We find in China a word and a way of understanding synchronicity that are simple and profound. The word is Tao (also transliterated as Dao). It is sometimes translated as “way”, or the Way, which is good enough for me. If we are attuned to the Tao, then our ways are open.
The Tao of Psychology, Jean Shinoda Bolen’s lively little book from 1979 is one of the very best expositions of the theory of synchronicity. She goes looking for an easier and more elegant way to explain the phenomenon Jung struggled to define. She found it waiting where it has been for thousands of years, in the Chinese understanding of the Tao, the Way that had no name but generates the ten thousand names.
The Tao that can
be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
As Bolen observed, “the Eastern mind has considered the underlying
connection between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the universe,
the essential reality and called in Tao.”  The I Ching is a way of
invoking the Tao; its first successful Western translator, Richard Wilhelm,
decided that the best one-word translation of Tao is “meaning.”
Jung’s thinking about synchronicity flowered when Richard Wilhelm sent him the text of an ancient Taoist treatise, The Secret of the Golden Flower, for which Jung wrote a preface. Wilhelm also introduced Jung to the Book of Changes, or I Ching, for which he provided the first translation that made the Chinese oracle accessible for Western readers as a divination system. Jung studied I Ching closely, and realized he was entering the mind of a culture for which synchronicity — as the Way and its Changes — was the fundamental law of life, and the preferred way of understanding what wants to happen in life.
The dynamic interplay between yin and yang is at the heart of I Ching. It is the interplay between the receiving and the creating forces, between dark and light, between cool and warm, forever intermingled and turning into each other.
The emergence of the I Ching is wrapped in legend and mystery. By tradition, it was the ancient Dragon Emperor, Fu Tsi, who “noticed” patterns in the cracks of turtle shells, and distinguished these patterns as the eight trigrams (pa kua) that are the root of I Ching. Then later the “King of Writing”, Wu Wen amplified the system into the 64 hexagrams and the Confucius ordered and numbered the arrangement.
Archaeology suggests an evolution over some 4,000 years. Under the Shang dynasty, shamans read auguries in the cracks that appeared in the bones of animals offered as burned offerings. It was believed that as the appeals of humans traveled upward in the smoke, messages and warnings from higher powers came down. The relation between patterns of cracks and subsequent events was noted, and cracked bones were kept in pre-literate “archives”. Later turtle shells were substituted. They provided a larger surface, and their shape was thought to resemble the dome of heaven above and the square fields of earth below. With the coming of the bronze age, turtle shells were cracked with bronze pokers. Patterns corresponding to later events began to be marked with simple symbols, suggesting fire or flood. From these symbols, Chinese writing emerged. Under the Chou dynasty — before the supply of turtles was exhausted — shamans and diviners began to record the code of the I Ching on strips of bamboo, tied together with silk ribbons. And the first books of China emerged.
The ancient method for casting the I Ching involves a fistful of dried yarrow stalks. The yarrow most valued for early divination as found growing on the graves of past teachers and masters of I Ching, including Confucius. Early translator James Legge reported seeing yarrow growing on the grave of Confucius. The Chinese still believe that when a good diviner in the right state of mind is doing his/her stuff, there is communication with the spirits, whether you are using yarrow stalks or coins or grains of rice, which my first teacher recommended, after lighting some incense.
The Great Treatise (one of the earliest long commentaries on the I Ching) maintains that the I Ching contains "the measure of heaven and earth" — ie, it is a microcosm of the whole cosmic game — and that if we place ourselves in exactly the right point in its revolutions, we move in synchrony with the workings of the universe and can help to shape events on every scale through our conscious participation. The Great Treatise suggests that you not only learn to meet every event in the right way but may be privileged “to aid the gods in governing the world.”
The I Ching hexagrams are stacks of six lines, broken or unbroken. Variations on a single binary code. The unbroken lines are yang, the broken ones are yin. One way to understand them is to see an unbroken line as a portal that is opening, and a broken one as a portal that is closing. Through this binary code, the Book of Changes reveals the interplay of three realms: the earthly, the human and the heavenly. The two lowest lines of the hexagram relate to the Earth realm, the middle lines to the human, and the upper pair to Heaven.
You don’t use I Ching for fortune-telling. It’s not about seeing the future; it’s about seeing when and how to manifest your hopes and plans for the future, which is actually much more interesting. This is a tool for helping you to create the future you choose. You bring your clear intention — your project — and you ask for guidance on current conditions and the strategy to be followed. The I Ching does not bind you to any determinist scheme of things. It gives you a diagnosis of how things are, with the world and with you now, whether this is the right time to pursue a goal and what strategy you should follow.
Since Jung’s death, we have had access to a manuscript of the Book of Changes that is more ancient than those available in his lifetime. It is a broken text, and therefore not useable — without creative addition or fabrication — as a full oracle. Nonetheless, it makes very exciting reading for those interested in the shamanic origins of the oracle and the different levels on which it registers and provokes synchronicity.
The text dates from about 175 BCE. It was discovered in the tomb of a duke of the Han dynasty at Mawangdui that also contained the text of the Tao Te Ching, clearly placing this version of the Changes in the ancient Way. The ordering of the hexagrams in the Mawangdui version is quite different from that of the familiar Duke Wen arrangement used by Wilhelm and other translators. The two primal hexagrams have different and sexier names. Among the “appended statements” to the text, in Edward Shaughnessy’s translation, we find this:
The sage…takes the real characteristics of all under heaven to their extremes and causes them to reside in the hexagrams; drums [emphasis added] the movements of all under heaven and causes them to reside in the statements; transforms and regulates them and causes them to reside in the alternations; pushes and puts them into motion and causes them to reside in the unity; makes them spiritual and transforms them and causes them to reside in his person; and plans and completes them…and causes them to reside in virtuous action.
Inspired by this, when I
led a course in I Ching, we drummed the
binary code of the lines, changing and constant, yin and yang, on our
single-headed frame drums, and pictured early diviners doing something similar.
We drummed the six lines of the twentieth hexagram, which is called Watching and whose shape is that of a watchtower, the kind that Chinese armies placed along the borders. We saw how rising up through the lines of the hexagram is like climbing steps from the lowest level of an observation tower to the very top, from a place of limited or impeded vision to a space from which we could see, without restriction, across time and space.
A great revelation came when we worked, with drumming and also with body movements, with the 61st hexagram, Wind on the Lake, called Zhong Fu, or Inner Truth. The hole in the center of the hexagram can be seen as the opening of the heart, and also as the unveiling of a window between worlds.
In Philip K. Dick’s fascinating novel of alternate realities, The Man in the High Castle, the casting of this hexagram brings a shift between parallel worlds. In the main narrative, we are in a world where the Axis powers were the victors in World War II, and North America is divided between Japanese and German occupation armies and other entities. Yet a subversive work of fantasy is circulating, a story in which the Allies won the war and everything is different. When Juliana casts Zhong Fu for Abendsen in the last pages of The Man in the High Castle, he understands (if only for a moment) that the alternate reality he thought was fiction is true, the real world. We see the observer effect working on a human, and even global scale. If only for a shimmering moment, as the coins roll and settle, we glimpse how it may be possible to switch worlds.
The way we see reality generates our experience of reality. A method of seeing like the I Ching can make us co-creators of our worlds. The Great Treatise suggests that through deep study of the Book of Changes we not only learn to meet every event in the right way but may be privileged “to aid the gods in governing the world.”  The Mawangdui text asserts that the Book of Changes “knows the reasons for light and dark” . It “strengthens beings and fixes fate, taking pleasure in the way of all under heaven…This is why the sage uses it to penetrate the will of all under heaven.” 
1. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.
2. Jean Shinoda Bolen, The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and the Self (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982) xi
3. Edward L. Shaughnessy (trans and ed) I Ching: The Classic of Changes. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997) 203
4. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes, trans., The I Ching or Book of Changes (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990) 294.
5. ibid, 191
6. ibid, 199
Text adapted from Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity in Everyday Life by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Graphic: The precursor to I Ching as China's main system of divination (besides dream interpretation) was the Shang dynasty system for reading the "oracle bones": shoulder bones of animals and the plastrons from turtle shells.