What is the I Ching Saying About COVID-19?

Certainly humanity has suffered plagues before, but no one alive today has faced quite the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents.

COVID-19 has been called the “perfect” virus. It is more contagious than the cold and flu, and much more lethal, killing about 1-3% of the people it infects (compared to .1% of people who contract the flu). But it is not as lethal as SARS or Ebola, meaning that it also infects many who do not themselves become sick, but can spread the disease to others. And it presents as “only” mild respiratory, flu-like illness in about 90% of the symptomatic cases. For the other 10%, the risk of death is real, and they will probably require hospital care. If there are too many of these sick people in a given community, their needs have the potential to strain local health care delivery services to the breaking point.

As a “novel” virus, nobody has immunity from it. The problem, owing to the lack of availability of testing, is that we currently don’t know who is actively spreading the virus (until they become sick), and who has developed antibodies against it (even if they never get sick).

Given the lives this virus has already taken, the damage that has been inflicted on public health, the overwhelming burden it has presented to our hospitals and medical staff, and the potential for these ravages to continue and multiply, our country’s governors have wisely issued shelter-in-place orders, and shut down much “non-essential” economic activity. And so we wait.

In times of crisis like these, the I Ching can provide especially potent wisdom for how to act and what attitudes to hold.

This is because the I Ching was developed over 3,000 years ago, during a time when ancient China was going through much turmoil as its “warring states” vied for resources and power, and it was considered one of the six books of wisdom that rulers used to guide their actions when many options were available but none seemed optimal. For decision making, it was considered the most important book, because it could read the unseen “mandate from Heaven” that spelled out the course of action appropriate for that moment in time that would ultimately spell enduring success for peoples and their rulers. And, when the inevitable hard times came, the I Ching offered wisdom for navigating the attendant dangers and uncertainty. 

However, is its advice still relevant for issues we in the U.S. face today, in the 21st century? 

Given that it is the oldest surviving divination system on the planet, the I Ching has continued to offer people across time and cultures actionable, sage advice, even though interpretation can sometimes be tricky. 

I first asked the I Ching for its general guidance on how U.S. residents should manage their health and finances during this time, and received readings that certainly spoke to the situation. For health, the I Ching indicated that there will be no easy fix; we are in a pattern that will remain in place for some time. The 2 readings indicated that we are being called to be creative and conceive innovative responses, while also not kidding ourselves that we can do too much. We need to be like birds when they’re nourishing new life: stay close to our nest. As the I Ching can be read on so many levels, I interpret this metaphor to mean both that we do literally need to be staying home at the moment, and that game-changing advances in treatment for the virus will probably not immediately occur. Only “small steps” will be effective at this time. As for finances, the I Ching indicated we will be in trouble for awhile, but that gradually we will rebuild. “Any kind of development should proceed in an orderly way and advance step by step.” *

But, given such broad diversity across communities and peoples of this country, this guidance seemed to only affirm what we’ve already been told; it did not present actionable guidance for navigating our next steps. So, today (Sunday, March 29, 2020), I decided to ask the I Ching a more pointed question: “What is U.S. society’s highest priority right now in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic?”

With the trouble we are encountering right now, the I Ching had 2 pieces of advice: restrain the negative forces by keeping to ourselves (“It is not appropriate to let it approach the guests”) but not accept a situation “with no friends gathered around.” During these times, we need to be accepting of others. “If one is magnanimous and tolerant toward others, then one can receive support from them.” To confront and overcome this peril, we need to embrace the paradox of keeping to ourselves while staying in touch with – and being accepting of – our community in all its diversity and differing views. If we allow ourselves to become too isolated, misfortune can result. Thankfully, we are already seeing this modeled on the national stage as Trump and his administration are working with Democratic and Republican governors alike to bring support and relief to afflicted communities across the country. And we saw it with the bipartisan support behind the stimulus bill that was signed into law on Friday, March 27.

Interestingly, the I Ching returned the same response for how this priority question will resolve as it did on my background question regarding finances: Gradual Development. The situation will improve, but it will take time, like the growth of a tree. No steps can be missed in this process; there will be no fast-forward.

Watch this space as I report on more readings each week!

The I Ching can provide you specific guidance to help you and your family through the pandemic. Contact me today to set up a phone or Skype meeting. 

The I Ching readings:

To make these blogs more immediately digestible, I provide the commentary first, followed by the actual readings, so that readers acquainted with the I Ching can check my interpretation. 

Background (health) (2 readings): Hexagram 1 (title: “The Creative” **), stable. Hexagram 62 (“Taming Power of the Small”), stable. 

Background (finances): Hexagram 29 (“The Abysmal”), changing to Hexagram 53 (“Gradual Development”). There were 3 change lines in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th positions.

Highest priority: Hexagram 44 (“Coming to Meet”) changing to Hexagram 53 (“Gradual Development”). There were 2 change lines, in the 2nd and 4th positions.


*Words and passages quoted in this blog are from Huang, A.  (1998).  The Complete I Ching: The Definitive Translation by the Taoist Master Alfred Huang.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.  

** Titles vary by translation. For this blog, I used those developed by Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes in one of the first authoritative I Ching translations to appear in English, The I Ching, or Book of Changes, (1950/1967).  (R. Wilhelm & C.F. Baynes, trans.).  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

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