything to relearn. Her mother looked carefully at how she was struggling, and told her she could use the colours to match the pieces. This, Jill says, made her aware of the colours – previously, she hadn’t registered their existence. All at once, jigsaws became a lot more possible.

To put a jigsaw together, you need just a few things: an awareness of the shapes of the different pieces; an awareness of the colours of the picture. Imagine for a moment trying to complete the task with one of those things simply missing from your awareness. But with them, more strategies become available – like putting all the edge pieces together first, or comparing with the picture on the box.

Interpreting a reading is similar. You need to be aware of the colours and the shapes – of how the oracle responds to you in imagery, and how the pieces of the reading fit together. Without either of those, you’re going to be badly stuck; with them, you have foundations on which to build your own style of interpreting and your own relationship with Yi.

I’ve spoken to a few people recently who have both the gifts and the training to understand imagery, but then find their readings look like a jumbled pile of image-pieces: primary, relating, lines, more lines, assorted texts… lots of bits that show no sign of fitting together. The image-pieces can and do still help, but the picture’s missing.

And then there are people who come to a screeching halt when Yi starts talking about kings, feudal lords and marrying maidens, none of which – of course – exists in their world. This is the colour, the imagery – and there are a few simple, learn-able skills to relating to imagery that will make readings a lot more possible.

Is there anything else you need for readings? Probably only some insight into how to ask clear, true questions. (I think this is where my jigsaw analogy reaches the end of its useful life – er, unless having your question in mind is like looking at the picture on the lid?)

How to learn these basics? Some well-chosen reading, years of experience and an abundance of trial and error work fine. I think the Foundations Class will be good, too.


A final note. The stroke survivors I’ve got to know from volunteering at the local Stroke Club are tremendously warm, courageous, ingenious and resourceful people, dealing with ridiculously hard problems. The umbrella organisation to support survivors in the UK is the Stroke Association.


Hexagram 44, insect bites and nuclears

February 12th, 2015

Here is a remarkable article from Alexa over at the Quotable I Ching, about Hexagram 44 and desire – and, yes, insect bites. Remarkable for how she captures the spirit of the hexagram – and without mentioning the ‘powerful woman’ even once.

:|||||She says the ‘encounter’ of 44 is like the encounter with a biting insect that leaves an itch – an irritation, invitation, temptation and chaotic force. ‘Trouble brewing under the skin’, she says – and you can see that in the shape of the hexagram, I think, with its insignificant-looking little opening in line 1 .

So where does ‘the woman is powerful, do not take this woman’ fit in? Perhaps she represents the strength of desire and the object of desire, and taking the woman is like – well – scratching the itch. It misses the point, because she has further to go. Trying to bring her under control in this way not only works just about as well as scratching the mosquito bite, it also misses the potential, fails to see where this could go. Alexa writes, ‘Often, what we want right now is a scratchy shroud over what our soul longs for.’

Actually, the beginning of her post reminded me of Hexagram 31 as much as 44. Which is interesting, because 44 is the nuclear hexagram of 31 –


– folded within it as potential, so that 31 shows one way in which the challenge of 44 can be worked out in living experience – through opening to influence, creating space and being moved.

And the other hexagrams of which 44 is the nuclear – the other ways of living it out?

In Hexagram 49 – through radical change, changing the form of government, changing skin. Hidden at the heart of such change is the force that demands it, with an implicit warning that it might not be quite as under control as you think.

(I think Rilke wrote about the 49-experience of 44 in his Archaic Torso of Apollo. Here’s the German original, and an English translationSomehow, an intense encounter with a work of art – that ‘glimmers like the hide of a predatory animal’ – becomes an extraordinary imperative: you must change your life.)

In Hexagram 13, through going out beyond the familiar walls and into the wilds to meet strangers-and-allies. (What if they’re completely different from us? What if they aren’t?)

And in Hexagram 33, through retreating – up the mountain, away from the threat, but still carrying the inner itch with you. (You never know what might visit you, up in the cave.)

Clarity in 2015

January 31st, 2015

I haven’t made a post like this before, but I can see the wisdom in making public commitments, so here goes… this is what I intend to offer you through Clarity this year.

I Ching classes

I’ll run a series of live online classes – using a combination of live calls and private forum for support – through the year. The first will be in March, and I’m thinking of starting with a class for absolute beginners – though that depends on whether there’s sufficient demand.

I’ll send an email to ‘Friends’ Notes’ subscribers soon to ask for your advice and help to design this and future classes. (I just need to create a survey that asks all I need to ask without being stupidly long!)

I’ve pencilled in more advanced classes for June and September – it all depends on what people are interested in – and I expect to fit in at least one more opening for individual readings inbetween the classes. Each class will be for a small-ish group of maybe 20 people, and Change Circle members will have first claim on places (and a discount).


I’ll open for readings at least once more this year. Exactly when depends on energy levels and other circumstances, so I won’t promise a date for those.

Change Circle, er, changes

Well, no very enormous changes: we still have the private forum, Reading Circle (for posts you would rather not share with Google), and WikiWing, the experienced-based, member-created hexagram-by-hexagram commentary. And assorted useful downloads, discounts and such-like.

I very much appreciate (and depend on!) Change Circle members’ ongoing support, so I keep looking for ways to show it. This year we’re trying something new, where I’m available for 20 minute personal Skype/phone chats each week for any Yi-related questions. These are on Saturdays during February, starting on the 7th. (Details and booking link are here.)

Also, WikiWing is expanding – I’m adding articles on different parts of the ‘diviner’s toolkit’ (like pairs, nuclears and so on) which we can fill out with more examples and experiences over the coming months.

If you’re not already a Change Circle member, would you like to join? You’d be very welcome. Here’s the sign-up page :) .

Hexagram 63 continued

January 16th, 2015

‘…and now the conclusion.’

So as I was saying… trigrams, in Hexagram 63. On the inside, li, fire and light: vision, awareness, lucidity. As an inner trigram, li tends to mean insight into the nature of the time. On the outside, kan, dark depths and unceasingly moving waters that can flow anywhere and take any shape. Everything unpredictable, ungraspable, unknowable – its only constant quality is that it changes.

The trigrams show awareness inside the stream: on the inside, the centre is open, listening and looking; on the outside, the whole stream of stuff keeps on happening, and we keep on acting and adapting.

The two trigrams are complementary – that is, they match up; you can imagine fitting them together like mould and cast, with the firm central line of kan fitting into the open space at the centre of li. In the same way, the noble one’s awareness is ‘fitted’ to the flow of experience. Awareness within the flow means the noble one has some powers of anticipation, and asks not only ‘Now what?’ but also ‘What could go wrong?’

‘Stream dwells above fire. Already across.
A noble one reflects on distress and prepares to defend against it.’

The characters for ‘reflects on distress’ are  (the links are to the Chinese Etymology site). As you can see, both characters contain ‘heart’, and ‘reflection’ is made of heart and head – full awareness. (It’s also intriguing that Richard Sears gives the meanings ‘remember, recall, mourn’ for the character – suggesting it has to do with looking back – in this case, perhaps as a way of looking forward.)

Projecting this constant, open-hearted anticipation into a flow of action is the noble one’s way of always beginning, not falling into the chaos of endings. I think this is not obsessive cogitation about what could go wrong, but more of a compassionate awareness of flows and tendencies – not unlike the noble one’s powers of anticipation in Hexagram 54, as the Marrying Maiden.

And this is followed by practical steps to prepare and defend. The defences, incidentally, are the same word as in 62.3: earth embankments. Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of flood defences.

(This might mean that in my excitable planning phases – those I mentioned in my last post, that are generally followed by a slither down a muddy bank – I need to think not only about all that’s possible with all this energy and enthusiasm, but also what I’ll do when I run out of that.)

The similarity to Hexagram 54 isn’t altogether coincidental. There are quite a few links between 53 and 54, the marriage hexagrams, and 63-64.

There’s the thematic link: you cross the river on the way to your marriage.

There’s a structural link: Already Across and Not Yet Across are a special kind of hexagram pair, what Schorre and Dunne call a ‘river crossing’ pair, formed both by inversion and complementarity. (That is, turning 63 upside down gives you 64, but so does changing every line of 63 to its opposite.) There are only four such pairs: 11-12 (whose nuclear hexagrams are 54-53), 17-18 (whose nuclear hexagrams are 53-54), 53-54 (whose nuclear hexagrams are 64-63) and 63-64 (whose nuclears are 64-63).

And there’s also a link in the zagua, the tenth and final Wing of the Yijing, which begins with hexagrams neatly arranged in their contrasting pairs, and ends… well… chaotically, with apparently unrelated hexagrams jumbled together in a tangle of rhymes. 63-64 are among these: instead of appearing as a contrasting pair, they show up like this:

‘Nourishment is correct; Already Across is settled.
Marrying maiden, a woman’s completion; Not Yet Across, a man’s exhaustion.’

That ‘completion’ is the same word as ‘endings’ as in ‘endings, chaos’. Also the ‘maiden’ herself is etymologically-speaking a ‘not-yet woman’ – as in ‘not yet across’.

The concepts of these hexagrams are utterly intertwined – rather than trying to disentangle and arrange them tidily, I think it’s better to point (with a certain amount of enthusiastic hand-waving) to connecting themes: completion and incompletion, ways and ways of being settled*, different kinds of strength, male and female (archetypally so rather than biologically, I think), and how they’re adapted to handle (in)completion.

* The 63 way of being ‘settled’, by the way, shows a footstep arrived under a roof – the kind of ‘settled’ you have when you’ve arrived home, perhaps once you’re married and ready for ‘happily ever after’. 27’s ‘correctness’ shows that footstep simply arrived. A fully realised 27-situation would be a self-sustaining, self-balancing ecosystem of mutual support. 63-ness… not quite the same.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could create smooth, logical transitions and evolutions between one part of this post and the next? I suppose that was never really going to happen. Ah well. Other things I find intriguing about hexagram 63…

Its nuclear hexagram

I do love the way 63 and 64 – as well as being one another’s complement and inversion – are also one another’s nuclear hexagram. Each contains the other, in a kind of infinite matryoshka doll regress. At one extreme of the Sequence of Hexagrams are pure absolutes that are their own nuclear hexagrams: the Creative is the Creative and Earth is always Earth, no matter how you slice them. Here at the other end, we have something absolutely human, with the struggle to hang on to gains and stay afloat, slippery muddy banks and of course the fine balance between too much alcohol and just enough. What’s complete is incomplete is complete is incomplete; what’s done is undone is done is undone… . These are hexagrams for housework, or the email inbox, or (heaven help us) ‘life lessons’.

Its smallness

Already Across follows – maybe surprisingly – from Hexagram 62:

‘Going past others naturally means crossing the river, and so Already Across follows.’

That’s ‘going past’ as in ‘exceeding’ in the name of Hexagram 62, which means transgressing, crossing the line, going beyond. If you keep on going a bit beyond what’s normal and doing a bit more than the ‘done thing’ – always just a bit, always small and down-to-earth – you find this amounts to crossing the river: a real commitment and real progress.

The smallness persists, though: being already across creates small success, or shows a small offering accepted. And in the fifth line, the Zhou people (the Eastern neighbour) are making a true spiritual connection through a small scale offering.

This attention to the small stuff is all part of keeping on beginning. The lines are also mostly small-scale: a wet tail, a lost carriage screen, leaks to be plugged. Expect difficulty, don’t get sidetracked, safeguard your gains, stay afloat, stay connected, don’t get carried away. (One of King Wen’s reproaches to Shang in the Song I quoted: it wasn’t heaven that got you drunk.)

The third line, of course, is not small scale –

‘The high ancestor attacks the Demon Country.
Three years go round, and he overcomes it.
Don’t use small people.’

That’s a large scale and long term military undertaking, and not for small people. Yet it’s this line’s change that shows the connection to Hexagram 3, Sprouting – or ‘Difficulty Beginning’. (This 60-hexagram gulf, by the way, is the largest distance bridged by a single line-change anywhere in the Yi.)

It’s a very apt zhi gua (anyone would think someone designed this…): the moment where Already Across encounters Difficulty Beginning. That’s the anxious line 3 moment: peering out across the threshold, asking ‘What could this actually mean in practice?’ 63 might say ‘We’ve arrived!’ but 3 knows it’s only beginning. 63 might have conquered a great realm and founded a grand new regime, but 3 experiences this as just a tiny garrison camp in the middle of strange territory.