Divination and Doubt

Will Essays 2 Comments

For the last seven years or so, I have been up to my ears in one of the strangest books in the world, the Yijing 易經, or Book of Changes. The Yijing (or, as it is often more popularly known, the I Ching) is, by any measure, one of the oddest books in existence: a bronze-age manual for governing, a divinatory text, one of the foundations of Chinese culture, a book that made Leibniz’s pulse race, and one of the texts most beloved of flaky New-Agers in the West. And because, perhaps, I like to think of myself as more or less sane, I have tended to be a little shy of talking about the Yijing. It is, after all, a book that attracts all kinds of quixotic crackpots and loons, a motley and curious company to find oneself amongst.

My own interest in the book is that I’ve been putting together a ‘novel of sorts’ that is based on the sixty-four hexagrams of the Yijing, a novel that mixes short stories, travel writing and wayward philosophical speculation. Perhaps one of my inspirations has been Calvino’s curious little book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where grids of Tarot cards are used as a kind of story-engine to generate interlocking tales. This ‘novel of sorts’ is probably a fairly quixotic project in its own right, but it’s been a fascinating business. And over the years, my sense of what the Yijing is, and what it can do, has changed.

Seven years ago, when I first started looking seriously at the Yijing, I had no time for divinatory practices, which seemed like so much superstition. And I still think now that using the Yijing as a way of foretelling the future is, well, just a little bit nuts. But I’m increasingly interested in how one might use divinatory tools as tools for thinking. There’s a great quote from Yang Wanli 楊萬里, which I found in Ming Dong Gu’s excellent book on Chinese Theories of Reading and Writing, where the poet and philosopher says that, “The profound implications of the Book of Changes plunge people of the world into doubts and make them think.”

It is this connection between divination and doubt that, I think, makes divination potentially a useful tool for thinking. Divination is popularly seen as a tool for generating certainty. You don’t know who to marry for certain? Hey, why not check your horoscopes and then you’ll really know. You can’t decide whether to take that job or not? Well, my pretty one, gaze into my crystal ball and we’ll see what we can see…

This, I think, is probably not a sensible way to lead one’s life. I can see no reasonable mechanism by means of which these kinds of divinatory tools can move us from uncertainty to uncertainty: they don’t give us any new data about the world, they don’t tell us about anything. If you are manipulating a bunch of yarrow stalks, for example, those stalks are even more ignorant than you are about the question of whom you should marry. They know nothing, and there is nothing about your manipulation of this particular bits of the world that can magic knowledge into the stalks, however much incense you burn. But that is not to say that they are useless tools if used in the right way.

What divination can do, I think, is introduce novelties and uncertainties into a system that has become too rigid. Let me give an example. Let us say that I indeed find it very hard to decide whether to marry or not. On the plus side, the object of my affections is intelligent, kind, well-read, and has fantastic dimples when she smiles. I know for a fact that I will never encounter dimples like that again. On the minus side, she slurps when she eats soup. And I love soup. So I have something of a dilemma on my hands; and as a result I find myself going back and forth between these two poles, at one moment browsing the internet for wedding rings, at the next thinking about my exit strategy.

What is striking about these kinds of situations, these kinds of dilemmas, is that they are often very thin, or at least they become so very quickly. My entire existence becomes focussed on this one, bald question, to the exclusion of all else. The world empties out of richness and complexity. Do I? Don’t I? Do I? Don’t I? I go round and round, and don’t get anywhere.

So I cast the Yijing. And, for the sake of argument, I obtain hexagram fifty-six, which is lü 旅, ‘The Wanderer’ with a changing line at the top (for the next bit in my argument you don’t need to know anything about the Yijing, incidentally, so I’ll gloss over details). I look this up in my big, impressive book and I read passages such as, “The wanderer is such that prevalence might be had on a small scale”, and “The bird gets his nest burnt. The Wanderer first laughs and then later howls and wails.” Hmmm, I say to myself. What could it mean? Then I note that when the top line of the hexagram changes, I end up with hexagram sixty-two, called “minor superiority” (“the flying bird is losing its voice, for it should not go up but should go down…”)

Now what happens? If all goes to plan, this: my mind—which has been happily flip-flopping between only two possible futures for far too long—now starts playing, of its own accord, with other images: birds and wanderers and nests. And what was a binary decision now becomes a far richer field of symbols and images and ideas that spreads out around me and that loosens me up. New questions occur to me. What does it mean to burn one’s nest? Is it a good or a bad thing? Who is the bird? Who is the wanderer? And are these even the right questions? And then, because I need to get out, I go for a walk, and let the images settle, and I watch the birds going up and going down, and…

…well, after that, who knows? But perhaps something happens that would not have happened, or not in the same way, without this intervention. In other words, one of the big problems with decision-making is that we become fixated on dilemmas, and thus we lose our suppleness and attentiveness. The introduction of chance elements, this multiplication of doubt, makes us lighter on our feet, it frees us from this fixation on either/or, it opens up new creative possibilities. As one of my favourite books of the moment, the sixth-century Wenxin diaolong (“Carving of Dragons and the Literary Mind”) puts it, creativity arises when one seizes the chance event at just the right moment. What if divinatory tools worked precisely as ways of sowing a little disorder, and cultivating this quicksilver attentiveness to what transpires from this disordering of our too-narrow schemes?

And so, if we care about making decisions that are less constrained, more open to possibility, then it seems to me that divinatory tools can be extremely helpful in unseating our habitual trains of thought, and sending us skittering in new directions, towards new possibilities. However, to see divinatory texts as books that can tell us what to do, as texts that deliver us over to certainty, rather than to further questioning and exploration, is, I think, dangerous. It assumes that the texts hold some deeper wisdom than that which we ourselves can muster, and therefore it risks looking like a disavowal of our responsibility for our own actions.

Anyway, having said all this, I’m going to finish writing this blog post, and to contact the authorities at the university where I work, to offer them my services as diviner-in-chief. I think that a modern, forward-thinking institution deserves no less. And I bet they’d give me a very smart ceremonial hat.

Quotes from the Yijing come from Richard John Lynn’s translation, The Classic of Changes

Comments 2

  1. Hi Will

    “What divination can do, I think, is introduce novelties and uncertainties into a system that has become too rigid.”

    I totally agree with this. It functions a bit like de Bono’s ‘po’–there’s everything I know and think about the problem I’m considering and then there’s po. Introducing a new element into the mix and trying to take it seriously is often useful in thinking creatively. The fact that the Yijing’s imagery is quite archetypal helps I think. I see it as being like more focussed cloud gazing. One simply allows the mind, with it’s phenomenal pattern recognition ability to find the connections between where we are now, and the new archetypal image we extract at random from the Yijing, or our astrological chart, or the tarot cards, or whatever. As we integrate these images into our thinking we have to generate new possibilities.


    On another note I find the contrast on this website a bit low–I’m straining to read. Could I recommend that you use a font-color a few shades darker? In fact black would be my preference, since reading a screen is hard enough as it is without maximum contrast. Grey seems cool, I suppose, but produces eye-strain.

  2. Post

    OK. The grey was pretty, and fine for short posts; but for more extended pieces, I agree with you. I’ve switched to good old #000000 instead.

    The thing I don’t talk about here is the ritual context which, I think, also serves to prepare the mind for the introduction of chance elements. So if you just toss a coin or two, its usefulness as a tool for thinking is diminished.

    All the best, Will

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