This is part fourteen of a series about the use of the Yijing in clinical practice of Chinese medicine.
Part 14 : Integrating Divination into a Clinical Session
Clinical use of the Yijing can be divided into two categories: divining with patients (as part of a consultation) or divining for them (on their behalf without them present). They’re both useful. In this installment, the focus is on divining with patients, as part of a therapeutic session.
Taking the Leap
Divining with a patient present means taking a leap of faith. There’s no telling where the symbols may lead or whether you’ll be able to interpret them. Although it feels risky, in my experience, the leap often pays off when one or the other of you has an ‘ah ha!’ moment.
For example, I once divined for a woman going through a very difficult time, and the hexagram that came up was 29 Kan: water within water. This is one of the most difficult, dark, and dangerous symbols in the Yi; the edition I was working from at the time translated it as “The Abyss.” Being inexperienced, I felt uncomfortable that such a dark and scary symbol had arisen for someone seemingly in need of comfort or reassurance.
But in fact, it served to affirm what she was going through. In effect, the oracle named her ‘dark night of the soul,’ saying “this is one of the darkest, most difficult times in your life.” Hearing this came not exactly as a relief, but as an affirmation that her experience was real. She knew where she stood, and even if it was hellish, her experience had been validated in a real way.
This also illustrates that, while the divination may serve mainly a diagnostic role, it can easily become a therapeutic intervention as well. Often there’s no fixed boundary between the two, as symbols trigger insights which are themselves therapeutic.
Creating a Container
Because divination is inherently unpredictable and can mean delving into some intense territory, it’s a good idea to create a container for this work. By ‘container’ I mean a time and space marked off for divination, such that what occurs inside the container is set apart from the quotidian. There are many ways to accomplish this; here’s how I tend to go about it.
At whatever point in the session we’re ready to divine, I have the client put both feet on the ground and take a few deep breaths, suggesting they let go of any tension and come more fully into the present. Then I’ll invoke the directions, as follows:
“Calling on the East, we welcome the benevolent energy of springtime and new beginnings. We ask that the Wood element make us flexible as young bamboo as we undertake this work.
Turning to the South, we welcome radiance and the full flourishing of summertime. We ask that the Fire element bring illumination and connection to our session.
Moving to the West, we welcome the crystalline clarity of autumn. We ask that the Metal element help us to release whatever no longer serves us.
Calling on the North, we welcome the presence of mystery and honor the ancestral forces that support us. We ask that the Water element help us to be humble and receptive to the voice of the unknown.
Coming into the Center, we welcome the present moment and our bodies. We ask that the Earth element help us to bridge the subtle and material realms.”
Then I’ll invite the client to focus on their question or issue, asking in their own way, silently or aloud, for guidance. I’ll usually say something like,
“May the highest guidance available come through for healing and growth, in a way that we can understand.”
The Actual Cast
After this invocation the space is open to cast the Yi. I generally have the client hold the coins (I like to use quarters, but anything with identifiable heads and tails sides is fine) in their hands and warm them for a moment while they focus on their intentions. This can mean a specific question, or a more general area of focus. When in doubt about what to ask, it’s never a bad idea to start with an ‘open throw,’ which allows the oracle to steer the conversation from the get-go.
I direct them to cast their coins onto the table, while I note the results: one hexagram, or two hexagrams in the case of changing lines (6’s or 9’s). A session typically involves 1 to 5 casts. I like to make a record of the reading as it proceeds, noting which hexagrams come up along with key themes and resonances. I give the record to the patient at the end of the session (though I also make sure at least to note down the hexagrams for my own records as well).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After each cast it’s time to reflect on the symbols that have arisen.
Remember that, as the diviner, you are the bridge between an unseen creative intelligence and the patient. Your role is to translate—but to do so in an open-ended way that allows for some wiggle room. Declaring too concretely the meanings of the hexagrams that arise can mean missing key resonances. At the same time, we’re doing our clients a disservice if we fail to offer up the meanings we’ve learned to associated with a given symbol because they seem too dark or edgy.
I find that, if rather than dictating the possible range of meanings you instead explore that range with the patient, surprising and magical things can happen.
Let’s take a hypothetical example
Suppose Hexagram 7 Shi comes up, and you start talking about the need for discipline and structure. These themes are likely to be relevant for Hexagram 7, and are important to mention—but mentioning them is no guarantee you’re getting to the heart of the particular message that’s coming through for this person at this time.
In an effort to delve deeper, perhaps you share that the hexagram has to do with structure and hierarchy, such as are found in the army (‘army’ being the core meaning for Hexagram 7 Shi). Perhaps it turns out that the patient has a military background you didn’t know about, or that their father was a colonel in the army. Perhaps delving into issues of post-combat PTSD is a fruitful and necessary avenue for treatment, and perhaps this topic would not have come up otherwise.
Or maybe discussing the hierarchical structure implied by Hexagram 7 in a free, exploratory way will help them make the connection to the difficulties they’re facing with their boss at work (an issue not necessarily outside the bounds of the therapeutic relationship, even if what you’re ostensibly treating is eczema).
The point is, you don’t know where the resonance will be for the patient until and unless you put your cards on the table. You have to be willing to say “I don’t know why these symbols are coming up, but here’s one direction we could go with them…” or “Does the image of an army ring any bells for you right now?”
In other words, it’s important not to present yourself as the authority
No matter how familiar you are with the symbols of the Yijing, they can and do present themselves in unfamiliar ways. The same 64 hexagrams, in combination and in context, can refer to a limitless array of things. Rather than providing a fixed, rigid interpretation, then, your job when divining with a patient is to follow the threads that arise. It helps to adopt a playful, open attitude: “We’re going to open the Yijing and see where it takes us.”
With interpretation, part of the art is in knowing when and how far to follow a given thread, pressing on for more insight around a given issue, and when to let go. Sometimes a series of casts can delve progressively deeper into a juicy topic. Other times, even when we’re trying to focus in this way, the oracle refuses to cooperate and instead answers the question we should have asked.
At such times it’s important to be flexible and humble, saying “hmm, that doesn’t feel relevant to what we were asking, but it does raise another interesting issue…” This work, therefore, demands fluency (as in fluidity), transparency, and courage to explore the edge of the unknown.
This is as good a place as any to mention that, oftentimes, a pair of hexagrams will yield two or three layers of meaning, like a multi-faceted gem that needs to be viewed from various angles to be appreciated fully. These brilliant, gnomic, ultra-resonant results come up most frequently when there’s something juicy at stake, when we’re at a crossroads or a crisis.
This is when the oracle really shines
So just because you’ve found a place of resonance and ‘decoded’ a given cast doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve exhausted the wisdom of that cast. One good interpretation doesn’t preclude another.