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i chingSo far as I can work out, finding the centre of one’s self is to attain a state of mind in which we are able to view our selves at the centre of a universe rich in personal meaning. We identify events in the external world as reflections of currents within our own psyche. We feel a detachment, virtue of a transcendent perspective, while also sensing our interconnectedness with the universe and everything in it.

We seek signs, symbols, messages of personal guidance, for clues to guide our way, and we receive them – or at the very least we are comfortable in suspending disbelief and acting upon irrational sixth-sensical notions. Everywhere, and everything becomes alive, numinous, our lives suddenly enriched with a sense of purpose and meaning. We feel calm, awed by the beauty and the mystery of both the inner and the outer worlds.

There are many labels for such a state of mind – pathological, perhaps, but more positively, we could call it living the religious life, or we might call it “Dao” or the “the way”, or in more contemporary terms we might call it living magically. Living the magical life we are armoured against calamity. This is not to say misfortune does not befall us, more that we are not harmed by it, psychologically, emotionally, in the same way. We are also less likely to create calamity for ourselves by unskillful ways of thinking and being.

But the journey to the centre is not a straight line. We circle inwards some way towards it, then back out again, gaining and then losing this cosmic perspective as the ego’s dominance over us waxes and wanes. But each time we circle in, we approach a little more towards the centre. Thus we progress in a spiralling, cyclical manner. Each cycle might take a year, or a decade – there is no way of knowing for sure, and no certain method for gaining progress or holding onto it. We move when we are ready. And when the cycle turns back to winter, there is nothing we can do but shield our flame in anticipation of the storms to come, while trusting in the more fruitful season’s eventual return.

I came upon my own guide to this phenomenon by chance in a book called the Yijing, or Book of Changes. It’s not the only guide. There have been many down the ages, and the one that’s right for each of us will show itself when we’re ready for it. The Yijing has a powerful mythic and symbolic underpinning, and through its use we learn the art of acting powerfully by not acting at all, other than by correctly interpreting and negotiating change. Through this art we come to understand our position within a pattern of existential dynamics, a flow of time – the times when we have influence but don’t realise it, and the times when we think we have it, but don’t. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a humble spirit and a faith in the generally benign nature of the universe – but these are not easy things to hold onto in a world as materialistic and cynical as ours.

It was a favourite of the hippy generation, but we can trace its origins back to China’s Neolithic period and the proto-writings of the Shang dynasty. It first came to the west in late Victorian times through the missionary James Legge, but was largely ignored. It came again in 1923 in a German translation, thanks to another missionary, the great sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, and was championed by Carl Jung who recognised its power as a psycho-analytical tool. A later English translation of the Wilhelm edition appeared in 1950 and is still in print. It’s this version you are still most likely to find in bookshops today.

Every generation has reinvented the Yijing somewhat, re-purposed it to its own times, its own myths and symbols. I collected as many versions of it I could find and boiled them down into my own interpretation, which I laboured over long and lovingly, and still use.

After a promising start though, and a significant change in direction as a result of the book’s counsel, I lost my way with it as a consequence of ego reasserting itself and demanding to know how the book worked. And then, as time, passed, ego began questioning my use of it on rational grounds, effectively calling me a new-age flake, and to get a grip.

To be sure, taking the lid off the Yijing is like opening Pandora’s box. You will never understand how it works, and greater minds than mine have been broken by it. To try is to fall into it and then its alchemical vortices will suck you down and tear you limb from limb. But ego tries, because it must, it abandons humility and loses the centre, is recoiled full circle, leaving us bruised and bleeding, the egoic, “poor me”, cast out once more into the demon plagued wilderness of the old life, the old way of thinking. And there we languish, vulnerable once more to the mortal woundings of every day calamity.

But then the season of the heart changes, and we pick it up again, blow the dust from it, somewhat chastised, and seek to remake the old connections. The book is hesitant, testing us for sincerity, but slowly lets us back in and we resume the journey.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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i chingThe idea of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos for positions of control in order to secure wealth and power. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us into predators and prey. There can be no other way, it says – no surviving life without combat.

Not true, says the Yi Jing.

The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, is a strange text, one that first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC. It came to the west in the late 19th century as a cultural curiosity, and was taken up by the psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm (German) edition in 1923. It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting a more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to its values, and you will remain asleep also.

The Yi Jing is unlike any other book you have read. You can talk to it. You ask it stuff, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, or even God, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with it is going to be different. My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open a channel to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which form a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight.

I don’t know how it works, and to be frank, I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can it accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations that range from the vaguely plausible to the crackpot, and on the other a sour scientitsic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, and a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice as beings in flesh but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of its inherent limitations, and the knowledge that greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, the Yi Jing is without parallel. It is a text that remains as relevant today as it was in Neolithic times.

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Mawdesley DawnI began my journal entry this morning with a description of the dawn. I’m on holiday at the moment and would normally have been setting out on my commute, so it was a pleasure instead to look out through the window and begin my day in a contemplative frame of mind with my diary, instead of negotiating a tiresome traffic jam.

The weather is  strange – wild and stormy one moment, breathtakingly calm the next and lacking any general theme, any fixed direction. It had been another black December night, a night of howling wind and horizontal rain, my sleep disturbed by the rattling of the chimney pots. But looking out this morning, just after eight am, I was greeted by a perfectly still dawn, and a bright moon, just past full, rising sedately into a pale sky, all delicately streaked with vanilla and pink striated clouds.

Then I thought: what am I doing sitting here, indoors, writing? So I grabbed a coat, a camera, a pair of bins and set off in the direction of what I call Diana’s arrows, a triangular formation of wind turbines out on the Lancashire plain. I’ve lived in West Lancs for twenty years now, and still have trouble with it. I find the the plain to be such a dreary place – more open air factory than open country, and stinking just now of cabbage and sprouts and mud. In contrast to much local outrage at the time, I welcomed the erection of the wind turbines a few years ago, if only to give me something to look at, and set my internal compass by. I’ve adjusted somewhat over the years to life on the plain, but only by developing an appreciation for the dynamism of the sky, which is by far the most dominant feature here – a full 360 degree horizon and at times quite breathtaking in it expressiveness.

Like the weather, my thoughts have  been thrashing about, torn from safe moorings one moment, and becalmed the next, and like the sky this morning there’s also a unpredictable current to them, no firm direction. By the time I’d got under way, the striated clouds had congealed into a blue grey blanket of overcast nothingness – and the land bore no contrast, no shadow. There was just a flat, uniform and rather dim light under which the muddy plain seemed to shiver and shrink. And there was no life, at least not within the sweep of my glasses – just a couple of wood pigeon pecking at fresh shoots of winter wheat, and a lone woman taking her mongrel dog for a dump.

I felt let down, for the dawn had seemed to promise much, but now, like the land, I felt flat, restless for a defining mood. But the sky would not yield and the sun whose munificence I had anticipated was now a presence only hinted at by a few stray rays bursting from behind that bank of steadily thickening blue-grey nothingness.

But then it happened. The sky shifted, it breathed and released the sun. At once the land was transformed – the flat meadows now revealed in all their intricately furrowed detail, the almost luminous green of the winter wheat set in stark contrast against the fertile soil, black as coal and freshly tilled. Suddenly there were stories here, and ghosts to walk with. I snapped the picture, and turned for home. There was a dynamism, a direction indicated by the finger-pointing of long shadows westwards. Likewise my thoughts began to take shape, pointing me along an unexpected course, linking me back to works undertaken a long time ago, and to names I’ve not heard or thought of in forty years, but who seem now to be hove in sight, arrayed on my horizon like galleons of old.

I turned for home and finished up the diary, then reached for the Book of Changes, but it could tell me nothing I did not already know. It seemed the sky had already prepared me for the way ahead and the attitude I must adopt. I’ve no idea what those galleons mean, whether their guns be to clear a path for my escape into a new adventure, or to level chain shot at my masts, and scupper all my hopes, but whatever their meaning, they will not take me by surprise. I raise a flag in friendship, but keep my eye on the tide and on the way the wind is blowing.

Of course, when I’m up to my eyes in the day-job I cannot think this way, I am straight-jacketed within the narrow confines of rational thought, pressed down in a place where I drown in mediocrity, just one insignificant man eternally subdued by the overpowering sense of his own obscurity.  Only when I am free to seek augurs in the sky, like this morning, and allow with impudence my inner self to indulge in them, do I live as I believe a man should.

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The recent deepening of psychological shadows has had me reaching for the I Ching again. The I Ching is a book, the so called Book of Changes. Few have heard of it, and of those even fewer understand what it’s really about. Those of a New Age bent will blithely sit down and tell their fortunes with it, or charge money in order to tell the fortunes of others. But this is not what it’s for at all.

What the I Ching possesses is the curious ability to help you see what it is that’s coming at you and to understand why it is you feel the way you do, why you can be calm and magnanimous in the face of things one day, only to wake up the next morning with your guts aching at the hollowness of it all. This is not fortune telling. It’s not skipping ahead in the movie of your life in order to get a preview of what’s in store. What it is is understanding the nature of the times as they are now, and what you can do about them.

This has a way of putting you back in the Zen-zone. You realise you’re caught up in things that don’t matter, you’re becoming attached, egotistical and working against the grain of your own nature.

This is human.

We get muddled up easily, and it can take us a while to get back on track. We live in a world where secular values hold sway and it’s easy to be swept along by them. But it’s important to understand that the secular way is a superficial one; it has no intrinsic meaning, and its most cherished values, things like social status and material wealth are meaningless.

These are old lessons, we all know them, but sometimes we forget.

We forget because we need balance, and the balance within us has been tipped too much towards the material. We are not altogether material beings, you see? We exist a great deal inside our own heads, and what goes on in there is a spiritual matter. I don’t mean this in a religious sense – only that it is of the spirit, the soul, the piece of you that no one else can ever truly touch, or take away or even comprehend.

Forays by materialism into the confines of the head lead only to disaster and dehumanization.

I’d use the term psycho-spiritual here in order to introduce the psychological nature of spiritual study, but it’s ugly and off-putting. However, you cannot come to terms with your psychological nature without addressing your spiritual nature as well, and your spiritual nature is far too important a thing to be left in the hands of a one-size-fits-all religious model.

For me, our spiritual nature is best defined by the old Chinese idea of Dao, viewed – because I am a western man – through the western, Jungian prism of a personal journey towards individuation, or wholeness. This is a personal view, interpreted through the further prism of my own nature, including all my shortcomings and considerable ignorance. The way I see it though, certain actions bring us a step nearer the goal of wholeness, while others take us further way. Individuation, or oneness with Dao is not something that can be achieved by swallowing a pill, or reading a line of wisdom in a book. It’s a life-long journey and it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, so long as you remain mindful of your own path.

This is not to say we become selfish or self-seeking, because any action that knowingly subverts the path of others is always going to subvert your own in the end. Therefore you can’t go around standing on the heads of other people in order to get what you want. It might get you the big house and the six figure bonus on top of your five figure salary, but it won’t make you a decent person, a wise person, a loving person,… or a happy one.

The I Ching came out of the Daoist tradition, and was adopted by Jungian schools of psychoanalysis from around the 1930’s onwards. It’s a psychological tool. Think of it as a compass. The I Ching is a means of navigating your personal Dao.

I don’t know how the I Ching works. I’ve puzzled over it for years, but really, it’s best to simply let it be. You ask it a question, frame it precisely, pull an answer from the book, and then think on it. The curious thing is that the answers it gives are always pertinent to your query. They are searching, insightful, and wise, even though the process of generating that answer is simply the random toss of some coins.

For an intelligent, rationally minded person who has not used the book, the explanation is blindingly obvious: the I Ching is worded in so vague a manner that anything it says can be twisted by a credulous and needy mind into something meaningful. Rational and intelligent people who have used the book however, are not so quick to offer that explanation any more. They go underground. By day they are rational, intelligent people, but by night they explore the tunnels of their unconscious minds by the light of this mysterious device. The I Ching becomes for them like a darkly exotic mistress. She takes them to the giddiest of psychological heights, holds up a mirror to their own inner being, enlightens and enlivens their lives. But they do not like to be seen out with her in public.

You can use the book in a trivial, playful way if you want and it’ll come back at you in a trivial, playful manner. But get serious with it and the window on your mind is flung wide open. It’s like stepping up to the edge of a precipice, and preparing to absiel down into pitch darkness. How deep you go depends entirely on your own courage. The I Ching is as deep as your mind, and for any of us, that’s a very long way down indeed.

The I Ching describes a method of generating any one of sixty four so-called hexagrams – arrangements of six lines, the lines being either whole or divided, representing Yang or Yin respectively. This is the archaic core of the book, which archeological evidence tells us dates back to the overthrow of the Shang dynasty by  the Zhou, around 1000 B.C – though the book’s actual origins certainly pre-date this.

The I Ching has been interpreted and re-interpreted by scholars for roughly threehexagrams thousand years, and each of them have added to it their own particular slant on what  those sixty four hexagrams actually mean. But each of these scholars did this within  the social and political contexts of their own times, so the earliest interpretations can seem a little esoteric to more modern readers. Each generation has therefore sought to reinterpret the book within the context of their own times.

There are by now many interpretations and I probably own most of them. Because I like writing, it was inevitable I should have a go at interpreting the thing myself, the result of which was “The Hexagrams of the I Ching” which you can get a copy of for free from the margin of this blog.

So, anyway,…

What’s this all about then?

I settle down in the quiet of my study and I toss some coins,…

Michael Graeme

www.rivendalereview.co.uk

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