This month’s task lends itself to a sort of wacky, jackass-style completion. But the title has all kinds of awesome religious implications. For both these reasons, I decided to do something a little different. Let’s start at the beginning.
I have this tattoo on my left wrist:
It only takes up about three square inches of skin, but it stores a lot of information. This will take some explaining.
The symbol on my arm is from the I Ching. The I Ching (Or “Book of Changes”) is essentially an ancient Chinese fortune-telling book. It’s not like the Tarot, though. The Tarot tells you your future. The I Ching tells you your options. Each reading consists of a six-line image similar to the one on my wrist. Each line may be either broken or unbroken. There are sixty-four possible combinations, and each one has its own meaning within the book. Some of the lines in the image may be “old” or “changing” lines. Once the initial image (or “hexagram”) has been interpreted, the changing lines are replaced by their opposites, and then the newly-generated hexagram is interpreted. These two related hexagrams are usually interpreted as representing the present and the ideal future, but they can mean other things, depending on the reading.
The hexagram on my wrist is K’un: The Receptive. It is a constant reminder to cultivate an open mind and to train myself to respond lucidly and fluidly. The fact that it is all broken lines also means that at any time I can fill in one or more of the lines to change the meaning of the hexagram. It will change as I age.
Why is this relevant, you ask? Because the I Ching happens to be the friend whose instructions I followed this month.
There is a particular way to consult the I Ching. The method was laid out in verse many years ago by Confucius himself:
The number of the Great Expansion is Fifty,
Of which forty-nine are used.
Divide them into two, symbolizing the two primary forces.
Suspend one, symbolizing the three supreme powers.
Manipulate by four, symbolizing the four seasons.
Return the remainder, symbolizing the intercalary month.
In five years there is another intercalation.
Afterward the process is repeated.
Therefore four operations produce a change,
And eighteen changes Yield a gua.
How’s THAT for secret instructions, huh?
Okay, so I’ve got my secret instructions. And I think it’s fair to say they’re from a friend, since you don’t really tend to tattoo a non-friend’s name on your arm. But what about the public place?
Duh, Millenium Park.
I gathered my materials, and set up a small fortune-telling station on the grass bordering Michigan avenue. When consulting the I Ching it is important to face North, in order to give the spirit of the book the privileged position. Therefore, while my sign faced the street, my fortune-telling materials faced north.
I settled down to wait for someone whose fortune needed telling. In the meantime, I had a question of my own:
SHALL I STAY OR SHALL I GO?
Recently I have been considering whether or not to leave this city, and I trust the book’s wisdom. I washed my hands (as one must always do before handling the book) and went about following the instructions:
(If you don’t want to watch me go through all the steps, click here to skip to the results.)
2. Of which forty-nine are used.
Set one stalk aside. It plays no further role in the reading.
3. Divide them into two, symbolizing the two primary forces.
Split the stalks into two roughly equal bundles, one in each hand.
4. Suspend one, symbolizing the three supreme powers.
Take one stalk from the right-hand bundle and put it between the ring finger and little finger of the left hand. Notice how daintily I employ my pinkie, like a man of breeding.
5. Manipulate by four, symbolizing the four seasons.
Count out four stalks at a time from the left-hand bundle, setting them aside on the mat. Do this until there are four or fewer stalks remaining in the right hand.
6. Return the remainders, symbolizing the intercalary month.
Place the remaining stalks between the ring finger and middle finger of the left hand. The “intercalary month” is the extra month that is sometimes inserted into the Chinese calendar to make it sync up with the cycles of the moon.
7. In five years there is another intercalation
Repeat the process with the stalks in the right hand. Place the remaining stalks between the index and middle finger of the left hand. Gather all the stalks between the fingers. The sum should be either five or nine. Set these stalks aside.
8. Afterward the process is repeated.
Repeat the four operations above with the remaining 40 or 44 stalks. This time the sum of the stalks remaining will be either 4 or 8. Repeat the operation a third time. The result will again be either 4 or 8. The three piles of remainders are then interpreted to generate a line. If you are curious about that process, I suggest you research it elsewhere. I have more pressing things to cover.
9. Repeat steps 4-8 five more times to generate a hexagram.
The hexagram I received was:
The image presented in this hexagram is wind over earth. Confucius has this to say about the symbol:
The Wind flows over the Earth.
And image of Watching.
In correspondence with this,
The ancient king examined various regions,
To observe the people
And set forth instruction.
The king here is supposed to be me, despite my lack of regal qualities. The I Ching was originally consulted primarily by royalty, so kings show up a lot. What this means for my situation is that it is favorable for me to test out my options, to travel and see where I ought to go.
My hexagram also had three changing lines. The commentary on these said,
Watching the brilliance of the kingdom.
Favorable to engage in being a guest of the king.
In other words, more of what was said in the image. In olden times, a scholar would be called to an interview with the king before he was hired. The king would evaluate the scholar, but the scholar would also evaluate the king to see if he wanted to work for him. I guess this is pretty similar to the modern job-interview process.
Watching one’s own life
by watching other’s lives.
In other words, moving means nothing if I carry my dysfunctions with me. While deciding what to do, I should also take the opportunity to improve myself and remain engaged with those around me.
One’s own life is watched.
His mind cannot get peace.
This, I think, refers to the anxiety that comes from consulting the oracle with all of you, dear readers, as an audience. Let it never be said that the Book of Changes has no sense of humor.
The second hexagram in the reading was Delight, which I think speaks for itself. Overall, the message of the reading seems to be that now is not the time to jump to a conclusion. Such a hasty decision would only be a temporary escape from the hard work of improving myself.
The answers the book gives rarely apply to only one thing. When the book directs my attention to a particular passage, I try to interpret its advice more generally. I was, after all, supposed to follow the book’s instructions in a public place. And so I sat on the grass for several hours, and watched.
I watched the strange looks tourists gave me as they passed. I watched a black woman pass a white woman whose skin was darker than hers. I watched the neon plumes of flowers bursting from the windows of the buildings across the street.
In the Taoist tradition, watching applies to sound as well. And so I listened. To the cars, to the click-click-click of coasting bicycles, to the nineties playlist at the cafe directly behind me. By relaxing, I was able to experience all the sounds around me as a single sound, a single, complex sine wave tickling my ears from every direction at once…
“Excuse me, sir,” said the security guard on the Segway.
“Yeah?” said I.
“You can sit there, but you can’t have that sign up.”
“But I’m not performing without a license, and I’m not asking for money.”
“Yeah, but you’re … you’re attracting the attention of the people walking by.”
“…Well, okay, let me go ask someone. I’ll be back.”
He leaned on the handlebars of his scooter, and rolled away. I went back to what I was doing. Immediately a young man knelt down beside me.
“No charge?” he said.
“No charge.” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and sat down across from me.
“Do you have a question?” I asked.
He thought for a second, and then said, “Yes. I think I’m in love with my friend, and I don’t know if she loves me back.”
“So your question is…?”
“Does she love me back?”
“A very important question,” I said, washing my hands. I began the reading.
As I counted out the sticks, the security guard returned.
“Yeah,” he said, “You can’t have the sign up. If you want to have the sign up, you gotta go across the street.”
I had already taken down the sign so that I could record the reading in the notebook it was attached to. I nodded.
“You got here just in time,” I told the guy across from me. The security guard turned, befuddled, and rolled away.
This is a summary of the reading I performed:
The two hexagrams he received were “Restricting” and “Darkness.” Scary words to see when you’re wondering about love. But when we actually went through the text for each hexagram, a more optimistic picture emerged. True, the line text for the first hexagram advised him to “stay within the courtyard” even though one at his place had the power to distinguish himself, effectively cautioning against revealing his feelings. But the second hexagram – water over water, or Darkness – brought tidings of an uncertain time that could lead to a great reward as long as sincerity was practiced.
As I explained bits of the reading to him, the guy (whose name happened to be John) responded by revealing more pertinent information about his situation. Apparently this friend of his did not live in Chicago, and he had been wondering whether to burden her with the knowledge of his crush before she’d fully decided whether to move here. The reading settled the question: For now, stick to the established bounds of the friendship. In the future, it will be advantageous to enter into the more uncertain and dangerous grounds of romance. With sincerity, he might even prevail.
The appearance of the second hexagram, whose image is water over water, was particularly startling for him, as he informed me that he is a Pisces. I gave him the piece of paper on which I’d written my notes, and he left after thanking me profusely. Given what the security guard had told me, I figured it was time I left, too.
I have a theory. My theory is that there are instructions around us constantly, and books like the I Ching only make them a little more visible. The security guard, the labyrinth of blocked-off grass I had to navigate before I found a spot to sit, the work schedule that meant Friday was the only day I could do this task. All of it conspired to create this experience in a way that couldn’t have been smoother if I’d planned it. We all hear voices. The key is to watch – to listen to them.