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The Oracle and the Smoking Mirror

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Tezcatlipoca, the god of the Smoking Mirror of ancient Mexico, wore an obsidian mirror on his chest that reflected the true nature of anyone looking into it.  Those who could not gaze at their reflection without averting their eyes lost their lives.  Those who could look into the Smoking Mirror without flinching, however, would have their wish fulfilled.

I take a deep breath and ask the Oracle my question out loud, determined not to flinch:  At what crossroads does our global civilization stand now — and in what direction does good fortune lie?


A rare thunderstorm shatters the Oregon twilight.  Lightning strikes the foothills, thunder rattles the windows, the wailing wind drives sheets of rain sideways against the house.  The lights blink off on off on.  I shake the coins, drop them, count them, six times.  The squall passes on to the next valley.  The Oracle speaks.

Image:  A male warrior holds the funeral bundle of his child, preparing to place it in its burial site.  His face reflects the shock, anguish, and horror that fills his heart.


I almost flinch.  This is surely the most ominous of the 64 hexagrams.

Interpretation:  This hexagram depicts the inevitable result of carelessness and irreverence.  The male warrior symbolizes the versatility and fortitude that are at the core of outer nurturing.  That he prepares to place the funeral bundle of his child in its burial site means that strength cannot accomplish afterwards what nurturing can accomplish beforehand.  That his face and heart are filled with shock, anguish, and horror means that he is in the grips of the most terrible truth:  that which we most cherish cannot be replaced.  Taken together, these symbols mean that you avoid causing suffering by honoring and nurturing all that your spirit touches.


Animism is the world's oldest Life Way.  It's a world view in which everything has spirit, in which every thing is alive and aware.  A world view in which all is sacred-humanity no more or less than anything else.  It is not driven by self-interest but by reverence.  It's not that I treat nature right so that I might live better, for instance.  It's that I treat nature right because it is the living body of the One Spirit.

The corpus of practices by which people interact with Spirit in a mutually beneficial way is called shamanism.  The way in which human beings communicate with Spirit is a principal concern of shamanism and that gives rise to systems of divination.  An Oracle gives voice to the essence of situations and the trends developing out of them-it is the spontaneous response of the One Spirit to an individual's act of divination.  The I Ching is one of the world's best-known Oracles, having been in continuous use for at least 3,500 years.

For all who perceive the world as something grander and more noble than a merely materialistic set of mechanistic causes and effects, the Oracle issues this dire warning of imminent loss.  The last line of the Interpretation reminds us that the only thing that cannot be taken from us without our permission is our spirit of reverence and good will toward all.

Action:  The masculine half of the spirit warrior draws back from the brink before it is too late.  It is not a time for pursuing desires and ambitions:  those who cannot temper their strength run the risk of losing a source of that strength.  When our masculine half goes too far in pursuit of goals and becomes short-sighted and impatient, it is necessary to balance it with the strongest medicine possible: real problems can be avoided only by balancing the masculine half with the power of the feminine half's protective love.  It is the feminine half's sense of caring and reverence that holds the key to fulfilling the real goal of happiness, companionship, and a clear conscience: those who do not hold the emotions of caring and reverence dear to their hearts run the risk of causing pain for themselves and others.  Just because we can acquire something doesn't mean we should, just because we can accomplish something doesn't mean we have to: stopping to really consider what we are risking, allowing ourselves to feel the full brunt of such an emotional loss-this is the protective and loving nature of the feminine half's medicine.  Likewise, stubborn pursuit of goals even in the face of warning signs, longing for something that threatens to cause suffering for others, refusal to change course when it endangers the greater good-this is the short-sighted and zealous nature of the masculine half when it loses its balance and sense of proportion.  Because you treat nature, other people, and your own creations with the care and reverence you would your own infant child, you counteract every self-defeating action before it ever arises in thought or feeling.


The spirit warrior is a man or woman who aims to defeat his or her enemy-within, his or her own self-defeating habits of thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  The dual nature of Spirit, whether cosmological principles on the largest scale or complementary halves of each individual, is symbolized by the terms masculine and feminine.  The masculine half is often thought of as direct purposeful action, such as the act of tunneling through a mountain to get to the sea.  The feminine half is likewise thought of as unconditional open-hearted nurturing, such as the river that waters everything it touches as it winds around mountains to get to the sea.  Obviously, the goal of the spirit warrior is to bring her or his two halves into the kind of dynamic balance that allows for the optimum response to circumstances in the most timely manner.

Here, it is the stubborn pursuit of obsolete and self-destructive goals that the Oracle warns us against-and encourages us to envision the irreparable loss of the true benefits of civilization, to feel the emotional pain of those losses ahead of time in order to motivate ourselves to immediate action.  As it makes clear, this is not the kind of action that has brought us to an impasse: we can't get out of a hole using the same shovel we dug it with.  As the Life Way of ethical values and behaviors becomes more widespread and replaces the consensus of self-interest and needless consumption, the rigid patriarchal hierarchies supporting-and supported by-such decadence give way to self-directed egalitarian groups coordinating their efforts to protect what is valuable.  It's this emotional connection to what needs to be salvaged, this treating all things as we would our own child, that forges us together in a sense of shared purpose and mutual respect.

Intent:  The foolish ruin even that upon which they depend.  When we recognize the sanctity of life, however, and work to protect it from unnecessary and pointless harm, then we safeguard our own spiritual foundation and that of all who touch our spirit.  Consider what cannot be replaced and then cherish it, planting seeds of intent in the spirit realm to nurture it and keep it from being lost forever.  Shun materialism and self-interest as you would a poisoned well: keep to the path of the balanced and harmonious way of life, revering all that the life-giving and life-sustaining forces themselves love.  By maintaining an unbroken alliance with the helping spirits, the community of spirit warriors ensures that the hidden storehouse of life-giving power is never depleted: only in this way can human nature continue to draw upon the power to create its own, unforeseeable, future.


Not everything can be quantified and brought down to plans of action.  Those who simply act as if they care and merely feign sincerity continue to make bad decisions because their intentions are still rooted in self-interest.  Those who sincerely maintain that all of matter is imbued with spirit, on the other hand, do so from direct personal experience and treat their thoughts and emotions as inner actions that are just as consequential in the field of intentions as physical actions are in the field of material cause-and-effect.  Within the shamanic Life Way, our inner actions are as significant as our outer ones.

The text of this hexagram closes with this demand on those wishing to transform civilization while there is still time-that we open our hearts, drop off all the trappings of cynicism, and consciously wish the best for all.  The curative demeanor for the coming Age is the feminine face of loving-kindness and good will, not merely a re-painted mask of the patriarchal grimace of conquest and dominance.

Typically, the Oracle's answer involves two hexagrams, the first of which refers to the present or near future and the second of which to the future developing from those present trends.  The present reading is no exception, involving line changes in the second and fifth places.

2nd      The primal relationship between humans and nature has been disrupted by your predecessors' short-sightedness.  Look upon nature as you would your beloved and work to repair this rift.  Begin by puncturing the bubble alienating you from the affection surrounding you.


The second line refers to local leaders and groups.  Here the concern is clearly with remedying environmental problems, which have been initiated by earlier generations.  As before, the Oracle advises us to become inspired not by appealing to our heads but to our hearts.  But now, it reminds us that we have stopped pouring out open-hearted affection toward nature because we have closed ourselves off to the love and generosity pouring into us from the natural world.  Being too absorbed in the strictly social sphere deprives us of the time and attention we need to share in the strictly natural realm.  It takes no leap of imagination to foresee that we must strive for greater intimacy with nature if we are to salvage civilization or, in the worst case, survive its fall.

5th       You have made a good start but do not really have the stomach for some of the difficult decisions ahead.  Find someone trustworthy to enact reforms.  Focus on encouraging people to advance by reminding them of the positive accomplishments of their predecessors that will remain in place.


The fifth line refers to leaders at the highest levels.  Here it clearly faults them for lacking the character and resolve to make the necessary reforms.  While we have little hope that they will voluntarily step aside and hand over the reins any time soon, we can see that the Oracle envisions a smoother, rather than a more drastic, transition of power.  Ultimately, however, difficult decisions will have to be made, which entail reforms that can only be enacted by someone that people wholeheartedly trust.  If a successful transformation of civilization is to take place, then the sacrifices people have to make will be made easier if they know what they are sacrificing for: a better world that will carry over the best of the past while jettisoning the rest.

Whereas the first hexagram and its line changes can bee seen to answer the first part of the question, At what crossroads does our global civilization stand now, the second hexagram can be viewed as answering the second part of the question, In what direction does good fortune lie?

Image:  A great feathered serpent hatches out of the earth as if from an egg.  Its feathers are adorned with conch shells and it senses its surroundings with its bifurcated tongue.


The Plumed Serpent is the symbol of the enlightened human being.  In a historical sense, it refers to the great Toltec spiritual and political leader, Quetzalcoatl, who led his people into a time of great peace, prosperity, and cultural flowering.

Interpretation:  This hexagram represents the great forces released by the accumulated efforts of spirit warriors over the ages.  The feathered serpent symbolizes the collective intent and vision shared by spirit warriors in every time and every place.  That it hatches from the earth as if from an egg means that the community of spirit incubating within the material world emerges as a living, dynamic force of creation.  The conches adorning its feathers symbolize the call for all to join the community of spirit.  Its bifurcated tongue symbolizes the duality that is one.  That it uses its bifurcated tongue to sense its surroundings means that you are attuned to the universal presence of the masculine and feminine creative forces.  Taken together, these symbols mean that you align yourself with those whose only need is to bring benefit to their surroundings.


Though times are dark, we are the light bringing it to an end.  For millennia, women and men with the highest motivations have dedicated their lives to the creation of a Golden Age of Humanity.  That their names are not always celebrated in history books is of little matter-their spirits live on just as ours will.  Just as a pyramid is raised stone by stone, the world we wish to bequeath to the future is built life by life.  The cumulative effect of light-bearing individuals inevitably tips the scale to an equally long period of history in which universal good will prevails.

Beyond this, the very nature of the One Spirit is to benefit all in equal measure.  Joining forces with others who wish to practice unconditional benevolence is the path of good fortune.

Action:  The spirit warrior reverses the flow of power, channeling it inside instead of outside: by storing up power internally rather than expending it externally, we are able to both free ourselves of habits and gain control over our actions.  This inner autonomy also extricates us from social influences that strive to mold us into obedient marionettes even as it allows us to be more tolerant of the deeper motives of those social influences.  From the spirit warrior's perspective, the original intent of religion is to awaken the higher soul to its potential freedom while purifying the lower soul of fear, greed, envy, and hate-just as the original intent of government is to awaken the higher soul to its responsibility to others while instilling in the lower soul the capacity for self-control.  From this perspective, the fact that religion and government acquire ulterior motives over time and begin to act in their own self-interest merely demonstrates that they are managed by human beings and must be viewed accordingly.  Similarly, the fact that all religions and governments strive to awaken the higher soul and purify the lower soul-even when they have forgotten how and why-simply demonstrates that the quest for metamorphosis is a universal and irresistible force.  Just as our inner autonomy releases us from the trap of depending on social influences for our sense of self, in other words, it also releases us from the trap of not seeing how those social influences contribute, however unintentionally, to the gradual unification of humanity.  Reversing the flow of power, we gain inner autonomy and, paradoxically, become one with the universal civilizing force.


We give away our power when we are dependent on something, especially when we are dependent on it for our sense of self.  We reclaim our power when we pull it back from externals and cultivate an independent sense of self, one not reacting to circumstances in a predictable and automatic way.  When we can no longer be manipulated by others or controlled by our own unmanageable desires, we achieve the kind of autonomy that is free to respond to the needs around us in creative, innovative, and successful ways.

Such autonomy also frees us from seeing overly simplistic snapshots of complex processes.  It allows us to consider the potential value of social institutions that have fallen into disrepair and disrepute, especially by considering their original value and working to revive it.  When a temple was to be rebuilt or enlarged in ancient Mexico, for example, the old temple was not torn down and replaced-the new temple was built around and over the old one because it was recognized that it was the site itself that people already held sacred.  The shock of dramatic transformations of culture can be mitigated by slowly and methodically reshaping the institutions people have long held in esteem.  History holds clear examples of failed reforms that attempted to remake society from the ground up.

Intent:  The wise become independent even from what they revere.  Like children who are grown up and independent of the parents they love and admire, spirit warriors take their place among the community of spiritual equals.  Because you use this lifetime to bring the most benefit to others, you incubate the higher soul that is preparing to hatch from the lower soul: joining in the collective labor shared by spirit warriors in every time and every place, you contribute directly to both the fulfillment of humanity's destiny and the creator's vision.  Becoming part of the universal civilizing spirit, you contribute directly to the founding of a free and harmonious world of equals right here within this world.


Wisdom isn't so much knowledge as it is freedom-freedom in every sense imaginable.  Freedom even from what we have held valuable, since everything changes, rigidifies, loses its original impetus and takes another direction.  And freedom, especially, from emotionally charged words, since they are among the most potent manipulators of behavior.

Breaking through the barriers that have long been used to divide and conquer a world of peers, we are, individually, a microcosm of the greater metamorphosis at work on the whole of civilization.

Thunder still echoes in the distance but the rain has stopped.  I close the book, put away the coins.  Not quite as ominous as it started out, the Oracle's answer to my question doesn't just point to the darker side of human nature-in fact, it spends much more time illuminating the light half of our nature. 

Perhaps, ironically, it is easier for us to stare into our darker half than it is for us to gaze into our own nobility.  It would be the cream of the jest if civilization faltered and crumbled simply because we averted our eyes from the Smoking Mirror's reflection of the grandeur of our true nature.

–Oracle Cast  2 June 2009



The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications.  It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams.   Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World, hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture. Information, excerpts, sample pages, selections of its indigenous images by co-author Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, and early review highlights are available at


William Douglas Horden has been an independent researcher of the indigenous divinatory systems of ancient China and Mexico for the past forty years.  He lived in the Copper Canyon of Mexico with the Tarahumara Indians for two years and numerous other indigenous communities over the past few decades, allowing him to become steeped in the shamanic world view.  William was initially trained by I Ching Master Khigh Alx Dhiegh.  He is currently a writer, photographer, and lecturer living in Roseburg, Oregon and Coatepec, Mexico.


Photo by rossaroni, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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