I Ching!

When I moved to Texas in 1979—when I was twelve—I was most assuredly not thinking about college. Mostly I was trying to survive the strange changes to my diet. My first lunch at my new school was Frito pie (a pile of Fritos inundated by chili) choked down with a Dr. Pepper. To this Canadian, it was all as exotic as monkey brains.

I wasn’t thinking about college. But I remember, in the search for our new home, an incident that to this day remains full of mystery for me. At the house we would eventually buy, in the room of the eldest daughter of the house, was an ottoman. Classic feminine bedroom—frilly bed, beauty products overspilling the dresser—but then this ottoman, which seemed the exact opposite of frilly and feminine, because it was big and chunky and shiny maroon-colored with big white letters reading “ATM” on the part you’d plant your butt on, or your feet. I wondered: automatic teller machine? An unfortunate misspelling of the word “atom”? But no, I was told it was the logo of one of the big state universities in Texas: Texas A&M. I thought, Huh—and though my consciousness immediately turned the beam of its attention elsewhere, something about that ottoman burrowed deeply into my unconscious….

Because when I was accepted to Texas A&M years later, the long-forgotten thought of that surprising ottoman surfaced to consciousness, and this coincided with incident after incident where I found myself bumping into all sorts of external-world ottomans everywhere despite the fact I was 17 and could have cared less about furniture. It’s like the universe was winking at me somehow. Telling me that I’d made the right choice? I was on the path of my destiny? I don’t know. What I do know is that the elements of our experiences are so varied and so many—the things that combine to make up each discrete circumstance in our lives are so plentiful—that for any to stand out like this—and over the course of years!—is truly full of mystery….

So I found myself at Texas A&M, in College Station. And lemme tell you, at the time it didn’t feel at all like I was on the path of my destiny. What kind of city name was College Station anyway? And then there was the flatness, the lack of culture and soulfulness. College Station was the sticks. College Station was Mayberry, was Barney Fife. I’d drive down Texas Avenue (the main road that took you from one end of town, right by the university campus, all the way to the other end of town) and I remember, right off of this main transportation artery, a big patch of greenspace with a bunch of cows that would moo at you like some crazy chorus as you drove on by. It just wasn’t Austin, which was, I thought, a VERY cool town, but evidently too cool for my Dad who was convinced, if I went to the University of Texas, I would come back home with long hair and pierced ears. Horrors! So it was College Station for me: country, cowboy boots, the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, and social & political conservatism like I’d never seen before. What had I been thinking? What kind of pit had I allowed myself to be thrown into?

That stupid ottoman!

I was starving for stimulation. Starving for some culture and soul and mystery. But I found it one day, across the street from the Hong Kong Restaurant, where I would work as a waiter during my junior and senior years and was quick and efficient in my outfit of white shirt, black pants, and rice-spattered shoes. Across from the restaurant was: Half-Price Books, Tapes, Records, and CDs. The store looked groovy—or creepy, depending on your perspective. I walked in and the door jingled with its bell. Dude behind the counter had tattoos on his arms and plugs in his earlobes and this was 1985 in Aggieland, folks!

Through a hallway was the motherlode: a huge room opened up, and you had literature, you had poetry, you had drama, you had home repair, you had car repair, you had travel, you had humor, you had history, you had everything you could get at a Barnes & Noble except with more variety. Who knew what you’d find, since the store stock came, in part, from people coming in and selling their old books. Foreign language, mathematics, games, women’s studies, crafts, collectibles, physics, chemistry, anthropology, comics, and then—the big sections, for me: religion, psychology, and the occult. Jackpot. I’d never miss those sections when I’d come in to the store. I’d go there and be one of those irritating book browsers who get in your way because he or she’s sitting on the floor, right where you’re wanting to go. I’d sit on the floor and read and read. That was me. All of a sudden, I was feeling a lot better about Texas A&M University. I was feeling more at peace with the crazy cow chorus on Texas Avenue. I was finding some soulfulness and mystery amidst all the flatness and conservatism of College Station—even though the source was just words in books.

Amazing books to this 17- and 18-year-old. Books I had never in my wildest dreams imagined. One was by the UCLA anthropology student Carlos Castaneda, called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. The book had a picture of a crow on it, looking out into the distance. It was about shamanism; it was a story about a young man seeking wisdom beyond the normal Western white academic way. I started reading and at one point read this: “Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition.” And then I read this: “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”

Wow. People in the sixties had LSD. I had books like this.

I read and read. I underlined meaningful passages with the same carefulness and mindfulness as I had brought to my prayers to the Church of Christ God I no longer believed in. I had been on a path without heart. I wanted to be on a path with heart. I wanted the kind of self-discipline that would give me the clarity to tell the difference. I wanted to make choices that were not based on ego stuff like fear or ambition but, rather, on something deeper, something more in tune with my soul.

And then I discovered depth psychologist Carl Jung. More wow. Wow wow wow. Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, The Undiscovered Self, Man and His Symbols, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and also this one: Synchronicity: An A Causal Connecting Principle. It was in such books where I ran across stories which resonated with my strange experience with the ottoman—the universe winking at you. Like this story:

This is Jung speaking: “I made a note in the morning of an inscription containing a figure that was half man and half fish. There was fish for lunch. Somebody mentioned the custom of making an “April fish” of someone. In the afternoon, a former patient of mine … showed me some impressive pictures of fish. In the evening, I saw a former patient, who … had dreamed of a large fish the night before. A few months later, when I was using this series for a larger work and had just finished writing it down, I walked over to a spot by the lake in front of the house…. This time a fish a foot long lay on the sea-wall. Since no one else was present, I have no idea how the fish could have got there.”

Then this story: it’s one of Jung’s most famous. He writes, “A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the windowpane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.” This event was not a simple fleeting moment in his patient’s life. Jung had hit a wall with this young woman. Due to her brilliant education she was suffering from her own shrewdness. Jung realized prior to the event that something irrational and unexpected had to occur in order to break through her thought process. The moment Jung stated, “Here is your scarab,” the patient transcended her rational resistance and embraced her treatment.

This stuff sent chills down my spine. Synchronicity. When happenings in your mind and heart meaningfully coincide with happenings in the world, and you get a sense that there’s more to life than meets the eye, that there may be an invisible hand guiding events (at least the major ones)—that the interdependent web of the world is something woven, not accidental. You are worrying about something in your life, something you want more than anything, but it seems impossible, so you are repeating to yourself over and over this quote: “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.” You happen to be walking out of a store while your mind is repeating the quote, while it carries its worry, and at that exact moment two bumblebees dart straight at you and grab your attention, they buzz around each other as if in a dance, and then they fly off. Synchronicity.

Of course, part of me wondered if it was all bunk. But was it the normal, Western, white part of me? The part of me conditioned by same brilliant education and the same shrewdness that made the woman Jung was treating suffer in her life—that trapped that woman in a path with no heart until the incident with the beetle broke through her resistance and changed everything? Writer Robert Moss says, “The greatest crisis of our lives is a crisis of imagination. We get stuck and bind ourselves to the wheel of repetition because we refuse to reimagine our situation.”

What I was finding at Half-Price Books, Tapes, Records, and CDs was making me—stuck right there in boring College Station—reimagine my life with a vengeance. Maybe that’s why we get stuck places sometimes. The universe is telling us: you aren’t ready yet for the next chapter. There are lessons to be learned first.

Jung was such an important teacher for me. And from him I learned that the discipline behind achieving clarity on whether a given path has heart or not need not merely be a matter of pure receptivity to synchronistic events as they come. A person can take a more proactive stance. With the right attitude, and the right technique, they can collaborate with the universe in the actual creation of synchronicities. Synchronicities on demand—but again, with the right attitude and right technique. Free of fear or ambition. Tried and true technique. With sincerity and trust.

And this is how the I Ching found me. (Before we go any further: when you look at the words, you literally see “I” “Ching.” But the correct pronunciation is Yee Jing.)

How many of you know about the I Ching? Or have actually consulted it?

Jung loved the I Ching. He described it as “a great and singular book,” and said, “For more than thirty years I have interested myself in this oracle technique, or method of exploring the unconscious, for it has seemed to me of uncommon significance.”

To use the I Ching, I learned, you throw three coins in the air and let them fall. Heads up gives you three points, tails gives you two. Count up how many points you get. The result tells you whether you get a line that is yin or yang, broken or unbroken. Do this six times, and you end up with the image of a hexagram, which is a stack of six lines, like this one (see slide)—and there are 64 possible ones you could come up with.

Now in the course of this sermon, we’ve encountered the spontaneous synchronistic events of ottomans, fish, a scarab beetle, and bumblebees. But what the I Ching method gives us (when we want it, on a schedule of our determining) are hexagrams. Hexagrams are each images of the world changing in certain ways; hexagrams each represent a point of view that comes not from an ego perspective but from a God’s eye view, with everything considered. Of course, the I Ching doesn’t use a word like God. But it does use a word like “The Sage.” When you consult with the I Ching, you are positioning yourself to hear a voice that is communicating how your particular concern relates to a larger overall pattern of meaning. The Sage is that voice. The Sage wants to tell you where you are in life right now and where things are going and how best you can respond to what’s coming up. The Sage does not tell you exactly what’s going to happen, though. The future is not fixed. It’s up to how you respond to the knowledge that you are given.

And I completely did not get that last part. I was so anxious to find my path with a heart. The student was not ready for the teacher. I wanted my fortune read; I wanted my fate to be fixed so I could know exactly what was going to happen. I came to my experiments with the I Ching exactly as Carlos Castaneda said I shouldn’t: with lots of fear, and lots of ambition.

And lots of frustration. Take the hexagram up on the slide: Here’s the ancient meaning which comes down to us from thousands of years ago. The image refers to “a lake on the mountain: The image of influence. Thus the superior man encourages people to approach him by his readiness to receive them. A mountain with a lake on its summit is stimulated by the moisture from the lake. It has this advantage because its summit does not jut out as a peak but is sunken. The image counsels that the mind should be kept humble and free, so that it may remain receptive to good advice. People soon give up counseling a man who thinks that he knows everything better than anyone else.” Oookaaay. What the heck does that mean, if I’m wanting to know if being a chemistry major is the way I should go?

Ideally, one’s experience of the I Ching should illuminate the Tao as it is flowing in one’s life; and it should set a person up for an experience of wu-wei, which is accomplishment without actual doing, potency without effort, being in the right place at the right time without any sweat or strain. NOT MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE I CHING.

I was stuck. The sophisticated I Ching had come into my life, but I couldn’t receive it, because this time I was the one who was flat and uncultured and whose mind and heart inhabited the sticks, inhabited Mayberry. Barney Fife was ME…

Almost 30 years later, it’s only now I feel like I am learning the lessons that I think the universe was trying to teach me. Not just that there are better translations of the I Ching out there than the one I had gotten my hands on, translations which give voice to the hexagrams in modern ways that make sense. But also this: that getting lost in some version of College Station (whether in the larger world, or in yourself) can be a way to find one’s path with heart. Getting lost helps us get found.

I am learning this, and I am also learning that the Sage is patient and ready to speak, but only when the student is truly ready—and that can take a long time.

Above all, I am learning that we dwell in mystery. We dwell in mystery, guided by forces and meanings that are deeper than we can know, and that is how our lives unfold. Fish, scarab beetles, bumblebees, ottomans, and yes, I Ching hexagrams: it’s like the universe is speaking a private word to us, profound and true.

We dwell in mystery
we unfold through mystery
the mystery is good.