Mystic Hippies and the I-Ching: App of Changes

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The Director of How To Change the World, Jerry Rothwell, kindly let the Greenpeace International staff in Amsterdam have a sneak peek at his Sundance-award winning documentary of the early days of Greenpeace. It’s a brilliant, funny, and moving story. It’s also the only documentary I’ve seen that’s done justice to the organisation’s mystic hippy roots. Aside from the standard cosmic adventures of the early 70s, the film documents the ritual casting of three Chinese coins that was once an accepted form of decision-making in those pre-organogram days: the I-Ching.

If you don’t know it, The I-Ching or “Book of Changes” is an ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom. It was used to describe the present, understand the past, and predict the future in something close to its present form as early as 600 BC. But elements of it appear in China as early as the Hsia Dynasty (2205 — 1766 BC). Like The Bible, the book is the result of a layering of many texts by many authors (Confucius and Lao Tzu among them) and there is no widespread agreement on its authorship or birthdate. It was a standard text you might find in any North American hippy’s concrete-block bookshelves alongside the works of Alan Ginsberg Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Carlos Castaneda, and Tolkien. The reason it might have been there might vary from hippy to hippy though: for some, it was a beautiful exposition of Eastern philosophy. For others, it was a doorway to the subconscious through archetypal imagery and elemental poetry. For still others, it was believed to have powers of divination.

Bob Hunter, the Vancouver journalist/activist who led the early organisation and is at the centre of the documentary, chronicled many consultations of The Book in his Warriors of the Rainbow, the text of which provides’ much of the film’s narration. Decisions about who would join the crew, what the outcome of a journey might be, and even where a ship should go were often made by tossing three coins six times to generate a hexagram of broken and solid lines.

My own decision to join Greenpeace full time was helped along by a reading I did in 1982. I’d cut down on my hours at a good paying job to make room for volunteering at a crazy place called Greenpeace New England in Boston. I was canvassing Saturdays and a night or two a week, which brought in a little money in commissions, but spending most of my time helping out around the cavernous warehouse of an office. There were only two paid staff, and the rest of us did everything else: maintained boats, designed actions, fixed the photo copy machine, answered the phone. We were building something powerful, and I wanted to be a bigger part of that creative pressure cooker of a place, but it would mean trading in the day job, a secure income, and warm, dry, book-lined environment for the uncertainty of the street, the weather, and the very real possibility I was getting into something that was going to get me arrested. But I knew it was time to either commit or quit. I did what any mystic hippy would do: I cast the I-Ching. The hexagram I got was “13: Work on What has been Spoiled.” Decision made.

I knew and had loved the I-Ching before I’d arrived a Greenpeace. I’d been investigating meaningful coincidences through the work of Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Carl Jung, and I was fascinated not so much by the idea of the I-Ching as an oracle, but as a means to access what Gysin called “The Third Mind” – chance as a collaborator. Whether you were cutting up a novel and pasting it back together again or diving into the randomly generated texts of the I-Ching or any other form of “Bibliomancy,” (a word worthy of a Decemberist’s song) it struck me as a great approach to getting at your subconscious inclinations toward a question: by letting the imagery, the archetypes, and the language echo around in your head you find your thoughts attach to them, your guesses at what they mean are glimpses into your brain’s struggle to find a pattern that matches a particular answer or outcome. What you’re really trying to get at is an answer you already know, and which the book simply helps you unearth. Or, as Gysin put it:

The Third Mind jumbles the linguistic network, simultaneously revealing and antagonizing it. It is a strategic device for confronting semiotic assaults. But for it to do so, it calls on a fourth author–yourself–to establish the operational field of another book, an invisible book that you can make visible.

It’s ultimately about story: getting at the hard-wired circuitry by which our brains select and reject patterns that fit the narrative we believe — or want to believe — to be true. And something about the narrative I wanted to be true was in the synchronicity in the story of how I got my own copy of the book. Days after I was introduced to the I-Ching by a friend who got me over my resistance to something that seemed to borrow from the worst of astrology and fortune cookies, she and I were bringing a set of old books to a second hand book shop. There, on the counter, just arrived and yet to be shelved, was a beautifully aged hardcover copy of the definitive Wilhelm-Baynes translation. I traded up my entire box of dog-eared paperbacks without a moment’s hesitation.

That book travelled with me from the 70s into the 1980s, into a Nuclear Weapons test site, aboard Greenpeace ships and into actions. I was casting coins to the music of Tears for Fears and the news of Reagan and Thatcher’s sabre rattling. The “Personal Computer” was becoming a thing, and I discovered magic: programming. For a literary geek, this was spell casting: words that made real things happen, that transformed things. I dove deep, taught myself enough to level up to a sorcerer’s apprentice kinship with Mickey Mouse in a pointy hat and a set of oversized sleeves: I knew just enough not to know how little I knew. I started making a software version of the I-Ching: at first just a random number generator that created the lines of a hexagram, then something that calculated which of the 64 hexagrams I’d generated, then something which transformed the hexagram according to its moving lines. Then I started writing my own texts, snagging pearly ancient wisdom from Lao Tsu and weaving it into tone poems that stole gold and silver threads from literature, pop culture, T.S. Eliot poems, Dylan songs, Pynchon novels, Grateful Dead lyrics. It took me three long years of spare time coding and writing, but somewhere around 1989 I released I-Ching.exe in the Shareware forum of Compuserve, and handed out copies to every mystic hippy in Greenpeace I could find.

i-ching.exe DOS software oracle
You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you this was cutting edge user interface design in 1988.

And, in the US, if you bought a clone PC, you might just find it on the menu of installed shareware that came with your machine. Or so I learned, some three decades later, when Gary McCaskill wrote to say he’d always thought a lot of my little piece of software, had distributed it with hundreds of machines he’d built and sold, and had I turned it into an app yet? I told him I’d thought about it, but the source code was locked away on the hard disk from a vintage Compaq Sewing-Machine-sized portable computer that I couldn’t get to spin up. I had a dot-matrix print-out of the entire source code, but the idea of retyping all 512 pages of text was too daunting. But it so happened that Gary was a computer technician, knew the Compaq I was talking about, had data recovery gear in his basement, and maybe he could help unlock my code. Synchronicity… paging synchronicity….

I sent him the disk. He ended up going out and buying a Compaq from that era, recovered some of the code, and in the end saved the day by reminding me of a feature I’d forgotten I’d built – a “print to disk” option that I could use as a back door access to the rest of the text. Gary was practically a full development partner in this project; he nudged and sent me chatty emails, and we both enjoyed exercising skills we’d not accessed in decades.

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I spent much of my Christmas holiday learning a new language for me, JQuery, with which I could build an HTML app that would port to Android, Kindle, iPad, and iPhone devices through a handy little translation programme called Phonegap. It was a steep learning curve, and there was more than one time I ended up hanging on a branch from a cliff, but it was a fun climb. I attained the Zen state of flow in which the world around you melts away and you become one with what you’re writing. I worked within a set of beautiful constraints, some imposed by my lack of fluency in the language I was working in, some which I imposed myself.

I wanted the sparest interface possible: one button. I wanted no fake parchment backgrounds, gimmicky images of bamboo or cartoon sages. I tried to imagine (hubris, I know) that Apple’s Jony Ive was designing it – not to imitate materials in the real world, but to be its own thing, completely at home in its digital space. The Yin-Yang symbol I adopted as a button breathes quietly. Changing lines appear in grey and animate gently between solid and broken and back again, expressing their nature through a visual change that wasn’t possible in an ink medium, where X and O indicate changing lines. The colour palette is limited to black, dark and light grey, and white smoke. Texts fade in rather than flash. I strived to create a quiet, reflective, slowed down experience in an environment that normally shouts.

Did I succeed? You tell me. It’s available for iPhone, iPad, Kindle, and Android devices via Google Play. Whether you use it to figure out where your ship is fated to go, where you think it should go, or where wisdom would advise it go, you don’t need to be a mystic hippy to appreciate having 5,000 years of thinking in your pocket.

3 thoughts on “Mystic Hippies and the I-Ching: App of Changes”

  1. Hi.. my name is Renata
    i writting from Italy…Rome..
    For first.. my english is poor.. im Croatian . living &work in Italy..
    my life is been changed with I King.. coincidence that im finished here on your page?
    i’ve been looking for some film where is mentioned
    “The book of change”..
    ..and ended up on his page… happy to discover you and your world..I understand more and more of its meaning.. now even more… 5 year-old child? Yeap
    confess i didnt done much till now .. even 1% about HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD.. to the best
    Best things.. will follow you.. for sure..p.s. Your zodiac sign ?Curiosity only.. always if im not too intrusive.. All best.. for your work.. 😉

    1. What a lovely message, Renata! The I Ching is all about those coincidences and how your mind maps meaning to them. So glad to meet you! 

      Oh, and I’m a Leo, Cancer rising. 🙂

      (Se vuoi, puoi rispondere anche in Italiano. Ho vissuto tre anni a Roma e tre in Umbria.)

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