- Ted Hall, L.Ac.
How to Practice with the I Ching
The I Ching is an ancient book that basically describes how things happen, a guide to navigating the process of being a human. It has been read and consulted by millions of people for over two thousand years, and remains a profound and useful source of insight and understanding.
This post will provide a basic practical introduction and how-to guide for anyone who’s interested in practicing with the I Ching, and doesn’t have a lot of prior experience with it.
Many people will ask a question about something that is on their minds or happening in their lives when consulting the I Ching, which is part of how it can be used for divination. And of course that’s an excellent way to use the book, however you don’t need to ask a question, you can simply read your hexagram, and you will feel no less connected to the process than if you asked it something personal.
There are more than a few versions of the I Ching floating around out there in book-land, and it can seem daunting at first glance. Some of them are excellent, and some are not. I’m writing one, but until that unfathomably ideal version is completed, the best the best thing to do is to check several of them out and see what you like. You could even go to an actual book store that has physical books in it and look at a few of them. I have a few practical favorites listed at the end of this post.
There are of course website and apps that can do this for you – generate a hexagram, and provide some material for you to read, but I strongly recommend against using any of those “e-convenience” methods. Here’s why: doing so will separate you from this process and I believe something of value will be lost. Without getting into a whole philosophical discussion here, just please trust me, and go out and get an actual book and a few pennies, it makes all the difference in the world.
How the book is organized
The I Ching is primarily composed of 64 hexagrams. These are images made up of six lines. The I Ching uses two lines, a solid line to represent Yang _______ or a broken line to represent Yin ___ ___ If we combine these two lines into a trigram (an image with three lines), there are 8 possible combinations. These are the basic 8 trigrams of the I Ching.
And if we combine the trigrams, then there are 64 possible combinations, and these make up the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. Each of the 64 hexagrams is composed of two of the 8 trigrams, and each of the trigrams carries some basic meaning, as follows:
________ Heaven– creative, strength, power, advancing
___ ___ Earth– receptive, yielding, reticent, steadfast
___ ___ Thunder– arousing, movement, shock, growth
________ Water – abyss, danger, difficult, profound
___ ___ Mountain– stillness, rest, meditation, immobility
________ Wind (or wood) – gentle, penetrating, small effects
___ ___ Fire– clinging, illuminating, clarity, dependence
________ Lake– joy, openness, satisfaction, excess
Each of the 64 hexagrams is a combination of two of the 8 trigrams, and describes a general circumstance and provides opportunity to understand some basic principles.
Most versions of the I Ching will have several paragraphs or a couple of sections for each of the 64 hexagrams, as well as some information for each of the six lines that make up the hexagram. The individual lines can offer some insight into the meaning of the hexagram, and some of the lines are sometimes indicated when choosing the hexagram(s) to read. Let’s go over that process.
Throwing the I Ching – The Coin Oracle
The I Ching is customarily read by randomly consulting one or more of the book’s 64 hexagrams. There are a number of different ways to do this, and here we’ll go over the coin-toss method.
The method of tossing coins to select the hexagram is a simple traditional way to let your hexagram be chosen for you. You don’t need special coins, you can use any coins you have, pennies work nicely.
The coin-toss method involves throwing 3 coins in the air six times to build a hexagram, one toss of the 3 coins to determine each of the six lines of the hexagram.
If you toss 3 coins into the air, there can only be four possible outcomes –
2 heads + 1 tail
2 tails + 1 head.
We will assign a numerical value to both heads and tails to determine the outcome. Let heads represent the Yang side of the coin and it will carry a numerical value of 3. And tails will then represent the Yin side of the coin and it will carry a numerical value of 2.
An even number is considered complete and therefore Yin in traditional Chinese cosmology, and an odd number is considered incomplete and more active, and therefore Yang.
So the four possible outcomes are as follows:
2 tails & 1 head: 2+2+3 = 7 – fixed yang line _________
2 heads & 1 tail: 3+3+2 = 8 – fixed yin line ____ ____
3 heads: 3+3+3 = 9 – moving yang line _____0_____
3 tails: 2+2+2 = 6 – moving yin line ____ X ____
As you can see, each toss of the coins will produce either a Yin line or a Yang line, and since there are four possible ways the coins can land, there are two types of Yin lines we can get, and two types of Yang lines.
A line that is all tails is all Yin – and since one of the properties of Yin & Yang is that each one must at its extreme transform into its opposite (just as night must become day, and an inhale must give way to an exhale, and vice verse), then an all-Yin line will become a Yang line. So a Yin line from 3 tails is called a Yin Moving line – it is unstable and in motion, and it will cause the hexagram to transform into a second hexagram, in which any moving lines becoming their opposites.
Similarly, a line that is all heads is all Yang, and is likewise unstable, and so in the same way, an all-Yang line will transform into a Yin line. So a Yang line from 3 heads is called a Yang Moving line – it represents a more extreme & unstable version of Yang, and will cause the hexagram to transform into a second hexagram, in which any moving lines becoming their opposites.
A line that is a mix of heads and tails will produce either a Yin line (2 heads & 1 tail) or a Yang line (2tails & 1 head), and these lines are called Fixed lines. When both Yin and Yang are represented in the coin toss, then the pattern is considered more balanced and therefore more stable, so these lines are fixed, and unlike the moving lines, they do not transform into their opposites.
So by tossing 3 coins six times, we generate a hexagram, and that hexagram can be composed of either moving or fixed lines, or both – moving lines will change to their opposites & form a second hexagram, while fixed lines will not change.
Moving lines represent a more acute or extreme version of either Yin or Yang than do their fixed counterparts. So a hexagram with one or more moving lines will create a second hexagram in which any moving lines become their opposite in the second hexagram. A hexagram with no moving lines, only fixed lines, will not form a second hexagram.
The hexagram is constructed from the ground up, so the 1sttoss of the coins determines the first or bottom position line of the hexagram, and so on until the 6thtoss determines the sixth or top position line of the hexagram.
If one or more moving lines are thrown, then a second hexagram will be formed by rebuilding the first one, except with any moving lines becoming their opposite, so a Yin moving line in the first hexagram would become a Yang line in the second hexagram. And a Yang Moving line in the original hexagram would become a Yin line in the second hexagram. There will not be any moving lines in the second hexagram.
Only a hexagram with one or more moving lines will create a second hexagram.
If you have one or move moving lines in your hexagram, you will read the first hexagram along with any of the lines in the positions that were moving lines – do not read any of the fixed lines. And then you will read the resulting second hexagram, and no lines are read with the second hexagram. If no moving lines are thrown, only fixed lines, the hexagram it forms is read, and no lines are consulted (as none were indicated).
Let’s go over an example of tossing coins to find a hexagram. In this example, let’s say the first toss is heads + tails + tails. This would have a numerical value of 7 (see above for numerical values & their outcomes), so this is a Fixed Yang line, which looks like a solid line, like so: _________ The first toss forms the bottom line of the hexagram.
Let’s say the second toss renders a similar outcome, heads + tails + tails, so this also caries the numerical value of 7. So this is also a Fixed Yang line, which looks the same, like so: _________ This is the second line, the one above the bottom line we just threw.
The third toss of our example hexagram will be three tails (no heads) so this carries a numerical value of 6 and produces a Moving Yin line, which looks like a broken Yin line with an “x” in the middle of it, like so: ___ X ___
Our forth toss will be 2 heads and a tail, which carries a numeric value of 8 and is a Fixed Yin line, depicted as a broken line, like so: ____ ____
And let’s say the fifth toss of the coins is all heads, which carries a numerical value of 9, and forms a Moving Yang line, which looks like a solid line with a circle in the middle of it, like so: ____0____
And the sixth toss of the coins will be 2 heads and a tail, a numeric value of 8, which is a Fixed Yin line, depicted like so: ____ ____ This is the sixth and final toss of the coins, forming the top line of the hexagram.
Here’s what the hexagram we just threw looks like:
You can then look up the hexagram in the chart in your I Ching – most versions of the book will have a chart that you can use to find which number hexagram you threw. The bottom trigram is Lake (Yang-Yang-Yin), and the top trigram is Water (Yin-Yang-Yin). This forms hexagram 60, often translated as Opposition.
And since we had two moving lines in the hexagram we threw here (lines 3 and 5 were moving lines), then a second hexagram will be formed. The second hexagram happens because the moving lines are considered unstable and are in the process of changing into their opposites. So the second hexagram generated looks exactly the same as the first one, except for the lines in the 3rdand 5thpositions are their opposites, like so:
In this second hexagram, the moving lines form the original hexagram have changed into their opposites and the fixed lines from the original hexagram have remained unchanged. The bottom trigram is now Heaven and the top trigram is Earth, forming hexagram 11, often translated as Peace.
If there had been no moving lines in the first hexagram we threw, only fixed lines, then a second hexagram would not be generated.
So the idea here is that two hexagrams we got are depicting a situation where one circumstance, represented by the initial hexagram, is moving into or could potentially transform towards another circumstance, represented by the second hexagram. There is some aspect of relationship, connection or even transformation between the two circumstances depicted. In this example, that’d be Limitation moving towards Peace.
So we read the information for the first hexagram, number 60, Limitation, to understand the ideas presented by that circumstance. Then we had two moving lines in the original hexagram, the 3rdand 5thlines, so after we read about hexagram 60, we read about Hexagram 60 line 3 and hexagram 60 line 5, since those two lines were in motion, and form the circumstance around which Limitation(60) moves to Peace (11).
Then we go to hexagram 11 and read the information about that hexagram. We do not read any lines in the second hexagram, only the initial hexagram we threw had moving lines, the lines are no longer moving in the second hexagram.
The initial foray into this process can seem a tiny bit ornate at first, but after a few go-arounds, you’ll find it simple enough and rather easy to do. The I Ching is a fun and insightful oracle to work with, I’ve enjoyed spending many years with it, and I hope you will find it an engaging tool for your personal development.