Sunday September 25th 2022

Divine Inspiration – consulting the I Ching

THERE are countless ways to tell a man’s fortune. From the stereotypical crystal ball at a county fair to picking up clues in a spread of Tarot cards, we’ve probably all dipped into divination at some point.

One oracle, however, is in a class of its own. The I Ching – or Book of Changes – is arguably the oldest and most complex system available to help you understand your life.

An ancient Chinese classic text, the I Ching (also known as the Yi Jing) is, effectively, a universal book of life. It contains symbols, rules for interpreting them and explanations about cosmic laws and how these affect us.

“It’s a book of wisdom which provides a rich, symbolic language capable of describing any aspect of our experience,” says I Ching expert Dr Andreas Schöter, who holds a doctorate in Cognitive Science from the University of Edinburgh and has worked with the I Ching for nearly a quarter of a century.

“Based around the fundamental theory of yin and yang, the symbols represent the basic energies that we encounter in our lives, and combinations of symbols describe the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical transitions that we experience.”

By working to understand the theory expressed in the symbols, says Dr Schöter, we can learn to live more harmoniously.

A rich history

At least 5000 years old, some scholars identify the I Ching as the oldest book in the world – and one which contains the reasons for everything.

I Ching author Diana ffarington Hook (The I Ching and You, Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1973,  £6.95) explains that the oracle was said to have been given to the world by a legendary ruler of China, Fu Hsi. Afterwards, two Chinese sages committed the original concept to paper.

Legend has it that nobody under 50 is able to understand the I Ching, because the positive and negative forces within are not balanced until this age. Whatever the truth, the I Ching itself states: “”If you are not the right man, it will not speak to you.”

Hook says the purpose of the system is three-fold – it is a basis for meditation, assists with furthering knowledge of oneself and the universe and gives practical guidance on the daily problems of life.

Sceptics might dismiss the oracle as another frivolous fortune-telling device – but scholars say that, used properly, it provides clear, often startling guidance for difficult problems.

“The I Ching is not a collection of magic spells to be used for fortune-telling as is so often erroneously thought,” says Hook.

Scholars claim it to be the purest form of divination, as it operates on “higher realms”, she explains.

“Used in a frivolous and superficial way, the I Ching will be as inaccurate as the astrology of the newspapers and popular magazines.”

How it works

The I Ching comprises a set of forecasts in the form of 64 six-lined arrangements called hexagrams.

Each hexagram consists of six parallel lines stacked on top of each other. Each line is either yang – a solid line – or yin, a broken line.

The hexagram is created by throwing a set of three coins to determine each line. There are 64 possible combinations.

The hexagrams have different meanings and describe a specific situation in life. The I Ching offers advice on the best way to behave under the particular circumstances outlined in the hexagram.

The hexagram is sub-divided into trigrams – two figures of three lines each. These also have meanings and when the text is read, the meanings of the trigrams, the hexagram as a whole and the lines form a coherent whole.

Each line is either changing or unchanging, depending on which coin formation you have cast.

Changing lines represent the ancient Chinese idea that the cosmos is in a constant state of change. The changing lines transform into their opposite, resulting in a second, different hexagram.

When interpreting the hexagram, reading the specific meaning of the changing line is important – it represents a detail or crucial element of the situation.

Some hexagrams don’t contain changing lines, meaning the energy of the situation in your current circumstances is particularly focused on the given symbol, explains Dr Schöter

I Ching author R.L Wing (The I Ching Handbook, The Aquarian Press 1979, £12.99) says the concept of yin and yang is central to the system.

The cosmos is divided into two opposing forces – the negative yin and positive yang. This constant changing is what creates life and accounts for the dualism in all things, such as night and day and the changing seasons.

Consulting the oracle

You’ll need a few tools before you begin. Invest in one or two good quality I Ching books, as well as:

  • Pen and paper or notebook
  • Three coins – either Chinese (round with square hole) or any size and value of coin, as long as all three are the same
  • A cloth in which to wrap your I Ching book, coins and notebook – and to provide a flat surface when throwing coins

Wash your coins or soak them in salt water. Keep them boxed or wrapped and don’t allow anybody else to use them.

Tradition dictates that you keep your I Ching paraphernalia in a place higher than a man’s shoulder, so find a suitable bookshelf or cupboard.

Coins are one of the easiest ways to cast a hexagram. Other systems include yarrow stalks, beads and even pre-programmed computers.

In the beginning

Find a quiet space to consult the I Ching. Sometimes a ritual helps to settle your mind – you may wish to light a candle or take deep breaths.

The next step is formulating a question.

  • Decide exactly what you want to know. Be concise and leave out irrelevant details
  • Don’t ask either/or questions such as “Should I go to dinner or stay home tonight?” Your answer may be yes – and then which option is the I Ching referring to?
  • A good question would be: “Should I go out to dinner tonight?”
  • A selfish question designed to gain power over – or hurt someone – will backfire. The I Ching has an uncanny way of stripping away the crud that crusts our motives
  • It’s preferable not to ask questions on someone else’s behalf, especially if you’re a beginner.

Casting the hexagram

Cup the coins in your hand, shake and drop them onto a flat, uncluttered surface. This first coin formation is now the bottom line of your six-lined hexagram.

To identify the lines, use this formula from Wing:

Two heads + one tail = ——————-

Two tails + one head = ——— ———

Three tails                 = ——————– • (changing line)

Three heads             = ——— ———- • (changing line)

Throw the coins five more times to create five more lines, stacked on top of each other from the bottom up. You now have your hexagram.

Finding your hexagram

A hexagram comprises two three-lined figures called trigrams. Your I Ching book will contain a chart with a row of trigrams running both horizontally and vertically, as well as a graph of numbers in the box between these two rows.

Find the upper trigram of your hexagram on the horizontal row and the lower trigram of your hexagram on the vertical row.

Where these two trigrams intersect on the chart, you will find the name and number of your hexagram.

If there are NO changing lines in your hexagram, then read only that one, since it does not transform into a second one.

If one or more lines are changing, draw the corresponding hexagram.

Dr Schöter explains that the principle hexagram represents the primary energy active in your situation, while the second – or derived hexagram – could represent your background assumptions, a possible future outcome, past cause or any number of things.

“Part of the creative difficulty of a reading can be figuring out what the related energies are,” he says.

To determine your second hexagram, start drawing your first one again, but replace the changing line with its opposite.

For example, a broken changing line (—— ——•) will become a solid line (————), while a solid changing line ( ————- •) becomes a broken line (——- ——-).

You now have two hexagrams.

Read the first hexagram, then the text corresponding to the two changing lines, which describe any reasons for the change (represented by the second hexagram) or present any warnings, advice or indications of good fortune.

Lastly, read your second hexagram – but don’t read any of its changing lines.

Interpreting your answer

Wing says that in the East, beginners and students are required to memorise the entire book and its meaning before casting a hexagram!

Experts describe the I Ching as having a distinct personality. Sometimes you’ll receive the same answer to different questions – meaning that there’s a subconscious issue you’re being forced to face – or a hexagram that appears to be insulting or playful.

Practice makes perfect – the more you study answers, ask pertinent questions and keep a detailed record of your sessions, the more meaningful and beneficial the I Ching will become to you.

Wishful thinking is a common stumbling block. If you aren’t happy with the answer you received, don’t think that asking the same question over and over is going to elicit the answer you desire. Keep calm, ask a wise friend for advice and their thoughts on the meaning of the answer and keep referring back to the hexagrams after a short while, if you’re unsure.

“The more you put into working with the I Ching, the more you get out,” says Dr Schöter. “If you approach it with a superficial interest, you’ll get superficial answers. If you’re prepared to engage with it on a deep level, then it offers deep insights.”

“My readings gave me great comfort”

When Jennifer Smith’s husband was involved in a bad accident several years ago, she did frequent I Ching readings in search of answers about what the future held.

“A car turned in front of his motorbike and he was thrown off. He was paralysed from the waist down,” says Smith, a marketing consultant. “It was a traumatic time. Would he ever walk again and in the beginning, would he even survive?”

Attracted to the I Ching through her study of a number of  Eastern philosophies, she became particularly interested in the text about six or seven years ago.

“I’ve used the readings at different times to ask for guidance about work or career issues and also relationship matters. It’s often been uncanny how accurate (they are).”

Smith says she often uses a variety of translations in order to get the “most accurate response” from the universe.

Answers about her husband’s accident were particularly meaningful.

“My readings were all about someone being ill and recovering, which gave me a great deal of comfort at the time.

“I love the I Ching because it seems to speak directly to me with each reading, no matter what the translation. It feels so reliable because it is…a divination system that’s been relied on by millions over the years.”

Resources and recommended reading

For I Ching consultations with Dr Schöter (Edinburgh only) and an excellent downloadable library of articles, visit his website at

The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points, by Brian Browne Walker (St Martin’s Press 1993, £5.82)

The I Ching or Book of Changes : A Guide to Life’s Turning Points, by Brian Browne Walker (St Martin’s Press 1993, £5.82)

The I Ching Workbook, by R.L. Wing (Aquarian Press 1983, £12.99)

The I Ching and You, by Diana ffarington Hook (Routledge and Kegal Paul 1973, £6.95)

I Ching or Book of Changes, by C.G. Jung (foreword), Richard Wilhelm (editor, translator) and Cary F. Baynes (translator) (Arkana 1989, £14.99)

Copyright Beth Cooper,2010. This article first appeared in Soul & Spirit magazine.