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Thomas Goforth, Tools of Transformation

Tools of Transformation #16: Discovering the I Ching


In this edition of “Tools,” I will introduce you to the Sage, the Guide to spiritual wisdom that can be found in the ancient book known as The I Ching.  For many, this edition of “Tools” will simply be a reminder of this wonderful resource of divination, guidance, and healing. As Brian Browne Walker points out on the cover of his beautiful verbal rendering of the I Ching, The Book of Changes is a Guide to Life’s Turning Points. When we come to points of confusion, uncertainty, or distress in our lives, we can utilize its innate capacities to support and guide us on our path. It consistently reveals itself as a channel for communication with the Divine on whatever subject or question we choose.

1 Toby Landesman Copyright 2012

Before I began to write about the I Ching for this article, I decided to consult it and ask for guidance in my writing. Using three Chinese coins I threw the Hexagram #46, Sheng/Pushing Upward. Here is Brian Browne Walker’s translation of the hexagram.

“Activity grounded in truth brings progress and good fortune.”

“This is a time when great progress can be made through effort of will. It is essential that all your activity be characterized by humility, conscientiousness and adaptability. Progress as a tree does, bending around obstacles rather than confronting them, pushing upward steadily but gently. There is nothing to be feared from others now. Feel free to ask for help from those who are in a position to give it. Be neither subservient nor forceful with those you encounter; simply meet everyone with tolerance and goodwill. Those who look for the good in others will find it there. If fears or doubts intrude, remain quietly focused on the activity at hand. Cultivate inner independence and trust the leadership of the Sage. The time is ripe for progress if you put forth an effort that is innocent, sincere, and balanced.” (B. Walker, I Ching, p. 95)

I immediately felt very good about my decision to present the I Ching to my readers. The Sage spoke to me directly through the text, encouraging my choice and the timing of it, and sketching out the inner qualities I needed to approach the subject matter, humility, conscientiousness and adaptability.

In the third edition of Carol K. Anthony’s “Guide to the I Ching,” the author points to “the two main attitudes which seem to be central to the counsel (given by the Sage). They are: a total inner independence, which has as its basis, a dependence on the Higher Power, and an unwavering suspension of disbelief.” These attitudes make it possible for us to engage the power of the Creative, which will in turn lead us to the solutions we seek, often without our conscious mind’s interference. Ms Anthony suggests that our suspension of disbelief is the humble acceptance of whatever is going on as part of the zig-zag workings of the Creative. This is another way of saying that consulting the I Ching allows us to have a conversation with our Higher Power. “This marvellous book is not just an obscure oracle, in the ancient Greek or Roman sense. The Higher Power (the Sage) speaks through it plainly and definitively in reply to our inner questions of need.” (C. Anthony, Guide, p. xi)

Those of you who have followed my blog over the past months will recognize a familiar theme here. As with the methods of experiential self-acceptance, the Inner Source, and the Shamanic Journey, using the I Ching requires us to have a disposition of receptivity once we have asked it for what we need. The Sage will speak plainly and definitively through the text of the hexagram that we create if our attitude is sincere and we are open to its guidance. However, as Carol Anthony warns, “It speaks with quiet reserve to the merely curious and unintelligibly to the skeptical.”(C. Anthony, Guide p. xi)  In the Shamanic healing process we are asked to trust that the experience we receive is coming from Spirit, in Inner Source work, from our internal source of guidance, wisdom, healing, and understanding, in hypnosis from the insight, wisdom, and creativity of the creative unconscious mind. In each of these methods, we must set aside our doubt and disbelief in order to be able to receive what is being made available to us.

What is at stake here is the whole matter of our being able to have a direct experience of the Sacred. Whether we call what we are experiencing God, the Sage, or the Ground of our being seems not to matter. What does matter is our opening ourselves to our capacity to receive something that is beyond the scope of our conscious intelligence, beyond the scope of our constructed beliefs and beyond our overall worldview. We have, in our use of the I Ching, the opportunity to experience what philosopher Rudolf Otto wrote in his famous book “The Idea of the Holy.” Otto wrote that “the Holy is mysterium, tremendum et facinans,” mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating. In order to experience this mystery, we must access the state of surrendering to a power higher than ourselves. For a many of us this task seems next to impossible.

                                                        2 Toby Landesman Copyright 2006

Working with the I Ching often results in a confrontation with our egos. The primary method of consulting the oracle, the tossing of three coins six times, and counting the value of each coin, takes away our control of the outcome. This takes the choice of hexagrams out of the user hands, and gives it over to chance. Interestingly, the hexagrams that we throw in this way often act as a mirror to our current life situation. They reveal the path we are following and where it will lead. “If our attitudes are out of harmony with the great harmony of the cosmos, the hexagrams will reflect this. If we are in harmony, the counsel given will help us keep our inner balance. If forthcoming events may threaten our inner equilibrium, the hexagrams give us warning so that we will not lose the way. Every situation in which we are being carried away from our true direction contains the means of return. Thus, every hexagram is capable of indicating the way back from a wrong direction or action.” (C. Anthony, Guide to the I Ching, p. xix)

I was very fortunate in my first experience working with the I Ching. In the summer of 1969, I decided to investigate the possibility of living in a commune in Two Harbors, Minnesota, with a number of my friends from the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective. One of our consultants had purchased an old mink farm there, and invited several of us to join him, his wife and children in creating a beautiful communal living space in a huge barn on the property. The prospect of taking part in this project was very appealing to many of us, myself included. I was very excited by the prospect of moving to the country, and was avidly reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s book “The Good Life.”

At this time in history, thousands of young people were exploring the possibility of living off the grid, doing subsistence farming, and living communally. Doing this with a group of my friends, who were almost all doing some kind of healing work seemed especially exciting. When we would meet to brainstorm ideas about how we would make this work, our ideas flowed freely and our enthusiasm for creating a healing community grew exponentially.


Toby Landesman “Lake Superior Blues”
Copyright 1998 

On my way up to Two Harbors for my first visit to the site of the commune, I stopped off in Sparta, Wisconsin to visit two of my “back to the land” friends who had purchased their own farmhouse and land there. They were already growing a lot of their own food, heating and cooking with wood, and making plans for growing organic vegetables on a larger scale. I thought it would be helpful to me to visit with them and see firsthand what they were doing. Over the course of visiting with them for a few days, I began to talk about moving to the Two Harbors  commune. I shared my excitement and some of my doubts about the location being so far north with such long winters and a short growing season. Larry and Adele were good listeners and we had productive conversations, but at a certain point, when I was sharing some of my misgivings, Larry suggested that I consult the I Ching. He told me that it was a way of consulting a wise oracle. This intrigued me, so I asked Larry to show me how to do it. He took out three small Chinese coins, a piece of notebook paper and a pencil, and guided me into a meditative state. I asked the I Ching for guidance in making a decision about moving to the commune, and then I threw the coins six times. With heads (the inscribed side) counting 3 and tails 2, we added up the values of the coins for each throw. We built a hexagram of six lines from the bottom up. The even numbered lines were broken (Yin) and the odd numbered lines were continuous (Yang). A line with the value 9 was a straight line with a circle in the middle and was called old Yang, and a line valued 6 was a broken line with an x in the middle and called old Yin. These were the changing lines that would turn the first hexagram into a second hexagram for further guidance. (For a graphic description of building a hexagram please go to: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Ching

Once I had made all six throws and recorded the lines, I discovered that my first hexagram was #4, Meng/Youthful Folly. One of the main messages of this hexagram is to beware of false teachers. The hexagram emphasizes that there is no shame in seeking guidance in life, but it is important to receive wisdom and guidance from a wise teacher. The wisest teacher according to the I Ching, is the I Ching itself. Youthful Folly can be overcome by learning to follow the Higher Power, the Sage.

Strangely, even though I had my heart set on moving into the commune, I felt relieved. The I Ching confirmed for me that my doubts and misgivings had merit. It was hard to think of our consultant as a false teacher, because he had been of great help to me and too many of us as our therapist. I began to think that the situation itself was youthful folly. In our enthusiasm, our excitement at being able to create an idyllic communal setting had obscured the amount of labor involved. Not enough thought was being given to how we would make decisions and resolve conflicts. Would there be a leader or would we make decisions by consensus as we had in our collective? I decided to delay my decision and to visit the commune, which was already underway, a few more times in different seasons. My doing so confirmed that my decision not to join was the right one for me. The long hard winters made for very hard work and a lot of cabin fever. Power struggles were rampant among the people who lived there together, and there were major interpersonal issues over how hard various people were working. The I Ching had proved itself a very wise guide. I quickly made it a part of my meditative practice whenever a “turning point” situation was close at hand.

                                               4Toby Landesman Copyright 2012

What my early experience indicates is that beginning to use the I Ching before you fully understand it may be the best way to learn about it. Once you begin to “hear” the voice of the Sage in the hexagrams you receive, you will start to feel the personal inspiration and validation that comes with using the I Ching regularly. Both Brian Browne Walker and Carol Anthony suggest that you not make your questions too specific, because often the questions we want answers to are not pointed toward the real direction that we need to go in our lives at a particular moment. So do ask for guidance, and feel free to ask for it in a particular sphere, but if the Sage’s response does not seem to be addressing what you are asking, pay close attention to the message that you are receiving. I think you will find, as I have, that the Sage, in its wisdom, is saying look here first. Here is the core of the issue or the lynch pin that needs to be addressed.

I found Brian Browne Walker on Face Book and asked his permission to quote him at length in my article. He graciously consented. Brian is a long time student of the I Ching and the Chinese language. He has translated what is believed to be the oral tradition of Lao Tzu in his book the “Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teaching of Lao Tzu” and has authored and translated his version of “The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points.” In his lyrical introduction he says, “This is more than just a book. It is a living breathing oracle, a patient and all seeing teacher who can be relied upon for flawless advice at every turning point in our lives. Those who approach the I Ching sincerely, consult it regularly, and embody in their lives the lessons it teaches inevitably experience the greatest riches that life has to offer: prosperity, understanding, and peace of mind.

The Book of Changes speaks to us not in abstract platitudes but with direct advice about what to do now, in this situation, to bring about our own success and good fortune…

The I Ching takes a decidedly realistic view of the world…It acknowledges that we all have in our characters, both positive and negative elements and it teaches us to be led by our superior qualities so that our thoughts and actions are free of inferior influences. It also teaches us how to respond to negative influences outside ourselves in order to avoid harm and maintain our well being.

What must we bring to the I Ching?

The book of Changes does not require that we be rich, smart, or beautiful in order to receive its teachings. It asks simply that we meet it halfway…that we approach the I Ching sincerely, putting aside our doubt and distrust of the Unknown, with a willingness to reflect clearly on our own character and to correct it when self-correction is advised. No matter how humble or desperate your current situation, if you will do this, you will inherit the good fortune that befalls devoted students of the I Ching.”

I highly recommend that you get a copy of Brian Browne Walker’s  “The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points, copyright 1992.

And that you also procure Carol K. Anthony’s “A Guide to the I Ching,” copyright 1988.

If you want the classic translation with Carl Jung’s Introduction you should order the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching copyright (renewed) 1977, Princeton University Press.

Used together, these three volumes will enrich your experience of the oracle beyond measure.

All of these volumes are available at Amazon.com, as are the Chinese coins that many of us like to use. Pennies will work just fine however.

My sincere thanks to Brian Browne Walker for allowing me to use extended quotations!

Mighty Thanks as always to Toby Landesman for her awe-inspiring photographs!

Article Written by Thomas Goforth

Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.


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