Encountering The Book Of Changes

It’s been one whole year since I started my project to delve deeply into the I Ching and understand its ancient wisdom by embodying it every day. On the shortest day of the year I reflect on what I have learned and how this enigmatic text continues to influence my thoughts, words, and deeds.


Photo by Taylor Leopold on Unsplash

For those who came in late…

The rain falls down on last year's man
— Leonard Cohen

I’m 45 weeks into my 64-week journey with the I Ching. I woke up on the Monday following the Winter (June) Solstice and had the inspiration to begin working with the symbols contained in the ancient Book of Changes on a daily basis.

The idea being that for each day of the week, I would read, contemplate, and embody the wisdom of each of the lines of the hexagram, thus working with one hexagram per week (Sunday being a day of integration). At first, I was just reading the text associated with each line; after a few weeks I began to read the original text itself, and work on translating it myself, as well as reading the translations and exegesis of others.

Most of the time, I could find a way to weave the wisdom of that day’s text, or the hexagram’s teaching as a whole, into my daily experiences. The idea that there is a ‘pure’ meaning to the I Ching is not in my opinion correct. Interpretation is going to be influenced in some part by what we are experiencing in our field (to borrow a term from physics), and so it makes sense that any journal of my experiences cannot just be a dry, scholarly translation and explanation. My understanding is going to be tainted by my own life and perceptions, and there is no way I can truly detach myself from my biases; so why not weave my personal story into the impersonal one?

Casual encounters

One moment we walked with the night breeze in our face
Then I looked, she'd gone of her presence, there was no trace
— Nick Drake

The week leading up to the solstice, I was working alongside the 44th hexagram. Titled 姤 GÒU, it explains how one should deal with limiting beliefs or behaviours as they begin to appear. The natural metaphor used is the wind from Heaven reaching the four corners of the world. The translation of its title is “Encountering”, as it is also likened to an unplanned and brief encounter between a man and “strong woman”.

Hexagram 44, 姤 GÒU, Encountering

Whilst there are many references in this hexagram about the single yīn line at the beginning as representing “evil”, or “acquired conditioning” (as opposed to the true nature of the pure Self), it is also stated that when Heaven (yáng) and Earth (yīn) meet in a mutual manner — even if it is for the briefest moment — then “all things are put in order”.

If we have done the work of clearing away some of our beliefs/behaviours that are the result of conditioning over time, and are making choices based on the authentic expression of the true-Self, then when these limiting patterns “rear their ugly head” again, they will not harm or unduly influence us this time. Anything is strong even in such a minority state only because it will grow given the chance; if it is undesirable, then prevention is the key. In such an instance, the onus is on the qualities and parts of us that need to be carrying out the act of prevention.

The ‘encounters’ described between this encroaching ‘bad influence’ and the the parts of us that must be strong enough to prevent these limiting beliefs taking over are challenging. However it is in challenge that we grow and evolve; various aspects of our lives are “put in order” (品物咸章也 pǐn wù xián zhāng yě) and given the opportunity to “act in the fullest capacity” (天下大行也 tiānxià dà xíng yě) through challenges we encounter.

Ordinary miracles

If you look up you can see it in the sky
Heavenly colours that paralyse the laws inside your mind
From a million years gone by
No ordinary life
— Matt Corby

One year later, and I ask myself, “have I learned anything, have I changed?” How has this journey so far influenced me, how has it affected how I live my life?

When I started this, I was feeling somewhat lost. I had put aside my career as a Chinese Medicine practitioner and teacher of Taoist arts and was unsure of my direction. I was dealing with what I felt was rejection by others. Having dropped my identity as a healer and teacher, I found many of the people who previously were wanting my attention no longer bothered to. Since I was no longer ‘selling’ anything, no one was really interested in what I had to say. And yet, my creative impulses flourished, and I found myself freed up to write and create whatever emerged naturally and spontaneously, no longer enslaved to needing to meet the needs of a ‘market’ or ‘audience’.

Not long after beginning this journey, and truly embodying the teachings of the I Ching on a daily basis, my work situation changed, and for the better. I feel more relaxed, more “in my ease”, and there is no sense of ‘urgency’ or importance to my activities. The work I do now holds just as much personal meaning and sense of fulfilment as did my role as a healer-teacher, and yet I have more time and more money also. I do feel I owe this in part to working — and walking — with the hexagrams of the Upper Canon (the first 30 hexagrams) which address higher, spiritual values.

According to the Taoists of the Quánzhēn (Complete Reality) school, the sequence of the hexagrams provides a map of shedding the layers of conditioning and the limiting beliefs/behaviours that arise (they refer to it as the ‘Human-mind’), and replacing it with the pure state of consciousness that is unique to each and every individual (one’s true nature, or the ‘Tao-mind’).

The symbol of GÒU is meant to challenge us to consider how our Tao-mind can use a temporary encounter with the Human-mind to serve our evolution and personal development in this moment. In my meditations today, contemplating not just the previous week but the previous year, I considered how the I Ching has been prodding me to think this way when I walk out to get on with my normal daily routine. In other words, how can I make the most mundane activities become miraculous, spiritual achievements? 

What can I learn from even the most simplest of actions, such as washing the dishes, or my interactions with other people?

If I assume that all mundane activities are expressions of the Human-mind, how does the Tao-mind interact with them, and how does my true nature learn and respond to them?

This is as much the lesson that this living text gives me: here is a specific moment — what would be the most appropriate way to behave? As well as that, I consider what choice to make that will be the most generative; meaning, a choice that will benefit me, and that those benefits will also lead to benefits, and so on (think compound interest). Moreover, what impact or consequence will these choices have on others — will they be limiting or generative to them?

For the most part, it has brought a general air of non-attachment. There is less anxiousness about stuff that really is of no consequence. There is also the realisation that some things really just don’t matter, and don’t actually affect my normal daily routine, no matter how much others may proclaim that I should pay attention and care. For my activist-self, this is a very challenging and alien notion.

All things pass

Daylight is good at arriving at the right time 
But it's not always going to be this grey
— George Harrison

The most obvious and stark truth that the I Ching reveals — particularly GÒU — is that time will move on, irrespective of what I think, say, or do. This hexagram represents the 5th month of the Lunar calendar, the month immediately following the Summer Solstice. Those reading this in the northern hemisphere, that time is now. Just as you have truly started your summertime celebrations, know that the days are getting shorter. 

This is the weird thing about time and the progress of the seasons. The sun never truly ‘stands still’, and winter is now closer than it was just a day or two ago! This is the secret behind the name of the text. 易 — the ‘change’ in “Book of Changes” — is not so much drawing our attention to time, but the bits between time, the phasing from one state to another. The character is made up of the compounds 日 rì, ‘day’; and 勿 , ‘without, never’.

Even though in this hexagram the dark principle (yīn) is in minority, it is at the same time stronger than the majority of the light principle (yáng), because it can only continue to grow, while the latter can only now shrink and reduce. This paradoxical element lies at the heart of the ancient Chinese epistemological paradigm, and is the foundation of Taoism and Zen Buddhism alike. This simple, natural, and yet complex truth is the challenge this text throws in our face. With this as fundamental Truth (with a capital ’T’), how do you live your life, and how do you really ever take anything too seriously?

Time will show the wiser

I'm moving through some changes
I'll never be the same
Something you did touched me
— Yes

From here, I have another 20 hexagrams to work with on this journey; assuming I don’t miss any weeks (because, life happens too) then I should finish before the end of 2019. I’m not too concerned about any of that, as this journey will take as long as it takes. I don’t have any preconceived notions of what the end of that journey will mean, or where it will take me from there. 

If there is one thing I have learned so far, it is to remain truly present to what is in the here and now, and respond to that accordingly.

To quote an often-used phrase in the I Ching:

利有攸往。 Lì yǒu yōu wǎng.

It is favourable to have a direction to go towards.


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