The American Book of Changes is a tool designed to facilitate wiser decision-making; to provide a framework for the development of an imperturbable sense of personal integrity steeped in curiosity, adaptability and creativity; and to aid in the creation of more resilient and sustainable social worlds.
It is no longer enough to revisit an ancient well of traditional wisdom, expecting it to nourish us of its own accord, if the means by which we attempt to access that wisdom are so degraded by time and by changing social, linguistic and technological conditions that they no longer hold any meaning for us. If a bucket does not hold water, or if the rope no longer reaches the bottom of the well, you can certainly braid a new rope or replace the bucket. But if you live in a house with indoor plumbing, maybe the time has come to install a pump.
The American Book of Changes treats the essential energies of the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching in a fundamentally new way, recasting them in metaphors both more relevant and more accessible to the American reader of the 21st Century.
What Is the Book of Changes?
The I Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese divination system that consists of 64 hexagrams representing the possible arrangements of six stacked lines, each of which may be either solid (unbroken, yang) or gapped (broken, yin). A hexagram may be cast by one of several methods using yarrow sticks, grains of rice, coins or dice. Each line of a hexagram may be either “fixed” or “moving”. A fixed yin line will remain yin and a fixed yang line will remain yang, while a moving line will change to its opposite; a yin line becoming yang and vice versa, resulting in a different hexagram.
The cast hexagram may represent the relevant psychological, physical, environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual conditions surrounding a question or problem about which a person seeks insight or guidance. The general meaning or advice of a hexagram is found in the text that accompanies the hexagram, as is the more specific meaning of each moving line, while an extended forecast of sorts is provided by the hexagram that results from the changing lines of the first.
The underlying principles upon which the advice of the I Ching is based have much in common with Taoist and Confucianist philosophies. These core principles have informed the culture and governance of China and other Asian populations for thousands of years and continue to do so today.
Why an American Book of Changes?
Over the past several decades, English translations of the ancient Chinese divination system known as the I Ching, or Book of Changes, have proliferated. The old verses, commentaries and concordances weave a rich brocade of meanings derived, sensibly enough, from close observation of the workings of the natural world and also from careful study of the habits of people and other animals. From such observations, the originators and early students of the system distilled a set of principles whose relevance to human activity has proven both universal and comprehensive. Unfortunately, they are far from universally comprehended.
The vast majority of people I meet who have encountered the I Ching report that they do not understand it, that its metaphysics is beyond them. Most seem convinced of its wisdom and efficacy, but they can’t make heads or tails of its advice and don’t know how to apply it. I’m quite sure that the underlying principles of the I Ching, while often subtle and mysterious, can be grasped by anyone sincere enough to make the attempt. But for the new reader (who often hasn’t a clue about ancient Chinese customs, artifacts, history, poetry, symbolism, idiom and metaphor) the processes of deciphering, assimilating and applying the advice of a hexagram or a line of change to their particular problem or situation is bewildering and often intimidating. When a set of ideas comes dressed in metaphors so layered, so foreign and so antiquated that they obscure what they ought to reveal, it is time for those ideas to change clothes.
The American Book of Changes is a re–interpretation, not a new translation, of the sixty–four hexagrams and three hundred and eighty–six lines of the I Ching. It is written, not surprisingly, for Americans. Most English–speaking Westerners will be able to read and understand it easily enough, although they might not relate to it as readily as a Californian, a North Dakotan or a Floridian. It would be lovely to see, in my lifetime, the publication of a Brazilian Book of Changes, a Nigerian Book of Changes, a Lithuanian Book of Changes, and so on. While my purpose is, in part, to encourage a global diversification of the I Ching, I can only raise my own voice in my own North American dialect, using bits and pieces of the history, myth and metaphor of my own time and place, where few of us have much, if any, practical experience in fording rivers, much less in taking concubines or offering human and animal sacrifices to the ancestors.
The misogynistic paternalism of ancient China, having embedded itself in the verbiage of certain hexagrams, has posed a significant additional sticking point, for some contemporary readers, to the understanding and acceptance of the insights that the I Ching has to offer. If, for removing the occasion for such misunderstanding, I am accused of mere political correctness, then so be it. I have no apology to make. In my view, to dishonor the biologically female is to misunderstand the most fundamental principle of the I Ching, namely that the masculine and feminine energies are equal and indispensible to one another. I will go a step further in pointing out that the diversification and proliferation of gender identities and roles that have come to the surface in our own society over the past few decades is also in keeping with the idea that the essential energies of the male and female are infinitely inter–permeable and productive of a great variety of expressions.
I have included metaphors and symbols taken from aboriginal and other homegrown traditions as well as imported ones that have been assimilated and Americanized over the centuries. The result is a system of imageries and allusions as cobbled together as our society, one that struggles toward and strains against its own sense of unity and identity. The American Book of Changes is intended to serve those who want to make wiser choices and to develop, along the way, a less perturbable sense of personal integrity—one that is steeped in curiosity, adaptability and creativity.
Lines, Trigrams and Hexagrams
The American Book of Changes preserves the shorthand yin and yang for the sake of their convenience and compactness. While they most certainly do refer to the female and male sexes, respectively, they are not limited to distinctions based on sex. It is helpful to think of them as wholly distinct packets of energy with opposing and complementary charges. (I use the word “charges” here in both the electromagnetic sense of positive versus negative and in the sense of duties, responsibilities, or jurisdictions—but only with the understanding that an individual of either sex may carry a charge of either kind, or a combination of the two, in any given situation.)
Yin refers to the divine feminine as well as to the mundane, to the maternal, the physical, to matter and incarnation, to darkness, mystery, gestation and so on. Conversely, yang refers to the divine masculine and to the abstract, the paternal, the active, to energy, light, clarity, generative power and so on. Both lists could go on and on almost indefinitely, and the items listed might be parsed in a variety of ways, depending on the parser and the language in which the parsing is done. (English long ago abandoned its gender–specificity, though we still cling to a few remnants such as the use of the feminine pronoun “she” to refer to ships and other vessels.) Rather than laboring over which items to toss in the yin bin and which in the yang, the point is to recognize the remarkable ability of digital systems to represent the various states of energy and matter.
Just as a certain string of ones and zeroes might represent a hexadecimal number such as #6ad289 (expressed as a specific tint of bluish green on a computer screen) the great variety of shadings found in the 386 lines of the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching are all derived from the two charged states: yin, represented by a dashed (broken) line,
and yang, represented by a solid line.
As Einstein’s famous equation demonstrates, energy and matter are two expressions of a single underlying equivalence and, under the right conditions, either one can change into the other. This idea of equivalence means that yin is sometimes converted into yang, and vice versa. In a hexagram, a yin line that has become “extreme” (or has begun the process of changing into its opposite) is represented by two crossed lines:
while an extreme yang line is represented by a single continuous line in the form of a circle:
Lines can be paired to suggest a limited range of predominances, giving results like the following:
If we assign a negative charge to a yin line and a positive charge to a yang line, we might interpret such pairings to mean definitely no, definitely yes, maybe no and maybe yes, respectively. But this is probably less helpful than a simple yes/no response, which explains why, when the initial flip of a coin goes against us, we call for best two out of three, why there are seven games in the World Series, nine justices on the Supreme Court, and so on.
When lines appear in triplets, things get more decisive and more interesting. The eight possible arrangements of three yin and/or yang lines are called trigrams. Each trigram is associated with one or more natural elements or energies and carries additional meanings and associations as well, depending on its context.
Associated meanings: femininity, receptivity, the center, groundedness, adaptability, the great mother, the womb. Associated color: gold or yellow.
Associated meanings: the eldest daughter, learning, wood, penetration. Associated color: green.
Associated meanings: the middle daughter, reason, clarity. Associated color: red.
Associated meanings: the youngest daughter, exuberance, gaiety, a lake. Associated color: silver or gray.
Associated meanings: masculinity, the father, outwardness, expansion, initiative, liberality. Associated color: blue.
Associated meanings: the eldest son, shock, excitation, thunder, electricity. Associated color: red–orange.
Associated meanings: the middle son, confinement, crisis, a river gorge. Associated color: black.
Associated meanings: the youngest son, inwardness, stillness, meditation, stone. Associated color: pale blue.
Finally, when any two trigrams are paired, the result will be one of the 64 hexagrams that form the basic structure of The Book of Changes:
Yarrow Sticks, Coins and Dice
There are several ways to consult The American Book of Changes, or any version of the I Ching, including a variety of online randomization applications that will generate a hexagram at the click of a mouse. Many people, myself included, prefer the tactility of physical objects. An early method employed an assortment of yarrow sticks and a system for counting them. The physical method most often used today is to toss three coins together, six times, to generate the six lines of a hexagram. You can read about the yarrow stick and coin toss methods (as well as a rather complicated method using dice) here.
I would like to introduce a third and simpler method, which I have been using for many years more or less exclusively. This method employs a set of six dice (or, in a pinch, a single di tossed six times.) Standard six-sided playing dice work perfectly well. The six dice are rolled one at a time and arranged from bottom to top, with the first die occupying the bottom position. An even number of dots represents a broken (yin) line ( – – ), and an odd number represents a solid (yang) line ( — ). Changing lines are indicated by ones (extreme yang) and sixes (extreme yin). In written notation, a one is represented by an unbroken circle ( o ) and a six by two crossed lines ( x ). For my own use, I have created a set of dice with broken lines in place of the two and four (which I have put on opposing rather than adjacent faces), two solid lines in place of the three and five (also on opposing faces), a circle in place of the one and an x in place of the six.
If you would like to make your own dice, a demonstration of the techniques for making a set using polymer clay might prove helpful. My instructions can be found by clicking on the Custom Dice tab. Any durable material can be used to make dice, of course, including ceramic, wood, stone, bone, horn or antler. My polymer dice have withstood more than a decade of avid use and will probably serve for many years to come. They make a hexagram and any changing lines immediately visible, and unlike a standard set of dice, with odd and even numbers (1/6, 2/5, 3/4) on opposing faces, the new arrangement allows you to flip the entire stack over to reveal the 2nd hexagram (for more on the second hexagram, see below).
One advantage that dice (either standard playing dice or my customized version) offer over coins and yarrow sticks is that an entire hexagram may be rolled without having to pause and mark down each line. Thus a hexagram is built more quickly and more fluidly, allowing for greater ease in maintaining concentration on the question or matter at hand. A 180° rotation of those dice that indicate changing lines (ones to sixes and vice versa) will yield the second hexagram, indicating the situation to come, after any changes have taken place. The same procedure could be followed using coins, of course, but you would need eighteen coins (three for each line) to do the work of six dice.
The odds that the roll of a die will result in a one or a six is somewhat greater than the odds that the coin toss method will yield a line of change: one in three as opposed to one in four. I find this increase to be an apt reflection of the accelerated pace of change that we face in the 21st Century. When change comes at us more rapidly, we have more to attend to, less time in which to craft an effective response, and a correspondingly greater need to inhibit the tendency to react reflexively.
Regardless of the means by which a hexagram is determined, it will be built from the bottom up, so that the first line always refers to the bottom, and the sixth line always refers to the top. Once you have counted out your yarrow sticks, tossed your coins or rolled your dice, look at the first three lines to determine the lower trigram. Find that trigram in the vertical column to the left of the grid below. Then determine the upper trigram and find it in the horizontal row at the top of the grid. Follow the row in which you find the lower trigram until it intersects with the column of the upper trigram, and you will have your hexagram.
Find the hexagram and read the information pertaining to the hexagram as a whole. If there are any changing lines (ones or sixes), read the text for those lines. The changing lines give a much more specific idea of the potential outcome of a situation or the likely result of a contemplated action. In some cases, the lines may support or amplify one another; at other times, they may seem contradictory. In the latter case, several potential outcomes may co–exist. The situation may be highly volatile, for example, and timing could play a role. It will sometimes happen that a single outcome may be interpreted in more than one way or have several ramifications, all of which need to be taken into consideration.
When you have considered the advice of the hexagram as a whole and of each of the changing lines, you may turn to the second hexagram—the one that results from the changing lines turning into their opposites. Find the resulting hexagram and read only the overview, disregarding the advice of the individual lines. The second hexagram offers insight into the condition that is most likely to prevail once the current situation has been resolved in the manner indicated in the first hexagram, along the specific lines of change indicated there. The second hexagram often suggests a longer–term forecast—a result of the result, if you will, of the situation or action under consideration, or a deeper layer of insight into the current energy of the situation.
How to Formulate a Question
While there is no right or wrong way to consult The American Book of Changes, certain approaches are more conducive to gaining useful information than others. The hexagrams are not intended to dictate behavior or to provide yes/no, right/wrong or true/false answers. Rather, they provide insights into the nature of a dilemma and the forces that are brought to bear upon it.
The most important such forces to consider are those under the direct control or management of the one asking for guidance. For that reason, the most productive kind of question will often be of an open–ended or “what if” variety. For example, one might ask, “What is likely to happen if I take on the task of [__________]?” or “What if I accept the offer of [____________]?” or “What if I respond to [situation x] by doing [y]?” When the options available are unlimited or unclear, or when no potential solution presents itself, one might frame a question such as, “What is the best approach to take to [situation x]?”
Asking the same question more than once is not recommended as it will usually only muddy the waters; however, if you are in fact looking for the answer to an up/down kind of question, it can be helpful to pose a question both negatively and positively and to compare the results. For example, if I want to decide whether to accept a particular invitation, I might ask, “What is the likely result of accepting?” and then “What is the likely result of declining?” In some cases, the advantages of one or the other course of action will be clear; in others, I may have to compare, contrast and choose. This method may be applied to multiple–choice questions as well, by tossing the dice as many times as there are options available.
It sometimes happens that a hexagram will answer an unasked, or masked, question. In the previous example, by asking, “What is the result of accepting invitation x?” I may in fact be wondering whether the invitation was sincere, I may feel an obligation but no real desire to accept, or it may be that the invitation represents something that I truly want or need but that might be better fulfilled in another way.
The hexagrams sometimes seem to know us better than we know ourselves. In fact, a willingness to inquire might be the key required to unlock a cabinet in which one has stowed a secret ambition or an unsightly fear. The American Book of Changes then becomes not only a method by which to decide what to do or not do but also a tool for self–examination and personal development. The more we delve into the concerns of daily life, the more we engage in self–discovery and the finer we draw the lines between practical, psychological, philosophical and spiritual concerns.
What Is Divination and How Does It Work?
I do not pretend to understand how or why the hexagrams manage to “read” our intentions (or energy states, if you prefer) but I will offer three untested hypotheses, each grounded in its own logic. I will begin with what I believe to be (as a stand–alone hypothesis, at least) the weakest of the three.
1. The Unseen Hand
The older I get (and the more I learn about physics) the less I am willing to dismiss as impossible. I cannot leave out of account the possibility that an unseen hand is involved in the tossing of coins, the selecting of a number of yarrow sticks or the rolling of dice in order to access a particular hexagram and its associated interpretation and advice. By “unseen hand” I mean any one of several, rather mystical entities.
If one accepts or is willing to entertain, at least, the notion that a set of beliefs or ideas can attract the energy of spiritual beings (call them gods, departed souls, angels, higher selves or what you will), then it is possible that such energies might direct the movements of physical objects in response to a sincere request for guidance. That I am not willing to dismiss this possibility does not mean that I regard it as the most likely one; it simply means that it is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove. Nor do I believe that such unseen influences would need to operate in a way that excludes another explanation for which we might find relatively more evidence.
2. Unconscious Manipulation
The fine motor control of the arms, hands and fingers can produce movements of astonishing subtlety. A talented musician can evoke a stunning range and specificity of emotion by exerting control over the tension and drag of a strand of horse hairs over a set of fine steel strings. We may call the performance of a cellist “magical” without meaning that it literally invokes an occult influence or suggesting that the physical equipment has been tampered with in order to produce illusions like those of a stage magician. The physical apparatus of tendons, muscles, bones, brain and nerve fibers are the same as those used in flipping coins or rolling dice. The music we hear from the violinist is a result of extensive conscious training; the roll of a die we mark up to chance, but it is possible that the influence of the mind is powerful enough, at a pre–conscious level, to calculate the angle and force of a toss and so to influence the result.
3. The Mind as Organizer of Chaos and Manufacturer of Meaning
Finally, the human mind—in particular, those regions of the brain associated with the manufacture and interpretation of language—is a dedicated maker and manager of meaning. We can and do regularly—no, make that incessantly and vigorously—organize multiple torrents of information, suppressing and amplifying an astonishing variety of currents in such a way as to create a highly coordinated and interpretable world of objects and events that support and reinforce a sensitive and idiosyncratic set of assumptions, beliefs and operations that make each of us who we are. Our intentional and interpretive filters might well apply to any configuration of lines and associated texts, in response to a highly focused question, the kind of meaning we need to generate in a given moment. The sixty–four hexagrams provide, then, a lattice upon which to hang a new instance of meaning–making.
A Bonus Hypothesis: All of the Above
The likeliest scenario, to my mind (since I am no purist), is that these three possible explanations for the working of the hexagrams are mutually non–exclusive. I would suggest that there is no line of demarcation between the human hand and the world of the spirit, not the slightest gulf between the collective unconscious and a coordinated management of meaning, that the mind and body ought to be regarded as rather more of a continuum than a duality and that the worlds of the mind, body and spirit are interpenetrable in ways that are neither less nor more mystical than the bending of light rays through the lenses of a telescope, causing them to strike the retina in such a way as to allow us to resolve a distant image and to see it as if it were much closer to hand.
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke stated as his third law of prediction that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I invite you to consider whether such advances in technology necessarily belong exclusively to the future. They may well have accompanied us out of the mists of prehistory.
How to Make Your Own
For nearly a decade, I have been making my own dice for use with the Book of Changes. I use a material called polymer clay, and my very first set has withstood almost daily use. There are certainly other beautiful and durable materials to choose from, including wood, horn, antler, bone, stoneware, and so on. The advantages of polymer clay are that the raw material is easy to use and available in an extensive range of colors at most art and craft supply stores . Colors can be mixed to produce subtle variations, striations, mottled effects and so on. There are many techniques for surface decoration, from stamping, painting and metal-leafing to inlays, mosaic and millefiori.
The clay is molded, then baked according to the manufacturer’s directions. Most polymer clay artists use a toaster oven dedicated to use with polymer clay. This material should NOT be baked in any appliance that will later be used in food preparation. Hands and tools should be thoroughly cleaned after using polymers.
I have tried several techniques for producing custom dice. The most straightforward method is to simply shape the dice by hand, bake them, then carve each face using a handheld rotary tool (I use a Dremel), fill the resulting voids with a contrasting color, bake again, refine the shape and with successively finer grits of sandpaper, polish with steel wool and a buffing cloth. With a steady hand, you can make a set of fairly uniform dice.
The technique demonstrated here uses a drill (hand or power) with 3/8″ and 1/8″ bits, instead of a rotary tool. You will also need two clamps and a wooden jig or mold to help shape the dice. For a mold that will make a set of six dice, you will need a little scrap lumber in the following dimensions:
- two 1″ x 3″ (nominal) x 6″
- two 1″ X 1″
(nominal) x 6″
- one 1/8″ x 3/4″ x 6″
You will also need six 1/16″ tile spacers
On one 1″ x 1″ x 6″ mark off six 3/4″ sections and glue a tile spacer in the center of each section, like so:
Using a router or table saw, make a 1/8″ cut (standard kerf) to a depth of 1/2″ the length of one 1″ x 3″ x 6″ board, 1 3/4″ from the edge. Glue the 1/8″ x 1″ x 6″ slat into the cut to make a spline. Approximately 1/4″ of the spline should be exposed. Be sure to wipe away all excess glue.
Place the 1″ x 1″ x 6″ board along the edge of the form. Glue and clamp for one hour. Allow the glue to cure overnight.
To make six dice, you will need two 2 ounce packages of polymer clay for the body of the dice and one 2 ounce package in a contrasting color for the lines. For the body, I mix blue and black to make a deeper blue. For the lines, I use gold. I will refer to these as the body color and the inlay color, respectively.
After thoroughly mixing and “conditioning” the body color by kneading it until it is soft enough to fold without breaking or crumbling, roll the clay into a log roughly six inches long and an inch in diameter.
Use talcum powder or corn starch to coat the wooden forms. This will act as a release, allowing you to remove the clay from the form later on with minimal distortion.
Press the 6″ log of body clay firmly over the length of the spline and into the corners.
Line up the second 1″ x 3″ x 6″ board along the edge of the 1″ x 1″ x 6″, parallel to the 1″ x 3″ x 6″ with the spline, and clamp again.
Slide the 1″ x 1″ x 6″ with the tile spacers between the two 1″ x 3″ 6″s until it presses into the clay. Use a clamp to depress it until the tile spacers are completely embedded and the clay is 3/4″ x 3/4″ square.
Remove clamps. Remove top (splineless) 1″ x 3″ x 6″ and use a flexible blade to scrape off excess clay.
Carefully remove the clay from the mold and slice into six 3/4″ cubes. Bake according to manufacturers instructions. Condition inlay clay. When the cubes are cool, line them up in the form against the spline, with the side opposite the x shaped voids facing up. Use the 1″ x 1″ x 6″ and clamp as shown below, applying only enough pressure to keep the cubes from spinning. Be careful not to break the spline!
Drill a 3/8″ hole in the center of each cube to a depth of 1/4″.
Press the inlay clay firmly into all voids created by the spline, the tile spacers and the drill bit, making sure to leave no air pockets. Scrape excess clay flush with each surface, leaving no depressions. Bake again according to manufacturer’s instructions and allow to cool.
Place the cool dice into the form and clamp loosely as before. In the center of each 3/8″ circle of inlay color, drill a 1/8″ hole to a depth of 1/4″.
Press body color clay into the resulting voids, scrape excess, and bake again.
The rest is sanding. You will need several grades of wet/dry sandpaper, from 100 grit, to remove excess clay and reveal the inlays, round edges and corners, up to 600 grit for a smooth finish and the finest steel wool. Follow up with a buffing cloth to impart a beautiful sheen, and your dice are ready to toss!