The Yi has two aspects: the spatial aspect of correlation of things, and the temporal aspect of succession of things. The symbolic representation of nature must exhibit both aspects of reality, and this is aptly done by the invention of the trigrams where changes are exhibited together with the forms of things
– Chung-Ying Cheng, The Primary Way
The hexagram is intended to designate an objective situation to which one must become accustomed, not a subjective attitude
– Wilhelm, hexagram 29
Lao Tsu didn’t understand emptiness as well as Confucius. If you talk about it extensively, this must be so. When Confucius speaks more about human existence, it’s because he understood emptiness. Those remarks were made by Wang Bi, an influential thinker who read the I Ching as a book of wisdom more than divination.
His remarks are fanciful as personalised ideas, referring to books not the people. They are valid philosophical observations, concerning the difference between knowing and speaking.
In Indian philosophy there are two principles called purusha and prakriti, spirit and nature, similar to the hexagrams Heaven and Earth. Spirit is by definition immaterial, which is the nothingness considered in Western philosophy. Heidegger and Sartre tried to understand being in relation to nonbeing. Nietzsche wondered which comes first, consciousness or thinking, restating a central Taoist idea. Thoughts about something don’t change reality, contrary to cogito ergo sum.
Thinking perception applies practically, not metaphysically. Framing a subject negatively or positively, with a yin or yang orientation, has important consequences. The I Ching advises the attitude you have for a subject conditions the failure or success. The first line of a hexagram is the beginning of a project, and Wilhelm repeatedly describes attitude.
This is not valid, however, in regard to being and nonbeing. The Tao that can be told, Lao Tsu said, is not the real thing. The I Ching contains both layers of observation. Have a favourable and knowing attitude, but as a limited reality. This informs decision making and action, with hexagrams reflecting probability not certainty.
Being and emptiness, change and form, chaos and order, are the philosophy of the I Ching. We simultaneously know and don’t know as the basis for existence from which suffering derives (according to Buddhism) because of insecurity. We act as if something makes sense but it ultimately doesn’t. Pascal’s wager changes nothing because beliefs are not facts; we reason contingently or superstitiously but ineffectually.
It is true that trigrams are archetype things, also true they are like protons, neutrons and electrons in a state of flux. Changing elemental forms, from which complexity occurs, whereby images of the I Ching (the xiang) simultaneously exist but do not exist. This is where archetype conceptualisation misleads, as configurations which decorate rather than disclose. There is a connection between Taoism, Confucianism and Jung, but it’s not an exact fit. The I Ching reflects reality including emptiness and nonbeing, which cannot be told.
Both space and time are apparent in I Ching symbols, the first corresponding to obvious reality while the second means change and fluctuating existence. A hexagram reading explains the moment but not as a fixed or determinate condition. It’s like assessing the weather, while the clouds are moving. Alan Watts called this The Wisdom of Insecurity as particular advice for today:
We know so much about history, about all the packages which have been tied and which have duly come apart. We know so much detail about the problems of life that they resist easy simplification, and seem more complex and shapeless than ever. Furthermore, science and industry have so increased both the tempo and the violence of living that our packages seem to come apart faster and faster every day.
His 1951 book is more evident in 2024, in relation to computer infrastructure. We video talk across the world, immediate exchange collapsing geography, but sensory facts are different. We read news and politics from afar, without knowing the cultural story. The result is positive as a spreading enquiry about the meaning of another place. It’s problematic, if they conflict while becoming digitally adjacent.
The I Ching is historically Taoist and Confucian but includes Buddhism. There is a Tibetan version of the book, similar but part of a different tradition. Moral and psychological practices compare, they teach meditation as an investigation of consciousness, but the metaphysics are different. The I Ching describes change as the basis for plans, one moment an indication of wider patterns. The impermanence, for Buddhism, is the basis for spiritual enquiry. The change, in Taoism, is the phenomenology of reality. They don’t conflict, and there are Taoist meditation methods where transcendence is the goal. The difference is one of emphasis not ontology.
I Ching advice is sometimes akin to popular psychology. It depends who interprets the book, what else they read, and what is their life experience. Imagine an I Ching consultant who served in the armed forces for ten years, another was a psychologist, English teacher, or novelist. They have an understanding other people do not. This is evident for example with The I Ching for Writers by Sarah Jane Sloane. She understands creative process and how it corresponds to hexagrams. With hexagram 14, Possession in Great Measure for Wilhelm, she advises the following exercise:
Find a photograph of yourself and study it. Where are you headed? Where are your eyes looking? Then write down what the photograph doesn’t show: your mood, your thoughts, your dreams. Pay attention to your inner vision.
For hexagram 61, which Wilhelm calls Inner Truth, Sloane advises this:
Draw a quick sketch of your body and face. If all your secrets were revealed to others around you, how would that portrait change? How would people see you? What features would you gain — horns, large ears, a huge heart, tiny hands, a body like a centaur’s? Let your imagination go wild. Change your portrait. Then write about the effects of revealing your deepest self to the people around you.
There’s a deep formality within Wilhelm’s I Ching, tracing back to spiritual interests. According to grand-daughter Bettina Wilhelm there was a pivotal moment in his life when he wondered about the nature of reality, the universe, and human existence. That becomes a framework in the book from which practical advice arises. There are numerous references to attitude as a determining factor:
One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals
– Hexagram 41
An attitude not permanently in harmony with the demands of the time will necessarily bring misfortune
– Hexagram 42
But as soon as he grasps the situation, changes this mental attitude, and makes a firm decision, he masters the oppression
– Hexagram 47
From this state of mind springs the correct attitude toward the outer world
– Hexagram 61
More specifically, since success is what we want, Wilhelm describes it in relation to attitude:
Success is possible only when general confidence already prevails
– Hexagram 3
Such certainty alone gives that light which leads to success
– Hexagram 5
The I Ching has a power different from superficial positive thinking, because of context and philosophy. You might feel uncertain at any of the six hexagram lines. Those lines occur in relation to others, negatively or positively, and are part of trigrams with different energies.
There is something called a Resonance Trigram, derived from connections between the upper and lower trigrams of any hexagram. This is used in a Feng Shui school called Xuankong Dagua, and applies with I Ching readings.
Upper is environment, another person, and external factors. Lower is self, attitude, and personal conditions. The Resonance Trigram describes the relationship not simply as negative or positive but with eight variations:
Strong and unified, possibly too assertive.
Supportive and sympathetic, or excessively passive.
Mutual stimulation, but sometimes dependent.
Emotional and irrational, like attracting like.
Pleasurable and relaxed, but responsibilities are avoided.
Strongly individual, perhaps rigidly unchanging.
Gentle communication, but without greater meaning.
Impulsive and changeable; exciting but not enduring.
The I Ching is not an artificially constructed system, but a mapping of reality which includes forces of nature. The same energies occur inside and outside, symbolised with trigrams. The poet Mary Oliver implies an inner and outer connection in the central lines of this beautiful poem:
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.