I Ching for believers and skeptics alike?



The Uncertainty Machine - Forget prophecy and wisdom. Using the I Ching is a weirdly useful way to open your mind to life’s unexpected twists

I was in China in pursuit of an obsession that, among certain of my more sober-minded and rational friends, was the cause of some alarm. For the previous few years, I had been increasingly preoccupied by that strangest of books, the Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching. In the West, the I Ching is mainly known as a divination manual, found on shelves alongside books about tarot cards, crystal healing, reiki, and contacting your angels, a part of the wild carnival of spurious notions that is New Age spirituality, that great tide of unreason against which the prophets of scientific rationality protest in vain. I knew the arguments against the I Ching: divination doesn’t work, it belongs to the realm of prescientific superstition, it is a primitive attempt to tame the uncertainty of the future. I had heard these arguments many times, and they made sense to me; and yet there was something about the I Ching that continued to fascinate me, something that — the more I studied it — could not allow me to dismiss this book so lightly.

My interest in the I Ching had begun several years before, neither as a fascination with Chinese culture, nor as a mystical concern with divinatory practices, but instead in the course of a rambling and idle conversation with a friend. It was 2006, and I was casting around for a fresh writing project. My first novel was due out in the following year. I wanted something new and substantial to work on, but I had no clear sense of direction. At some point during our conversation, we found ourselves talking about the taste for astrology, tarot cards and other forms of prognostication. I was happily pouring scorn on these practices, protesting at their unreason, when my friend interrupted me.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘it is not about predicting the future.’
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