In 2017, don’t leave home without the I Ching

Andrew Sheng finds inspiration in these uncertain times in the classic Chinese text, Book of Change, which prepares us for the future not by divining it, but by accepting the role played by chance and seemingly random events

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 10:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 6:06pm

On the eve of Christmas, Christians around the world will be celebrating family time and the birth of Jesus Christ. In Vietnam, where I’d been travelling, Christmas was everywhere in the shops, hotels and restaurants. It was nice to witness universal joy at this time of giving.

As a Christmas present, I was given a copy of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching (Book of Change), with a foreword by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.

The I Ching is probably the oldest surviving text on how to deal with uncertainty. Jung was one of the first Western scientists to recognise that if man is affected by nature and the unpredictable behaviour of other men or women, then “every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception”. In other words, Chinese thinking starts from a different premise than the Western science of causality, which are statistical patterns that must allow for random events.

The dating of the earliest version of the I Ching goes back to probably 4,500 years ago, when the first eight trigrams were formulated as an early attempt to classify different ways of responding to random events. If correct, the I Ching predates the Axial Age, a period of flowering of civilisation in the eighth to third centuries BC in Greece, Babylon, India and China. The I Ching is considered the fount of many sources of Chinese culture, including mathematics, astronomy, historiography, music, architecture, medicine, philosophy, martial arts, art and religion.

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There are three fundamental principles of change embodied in the I Ching. The first constant is that everything changes (变易). The second principle is change through simplification (简易). The third principle is that even though things change, things may not change (不易).

The first concept of constant change was recognised by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, about 2,500 years ago, who argued that change was the fundamental essence of the universe, encapsulated in his saying “no man ever steps in the same river twice”.

The second principle of “simplification” is that the universe can be reduced to simple principles, which are easy to understand. That is very much the reductionism of physics that tries to find the theory of everything in simple mathematical form.

My Christmas present will be often consulted, not for predictions, but for how to prepare psychologically for radical surprises

The third principle of “no change” can be interpreted as “the more things change, the more things stay the same”. Everything is formed by opposite poles, such as order and chaos. Without order, there will be chaos; and without chaos, there cannot be order.

These ideas of unchanging reality were also expounded by the Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea, more than 2,500 years ago.

Most people think that the I Ching is a book of oracles or mystic mumbo jumbo, since one can interpret the 64 different hexagrams in very different ways. Those of us who use the I Ching ask: if life is affected in random and unpredictable ways, how should we think about handling such challenges?

There are books like the Bible that reveal the truth to the reader. But, as we know, every written word is subject to interpretation, which each of us do differently depending on our individual experience. Furthermore, the more complex the situation, the more different the interpretations or options available for action or non-action.

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The I Ching is useful, at least to those of us who consult it, not for predictions but for analysis. Firstly, every piece of information, however random or unrelated, may be relevant, because life or nature is interconnected in ways that are not always obvious. For example, when Donald Trump won the US presidential election, every world leader was scrambling to find the right connections to get through to him. Some of them found it through his son-in-law.

Secondly, the I Ching prompts you to ask questions you do not normally ask. For example, have you considered factors that are outside your normal frame of analysis? It is fashionable these days to talk about the elephants in the room and the “black swan” events. The I Ching questions everything, because there are no certainties.

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Third, the I Ching encourages one to think about the system as an interacting whole, not in compartments that do not add up. You cannot fix a system by surgically removing one part of it. The human body, for example, is an interconnected whole in which pain in the toe could be a symptom of an organ dysfunction.

In 2017, Brexit and Trump’s assumption of the presidency will bring many more surprises and what may appear as random events. My Christmas present will be often consulted, not for predictions, but for how to prepare psychologically for radical surprises.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Andrew Sheng writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective