The I Ching – the book of changes – is a strange thing. It is, all at once, a divinatory practice, a meditative technique, a highly significant cultural document and a vocabulary. All crammed into a very small package, most of which – for western readers – will consist of contextual information, clarifications and useful forewording. The actual text is a mixture of commentary, general life advice and technical documentation, all intertwined. Those looking for a straightforward read will be highly disappointed.
In technical terms, the I Ching is a six bit binary system with 64 different states. As with a computer binary, each bit can either be 0 or 1, yin or yang. Depending on which six bits are given by the divinatory process, the resulting sign can give very differing interpretations of the situation you find yourself in. The sequence 000111 gives you the sign Stagnation, a very clear indication that the situation is hopeless and that nothing good can come out of persisting; the general advice is to leave as quickly as humanly possible. This can be contrasted with the at first glance seemingly opposite 111010, the sign for Calm Anticipation, which advises that a great or dangerous moment is imminent, yet that the time to act is not quite here; the general advice is to wait energetically. Two very different moods to find oneself in, yet very compactly conveyed through the use of merely six lines.
This efficiency is ever so slightly opaque to those who do not know the signs. It is also a remarkable achievement. It manages to place wildly disparate life experiences into the same framework, and thus allows for comparisons between different situations and the appropriate courses of action for each such situation. When under the sign of Stagnation, the only possible way forward is to just drop everything and get out, since nothing can be salvaged. When under the sign of Calm Anticipation, however, the opposite is true – the winning move is to firmly keep your eyes on what’s ahead and sticking to the plan. The wisdom imparted by comparing these two signs is that these are two possible life situations to find oneself in, and that being able to tell which applies to the current moment is crucial to getting ahead.
As you might imagine, there are a great number of possible comparisons to make with 64 available signs. To make things even more interesting, each sign is subdivided into six subvariations depending on which line gets emphasized in the divinatory process. Take 111010 as an example. Emphasis on the first line indicates that the danger is far away still, and that the best way to prepare is to live in such a way that the appropriate virtues are firmly in place when it finally does arrive. This can be contrasted with fourth line, which indicates that the danger is already clear and present, and that the proper move is to not make things worse in a blind panic, but to calmly hold fast. Both indicate that things will get better once the approaching danger can be overcome, but that overcoming this danger is a function of the actions taken in the calm moments of preparation.
Math enthusiasts will quickly figure out that the sum of these subvariations is 384, a respectable number of possible life situations. When I earlier called the I Ching a vocabulary, this is very much what I meant; being able to systematically distinguish between such a large number of possible situations (and the prudent courses of action for each) is a whole dedicated skill in itself. Being able to talk with confidence about the subtle differences between the different signs and their subvariations is yet another skill, one which may very easily be (as the character of Chidi in the TV series The Good Place so eloquently exemplifies) mistaken for wisdom. It is the allure of what is signified through 101001, Effortless Grace, which ever so slyly emphasizes the former over the latter.
The great number of variations points towards one of the inherent paradoxes of the I Ching system. On the one hand, the sheer volume indicated that just about everything ought to be covered in there somewhere. On the other hand, any student of creative writing will surely be able to think up more than six variations for each sign, once they have gotten the general gist of what it is about. Indeed, anyone with sufficient life experience will be able to recall that one time when the sign itself was applicable, but none of the variants really fit. The world is greater than the attempt to systematically categorize it.
This paradox is not a bug, however. It is a feature. Once someone has gotten so used to the signs and variations that they are able to identify the blind spots of the system, they have mastered a vocabulary of situations, remedies and moods so vast as to be able to conceptualize just about anything they stumble upon. If a peculiar situation does not fit into the system, then that too is useful information, and indicates that there is something there that warrants thinking more intently about.
Thinking intently is one of the things the I Ching encourages its practitioners to do. Going through the motions of a divinatory session takes everything from 30 to 90 minutes, during which it is advisable to keep out all distractions. Not only because it is easy to lose count whilst going through said motions, but also because the sheer act of sitting still with the problem firmly in mind is itself a kind of thinking. As Jung almost phrased it, the hands are busy whilst the mind is giving space to consciously and unconsciously process the situation. Once the answer is given and a sign appears, the practitioner is more than ready to see how it applies to the present circumstance, in extensive detail.
The I Ching is a peculiar text, a discursive anomaly. It is, I dare say, a small book of big moods.