The “I Ching” as Facilitator in Psychotherapy

A beautiful sunriseWhen therapy seems stuck, ancient Chinese wisdom may come to the rescue.

In the course of psychotherapy, it happens, sometimes, that the work seems “stuck” — my patient persists in talking (often complaining) about the same material in about the same way, session after session.  Worse, nothing alive is coming to me.  Depending upon the patient’s openness to the option, I sometimes suggest that we try consulting a reading from a guide to the Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching.

My own experience with the I Ching had its beginning decades ago, when first I read Carl Jung’s dictated autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, and began an exploration of Jung’s contributions to psychiatry.  Along with much else, I learned that Jung had studied the wisdom of the I Ching using a German translation by Richard Wilhelm (1921).

The text of the I Ching dates from about 1,300 years before Christ, having begun as commentaries based upon a set of sixty-four Chinese symbols comprised of six lines each: six broken lines (yin) and/or unbroken lines (yang) stacked one upon another, as hexagrams, in every variation/combination possible, for the total of sixty-four.

In its ancient usage, a consultation with the I Ching involved the tossing of handfuls of sticks from the yarrow plant.  Today’s consultation may, instead, be based on a computation of “heads and/or tails” resulting from six consecutive tossings of three coins each by the petitioner.

I usually introduce the idea behind the tossing of the coins by observing that in Eastern culture, the concept of “synchronicity” (co-incidence) has real significance.  This is in contrast to Western thought, where “coincidence” is customarily defined as “chance happening” — as having no special meaning.  The person who wishes to consult the I Ching, and who throws the coins, is considered to have, at that moment, a meaningful connection to the pattern of lines created  — with a consequently meaningful connection to the hexagram that is formed, and to its interpretation.

The most lucid guide to the I Ching that I have found is a book written by Carol K. Anthony, of Stow, Massachusetts, entitled simply, A Guide to the I Ching. She used as her text an English translation by Cary F. Baynes of Richard Wilhelm’s German translation — known as the Wilhelm-Baynes edition.  Anthony supplemented her understanding with imagery and associations pursuant to meditation on the text.  Anthony’s book includes a simple direction about tossing coins and charting a hexagram.

I have, in the past, consulted the “original” Wilhelm-Baynes edition, which I find to be poetic and rich, but also substantially obscure and less useful as an introduction to the I Ching for someone formerly uninitiated.  Carol Anthony’s language is considerably more accessible, but sufficiently open to interpretation to serve as a creative stimulus in therapy.

In his introduction to the Wilhelm-Baynes edition, Jung wrote:

The I Ching does not offer itself with proofs and results; it does not vaunt itself, nor is it easy to approach. Like a part of nature, it waits until it is discovered. It offers neither facts nor power, but for lovers of self-knowledge, of wisdom – if there be such – it seems to be the right book. To one person its spirit appears as clear as day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.

– C. G. JUNG   Zurich, 1949

Although historically the symbols of the I Ching are known to have been used for divination, the texts do not lend themselves to fortune-telling, but do strongly encourage personal responsibility and integrity — hallmark goals of psychotherapy. The extent to which the language of the I Ching speaks of “good fortune” is linked to responsible choice.  For example, a reading in Anthony’s guide might stress the importance of maintaining “inner independence,” emphasizing the “good fortune”  that will ensue from making efforts not to yield to the temptation of taking unwise action with the aim of attaining a quick resolution to an uncomfortable circumstance.

Carol Anthony’s guide to the I Ching provides commentaries on each of the sixty-four hexagrams.  While several common themes emerge from the full collection, each of the hexagrams uniquely focuses upon and develops one or two elements of wisdom.

My experience has been that often the particular hexagram chosen through the throwing of the coins seems to speak uncannily to the issues that are plaguing the petitioner.  A pure rationalist would note that the readings are sufficiently open to interpretation to serve as Rorschach blots for projection.  Still, a little magic never hurts.

Often enough my patient is creatively stimulated to useful work by the experience of the reading.  Reliably, I, the therapist, am helped to free up the life of the therapy.

I keep my well-used copy of Anthony’s book within easy reach.  I have shiny pennies in a little pot next to my prescription pads.  I am not reluctant to admit that I prefer, when indicated, the opportunity to use the pennies.