Question to I Ching: What opportunity does COVID-19 present to humanity?

Those of us lucky enough to survive the COVID-19 pandemic will always remember this time, these days and weeks and months when much of human activity closed in upon itself, sheltering blindly against the invisible SARS-CoV-2 assailant, not knowing whether we were keeping it out, or keeping it in. 

The threat or reality of infection has affected the health, livelihoods, activities, choices, and relationships of nearly every person on the planet; never has such a broad swath of humanity consciously faced such a collective experience during the same few months.

At the same time, the pandemic is a deeply personal, private lived experience, affecting no two people alike. For some, tragically, COVID-19 has cut life short, and brought on a miserable death. Or they have lost loved ones. For others, recovery has been miraculous, bringing on congratulatory cheers from health care workers as they are wheeled out of the hospital. Many, many others have lost their jobs, bringing on deep economic insecurity. Children and teenagers wonder and worry about the ultimate impact of their interrupted schooling, and miss seeing their friends while they enjoy binging on TV shows and social media. And some of us just worry and wait, scrutinizing every cough, pondering the risk-benefit ratio of every trip out of the house.

And then there are those who are genuinely enjoying this pause, this momentary freedom from white-knuckle commutes and tedious afternoons under fluorescent lights at office desks, from the myriad social and otherwise obligations ranging from hitting the gym to visiting Aunt Margaret every Sunday. And there are those who dig the cleaner air and the quieter streets, where the sounds of nature’s birds and bees and other myriad creatures can be heard again, springing to life. What COVID-19? We’ve got mating and feeding to do.

It is said the I Ching contains guidance for any situation a person could encounter. As such, it is singularly suited to provide precise guidance for how each of us should individually act within this universally shared experience. Yet, as the book of divination that gave advice to emperors for centuries, it can also speak to the meaning and lessons these times hold for us collectively. The question I thought might capture that was: “What is a key opportunity that COVID-19 presents to humanity?”

Like most (but by no means all) readings, the I Ching returned two hexagrams in response: “Family” changing to “Limitation.” When the I Ching was developed, family was (and, arguably, still is) the most important unit of social organization in China. Its well-being and functionality were considered even more important than that of its individual members. Men, women, and children were assigned distinct roles and responsibilities for maintaining the cohesiveness of the family: father, the outward-facing head; mother, the inward-facing manager; sons and daughters, the charges who owed their parents filial piety and the fulfillment of prescribed life milestones.

Of course, the model and metaphor of the family can be applied to other groups to whom members are committed and for which they fill specific roles – and it can be applied to nations as well. Confucius is quoted in an ancient text as saying: “From the loving example of one household, A whole state becomes loving. From the courteous manner of one household, A whole state becomes courteous.”*

This reading seems to indicate that COVID-19 is providing a potent reminder that the cliché applies: we humans do, indeed, belong to one family as we collectively face the invisible threat of this virus. Certainly the virus behaves so! 

The “changing lines” of this reading give more specific guidance about the process we may go through in defining and consciously engaging this notion of one human family. The first and second lines to appear in the reading (at the second and third places, per below) suggest that a couple of different approaches are both essential: a narrow, nourishing, focused stance and one that can be critical, judgmental, prone to punish. We need to attend to our health and healing while also being willing to call out and reprimand unproductive, unethical, or even frivolous behaviors. The third changing line (at the top place) indicates success: faced by the threat of COVID-19, certain leaders of the human family will prove themselves capable of rising to the challenge and setting an example of love and integrity for the rest of us. 

The reading then resolves into Limitation, which indicates the need to set limits on expenses and behavior. We have never lived in a world of unlimited resources but now the options have necessarily narrowed about what actions will promote health and survival. A lack of restraint now will cause unhappiness and, yes, more sickness and death.

Looking at the reading as a whole, COVID-19 is presenting an opportunity for humanity to come together as a family, a cohesive unit that not only is united in protecting itself, but also capable of forming empathic bonds. At the same time, the I Ching affirms the need to punish errant or selfish behavior that threatens the health of the collective, which in this case could be interpreted as violations of social-distancing guidance and related protocols. And it suggests that during this crisis the human family will be successful at recognizing and promoting ethical leadership that will prioritize maintaining the health and strengthening the ties of the human family.

As we currently navigate the tension between the need to re-open the economy with the need to reduce (and hopefully eventually eliminate) the virus spread, the I Ching is advising us to err on the side of restriction, “otherwise calamity will ensue.” But we should also be reasonable as too much restriction brings its own problems, such as the quarantine fatigue many are now experiencing that drives them to openly flout social-distancing guidance and put everyone in danger. Our challenge is to find that balance between excess and insufficiency and walk in the central path of the new normal that COVID-19 has thrust upon us.

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. 

Hexagram 37 (title: “Family” **) changing to Hexagram 60 (“Limitation”). There were 3 change lines in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th 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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