The Results of My First LessWrong-inspired I Ching Divination

Part A—Ex­plo­ra­tory Research

After read­ing “Steel­man­ning Div­ina­tion,” I was in­spired to try it out. My ques­tion was “Should I be­gin us­ing the I Ching for div­ina­tion?” and I used IChingOn­line to in­ter­pret my re­sults.

I ob­tained hex­a­gram 24, and I’m go­ing to re­ca­pitu­late my re­sponses to the three in­ter­pre­ta­tions on the site. At the end, I’ll do a sum­mary re­flec­tion. In “Part B,” I heav­ily cri­tique this whole ex­pe­rience. I think that is the most im­por­tant part of this post.

1. Thun­der re­gen­er­ates deep within Earth’s womb: Sage rulers rec­og­nized that the end of Earth’s sea­sonal cy­cle was also the start­ing point of a new year and a time for dor­mancy. They closed the passes at the Sols­tice to en­force a rest from com­merce and ac­tivity. The ruler him­self did not travel.

You have passed this way be­fore but you are not re­gress­ing. This is progress, for the cy­cle now re­peats it­self, and this time you are aware that it truly is a cy­cle. The re­turn of old fa­mil­iars is wel­come. You can be as sure of this cy­cle as you are that seven days bring the start of a new week. Use this dor­mancy phase to plan which di­rec­tion you will grow.

Re­sponse: The open­ing imagery does bring up a sub­tle emo­tional re­sponse. I make con­nec­tions to my life: I am work­ing and in school for sig­nifi­cantly less hours this sea­son. Sev­eral years ago, I was in­volved in a lo­cal spiritual com­mu­nity, which I broke away from en­tirely to set out on a new phase of life, one that I planned to be more ra­tio­nal, al­igned with my val­ues, and ac­com­plished.

I was in­tro­duced to it in the first place by be­ing un­ex­pect­edly asked to do a tarot read­ing for a woman I was on a first date with; she de­cided to in­vite me to a meet­ing of the spiritual com­mu­nity, and I stayed for sev­eral years. Hence, the sec­ond para­graph seems apro­pos, es­pe­cially since I do not feel at all as though I’m “re­gress­ing,” but rather that I’m us­ing it in the con­text of new val­ues, un­der­stand­ings, and pur­poses. It is in fact wel­come. I am also in the midst of a ca­reer change in­volv­ing a great deal of plan­ning. This seems right on the money.

2. You are about to ex­pe­rience a re­birth—about to be given an­other chance, a new lease on life. You have per­se­vered, gone the dis­tance through an en­tire cy­cle—through the Spring of hope or new pas­sion, through a Sum­mer of growth and build­ing, only to be sac­ri­ficed like the archety­pal Har­vest King at the Au­tumn reap­ing. You lie dor­mant like seed be­neath Win­ter snows now, heal­ing and ab­sorb­ing new en­er­gies in prepa­ra­tion for the new young Spring com­ing shortly to your life.

This helps me feel more hope­ful about my po­ten­tial. Be­ing older, go­ing back to col­lege in my 30s sur­rounded by high school stu­dents, I have emo­tion­ally started to feel like I am failing, strug­gling with how long it will take to get through school­ing and into a line of work that would be more fulfilling. I am a year in, so “gone the dis­tance through an en­tire cy­cle” again seems ac­cu­rate, and an ac­knowl­edge­ment of my effort and ac­com­plish­ment that I’ve re­ceived nowhere else. There is in­deed a mea­sure of heal­ing and en­er­giz­ing that has come of this re­turn to school—a gain in self-con­fi­dence, in­ter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter, new de­sires, pos­si­bil­ities, ideas.

3. RETURN. Suc­cess.
Go­ing out and com­ing in with­out er­ror.
Friends come with­out blame.
To and fro goes the way.
On the sev­enth day comes re­turn.
It fur­thers one to have some­where to go.

After a time of de­cay comes the turn­ing point. The pow­er­ful light that has been ban­ished re­turns. There is move­ment, but it is not brought about by force. The up­per tri­gram Kun is char­ac­ter­ised by de­vo­tion; thus the move­ment is nat­u­ral, aris­ing spon­ta­neously. For this rea­son the trans­for­ma­tion of the old be­comes easy. The old is dis­carded and the new is in­tro­duced. Both mea­sures ac­cord with the time; there­fore no harm re­sults. So­cieties of peo­ple shar­ing the same views are formed. But since these groups come to­gether in full pub­lic knowl­edge and are in har­mony with the time, all self­ish sep­a­ratist ten­den­cies are ex­cluded, and no mis­take is made. The idea of RETURN is based on the course of na­ture. The move­ment is cyclic, and the course com­pletes it­self. There­fore it is not nec­es­sary to has­ten any­thing ar­tifi­cially. Every­thing comes of it­self at the ap­pointed time. This is the mean­ing of heaven and earth.

All move­ments are ac­com­plished in six stages, and the sev­enth brings re­turn. Thus the win­ter sols­tice, with which the de­cline of the year be­gins, comes in the sev­enth month af­ter the sum­mer sols­tice; so too sun­rise comes in the sev­enth dou­ble hour af­ter sun­set. There­fore seven is the num­ber of the young light, and it arises when six, the num­ber of the great dark­ness, is in­creased by one. In this way the state of rest gives place to move­ment.

I’d never thought con­sciously about the fact that my de­ci­sion to re­turn to school is driven by per­sonal de­sire that ar­rived spon­ta­neously dur­ing an ex­tended va­ca­tion, not by be­ing forced by cir­cum­stances such as job loss. I hadn’t thought about how much harder this might be if I was more at­tached to my old way of life. This change has in­deed led me to “so­cieties of peo­ple shar­ing the same views,” es­pe­cially in­clud­ing the EA and LessWrong com­mu­ni­ties. It is a wel­come change from my old spiritual com­mu­ni­ties, which had a hid­den and ex­clu­sive at­mo­sphere that was in­deed as­so­ci­ated with se­ri­ous mis­takes, which I won’t go into.

I’ve been wrestling with my de­sire to hurry this pro­cess along by work­ing hard through all op­por­tu­ni­ties to take a break, and con­fronted by my need for some rest and leisure. To say “there­fore it is not nec­es­sary to has­ten any­thing ar­tifi­cially” is helpful to hear, af­firm­ing my de­ci­sion to take a whole day to hike yes­ter­day, or to spend a few hours this af­ter­noon learn­ing about the I Ching.


Over­all, my in­ter­pre­ta­tion did ul­ti­mately provide an­swers to the origi­nal ques­tion: “yes, I should use the I Ching, both be­cause it helped me find more mean­ing in some emo­tional ques­tions I’ve strug­gled with, and be­cause it’s a way of tak­ing a more leisurely at­ti­tude to­ward my per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion”. We’ll see if I ac­tu­ally do con­tinue to use it and find it helpful.

In this case, it was not used and did not en­courage me to ap­proach a prob­lem from a new an­gle, dra­mat­i­cally trans­form my per­spec­tive, or en­courage me to seek out op­por­tu­ni­ties that I had not con­sid­ered be­fore. In­stead, it seemed to help me ar­tic­u­late emo­tions to my­self, and to send a mes­sage that boiled down to “you’re do­ing just fine.” How­ever, the imagery, tone, and range of ways this was com­mu­ni­cated did, I think, touch me in a way that hear­ing that re­duc­tive ver­sion would not have.

My plan is to con­tinue us­ing the I Ching, and per­haps to try other div­ina­tion sys­tems, and see if they seem fruit­ful in other ways.

Part B—The Critique

Im­me­di­ately af­ter pub­lish­ing, I was stricken with doubt. Per­haps this is pre­cisely how ir­ra­tional, use­less thought-par­a­site sys­tems spread. Per­haps they co-opt ra­tio­nal thought, first out of plain cu­ri­os­ity, sort of “groom­ing” the mind to find value in them un­til we are too in­vested in them to stop. I rec­og­nize that it feels mildly good to in­dulge in this div­ina­tion. The writ­ing and re­flec­tion comes eas­ily—I don’t know how well the Sys­tem I/​Sys­tem II dis­tinc­tion is hold­ing up, but it feels like a way of pop­ping me over into Sys­tem I. What­ever easy as­so­ci­a­tion oc­curs, goes. No need for ev­i­dence or logic.

If div­ina­tion has an effect like that, per­haps div­ina­tion sur­vives by pro­vid­ing hu­mans with mild, easy plea­sure. Maybe it helps them con­serve men­tal re­sources by switch­ing to a less de­mand­ing thought pro­cess.

How would I know, in the end, whether I’m us­ing div­ina­tion, or it’s us­ing me?

I’d have to have some sort of pre-ex­ist­ing stan­dards for eval­u­at­ing whether it was pro­vid­ing me with net util­ity. When I add up the plea­sure it gives, the in­sight it seems to pro­duce, and the effects of act­ing on that in­sight, how does that bal­ance against the time it takes, or any nega­tive im­pacts of act­ing on it?

If my value is to be ra­tio­nal and pro­duc­tive, but it pro­vides me with an ir­ra­tional plea­sure that ac­tively dis­tracts from the ra­tio­nal pro­duc­tivity I value, then how do I de­cide what my “true” prefer­ences are? How does this con­nect with the “af­ter­glow” I feel when en­grossed in writ­ing or read­ing? Is this af­ter­glow a form of men­tal plea­sure/​stim­u­la­tion that ac­com­pa­nies pro­duc­tive thought? Is it an­other sort of thought-par­a­site that en­courages me to en­gage in ac­tivi­ties that are, like I Ching, per­haps have only the mere ap­pear­ance of be­ing use­ful?

By what stan­dard might I eval­u­ate my own work for its value, to my­self or oth­ers? I’m not get­ting paid to think or write, and I feel sus­pi­cious of whether good feel­ings might be not just ir­rele­vant but ac­tive dis­trac­tions from that pur­pose.

One po­ten­tial solu­tion is to fo­cus on ac­tivi­ties that out­side mod­els sug­gest are net benefi­cial. Here’s a thought ex­per­i­ment.

I’ll imag­ine I’m tak­ing a pill that saps away the plea­sure in work to a neu­tral baseline for all ac­tivi­ties for one hour. Un­der those con­di­tions, where all forms of work feel equally, neu­trally pleas­ant, would I pre­fer to work for min­i­mum wage for an hour, or to write for an hour? I would choose to write, based on pure in­tu­ition. That ei­ther means there is some­thing I value in writ­ing be­yond the plea­sure it brings, or I am failing to ad­e­quately en­gage with the thought ex­per­i­ment. Per­haps I do enough writ­ing that I’m mildly ad­dicted to the high that comes with it, and the ad­dic­tive psy­chol­ogy won’t risk a thought ex­per­i­ment that threat­ens my con­tinued writ­ing habit.

Would I pre­fer to do the paid work, or to spend an hour con­sult­ing the I Ching? I am not sure. That sug­gests there may be some value in con­tin­u­ing to ex­per­i­ment with the I Ching, enough to weigh against re­ceiv­ing a mod­est amount of money. In this case, I’m fairly con­fi­dent I’m not ad­dicted to us­ing the I Ching, since I’ve only done it once.

It’s prob­a­bly ap­pro­pri­ate, then, to es­tab­lish a Schel­ling Fence on this mat­ter. I will use the I Ching no more than 9 more times (for a to­tal of 10 uses). At that point, I need to be able to point to at least one spe­cific ac­tion I’ve taken or in­ter­ac­tion I’ve had as a re­sult that is com­pel­ling to me as ev­i­dence that con­sult­ing the I Ching is pro­vid­ing tan­gible benefits for my life. Speci­fi­cally, it needs to help me

a) Dis­cover or take ne­glected and im­por­tant steps to­ward im­prov­ing my school/​ca­reer/​re­la­tion­ships/​en­joy­ment of life


b) Give me an in­sight into a dy­namic in my life that is lu­cid enough to seem mean­ingful and valuable to other peo­ple when shared (stripped of any men­tion of its ori­gin)

To be clear, it does not count if the pur­ported im­pact is only through us­ing the I Ching. For ex­am­ple, “us­ing the I Ching im­proved my QoL, be­cause I felt good while I was in­ter­pret­ing my div­ina­tion re­sults” doesn’t count; nei­ther does “The I Ching told me to use the I Ching, and now I do”. Any truly mean­ingful re­sults need to point awayfrom div­ina­tion, not back into it.