The Chinese Book of Changes – the I Ching – has provided inspiration and advice for millions through the centuries, and now, around the world. The I Ching (pronounced ee-jing), dates back some 2,500 years. Originally used for royal divination purposes, this profound work became a source of moral and ethical guidance, a philosophical tome, a book of literature to be studied and quoted, and a classic to be memorized by schoolboys.

The name I Ching literally means "Change Classic," which refers to the ever-dynamic movements of the universe. The book is organized around 64 hexagrams that are symbolic of the myriad of things and possibilities that exist in the universe, concepts such as following or retreating, conditions or qualities such as "gradually" or "penetrating," or social relationships like marriage and family.

Use of the I Ching relies on your knowledge, intuition and intention. By reading it, you build your knowledge base, creating a field on which your intuition can play. But your intention plays a key role in all this.

Intention helps you clarify questions, become receptive to answers and guides you in implementing solutions. Intention, in all of the Chinese arts, is fundamental. Whether you’re wielding a calligraphy brush, taiji sword, feng shui compass or acupuncture needle, having the right intention is essential. We can see the meaning of intention clearly depicted in the Chinese character: a sounds (speech) coming from a mouth over a heart. The idea is that intention is formed in the "heart-mind" and is expressed in words or actions, to oneself, or to others.

Intention in the I Ching
Whether one reads the I Ching as a wisdom book or accesses it via divination methods, its "answers" are always bound inextricably with your intention. If you are sincerely exploring a question in your life, the I Ching will not provide yes or no answers, but rather will help you figure out the correct path toward the answer. In fact, the I Ching famously gives the reading "Youthful Folly" if your intentions in asking are inappropriate.

Here are some traditional approaches to the I Ching. On the philosophical end of things, the I Ching provides guidance to living a moral life. The person’s intention is to learn and study, to understand what the Dao is, to transcend distinctions, and to merge thought and action – Chinese philosophy always having been action-oriented. On the other hand, the fortune-telling use of the I Ching leans toward management of more practical choices: Is this an auspicious day for going on this trip? Is this young man a good match for my daughter? In this case, the questioner, must find ways to be attuned more closely with the question and potential answer.

Yet, another manner by which people have approached the I Ching is through a "mandala." In this manner, they contemplate various I Ching diagrams to graphically understand the universe and how they function in it.

Actual techniques of using the I Ching can allow for different levels of intention to come into play. For some people, dipping into the book informally is sufficient. For others, it is crucial to create a ritual context that enhances receptivity and intention. This typically would include meditating on a question and then using coins or yarrow stalks to determine a reading.

Example of the I Ching
Here are some examples of how people have used the I Ching:

Connie is going through a rough time in her marriage. She decides to consult the I Ching for advice. She sits quietly for about 10 minutes, letting her mind gradually sift through things until she can formulate a question. By throwing coins, she arrives at the Hexagram 61, Inner Truth, which gives the puzzling reading "Pigs and fishes, good fortune." She reads the commentary to help make sense of it, which advises that, when dealing with people who are as difficult as pigs and fish, it helps to find the appropriate means to communicate. Based on the configuration of coins she threw, Connie also receives the first line, which says "Being prepared brings good fortune. If there are secret designs, it is disquieting." From this, Connie realizes that sincerity, honestly and intention are key to building good communications with her husband.

Walt is in the process of deciding whether to go to graduate school in Colorado or California. Each choice has pluses and minuses. He takes out his I Ching "tree" chart and spends some time gazing at its branching pattern. He realizes that whatever road he takes will lead him forward in his life. He is able to symbolically "walk through" some of the levels of his choices and see where they’ll lead him.

Mark is trying to resolve a conflict with a co-worker. What should have been simple decisions blossom into complexity and friction each time they interact. Mark pulls out his copy of the I Ching and opens it up randomly. He reads and reflects on the advice given in Hexagram 30, "Obstruction," in which it says, "Water on the mountain: the image of Obstruction. Thus the superior man turns his attention to himself and molds his character." As Mark reads this, he reflects on his own role in creating the problems, and as he does so, he begins to see potential solutions to his situation.

The I Ching is an intriguing book that should not be overlooked. Its wisdom transcends the ages and cultural boundaries. Your first step in using the I Ching is to find clarity of question, then create receptivity, and finally, a willingness to apply what you have learned. The more you use it, the more you’ll get from it.

Barbara Davis is director of Great River T'ai Chi in Minneapolis and has been teaching classes on the I Ching since the 1990s. She has a master's degree in East Asian Studies and is at work on a reader's guide to the I Ching. Barbara's prior works include the Taijiquan Classics: An Annotated Translation. She is editor of Taijiquan Journal, an international quarterly on T'ai chi ch'uan, and has presented workshops around the country. Barbara can be reached at 612.822.5760 or at editor@taijiquanjournal.com.

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