copyright 2005 Jonathan Zap
What is the I Ching?
The I Ching is an ancient Chinese oracle between five and six thousand years old. Its exact origins are lost in the mists of time as no written record has been discovered that can tell us of its earliest development. The I Ching is considered the world’s oldest book, far older than the earliest books of the Bible. The I Ching is more central to Eastern culture than the Bible is to Western culture. For example, the following are based on the I Ching: Taoism, Yin/Yang, T’ai Chi, Kung Fu, Feng Shui, the Tao Te Ching, Chinese medicine and herbalism (including the underlying principals of acupuncture). Zen Buddhism is also largely inspired and derived from the I Ching.
The I Ching is composed of 64 binary mathematical patterns called hexagrams. Each hexagram is composed of six lines which may be broken (yin) or solid (yang).
In addition to being considered the world’s first book, the I Ching is also considered to be the world’s first computer. German philosopher and mathematician G. W. Leibnitz (1646-1716), the founder of symbolic logic and coinventer of calculus, was fascinated with the I Ching’s binary mathematical structure. The I Ching may have inspired Leibnitz to develop the binary number system of zeros and ones that all modern computers are based on.
The mathematical structure of the I Ching seems to have an uncanny universality that emerges in culture and nature. The chess board has sixty-four light and dark squares. Far more significant, human DNA is composed of 64 codons and the ancient Chinese ideogram signifying I Ching looks like a DNA double helix.
The basic idea of the I Ching is that as you are going through a human life you are cycling through sixty-four dynamic, energetic “situations” which are represented by the sixty-four hexagrams. Each of the hexagrams has a classic archetypal and extremely familiar aspect—-a time to summon your will to overcome a difficult obstruction, a time to just chill out and let things come to you, a time to be in community with others, a time to be in solitary contemplation, etc. The dynamic, energetic pattern of the hexagram will apply to psychological/spiritual dynamics (intrapsychic) and/or environmental dynamics, especially personal or political relationships (interpersonal). The I Ching recognizes the parallelism of inner and outer, and hexagrams often apply on multiple levels. For example, we might go to the I Ching to ask about a problem in a romantic relationship. But a problem in a romantic relationship almost always reflects where we are inwardly, and probably has as much to do with our spirituality as our sexuality and attitude toward relationships. The I Ching transcends the often arbitrary distinctions of inner and outer and recognizes the “massively parallel” nature of human incarnation.
To ground this a bit, let’s consider a particular hexagram and see if it is recognizable as a classic, archetypal pattern of energy and change. Hexagram 24 is called “The Turning Point” or “Return.”
The structure of the hexagram is that there are five broken (yin) lines above one solid (yang) line. We build hexagrams from the bottom up, so the position of the yang line is called “the first place,” and it represents the newest energy in the situation. Since yang is associated with light, and yin with darkness, this hexagram represents a situation where the principle of darkness (which would be represented by six yin lines) has “maxed out,” and the new, young light energy has started to reemerge. This classic pattern applies to all sorts of cases. For example: Related to the calendar this would be the Winter Solstice where the longest night means that the days must now get longer. Related to bodily healthy, this might be the first signs of recovery after a long illness. Related to the economy, this might be the first signs of economic growth after a long recession or depression. Related to the interpersonal, this might be the first moments of understanding in a relationship that has long been estranged. Related to the psychological, this might be the first step toward returning to essence after a long period of acquired conditioning.
How do we consult the I Ching? Consulting the I Ching involves building a hexagram. Consulting the I Ching involves building a hexagram. The hexagram is created by means of devices that to the Western mind seem completely random—choosing bunches of yarrow stalks, tossing three coins six times or choosing six glass pebbles from a bag. People raised in the West will tend to presume that the outcome must be random. But according to findings in chaos mathematics and information theory, randomness may be impossible, and the assumption of randomness in various observed phenomena may be one of the most immense wrong turnings that science ever took. Another possibility is that the coin toss or pebble choice is a “synchronicity.” (Those of you already familiar with the concept of synchronicity could skim over the following)
The first time I ever photographed an I Ching coin toss caught a coin landing on its edge photo copyright Jonathan Zap
“Synchronicity” is a term that was coined by C.G. Jung in the 1940s after some dinner conversations with Einstein. Jung defined synchronicity as an “an acausal connecting principle.” In other words, synchronicity describes relationships that are not mediated by cause and effect, but instead have an acausal parallelism. Jung was searching for a way to account for those uncanny, completely improbable “coincidences” (assumption of randomness) where something from the inner life and something from the outer world would “synch up.” For example, Jung reccounts an incident that occurred when he was treating a woman patient. This woman, according to Jung, was blocked from progressing in her psychoanalytical treatment because she tried to apply a superficial rationalism to everything. One day, this woman came to her session very excited. She had just had a “big” dream that involved Jung. In the denouement of her dream Jung appeared and handed her a golden scarab, an object that she recognized as an Egyptian symbol of immortality. As she was relating the dream, Jung noticed a tapping sound coming from the window of his consulting room. He opened the window and a golden, scaraboid beetle, not native to the area of Switzerland where his consulting room was, flew into the room. Jung caught the insect in his hand and when the woman related the moment in the dream where Jung gave her a golden scarab he opened his hand and presented her with a living, golden, saraboid beetle. This intense synchronicity punctured her superficial rationalism and she was able to progress with here analysis. Jung could find no causal agency that would explain why this insect would go against its natural instincts and demand admittance to a darkened room.
A personal example of a synchronicity involves a day some years ago when I was reading Jung’s book, Synchronicity, the Acausal Connecting Principle. At the time I was living in the East Village area of Manhattan and was reading the book in the libary. In the passage I was reading, Jung recounted a series of synchronicistic events that began with dreaming about a fish. He awoke from the dream and the first book he opened had a picture of a fish. Then there was fish for lunch, and later he saw a dead fish on the sidewalk, etc. I remember being greatly underwhelmed by this anectdote. A fish is such a common thing, I thought, if you were looking for it of course it would seem to be everywhere. I gathered up my stuff and exited the library walking the two blocks to my apartnemt building. I unlocked the outer door of my building and walked up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. Someone had drawn a picture of a fish in white chalk on the door!
When Jung coined the term synchronicity it was a speculation. Since then, the findings of quantum mechanics (especially what is referred to as “nonlocality”) demonstrate that synchronicity is a key organizing principle of the universe. If synchronicity governs the oracle consultation, then when you toss coins or choose pebbles to create a hexagram you create a pattern that refelcts that moment in time, and that moment in time includes your intentionality in approaching the I Ching and the energetic dynamics of your situation. Anybody who works with the I Ching discovers how synchronistic it. Three summers ago I had a run of nine consecutive days getting the same hexagram (number 23, Collapse) each day for my daily general life reading. According to probability theory the odds of this happening randomly are 1 in 64X64X64X64X64X64X64X64X64.
What does an I Ching reading tell me?
It is possible to ask the I Ching about a specific problem, relationship, life choice, etc. Especially if this is your first I Ching consultation I strongly reccommend starting with a “general life reading” which means that you ask no question but give the I Ching the widest field to comment on. The I Ching will tend to respond to the most significant thing going on, especially in a first reading, even if that’s not exactly what you asked about.
Only you can decide if the I Ching hexagram you get is relevant. Neither faith nor disbelief is helpful in getting a reading—what the I Ching counsels is an open, neutral stance. Although I (Jonathan) try to keep my ego and personality out of your consultation with the I Ching, it is an imperfect process, so take anything I say with a grain of salt, test and question everything, and only accept that which resonates with your inner truth sense. That’s probably what you would do anyway, but I think it’s important to acknowledge.
An I Ching reading is not “fortune telling” in the sense that it is not attempting clairvoyance, or foreseeing your future. Any oracle that does claim clairvoyance has to presume that you lack free will which could alter the outcome, and the I Ching emphatically does not make that presumption. Also, the I Ching is an ancient, not a New Age, oracle. It is not designed, like “Angel Cards,” to make you feel good in a vague, fuzzy way, but to pierce through to what’s really going on. It tells us what we need to hear, not necessarily what we want to hear (as when I got hexagram 23, Collapse, during nine consecutive traumatic days).
Finally, a key purpose in doing your I Ching reading is to introduce you to an oracle that you can have your own realtionship with. It takes five minutes or so to learn how to build a hexagram. There is great value in both doing your own I Ching readings and sometimes consulting someone else for an I Ching reading to get a different perspective. Soon I will post an I Ching bibliography which will tell you about the versions I use and what their stengths and weaknesses are.
The I Ching is not a religion, or a system that forces upon you dogmatic beliefs, but rather a versatile spiritual/psychological oracular technology—the Swiss Army Knife of spiritual tools. If I were hitchhiking cross country with a back pack I would probably leave out my sleeping bag before I gave up my I Ching. Many seekers travel to exotic places searching for a guru and find someone who ends up hitting on them. But if you have an open mind, a will to learn and a good version of the I Ching, you have twenty-four hour a day access to an omniscient, egoless source of guidance and insight. Thanks for taking the time to read this.
Thank you very much. Your writing was clear, lucid and concise and the insights were honest, objective and heartfelt. It is the most informative and balanced online article I have read on the I Ching. I wish everyone could write the way you do. I have spent many years as a Diviner, trying to connect to some kind of constant the unceasing flow of the quantum worlds. Crazy, foolish dance but so exhilarating.