Time and the I Ching (on 'Thinking Allowed' w/ Jeffrey Mishlove)

Day Month 1988

Location, City, State


[Intro Music]

[Opening Text]:

Thinking Allowed Productions Presents

Inner Work Videotape

Time and the I Ching with Terence McKenna

Jeffrey Mishlove: Hello and welcome, I’m Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we are going to examine the nature of time and the relationship between time and the human mind. With me in the studio is Terence McKenna, a specialist in shamanistic traditions and also hallucinogens. Terence is the co-author, with his brother Dennis, of Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, and also The Invisible Landscape: Time, Hallucinogens, and The I Ching. In addition, he is the developer of a computer software program called Timewave Zero and is the founder of Botanical Dimensions, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving hallucinogenic plants as used by native peoples throughout the world. Welcome, Terence.

Terence McKenna: It’s a pleasure to be here.

JM: It’s a pleasure to be with you again. You know, shamanistic peoples and, uh, early peoples throughout the entire world have all been involved in systems of what we call divination. It could be throwing bones, or using the I Ching, or looking at the end trails of animals, or clouds of smoke, but each system seemed to involve some sort of a unique way of linking the human mind with-with the very nature of time itself in order to understand cycles of time and understand, perhaps even to predict, the future.

TM: Yes, well it’s certainly true that, uh, preliterate and aboriginal peoples have had an obsession with time, however it’s an obsession shared by the historical societies as well. Time seems to be the dimension about which we have the greatest anxiety, perhaps because it’s the dimension into which we see with the least clarity. Uh, numerous peoples throughout the world have dealt with this lack of clarity, uh, as far as time is concerned, by developing various methods of divination or sortilege, as it’s called. The Maya, to this day, practice sortilege of a very complicated sort in the highlands of Guatemala. Uh, African peoples have complex divinatory systems …

JM: We don’t even have to mention the enormous sales of the I Ching and tarot decks and astrology products here in the United States.

TM: Yes, the I Ching is the divinatory system ne plus ultra. It seems to, very early, uh, have captured the imagination of western orientalists James Legge and Richard Wilhelm. Their translations made it available to the Western word, and the psychologist Carl Jung, in inventing and discussing the phenomenon that he called synchronicity popularized the I Ching by using it as an example of this particular phenomenon.

JM: And, I know in the literature today, especially in trans-personal psychology, there are many psychotherapists who use the I Ching as a regular part of their practice. And, parapsychologists have, have found striking evidence that the [stutters] coincidences of tossing the coins in the I Ching do have, uh, psychological validity.

TM: Yes, well the thing which amazed me about the I Ching and caused me to become so deeply involved with it is this fact that it seems to work, against all rational expectation. The carrying out of this, uh, random ritualistic activity seems then to give a reading which is, in fact, applicable to the unique situation. Now, Jung’s explanation of this was what he called, uh, acausal connected or synchronicity. This was simply the idea that it was possible for there to be a coincidence of, uh, congruence between an internal state--a psychological state--and an exterior event. Uh, an obvious example of this would be: you think of someone you haven’t thought of for years and an hour later, in the mail, a letter arrives from them. Jung was fascinated by these kinds of apparent, uh, coordinations of the interiorized psychic sphere and the exterior, three-dimensional, objective world.

My approach was, uh, went somewhat deeper than Jung’s in that I felt that, eh, uh, I had looked at many divinatory systems with the notion that I was looking at, uh, artifacts of culture, uh, productions of the human mind that were to a large degree arbitrary. My involvement with the I Ching led me very slowly and reluctantly to the conclusion that this was not simply a product of a cultural mentality or the stance of a particular people in a time and a place, but rather that the ancient Chinese had somehow gotten a leg up, even on modern physics, and had produced a theory about time that was in fact objectively, uh, possible to correlate with our own experience. In other words, a theory of time much more akin to a physicist’s, uh, description of it than a shaman’s description of it. And, uh, you mentioned in your introduction this Timewave Zero software that we’ve developed. We, what we’ve done is simply to formalize the notion of the Tao to make a deep study of the mathematics inherent in the structure of the sequence of the I Ching.

See, most people are quite familiar with the fact that the I Ching is composed of hexagrams; hexagrams have six lines; they may be broken, they may be unbroken. Less well known is the fact that there is a very ancient tradition, even before the Han dynasty, of a particular sequence being the correct sequence. It’s called the King Wen sequence. And, while it has been agreed upon by all scholars commenting on the matter that the King Wen sequence is somehow primary, no one had ever explained how it was ordered.

JM: You mean, the order of hexagrams from 1 to 64.

TM: That’s correct. Why is the first one the hexagram with all solid lines? Why is the second one the hexagram with all broken lines? And so forth, and so on. I carried out, uh, an exhaustive mathematical analysis of the properties of the King Wen sequence and reached a number of conclusions, uh, such as, it is not a random sequence; it was very, very carefully constructed, uh, to conserve certain mathematical goals. For instance, uh, the number of lines that break as you transit from one hexagram to another is arranged and controlled in such a way that when you’re all done you have a ratio of even to odd of three to four. Uh, yet this is achieved without any breakages, uh, first order of different breakages, of magnitude five.

JM: Now, you’re beginning to lose me a little bit.

TM: Yes, well what, eh, what this all means very simply is that the King Wen sequence was, uh, constructed by minds the equal of research mathematicians working in the world today.

JM: It sort of reminds me of the, uh-uh, builders of the great Greek temples who used the, uh, mystical rectangle.

TM: Proportion and symmetry [JM: Mmmhm] seems to be the central concern here. You see, we have in-in-inherited from our fascination with Eastern philosophy the idea of Tao. And Tao, in the East, is a concept which antedates the introduction of Buddhism into China by many, many centuries. Tao is the notion of a flux, which comes and goes, a transient medium which builds structures up and pulls them apart according to its internal dynamic. Now, because these notions were introduced to the West by mystics and philosophers and people with an interest in metaphysics, it wasn’t immediately grasped that a philosophy of this sort could be a mathematical formalism. That, if we’re talking about a medium which comes and goes, we’re talking about a wave-mechanical phenomenon. Well, science in the West for the past 150 years has developed a powerful set of techniques for dealing with wave phenomenon.

JM: They--and, you seem to be suggesting, then, that the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, in their mathematical relationship one to the other as you go through the sequence, describes a waveform.

TM: A waveform which is experienced in the world by human beings as time and history. You see, it’s almost a though, uh, in Western science, uh, we're pretty confident that there are approximately 100 elements, physical elements, to matter.

JM: That’s right, different atoms.

TM: That’s right, that are incommensurable, they are somehow primary. The Chinese looked not at the world of matter, energy and space, but the world of time and carried out a very rigorous analysis of their own perception and discovered to their amazement that time is actually composed of elements.

JM: And, as we have then, if I can extrapolate from what you are saying, the periodic table of-of elements in Western chemistry which defined not just 100 elements but a relationship between them, cycles and patterns …

TM: Bonding relationships, that’s right.

JM: Families of chemicals [TM: That's right], so we have in other words families of ways of looking at time.

TM: Well, the hexagrams are the elements in the Chinese physics of time. They, uh, created a science that reinforces primary perceptions that we all have but for which we have no science. For instance, I’m sure you’ve noticed that every day is rather like every other day. Nevertheless, I’m sure you’ve also noticed that some days are radically different than others. Well, this sameness-but-different rule applies on all levels in a temporal hierarchy. Centuries are rather like each other, and yet occasionally a century will come along that is quite anomalous. We call this sameness-and-difference nesting fractal. This is a new branch of mathematics, and quite simply what the Chinese discovered circa 3,000 B.C. was the fractal nature of time, that the rules of expression of temporal elements which govern the rise and fall of dynasties also govern the rise and fall of love affairs and moods.

JM: Now, you’re describing this in mathematical terms, and I’d like to come back and ask you to define the term fractal in a moment, but I-I'm also curious about how you seem to be going back and forth between something purely quantitative and something qualitative.

TM: Well, that’s the interesting thing, you see. The Chinese understood that these temporal elements were, in, in a sense, uh, creating interference patterns with each other, much in the way that pure tones struck out on a keyboard will, through their interference with each other, create a melody. So that, for instance, uh, if I find myself sitting in Hadrian’s hamburger joint enjoying a burger, by this theory, there would actually be a relationship between that act and the emperor Hadrian’s campaigns in Britain, uh, before the fall of the Roman Empire. This is the amazing thing which James Joyce used and understood in the construction of his literary works, that a man, leaving his home in Dublin on a day in 1905 to buy kidneys to fry for breakfast is, in some mysterious way, actually repeating the peregrinations of the hero Odysseus around the Mediterranean in his campaign to destroy Troy and return to his faithful wife. Allegory is what we're talking about, but allegory has never been taken seriously by science; analogical reasoning is definitely déclassé in the better laboratories. But, in this ancient Chinese way of looking at things, everything was caused by its analogical resonances with past and future events which had the same temporal elements embedded in them. Now, it’s difficult to go into this without resorting to, uh, at least charts and diagrams if not puzzling equations with sigmas embedded in them.

JM: Well, let me step back for a moment, uh, because we’ve been talking very intensively about the I Ching, which is one system, a very popular and profound and highly respected system of this type, but there are other comparable systems; for example, there is astrology.

TM: That’s right. Astrology is another one of these systems that seeks to define pre-potent relationships in nature that can be known by man in order to ease movement into the future. Uh, the success of astrology, I think, i-is, uh, born out by its persistence; it is, after all one of the most persistent of human intellectual tools. It was developed four or five thousand years ago. Um, but it--I think what troubles modern human beings about astrology is that it is a mechanistic system, it's like a group of cogs and wheels which all can turn at given rates and therefore their end states can be predicted.

JM: But, then we're dealing again with the nature of [stutters] nested cycles.

TM: Well, we have a strong intuition [JM: Mmhm] of free will [JM: Yes], and this is why I think quantum physics, with its probabilistic notion of, uh, of determinacy, has been so attractive to the modern mind. My conclusions looking at the I Ching have been that it is not possible to know the future, for if it were possible to know it life would be a determinism and thinking would be divorced from meaning, and we would be out of business. Uh, but what is possible to know about the future is levels of novelty which future states will fulfill by the happenstance of unpredictable events. Now, this is a formal way of saying, uh, ‘we know where the road goes, but we don’t know what the scenery looks like’. I think, where the future is concerned, we can know where the road goes [JM: Mmhm], but we cannot know what the f-what the scenery will look like. People who have looked at my theory have said ‘Well, these time maps that your computer draws, you’re trying to get rid of the future’. And, as a matter of fact, a map of time no more eliminates the future than a map of South America eliminates the need to go there. It simply gives one a better handle on one’s destination.

JM: Now, you mentioned quantum physics a moment ago [TM: Yes], and, in-in quantum physics there are a number of different notions related to the future. One is a notion of multiple universes, another [the Wheeler notion]--yes--and, another is a notion of-of pro-everything is probabilistic and while we can’t know with any certainty what will happen, we can state with various probabilities what-what the possibilities are. Uh, how does this relate to-to your view of time and the future?

TM: Well, I think that at the macro-physical level things are rather rigidly determined with the exception of living organisms. So, my interpretation of what biology is and how it relates to quantum physics and time is really biological systems are, uh, amplifiers of quantum-mechanical indeterminacies. They are a way of taking the smidgen of indeterminacy that exists at the mac- at the micro-physical level and coaxing it into a kind of macro-physical cascade which is life, consciousness, and self-reflection.

JM: And, you see this described in the I Ching?

TM: Yes, I think the I Ching is an abstract modeling system for breaking this down to its simplest elements and then seeing how it works. Now, we’re accustomed to thinking of science as linear progress from the distant past to the present. What I'm suggesting is that, at least in the matter of time, uh, the Chinese of the pre-Han period had a much more true and formally, uh, applicable notion of time than we ourselves do [JM: Mmhm]. We have failed in our effort to assimilate time into our physics, because of our obsession with matter and the release of energy.

JM: Now, there are some scholars who suggest that the African, uh, Yoruba people which their system of divination called Ifa, which-which has a cycle, I think, of 244 or 264 various myths and stories is even more sophisticated than the I Ching which has only 64. Do you- have you looked into that?

TM: I have looked into it. What makes the I Ching so powerful, in my mind, is that it appears to be an exact analogy to the mechanism of DNA [JM: Ahh]. There are 64 codons which code for amino acids in DNA, uh, there are 64 hexagrams, there are 8 primary hexagrams, there are 8 indispensable amino acids. I felt that, uh, really, the I Ching is like mankind’s best shot at this, because it has this reflection in the biological matrix out of which consciousness emerged.

JM: In-In other words, the various ancient divination systems may all reflect a-a striving of human beings towards this, this intuitive understanding of the cyclical nature of time and the relationship between mind and-and the flow of time, and yet the I Ching may have hit the nail on the head better than the others.

TM: Well, it’s looking- it's like looking at a 17th century description of the motion of the planets or a 20th century description; these are basically refinements, but, yes, I think that the I Ching represents a primary perception of the organization of mind, time, and matter. And, I’ll even tell you how I think they got a leg up. I think, basically, there is a tradition in central Asia of the so-called ‘stilling the heart’ techniques, vis-à-vis yoga. These are techniques where vital functions are suppressed: breathing becomes very minimal, all exterior inputs are suspended, and eventually I think the Chinese sages who practiced, uh, this form of meditation noticed a flux at the center of the stillness, which they called Tao, and which they set out to phenomenologically describe not knowing whether it was physics, organism, or deity. And they did not pre-judge, uh, this question. They simply gave a phenomenological description of the transcendental flux that they encountered in states of deep yogic ecstasy. And, lo and behold, it turns out that this is the perfect technique for studying time. Time is not a phenomenon where you build machines with 8 kilometer diameters that cost trillions of dollars. Time is a phenomenon to be studied by attending dinner parties, perhaps, or, uh, pursuing love affairs, or watching the passing of the seasons, activities much more commiserate with our vision of the Taoist sage than the white coated, uh, scientist of the present world religion of science. So, uh, really I think it was an involvement in organism and in the human experience.

JM: In other words, the laboratory for studying time would not so much be our observatories or our systems of quartz clocks but rather looking inside of ourselves, observing our own organism.

TM: That’s exactly precise, and the workings of our own psychology--to my mind, uh, the greatest commentator on time in the 20th century, after Albert Einstein, would certainly have to be Marcel Proust. Uh, Proust understood more about the time we experience, and was able to communicate it, than any other person who has ever lived. And, that’s within the confines of what most people consider, uh, a fairly effete, high-brow literary project.

JM: Swann's Way?

TM: Well, the entirety of t-of, uh, Remembrance of Things Past.

JM: Mm, yes, well, I haven’t read that, so you’ve got me, a-buh, a bit in the dark here, we have about five minutes left, so could you summarize that point or amplify it a bit.

TM: Well, I think the point we’re trying to make here, that I have been involved with over the past few years, is that a revisioning of time would, uh, assuage much of what is called modern anxiety. And, that we have limited our-- the categories we were willing to entertain in dealing with this problem, and that we must genuflect to the ancient Chinese and take a page from their notebook in this matter. The I Ching, as a divinatory system of great age, reflecting the dynamics of our own genetic material, and also, though I didn’t mention this this evening, it also has deep calendrical properties, can be used to keep track of time, lays a basis for an understanding of this curious phenomenon called synchronicity: the coincidental meshing of interior psychic events and exterior events in the real world. It lays a basis for us to understand the unity of ourselves with the real world that our present approach makes difficult to discern.

JM: So, whereas Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist who wrote, incidentally, the preface to Richard Wilhelm’s Book of the I Ching and postulated this theory of synchronicity, well, well, Jung didn’t really provide any mechanism for synchronicity. He-he simply said it works this way, that the mind seems to be related to these events, and he found enormous therapeutic benefit from that understanding. What you’re suggesting is that the potential mechanism behind the Jungian notion of synchronicity has to do with the structure of time itself, and [TM: That's right], and, and, you must be suggesting therefore that the human mind, at this very deep level that the sages discovered from stilling their organism, that the mind has a parallel structure, an isomorphic structure.

TM: That’s exactly the central point: the mind arises out of matter. This is why the I Ching works in both worlds; one is the reflection of the other. The key to healing the apparent dualism lies in studying the temporal mechanics indicated by the I Ching. And, I believe we’ve done this, uh, formally, mathematically.

JM: Terence McKenna, you’re taking the provocative position that the I Ching, which some people view as religion and other people dismiss as superstition, is actually a science. And, I gather that your computer software package Timewave Zero proposes to be the demonstration of that.

TM: We believe it does demonstrate it. Of course, ultimately it will be up to our colleagues to judge the worth of our, uh, case.

JM: Terence it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for being with me.

TM: Well, it’s been a pleasure to be here Jeffrey and discuss this with you. It’s not an easy subject, believe me.

JM: And thank you, very much, for being with us.

[Outro Music]

[Ending text]:

Inner Work

For a complete catalog of videotapes, please write to: THINKING ALLOWED, 5966 Zinn Drive, Oakland CA 94611 (415) 339-0466external image call_skype_logo.png(415) 339-0466

Series hosted by: Jeffrey Mishlove
Produced and directed by: Arthur Bloch

Production Crew: Don Anderson, Stacy Bailey, Julie Barker, Monica Caldwell, Laura Chariton, Giselle Kappus

Theme music: Joseph Marc
Title animation: Video Arts

Thinking Allowed Productions (C) 1988

Original Transcription by: Mac Deprey
Review 1 by: Eva Petakovic
Review 2 by [admin only]: Kevin Whitesides

Terence’s ideas are free, but his words and works belong to his children and legal heirs. People who wish to use Terence’s words must seek permission through Lux Natura