This is the first part of a series by Jonathan Edwards on the clinical use of the Yijing in Chinese medicine.
Part 1: The Clinician’s Golden Compass
Welcome to the first in a series of articles on applying the Yijing in clinical practice. For those not familiar, the Yijing (or I Ching) is an ancient Chinese oracle, or system of divination, with close ties to Classical Chinese Medicine.
Speaking as it does in very compressed symbols, the oracle has a reputation for being hard to understand. That’s one of the barriers this article series aims to bust. Because at heart, divination is as simple as it is thrilling:
“It’s almost like talking to someone, only you can’t quite hear them, and you feel kind of stupid because they’re cleverer than you, only they don’t get cross or anything…And they know such a lot, Farder Coram! As if they knew everything, almost!” – Lyra Silvertongue, in Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass
Imagine being able to talk to someone who “knows everything, almost”—it would be like having a private line to the sages. Forget TCM clinic aid; with this instrument, you could hit up Sun Simiao to get his take on a point prescription, or check in with Zhang Zhongjing about a particularly gnarly case of cold damage. There’s no doubt a pocket oracle like the truth-telling aletheiometer in The Golden Compass would be a handy thing in the clinic.
Nice fantasy, right? But what could a roll of the dice possibly have to tell us about health or anything serious?
Clinical divination—dream on.
But wait! Before you dismiss our fantastical-sounding premise, consider that the fabric of reality is indeed such stuff as dreams are made of. We’ve known for over a hundred years now that the ‘laws’ of nature are full of quantum loopholes. Just because physicists may not have sorted out what exactly goes on when consciousness meets matter for a luau at the Planck scale, that shouldn’t stop us from making use of some of those loopholes. And that’s exactly what divination does.
Think of it as a highly advanced quantum technology handed down from our pre-literate ancestors. It still works, if we work it. But first we have to open ourselves up to the magic of synchronicity.
Meaning from Randomness: “Weird!”
Most readers here have probably experienced synchronicity at some point: unlikely events too perfect and meaningful to be mere coincidence.
It could be someone meeting their significant other halfway around the world when they grew up next door to one another, or Jung’s classic scarab-at-the-window example. Defying rational explanation but too loaded with significance to ignore, synchronous moments are mysterious. When we’re in their grip, it can seem like the hand of fate has reached through the veil to guide us towards some unknown destiny.
Divination is the art of inviting in this very hand by “provoking an omen” (in Robert Moss’ words). A random process, such as drawing cards or picking up numbers of yarrow stalks, provides the opening for a message to come through. Through from where? From the spirit world, the archetypal realm, heaven, the implicate order, Plato’s world of Form—take your pick, or go watch Interstellar to grok how these might all be the same thing.
In any case, when just the right symbol emerges from a random draw to illuminate our situation, something deep in us responds. We get shivers. “That was weird,” we say. What we may not realize is that “weird” comes from wyrd, old English for fate. “That was fate!”
Old Gold: The Yijing
While there are many oracular technologies that harness the power of randomness, CM students and practitioners have a natural choice in the trusty Yijing (or I Ching). A divination system with roots in antiquity, the Yi is based in the same language we’re already learning: yin and yang, excess and deficiency, the elements and the twelve organs. (One might say instead and with some justification that Chinese Medicine is based on the Yijing).
All of our core concepts are encoded in the Yi’s 64 hexagrams, if like Lyra in The Golden Compass we get to know their layers of meaning.
Like Chinese medicine itself, the Yi has been encrusted over the millennia with layer upon layer of commentary from multiple hermeneutic schools. With all due respect to the scholars of the past, we’re more interested in the pearl at the core of that oyster than in the barnacles that have accreted around it. Basho: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek rather what they sought.” It’s worth keeping in mind that, however many books may help us along the way, the pearl we seek is living wisdom, the Yi’s still-beating heart.
I’m suggesting that we already hold the golden compass in our hands (or more likely on our smartphones), and that it’s worth an investment of time and energy to learn to use this powerful and subtle instrument. As with any art, the path to mastery is long, but every step along the way offers rewards. (And synchronicity seems to offer beautiful little miracles of coincidence to coax us along just when our faith in the power of the random starts to flag.)
In the articles to follow, we’ll explore the clinical potential of the Yijing.
First task: breaking down the barriers to a direct and living relationship with the oracle. After that we can roll up our sleeves and dive into the trigrams and hexagrams. Once we start speaking the Yi’s language, the real adventure begins. I hope you’ll join me on this expedition in search of lost treasure!
Summoning a Sign for the Road Ahead
In the spirit of opening ourselves to the unknown, I am now going to consult the Yi for an image to describe its own clinical potential. I promise to faithfully reproduce whatever hexagrams come up, without going back to edit these words. First I’m taking a moment to open the space for the reading: calling on the directions, centering myself, and making a little offering of incense and a tiny cup of spirits to open the way. I’ve unrolled my divination mat, I have the question in mind and am about to manipulate the yarrow stalks. Here goes.
The result is: Hexagram 31 changing to Hexagram 49 (with the bottom line changing from yin to yang). Ta da!
Now, what does this mean?
Simply put, Hexagram 31 Jian symbolizes partnerships and the influence or inspiration that comes from them. Hexagram 49 Ge stands for radical transformation, a metamorphosis or revolution. And the changing line text indicates that the Hexagram 31’s influence is in its early stages.
Putting these symbols together, we might say that to start using the Yijing in the clinic means is to initiate a transformative relationship.
The Yijing is promising to stimulate us, literally making our “toes twitch” (a lovely image courtesy of the changing line text), as it coaxes us towards deep and lasting changes —in the way we practice, and if we truly follow its guidance, in the way that we are.
Well it’s no surprise that the Book of Change is promising change—but that it’s doing so in such a flirtatious way! Toes conjoining (as translator Stephen Karcher would have it) sounds like playing footsie to me. No one said the oracle lacked for a sense of humor.