Apr 03, 2023, 05:55AM

Binary Changes

Morality, the I-Ching and the psychedelic revolution.

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Carl Jung first coined the word “synchronicity” in the 1920s as an attempt to explain the nature of the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese divinatory system said by some to date back to the third millennium BC. The word “Ching” means “book.’ The word “I” means “changes.” The I-Ching, therefore, is the Book of Changes. It’s a book consisting of 64 chapters each identified by a unique symbol and a unique name. The symbol is a hexagram: six lines piled one on top of the other. There are two kinds of line: either broken or whole lines. The broken lines are called Yin and the whole lines are Yang. The combination of Yin and Yang over six lines gives 64 possible permutations.

Most people will know the famous Yin and Yang symbol of Chinese philosophical thought: a circle divided by a wavy line, black on one side, white on the other, so that it looks like two drops intertwining with each other. Or they could be primitive creatures: amoebas or the heads of sperm. Each of the sides contains a single dot of the opposite colour, which looks like an eye. So the black side contains a white eye, and the white side contains a black eye.

The symbol is known as the Taijitu or “the diagram of the supreme ultimate” and is understood to represent the Tao, or the Way. It’s the central figure in Chinese cosmology, the underlying dynamic which makes up the whole of the known universe.

It’s a form of binary code. The Yin is the dark principle, the Yang is the light. Yang is the Creative, Yin is the Receptive. They are seen as complimentary opposites. Each of them balances as well as opposes the other. Each depends upon the other for its being and its expression. There’s no good and evil in this worldview. Evil only arises when either side attempts to go it alone, to overthrow or to diminish the other.

The reason that each side contains a speck of the other color is that, according to Chinese thought, each of the two principles contains the seed of its own opposite. This is played out in the I-Ching by the so-called moving lines.

The book is read by a process of chance: either by throwing a set of three coins six times, or by the manual division of yarrow stalks. The coin method is easier to explain. There are four possible combinations that can arise. You can have two heads and a tail, two tails and a head, three heads, or three tails. Heads are Yang, tails are Yin. Each is given a different numerical value and interpreted in a different way. Heads are allocated the number three; tails, the number two. So the different values are these: six for three tails, nine for three heads, seven for two tails and a head, eight for two heads and a tail. Seven and eight are called Young Yang, and Young Yin respectively. The Young Yang is marked by an unbroken line, the Young Yin by a broken line.

The nine and the six are called Old Yang and Old Yin, and are considered to be moving lines. They’re still displayed as broken or unbroken lines, but an extra symbol is added: a circle in the middle of the Yang, a cross in the middle of the Yin. Moving lines turn into their own opposite. Old Yang becomes Young Yin, Old Yin becomes Young Yang, and by this process a second hexagram is formed. These lines are considered to be especially significant, and are read separately.

It’s a pleasingly elegant system. The world is seen as a dynamic process of fluctuation or change, more like the free flowing currents of a river—or the never-ending flows and eddies of time—rather than as the wilful determination of some judgmental Creator God. More like the real world.

At the very least you’ll have to admit that this makes it a very unusual book. It means you don’t read it, as you do other books, as a narrative, from one end to the other. You read it randomly, as a result of throwing coins. Also, the central figure in the book is you, the person reading the book. You ask a question, then throw the coins, then read the response in the book, which you interpret according to your own understanding. Your reading is ad hoc, specific to the question. This means that everyone’s experience of the book is personal and unique.

You absorb the philosophy as you’re reading it. Your relationship to it is much more dynamic than it would be to other books, precisely because you’re applying the lessons to yourself. These are your questions, therefore they are your answers. There’s no intermediary here: no historical figure standing between you and the deity. No Jesus. No Moses. No Mohammed. Just a book. But it’s a book which appears to be intelligent, which acts as if it’s alive. You ask it a question and it answers you. Sometimes the answer can be so precise that it makes your heart pound.

I first came across it in the 1970s. A number of the psychedelic writers of the era referenced it: Timothy Leary, John Lilly, Ram Dass, Terence McKenna. The English translation, by Cary F. Baynes, of the original German translation by Richard Wilhelm—probably still the most influential version of the book to date—came out in 1967. It had an introduction by Carl Jung and had been adopted by Ken Kesey, the writer of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, as part of the armory of his psychedelic explorations.

In the mid-1960s Kesey and a bunch of associates had taken to the road in a converted school bus ostensibly to deliver the manuscript of Kesey’s second book, Sometimes a Great Notion, to his publisher, but also as a kind of exploration of their new-found freedoms. They called themselves The Merry Pranksters. They were the first of the psychedelic tribes of the era, and a precursor to the New Age Travellers of 1970s and 80s Britain.

Kesey was an associate of the Grateful Dead, the famous rock band from San Francisco. The Dead provided the soundtrack to the free-for-all psychedelic sound-jamboree which characterized the Acid Tests. These were, simply, drug parties. The central drug was LSD. The LSD experience typically lasted for eight hours, and the Dead learned to keep playing for large stretches of the time, something which characterized their music: both the ability to jam extensively for hours on end, and to free-flow from one song to another extemporaneously, by an almost telepathic reading of the mood of the occasion.

Kesey introduced the I-Ching to the Pranksters as a way to orientate themselves through the psycho-spiritual landscape they were exploring. They were travelling through the United States, but also journeying into the inner landscape of their own hearts and minds. They considered the I-Ching a useful tool.

I was 18 when I came across it and had just started college. I’d also started experimenting with psychedelic substances: LSD and cannabis. There was a couple I’d met who I used to go and visit. They lived a short train journey away. We were into all kind of fads. For a while we were obsessively playing jacks, the pick-up game where you bounce a ball and then pick up these spiky bits of metal. It was a game of skill and chance. After this someone had brought a copy of the I-Ching, and we played with that in much the same spirit.

My relationship with this couple quickly became a sexual one. Hippie culture had the notion of free love embedded within it. The couple only had one bed in their flat, and they asked me to join them. I was young, horny and still a virgin. I slept most nights with my underwear on under which a hard-on raged and throbbed. And then, one day, the woman suggested I take my shorts off. It was a highly-charged moment. I don’t know whether they’d discussed this beforehand or not. Probably. First of all we were fooling around, the two guys either side of the woman, kissing her, trapping her arms underneath our bodies, running our hands over her. She was very excited. And then the other guy got out the bed to make a cup of tea and I was left to my own devices. I remember the feeling, as if I was melting into her. I think I came within 30 seconds.

None of this was very good for me. I was always a very shy person. I found it hard to deal with crowds and was particularly shy around women. But this new three-way relationship created a weird dynamic. My sexuality was split in two. I fell in love with the guy: sort of, in a rational rather than a sexual way. I admired his wayward intelligence and his radical worldview. I wanted to be like him. Meanwhile I continued having sex with the woman. What I really needed was a relationship of my own.

I did the I-Ching. This might only have been the fourth or fifth time I’d ever thrown the coins. As I say, the first few times I just treated it as a game. I asked about the couple, and whether I should continue with this relationship.

This is the reading I got:

Six in the third place means: When three people journey together, Their number increases by one.
When one man journeys alone,
He finds a companion.

My heart was pounding as I read these lines. My scalp began to tingle. I could feel a flush running through my body. Could there be a more precise answer? It was as if the book was speaking directly to me, as if these random throws of the coins had somehow managed to link into the hidden intelligence of the book to give me the precise answer I needed. After that I became seriously obsessed. I started reading it all the time, asking advice on every aspect of my life. Not that I ever took the advice. I would ask a question, and be satisfied or unsatisfied with the reply, but I never would do anything to change my situation. Just like with the couple. The book had been very clear, but I continued to see them anyway.

The book has been a constant companion in my life, and I guess my relationship with it has continued in much the same vein to this day. I consult it, looking for advice. Often I ignore it. This isn’t intentional. It’s just that you read the book and then get on with your life and very often there’s a disjunct between the two. But it has taught me some extraordinary things.

It works around a dynamic of opposition and movement which runs throughout the text. To rule is to serve. To increase is to decrease. Everything changes. Summer turns to winter. Youth turns to age. The opposite of peace is not war but stagnation. Dispersal leads to gathering together. Splitting apart is followed by return.

This isn’t the crude opposition of Western dualism. There’s no good and evil here. No simple black and white. No Cowboys and Indians. The two sides of the opposition create a complimentary whole, and nothing’s fixed within the system. For example, the word “Yang” itself refers to the sunny side of the mountain, while the word “Yin” refers to the shady side. Those are the literal translations. But as the sun moves across the sky, so what had been in sunlight becomes shaded, and what had been shady becomes lit-up again. The process is dynamic, chaotic, like the weather, not fixed like an abstract principle. What’s hard becomes yielding, what’s yielding becomes hard, and although masculinity and femininity are represented within the system, it’s in a way which incorporates them as two parts of a whole.

Take the two basic concepts: the Creative and the Receptive. On one level, they might be construed as representing male and female qualities. The Creative is represented as a dragon, the Receptive as a mare. The Creative is Heaven, the Receptive is Earth. One is above and one is below, and there’s a corresponding descent, from the one to the other. The Creative impregnates the Receptive with its energy and the Receptive gives birth to the result. But at the same time the two are co-dependent, and the qualities are understood to exist within both sexes. Without the Receptive, the Creative has no means of expression. Without the Creative, the Receptive has nothing to express.

Nothing shows the moral dimension of the philosophy behind the book better than hexagram 42: Increase. It consists of two Yang lines on the top, and one Yang line on the bottom, divided by three Yin lines.

Yang is the Creative, the strong, and its movement is upward. Yin is the Receptive, the weak, and its movement is downward. In this case, while two of the Yang lines are in their proper place, at the top, one Yang line has descended and is underneath the Yin. This gives the idea of sacrifice, which is interpreted as Increase.

As it says in the Wilhelm text:

The idea of increase is expressed in the fact that the strong lowest line of the upper trigram has sunk down and taken its place under the lower trigram. This conception also expresses the fundamental idea on which the Book of Changes is based. To rule truly is to serve. A sacrifice of the higher element that produces an increase of the lower is called an out-and-out increase: it indicates the spirit that alone has power to help the world.

The book then goes on to say this:

Wind and thunder: the image of INCREASE. Thus the superior man:
If he sees good, he imitates it;
If he has faults, he rids himself of them.

While observing how thunder and wind increase and strengthen each other, a man can note the way to self-increase and self-improvement. When he discovers good in others, he should imitate it and thus make everything on earth his own. If he perceives something bad in himself, let him rid himself of it. In this way he becomes free of evil. This ethical change represents the most important increase of personality.

This is the exact opposite of the moralizing tendencies of Western ethical thought, which usually ends up with people observing the evil in other people while feeling good about ourselves. We’re not told what’s good and what’s evil here. There are no exhortations to particular ways of being and behaving, no injunctions to restraint. We’re not told that this action is bad and to avoid it, or this action is good and to embrace it. It’s taken as read that we understand what good and evil are. It’s a simple rule by which we can increase the good in the world. By looking for the good in others we make it our own. By looking for the evil in ourselves we rid ourselves of it. It’s a form of the universal moral injunction—shared by all religious and ethical systems alike—to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but with an extra twist. It says, “love thy neighbor and learn from him.” It says, “look for the good in order to increase the good.” It says, “do not judge lest ye be judged.”And it adds that the only moral change that can truly make a difference is the one we apply to ourselves.

—The I-Ching is available online here: https://www.jamesdekorne.com/GBCh/GBCh.htm


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