An Introduction to the I Ching
Approaching the Oracle
While studying at Wesleyan University, I was fortunate to take a course titled Teaching Across Cultures. Professor John Barlow created a dynamic environment for students to engage in a variety of exercises and group performances. A lasting gift from the course relates to the ancient text I Ching: The Book of Changes, and the manner in which Dr. Barlow made it accessible for the students. What follows here attempts to provide similar guidance, hopefully providing you with similar accessibility to the marvels of the text.
The edition I read is the Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered into English by Cary Baynes.
The I Ching is not designed to be read in a linear manner. It is not an exaggeration to say that the reader is the main character.
There are 4096 possible answers to your question when we go through the process of casting the hexagrams. If you spent a day on meditating on each of these possible outcomes, it would take over 11 years to work through the options. And while the text can be approached without the subjective inquiry, making the commitment to place your question into the complex matrix of imagery leads to the surprising results that attracted the like of Carl Jung and Ezra Pound.
When casting the hexagrams which will be the context that the answer to your question will emerge from, In the first phase it functions much like a calculator. Once the hexagrams are set for a given reading, the I Ching begins to function more like a computer, with layers of meaning amplifying the hexagrams.
Phase 1: Developing your question
The process of engaging the I Ching begins before picking up the text or casting the hexagrams. The first phase requires the formulation of a question. Dr. Barlow was of the opinion that this might be the most important phase and often reminded his students that they would get out what they put in. He stressed taking time and care to formulate a question. To make drafts, and to edit out unessential aspects.
Phase 2: Casting your hexagrams
The typical result will be two hexagrams, the first changing to the second through the moving lines. A less typical result is when no moving lines emerge in the casting, resulting in a single unchanging hexagram.
Phase 3: Meditation on the readings
Once the casting of the hexagrams is set, it is time to meditate on the text. For this process, one reads the base text of the initial hexagram, the text associated with the changing lines, and the base text of the second hexagram. (If a singular hexagram is the result of the casting, then you read only the base text of that hexagram.) People often get confused regarding the changing lines. I suggest an analogy to water might help. The first hexagram flows into the second hexagram only through the changing lines, hence only the changing lines should be incorporated into your reading. Likewise, when reading the second hexagram, do not consult the changing lines, as they are not relevant for the reading you have cast.
Phase 4: Formulating an interpretation
The fruit of your investigation manifests through formulating an interpretation to the question you posed, based on the inputs of imagery and insight provided by the hexagrams that were cast. Professor Barlow stressed the importance of writing out an interpretation, recommending a 1-2 page format, that starts with your question, lists the hexagrams, and then amplifies an interpretation.
Professor Barlow shared the whole process thoroughly and thoughtfully done would take him between 2 and 6 hours. That has been my experience as well. While what is presented here is only meant to be an overview rendered in broad brush strokes, it is my hope it might stimulate interest for further investigations.