The I Ching (Book of Changes); or, where one should not try to be all-knowing

In harmony with the Book of Changes, the 3,000 year old Chinese pursuit of wisdom, I chanced across a copy (3rd ed., 21st printing, 1985), for $2, at a garage sale this past weekend. It’s the Bollingen hard copy, in fair condition, with dust jacket, for which Jung wrote the original foreword, not as worried, he explains of his inability to explain the I Ching to what he calls, in 1949, the “Western mind,” a mind that might best be described by Hexagram 29, “Bound with cords and ropes,” because he was then in his “eighth decade, and the changing opinions of men scarcely impress me any more.” Not only that, but, continuing Hexagram 29, “If you are sincere, you have success in your heart, And whatever you do succeeds.”

The I Ching provided Jung with a practical field of study for his concept of synchronicity, the theory that effects don’t always have measureable causes – or, at least, when we turn our attention away from causality (as John Cage did in his works involving indeterminacy), we seem to form a more perfect union with nature – by which Jung meant, in his foreword to the I Ching, physics.

Yet it’s not clear whether today’s physicists agree or not – that a truly exceptionally simple theory of everything (one that satisfies Richard Wilhelm’s desire to “…[make] the I Ching intelligible to the lay reader”) might be held in the random throw of three coins. In any case, globalization may have already made the Western mind boundary-less, ubiquitous on the planet, but the I Ching is still out there, waiting to be discovered. Like the gospels, the I Ching has, since Jung wrote his foreword, been “pinched and poked,” as e. e. cummings said in “O sweet spontaneous,” by the “doting fingers of prurient philosophers.” Yet, Jung says, “security, certitude, and peace do not lead to discoveries.” In this regard, at least, if in no other, the I Ching would still appear appropriate for “thoughtful and reflective people who like to think about what they do and what happens to them…,” and like to think beyond “reason and pedagogy [which] often lack charm and grace.” Of course, who wants to hear that today’s answer is the same one offered 3,000 years ago? Might make winning the research grant a bit more difficult.

Jung argued that the I Ching is best suited to questions of self-knowledge. That the I Ching has changed over time, been abused, cast aside, like the gospels, should not, with regard to its use toward self-knowledge, Jung seems to be saying, in his foreword, dissuade contemporary readers, for “often our relations depend almost exclusively on our own attitudes, though we may be quite unaware of this fact.” Why would anyone consult the I Ching today? Because, as Jung says, “The I Ching insists upon self-knowledge throughout. The method by which this is to be achieved is open to every kind of misuse, and is therefore not for the frivolous-minded and immature; nor is it for intellectualists and rationalists.” But it is, in other words, the perfect fit for our ideal, general interest reader.

Jung acknowledges that “to one person its spirit appears as clear as day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.” So Jung asked “Why not venture a dialogue with an ancient book that purports to be animated?” In an age when neuroscientists like Jonah Lehrer argue that “the mind is really just a piece of meat,” it would not seem that such a dialog as Jung suggests having with the ancient book can do any harm. But if I put the question to the I Ching, is the mind really just a piece of meat, I’d better be ready for the answer: Hexagram 36, “Darkening of the Light,” “…one should not try to be all-knowing.” Not only that, but, Jung adds: “The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps.”