I’ve been using the I Ching for about 30 years and it never fails to surprise me. This is a feature I wrote many years ago for the Daily Mail. I met my dear friend Sarah Dening (sadly now departed) writing this so am republishing it in her memory. xx
The I Ching is one of the oldest books in the world yet the advice it offers strikes straight to the heart of most modern dilemmas. The I Ching or Book of Changes (which dates back to at least 3,000 BCE) is a personal guidebook on how best to handle the complexities of life, giving precise instructions on how to deal most effectively with your career, your relationships, your family, your health. If you are uncertain which path to take; what action to follow, ask the I Ching. It will tell you how to act, when to act or when simply to keep your head down and do nothing. If you’re at all indecisive, the I Ching could be your greatest ally -it truly is the great decision-maker.
The I Ching is often mistakenly represented as a form of divination but in reality it is perhaps the first self-help manual. You can fiddle around with yarrow stalks but I use the far more straightforward coin method. You shake three coins of the same denomination in your cupped hand and let them fall into a flat surface. You will receive one of four possible combinations and a clear chart allows you to build up a pattern from the six lines known as a hexagram. There are 64 initial variations said to mirror all the possible situations that might arise in life. You simply look up your particular hexagram in the book and read the appropriate text. It may sound like little more than fortune-telling but most people who try the I Ching soon realise it is no parlour game: the text doesn’t tell you what will happen but rather advises you on the best way to maximise the potential of the current situation. It won’t promise tall dark strangers or presage a sudden windfall on the lottery. In fact it comes across, not as a soothsayer but more like a sage grandparent, offering cogent (and not always welcome) commonsense advice.
I have always found it uncannily accurate. Once when I was househunting I decided to throw the coins to check a flat I was considering. The oracle expressed deep disquiet telling me in no uncertain terms to beware of a “hidden pool of dark water.” This seemed a little dramatic but, on a return visit, I moved a bed and discovered just that – a dark puddle of water created by seepage.
I Ching expert Sarah Dening showed no surprise at my experience. As a Jungian psychotherapist she used the I Ching in her practice for many years and wrote a book on the subject, The Everyday I Ching (Simon & Schuster). There have been many translations and commentaries of the Chinese text over the years, most of them complex and often confusing. The Everyday I Ching however offers an ideal starting point – giving clear concise instructions on how to use the oracle and answers couched in everyday language while still remaining true to the original intent of the I Ching.
“The I Ching is remarkably accurate if you use it properly and respectfully,” says Dening, “use it well and it will enhance your life as though it were a wise and trusted friend.” She explains that the I Ching predates acupuncture and the ancient exercise system qigong; it is older still than the increasingly popular science of feng shui. In fact, the I Ching is the basis on which all elements of Chinese philosophy and science are based. Acupuncture clears away blockages in the body by allowing the vital energy, or qi, to circulate freely and easily. Feng shui does the same in the outer environment by allowing a clear energy flow around the home and workplace. Similarly the I Ching advises you on the right actions and the right timing to allow yourself to move freely and easily through life, to “get into the flow”.
It might sound rather vague and “New Age” but the I Ching is anything but. It was used for centuries by Chinese rulers who wanted to govern well and as Sarah Dening says, “It is very strategic, quite political almost – and highly pragmatic.” In America, she points out, it is often consulted for business purposes and she says, with a smile, that it wouldn’t do our politicians any harm to consult it from time to time.
How can simply throwing coins come up with such precise and accurate advice? “Nobody really knows how it works,” admits Dening, “It’s certainly uncanny and yet I don’t believe there’s anything magical or mystical about it.” She thinks most likely the I Ching connects us to the unconscious part of our brain, the intuitive side: “It seems to act as a bridge between you and your deep intuitive knowledge. Somewhere deep inside you really know the answer to the question, it’s just hidden from conscious thought. I can’t prove it but I think it allows you access to right brain information that allows you to see the whole picture.”
To get the best out of the I Ching you have to phrase your question very clearly and precisely. Sarah Dening finds that often the simple process of focusing on the problem helps to straighten it out. “Often simply talking about it can help,” she says, “and sometimes the answer appears as they formulate the question.” One thing the I Ching will not stand is idle or foolish questions – or being asked the same question over and over again in the hopes of a more palatable answer. Ten to one the flippant questioner will end up with the hexagram which in Sarah Dening’s book is called Inexperience: “Advice is only useful if you are prepared to listen,” it warns, “It may be you already know the answer or, as so often happens, you have already consulted the I Ching on this point. The answer you received was not the one you wanted and so you keep on asking in the hope of being given something more to your liking.” This, it says quite brusquely, is not acceptable. Reading it makes you feel like a naughty child.
On the whole, however, the I Ching is gentle, wise and kind. Used properly it can become a valuable tool, not just for negotiating the pitfalls of life, but for self-development and growth. C G Jung, the famous psychotherapist who was a great advocate of the I Ching, believed that it could help you to discover your true essence. “Jung said that we come into life with an essential blueprint of what we are,” says Sarah Dening, “and that all psychotherapy and growth was about finding your way back to that essential self. He said it was the point at which you were touched by the divine.”
However it works, the I Ching has a profound effect on everyone who uses it. It’s like tapping in to an infinitely wise, infinitely loving source of knowledge. And yes, at times it does feel like talking to something close to divine.