Destiny, Divination and the I Ching

An article by David Cornfield

The day I started to write this article just happened to be the seventeenth anniversary of the day I met Linsay, my dear wife and partner. It was one of those meetings that almost didn’t happen. Linsay had just moved to Toronto from Vancouver. Someone had told her about a New Year’s gathering at a retreat centre in the country that she would be welcome to attend, but the person who told her about it wasn’t going, Linsay didn’t have a lift, and she was sure she wouldn’t know anyone there. On a whim, at the very last minute, after deciding not to go, she changed her mind and hopped on a bus, arriving late in the day after most people had gone home.  

I had heard about the same gathering, and, like Linsay, had decided not to go. Except that a friend called and offered to drive. If he hadn’t called, I would have stayed at home. As it was, I tagged along. To top it all off, the friend drove back early. I almost returned to the city with him. If I had, I would have been off the scene before Linsay made her entrance. But in the event, I stayed, she arrived, our trajectories intersected and when they did, a spark passed between us that profoundly altered both our lives. 

The question is, was it coincidence that drew us together, or was it fate? Did we just happen to be in the same place at the same time, or were we meant to meet each other? Was it an accident that Linsay looked around a roomful of people and was drawn to come over to where I was sitting, or were there other forces at work? And what are the implications of deciding one way or the other? 

I want to approach these questions through looking at divination. The practice of divination, in any of its myriad forms, assumes there is a particular way the world is meant to unfold, that there are forces that promote the unfolding of the universe as it is meant to be, and that our endeavours are most likely to be successful when our actions are in alignment with those forces. You could call these forces fate, or destiny or, as its name suggests, divinity itself. Divination purports to identify the nature and quality of the forces at play at a particular moment in time and to suggest ways of anticipating and working with these forces rather than struggling against them. From this perspective what happens by chance is not accidental or random. What happens by chance is part of the playing out of the larger dynamic and thus happens because it is meant to happen.  

My own experience with divination centres around the I Ching or Book of Changes. My copy of the I Ching was given to me by a friend over twenty years ago. At the time, I was extremely sceptical about any and all forms of divination, but I agreed to give it a try. The results astonished me. Despite the fact that the I Ching is at least three thousand years old, (some say closer to five thousand years), despite the fact that it originated in a completely different culture than our own, despite the fact that the relevant part of the text is located by the ‘chance’ casting of three coins, the oracle somehow managed to speak directly to the issues raised in my questions, using imagery that felt powerful and meaningful to me. 

The I Ching looks like any other book, but it is not accessed like any other book. You don’t check a table of contents. You don’t look for keywords in an index. You don’t read it from start to finish. You consult it by throwing coins as if they were dice, building up a configuration of six broken and unbroken lines known as a hexagram. There are sixty-four hexagrams, each designated by a number and a title, each corresponding to a complex of forces operating in the universe at the particular moment in time that the coins are thrown. The text associated with each hexagram uses analogies drawn from nature, the family, and politics to help you understand and respond to the dynamics and possibilities of the times.

Now you might want to argue that interpreting the ancient text of the I Ching for an answer to a question put to it in the present is merely an instance of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is an approach to creative problem solving devised by Edward de Bono, a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. De Bono compares problem solving to digging for gold. Sometimes, he says, rather than digging the same hole deeper and wider, you have to pick up and start digging in a new place. The problem is, your logical mind keeps being drawn back to your first approach to the problem. After all, the factors that made it seem the most logical place to start still point in the same direction, and having invested so much time and effort into digging there, it’s hard to leave it behind. De Bono talks about ways to sidestep this natural tendency of the logical mind, one of which is to rely on chance to come up with a new place to dig. For example, open a dictionary with your eyes closed, point to the page, and use the word you are pointing to as a starting place for problem solving, looking for some way to connect the word you’ve chosen with the problem you are trying to solve.

When De Bono discusses lateral thinking, he makes no reference to fate or meaning or patterns of operative forces. He is not suggesting that the word that emerges from the dictionary is anything other than a random word. He does not require you to meditate or centre yourself or even think about the question to be solved before looking for your word. He is simply looking for a way to lead the mind to a new place to start digging, a way to approach the problem from a different direction in the hope of gaining a perspective that he didn’t have before. And the words that serve as the starting point of his exercises in lateral thinking have no obvious connection with the problems he is trying to solve. They are just that - starting points - no more and no less.

The I Ching offers a lot more than a starting point. The hexagram constitutes a full blown answer to your question, delineating the “possibilities of the times” and what is required to be in accord with those times. Each hexagram is appropriate for a questioner at a particular moment within a cycle, or at a particular stage of development. Hexagram 3 is about being at the beginning of a new venture. Hexagram 4 is about being a novice who needs a teacher. Hexagram 5 is pertinent when you have done everything you can do and it is a time for waiting. And so on. 

What is astounding is that time and time again the seemingly randomly chosen hexagram is suited to the situation of the questioner, replying in some direct way to the question that has been put. For example, when Linsay and I were purchasing our house, we asked if we could rely our mortgage broker’s assurance that he could get us a mortgage (so that we didn’t have to make our offer conditional on financing). We got hexagram 4 (Youthful folly), which told us that as novices we should put ourselves in the hands of our advisors. Our question also asked how much to offer for the house. Hexagram 4 said “a spring succeeds in flowing on and escapes stagnation by filling up all the hollow places in its path”. We interpreted that as saying we should give the sellers what they were asking (filling their empty cup) and then add a bit more so that it flowed over. Our real estate agent was a bit taken aback at our process of decision making, but in the event, our offer narrowly edged out a competing bid, and the mortgage broker did in fact come through on his promise.

I get readings like that all the time. Just to give you an idea, let’s go to the last time I threw the I Ching with someone. A man going through a separation is trying to decide whether to fight to keep his children in their present home or to avoid conflict by giving in to his ex partner’s wish to move the children to her new home on the other side of town. He gets hexagram 8 -  Holding Together (Union):

Holding together brings good fortune…such holding together calls for a central figure around whom other persons may unite…it requires greatness of spirit, constancy and strength.

Hexagram 8 goes on to suggest that the questioner consult the I Ching  again, this time asking whether he is big enough to handle the task he is about to undertake. On the second casting of the coins, he gets hexagram 28 Predominance of the Great which uses the imagery of “a tree, which stands firm even though it stands alone” and promises success if he takes quick action to find a way of transition. 

I keep expecting myself to become blasé about this kind of responsiveness, but as yet the wonder of it still hasn’t worn off.  

There was a period of about a year where I consulted the I Ching whenever I was confronted with a decision where there was no obvious right or wrong answer. More often than not, the responses I got were not just pertinent, they provided me with new perspectives that helped me answer my questions. So you might think that as time went on, and the I Ching kept extending its winning streak as a forecaster and as an adviser, I would rely on it more and more often. Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. The exact opposite was true. The more it proved itself reliable, the more reluctant I became to use it, to the point where I stopped completely for a period of about ten years. 

Why would I give up such a useful tool? Well, I probably would have denied it at the time, but I was a bit of a control freak, and to someone who wants to think of themselves as in control, the I Ching is very scary. Stripped to its essentials, my world view was anchored in the assumption that if I could understand it, I could control it. Everything was understandable and therefore everything could be brought under my control. The I Ching spoke in terms of  forces shaping my life that were not within my control and would never be within my control no matter how hard I worked to understand them.

Simply reading about forces that were beyond my control wouldn’t have affected me. I had read lots of esoteric literature and successfully ignored the lot. What I couldn’t ignore was that the I Ching didn’t just talk about these forces, it demonstrated them.  And the implications of that demonstration ran my world view through the shredder. My way of thinking about the world could not accommodate the repeated hands on experience of casting three coins and ending up in the exact spot where there were specific answers to my specific questions. Correction. I could accommodate it temporarily by thinking of it as a parlour game based on luck or chance or coincidence. But after repeated demonstrations of its accuracy, it was my world view that began to look like a parlour game, not the I Ching. I couldn’t maintain the illusion that I was in control and still be consulting the I Ching, so I stopped consulting it.

Twenty years ago I was not ready to acknowledge that a larger dynamic existed or, if it did exist, that I was affected by it. Today I look back and see someone who expended a lot of effort to maintain a sense of control that was largely illusory. I was like a man who reassures himself that he is in control of his destiny by imposing order on his desk while steadfastly ignoring the fact that his room is actually a cabin in the hold of a boat. While he is busily engaged in straightening pencils, the boat is careening down the rapids with no one at the tiller to steer around the rocks. Facing up to reality meant confronting the possibility that I was totally out of control, and what’s worse, that I’d never been in control. At first this total lack of control looked like my worst nightmare come true. On further reflection, I realized that if I had never been in control but my boat was still afloat, it meant that the boat could be trusted to find its way down the river without anyone taking over the tiller.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t get up on deck and try to figure out how to steer a better course. Divination implies that we are being swept along on a river of fate or destiny that has its own agenda for us. Sometimes the river forces us through a narrow passageway, and sometimes it widens out, giving us lots of choices about where to steer. Sometimes the waters are calm and conducive to our personal endeavours, and sometimes we have to contend with currents that hurtle us through rapids and boulders towards destinations not of our own choosing, up to and including our ultimate confrontation with death. But divination is also very clear that the boat has a tiller and that we do exercise our free will in the way we steer. We may not be able to change the course of the river or its final destination, but we can make a difference in the trip we experience by the way we navigate. It is possible to read the currents, to anticipate and prepare for the rapids, and sometimes to avoid head on collisions with the boulders.  

Let’s go back to the original question. Was my meeting with Linsay a matter of coincidence or fate? I would say that fate conspired to have us meet, and that because Linsay and I happened to be in alignment with fate, we both made the decisions that meant our paths crossed. Had we not met that day, because one or both of us exercised our free will to make different decisions, it is my belief that fate would have conspired for our paths to cross again. If something is fated to happen, if it is meant to be, then fate will keep offering the opportunity for it to happen. And it is up to us to notice that life keeps offering us certain opportunities and start seeing them as doorways we are meant to go through.

As for luck or chance or coincidence, it seems to me that there are moments when we catch a glimpse of the operation of larger forces and if that glimpse scares us, we are quick to render it insignificant by calling it luck or chance or coincidence. It is a way of saying to ourselves, I refuse to acknowledge that that might have meaning. So I invite you to notice your inclination to use those words. Try to stay open to the possibility that what you want to make small is in fact an opening into a new world view where you can be more successful because you are tuned in to the unfolding of the universe as it is meant to be.

Destiny, Divination and the I Ching was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine, Self Development for the Mind, Body & Spirit

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