Let Sheila Heti's illustrated and reconfigured I Ching guide your life decisions
Pamphlets are usually a kind of precursor to greatness – or, if not greatness, some kind of measurable success at least. (To borrow an example from cinema, pamphlets are sort of like Shane Carruth's Primer: low key, low budget affairs that – while they may in and of themselves be pretty excellent – function more as a promise.) But, doing what they do best, which is basically nothing by halves, London publisher Visual Editions has enlisted a slew of the most exciting contemporary authors and artists, including Tao Lin and Olafur Elliason, and is going all out to reinvent the wheel in spectacular fashion. The pamphlets in Where You Are – of which there are number – are beautiful, challenging things in their own right.
“The wisdom keepers of ancient cultures were healers, shamans, storytellers and other artists, who chose between writing their wisdom into spiritual or philosophical text or putting their knowledge into a game.” – Unknown source
The I Ching – which is frequently translated as The Book of Changes – is a book of Ancient Chinese wisdom and philosophy, and one of the oldest books. It deals with the central principle in life that is change – the interplay between chaos and order. In every moment of life, chaos is interacting with order to create the present moment. Think of the yin-yang symbol and its perfection in representing this concept: in lightness there is darkness, in darkness there is light. There are always both forces in equal measure, and they are always in a dance.
The I Ching describes 64 states (the word English translators traditionally use is “hexagrams”). Each chapter describes one of these states, and what one should do if one finds oneself there. (Examples of states include: Increase, Peace, Coming Together, and Shock.)
One doesn’t read the book from beginning to end. Rather, one asks a question (“Where am I now?” is a good, basic question) then throws three coins six times. The coins tells you which of the 64 states you are “in” – then you read that chapter. Those coins also tell you which state you will be in next, and that chapter is read after the first one. This way of reading expresses the truth that things are always in flux, always changing.
I have never felt, consulting the I Ching, that it was “wrong” in the state it gave me; not because there is God or fate in divination (I believe the coin process to be an expression of randomness), but because it’s probably true that if there are 64 states or ways things can be, then at the deepest level of truth, all of these states are probably occurring at once. So whether one pulls hexagram 4 (Youthful Folly) or hexagram 9 (The Taming of the Small), it will be truly happening now, for the universe is more manifold, more complex, more paradoxical, and more everything that we bodies who see through two eyes and move forward in time can
ever fully appreciate or experience. We can intuit this manifold, but we have to respond to the world in one way.
When one is stuck – and I think one is most stuck when the truth of this complexity weighs upon us (What should I do? But there are 100 things I could do, and all seem good and all seem bad!) –consulting the I Ching is a relief.
According to Brian Browne Walker, who has made a wonderful translation of the I Ching, the book’s values – across all 64 states – are “modesty, awareness, acceptance, adaptability, compassion, restraint, innocence, perseverance, tolerance, reticence, devotion to inner truth, patience, openness, detachment, consciousnesses, balance and inner independence.” It warns against “fear, anger, desire, arrogance, aggressiveness, anxiety, harshness, cunning, goal orientation and self-indulgence.”
I could turn on my phone right now and use the GPS to learn where I am – to discover my latitude and longitude, but why? I already know how to get to anywhere I could possibly want to go in my city. What I really need is a map for navigating the ineffable. How do I get to a place of peace or how can I be “good” in this moment of turmoil and indecision and conflicting desires? The I Ching is a map along the path of goodness and peace. It has never led me into greater chaos than I was in when I consulted it. It has always brought me greater clarity. I think it’s making me into a better person. It’s hard to be good when you’re lost.
After engaging with the I Ching for a number of years, I introduced the book to my friend, the artist Ted Mineo, who was as captivated with it as I was. We decided to work together on an adaptation that would include his drawings and my text.
What follows are 1) bits of Ted’s drawing process, and 2) six of the hexagrams we’ve worked on so far. I didn’t translate the hexagrams from the original Chinese, but wrote my interpretation from studying dozens of English translations. The way Ted and I collaborate is: we agree on which hexagram to work on, then send each other our nearly-completed drafts. After we see what the other has done, we make revisions to harmonize our work.
I was corresponding over Twitter with Brian Walker, the I Ching translator I mentioned above, and asked him if he continued to use the book after completing his translation. He said he doesn’t still use it; the game is meant to show us the right path, but after a time, one doesn’t need the game – one has internalized its lessons. ("All the teachings of the masters are only tricks," he said.) The I Ching, seen from this perspective, is like training wheels. One puts them on, but perhaps eventually one takes them off. Just as I don’t need a map to get to my best friend’s house, perhaps one day I also won’t need a map for how to be good and at peace amidst the vicissitudes and paradoxes of life.
– Sheila Heti
Use the following 6-hexagram I Ching as a modified version of the complete, 64-hexagram book. Think of a question (not a yes-or-no question), throw a six-sided die (since there are only six chapters, a die is simpler to use than coins). Whatever number comes up, that’s the “state” you – and your environment – are in. I have numbered the following chapters 1-6, with the true, corresponding I Ching numbers in brackets, for reference.
How can I make my business flourish?
What is the best way to get through to him?
What should be my ruling principle for this upcoming trip?
Where am I now?
1. GRADUAL PROGRESS (#53)
Weeds shoot up and multiply, but they are easily pulled from the earth. A tree that stands high on a mountain will last and last. A tree pushes up through the soil and down through the earth with equal force. Because of its steady and certain progress, it is not uprooted easily. It firmly clasps the ground.
All progress from here will be steady and gradual, like the growth of a tree. This is not a time for agitation or revolution. Impulsive gestures will be ignored or will irritate like weeds. Though impatience at this time is understandable, nothing of lasting value can come from it. Do not try and push things ahead of their time. You may have to wait longer than you’d like for the changes you hope will occur. Work, therefore, gradually, not expecting any quick success. The time for harvesting will come, but it has not come yet.
You have been given a certain place in this world. Your culture and traditions are not a separate thing from you. The people around you who live by its structures and values are not so different from you. You all feel the same things. You have collectively chosen to act in certain ways, which is what creates a society. You are a real part of this society. Progress involves respect for it, for its laws are part of who you are, and you are more a part of it than you might realise. Understand your place within it; progress will spring from its values, and from living within them now. Then, from within your current conditions, you will advance.
If you are rooted in what is virtuous and right, so too will your ends be virtuous and right. Do not try to dominate situations. Instead, turn your focus to steadily refining your inner self. There are no shortcuts ahead.
2. GRACE (#22)
There are times when the world appears perfectly balanced. Heaven and earth, top and bottom, are in harmony, and surface and depth are aligned. This state of grace is delicate, fragile and transitory. It is not a state one can remain in for long. It implies the beauty of ornament and surfaces. So make this a time when you focus on smaller things. Relish the perfection of everything natural. Find and appreciate tranquillity. Be still. This is not a time to contemplate or make far-reaching decisions.
When you make the transition from this momentary place, how should you proceed?
In preparation for any journey, great or small, one must choose the right clothes to wear on the journey. You must pay attention to your hair, your shoes, your suitcase, everything you are bringing. Any journey to a new place must be set out for in the proper manner, a manner that will show esteem for the new environment, and one’s self in that new place. There is no good in setting off for a new country wearing tennis shoes and pyjamas. First, consider where you are going, then undertake the appropriate rites. The quality of care you give to the smallest details reveals a lot about you, and affects where you end up. So set yourself right before you set off. Set your home right, and put things in their proper places. These small arrangements and decisions are the seeds of significance. They foretell how you will be received in the new land, and what the new land will be. Show respect in all aspects of your being, even the tiniest. Show respect for the place you are entering – which is always the future. Then you will be ushered forth smoothly, not led toward an undesirable realm against your dreams.
3. COLLAPSE (#23)
Everything is being torn down. The structures are breaking. The walls are falling in. Though they housed you well in the old time, they now have grown rotten. Although the walls are collapsing, that doesn’t mean you should leave. Remain with the collapsing structure and help someone. Be kind. Forget about yourself for now. Exhibit neither guilt nor fear. You didn’t create this situation. It’s part of the natural course of things. The situation has come about because of subtle, long-term, undermining forces. Be still amid the crumbling. Let the cycle you were in, which ends with this crumbling, complete itself. Stop thinking. Do not interfere. Exhibit peace. The best thing right now would be to show with an attitude of submission that you knew this time would come, for every time comes. Put aside selfish motives, desires, wishes or fears. And notice: how during a time of avalanches, there is something real that persists and shines through all the rubble. That real thing is more vivid than ever now, in contrast with the frail structures that are collapsing all around you. Focus on the eternal, the source. What is good will grow from there.
In a time of collapsing, the heedless person rushes headlong and the collapse reflects badly on them. But the person who knows how to act, holds lightly and with confidence to the root of all things, which never disappears; it is always there if you look for it. The one who knows how to act remains at peace with this pulsing thing held truly close to their heart and mind, and what is essential is not lost.
4. RETURN (#24)
After you have navigated home from travels far away, there can be nothing but improvement in every aspect of your life.
You are reunited with your life-force, which has been dwelling elsewhere, uncorrupted. It is like the Sabbath day. For six days your work was energetic, anxious, complex and precise. All your energies were needed. Failure felt close at hand. At last the seventh day comes, ensuring recovery from the previous six.
Improvements now come naturally, without your having to work doubly hard for them, as you have done in the past. Your fortunes are changing for the better, without anyone’s having willed it. These changes occur on their own. They create no conflict; no strained relationships or discomforts result. On the contrary, the changes are happily welcomed in by everyone in your environment, including you. After a long period of stagnation or frustration, you may be tempted to accelerate these changes. Don’t. To do that would be as foolish as trying to pull cucumber seeds from the earth in the winter, hoping to extract cucumbers.
If a project or path opens to you, and seems advantageous and without complication, it probably is advantageous and without complication. It would not be a mistake to join with other people. If there has been an area of frustration or difficulty in your life, now is a good time to solve it with an absolutely simple solution, which should come easily if you’ll only turn your mind in the direction of the problem. Inside of you is a feeling of beginning. Potential energy is stirring. This will bring freshness to all that you do.
When you return as you are doing now, people may be astonished that you still exist. Even you may be astonished.
5. REVOLUTION (#49)
When two women with disagreements run a household together, it can look like a pillar of fire rising out of the lake. The fire could dry up the lake. The lake could extinguish the fire. If neither of these things happen, it’s an incredible sight. True revolution is not one force triumphing over the other and destroying it. True revolution happens when powerful forces are balanced; when everything significant is maintained.
In a time of revolution, things are constantly transforming from within. Revolution harmonizes and reunites aspects of ourselves that have been forced, or held oppressively, apart. When there is true balance, an effect happens like the burning of fat from a bone using fire and water. By burning, you eliminate what is false in yourself and your life.
When a pinnacle moment arrives, if one has not quite reached orgasm or completion, that is the right moment to move decisively – with self-control, not frenzy – to bring the new time to a peak.
But revolutions are grave and important matters. After a period of rapid and brilliant change, some time is required to take stock of the newness in a calm and considered way. Revolutions must only be undertaken when they are absolutely necessary, and with the full support of the people.
If those conditions exist right now, then you should step into these changes, accept them, be them. Through acceptance, you alter the cycle of time from high speed to low speed, from chaos to a genuine re-ordering of life.
Do not see the present upheavals as an irrelevant game. You are like a cork being swept into the waves. Allow the basic image of your life to go into flux.
6. RETREAT (#33)
Retreat means dignified disengagement. Its purpose is to prevent the situation from developing, and to quell the harmful elements. Retreat does not mean fleeing, losing all your self-possession. It does not mean contempt or bad feelings toward whatever you are separating from. Retreat means compassionate, controlled and gentle withdrawal.
You may feel that you can control the situation by remaining on the battlefield. But if you engage now, you will only muddy your feet. Your shoes and feet will become caked in mud, and your head and home will become muddy, too.
Do not see retreat as surrendering the battle to the enemy. It is a good strategy to allow the multitude of negative forces that have been stirred to finally die down again. It is wise to retreat simply and without compulsive apology. You have no reason to feel guilty for retreating. It is not your responsibility to stay. Although with this strategy you may forfeit some things, to engage would be far worse.
There are times when retreat is the only course of action. That time is now. You cannot change the situation by remaining in it. You cannot fix it. You cannot advance it. You cannot even understand it. Consider the eternal virtues of heaven, its everlastingness, its solitude and fortitude, and consider the eternal virtues that are yours alone. Slip into the eternal principles of heaven, away from the daily flux.
In the future, when the time has come to advance, you will be ready, your energies having been preserved.
Depend on only yourself now. Keep petty people and petty concerns at a real distance. Let the world’s dramas sail on by. The image here is of heaven over mountain. Pull over your most solid self a cloak of invisibility and remoteness that even the heavens in their glory would envy.
People need not know what you are doing. Make no one understand. Tell no one know what you think of them.