In my last post, I talked about how we have been schooled to value the authority of others and consequently obscure our connection with our own source of intuitive knowing. Another way to frame this – as a friend cheerily pointed out – is that the bright light of consciousness has a way of obscuring the flickering candlelight of intuitive intelligence…
Even the presence of a word on a Tarot card can hijack our awareness to the degree that the image falls into the background and the word becomes paramount. We think we know what words mean so we no longer look at the picture. Worse yet, the picture is not immediately graspable. So we go with what we ‘know’ and ignore the source of real knowledge
in the psychic and somatic unconscious.
All that it takes to activate this knowledge is a fragment of a pattern, something that our conscious mind cannot explain or pigeonhole. Then the unconscious starts to yield its bounty. Often first, a thread: nothing more than a sensation, a feeling, a glimpse of an image. Patiently holding this thread we find ourselves on a path. Nothing about this process resembles the kind of knowing that is associated with learning from books. We don’t ‘know’ something intuitively like we ‘know’ something intellectually.
The vague formulations of intuitive knowing reflect the limits of the conscious mind. We can help ourselves grow more comfortable with these less substantial kinds of information first, by taking our intuitive faculty seriously, and then by practice. Learning to return to the image or the thread and giving it time and openness is the essence of practice.
The enthusiasm that accompanies being exposed to the Tarot is often expressed in a desire to do what we’ve been trained to do: read about it. Consult the authorities! The information we need is out there, in books. It is no surprise that we tend in this direction, since our modern schooling emphasizes cognitive development; the importance of strengthening our other faculties is far less recognized. Emotional intelligence and intuitive understanding can be so underdeveloped and the body so neglected that, when considered in the whole, we well-schooled humans tend to resemble some over-hybridized strain of wheat, in which the head of grain is too large for the stalk to support it.
The idea that the rational mind makes a better servant than master is not new, and this idea is particularly applicable to working with the Tarot. Intuitive and intelligent people have certainly produced some very good books about the cards, which can expand our conceptual framework, but don’t necessarily have an in-the-moment application. What we appreciate most about others’ writings comes when we encounter something that rings true for us, and then we ring with it ourselves – there is an inner recognition of truth that makes us feel more deeply in touch with ourselves and is per se gratifying.
But far too often, following a book’s interpretation of the cards in a reading is an ultimately unsatisfying exercise, and our disappointment with that approach often leads to feeling discouraged with the Tarot or failing to find it useful. The most satisfying and most enlivening way to use Tarot is found through the discovery of meaningful illumination available to our own intuitive intelligence. Any other approach carries the danger of our becoming merely “an ass bearing a load of books”.
There’s really no substitute for using your own capacity to live into the images.
One of the reasons working with Tarot is a powerful experience is that the images on the cards speak directly to us, and don’t require the medium of language. We get a sense of what they’re about without necessarily being able to articulate exactly what that is. Sometimes those images affect us quite directly. What would you make of the following experience?
A woman of my acquaintance has, over the last year, begun sharing bits about the Tarot with her adult daughter, occasionally showing cards to her and talking about readings she’s done for herself. This daughter, let’s call her Jane, is a college student who also worked full-time at a job she didn’t like and that didn’t pay especially well. She’d stuck with this job for years, because to leave it meant taking a big risk: there were no guarantees she’d find a better job and almost a certainty that she’d be starting over at lower pay. As well, she didn’t have the time to look for something else while working and going to school. She was caught in one of those painful predicaments where she made just enough that she could maintain her situation, not enough to get out of it.
Jane decided to do an art class project using images from a Tarot card. She tried first the Sun card, and then two others over the course of a few weeks, but none of them seemed to work the way she wanted. One day, on a visit with her mother, she saw the Tower card and decided to try it, because she thought she could make the graphics she wanted. She took it home with her, created her project, and within twenty-four hours had called her mother in tears to report that she’d just quit her job.
To anyone who requires scientific proof, there is nothing to work with here. If you are willing to leap, there’s a bit of mystery afoot. The Tower card shows a building that looks like a lighthouse being struck by lightning, with flames coming out the windows and two human figures hurtling toward the stony foundation. A crown sits askew on top of the tower, having been dislodged by the lightning bolt. Against the background of black sky, a quantity of small ‘tongues’ that may be fire can be seen. The traditional reading of this card at its bleakest is “catastrophe”. At its best, it represents the strike of sudden awareness that causes irrevocable change. In any case, it signals a time of unseating, of being shaken deeply, of a turn of fortune – all of which we may initially find disturbing. There are no guarantees about the way things will work out, but there are indications in the images of the Tower of the grace that arrives with the challenge.
The mystery of course is the way an image of itself will open possibilities, bypassing consciousness and creating a change in our story.
The archetype of the Trickster is found in the gods of the threshold, not the gods of the hearth. We can expect to encounter the Trickster when we’re ‘on the road’ so to speak, in a liminal situation. This applies whatever the landscape we’re travelling through: we can define a journey as any movement away from the familiar.
My personal understanding of the Trickster began when I spent many occasions over several years working with shamans and healers from different cultures. I privately endowed these people with an aura of knowing or embodying some kind of truth that I was looking for, and yet each encounter seemed only to bring me back to facing myself again. I was the one who had to evaluate what happened, what was said to me, what course was recommended.
I took my first trip to South America about eighteen months after I’d had a very severe accident that left me with a paralyzed eye. On that occasion, I was introduced to a curandero, Eduardo Calderon, who asked me if I would like him to work on the eye, and I was pleased to try. I returned to his house by the sea about nine that same evening, and gathered with locals and travelers out on the shore for a healing ceremony. The sea breeze was chilly, the evening clear, the sky filling with stars. Eduardo joined us, spent time setting up his mesa (a traditional arrangement of objects laid out in a pattern designed to help balance energies) and then opened the ceremony by shaking a small rattle, by whistling, and by calling on the powers of the invisible world with a long half-sung invocation.
Then we sat around; people greeted each other, joked and chatted quietly until we were invited to participate in taking a small glass of San Pedro. I drank some of the mild vegetable-flavored liquid, and we waited some more. Between eleven and midnight, Eduardo began working on people who had asked for his attention. Each one in turn went through the same process. A person was called into the center, and a circle of corn meal was drawn around. Each was given a concoction, made mainly of San Pedro and tobacco, to take by pouring from a small shell into a nostril. He or she would stand in front of Eduardo, who would observe for a while and then tell each person what he’d seen. When this was done, Eduardo would use one magical ritual or another to heal the illness or damage that had been done. Three times during this process, a bright light lit up the area, making me scan the clear sky, and wonder about ‘heat lightning’. I could not recognize any effect in myself from the San Pedro, but I realized that others in the group were apparently seeing and hearing things that I wasn’t, and they were seeing and hearing the same things. People around me were welcoming, yet I couldn’t help but feel my foreignness.
When it was my turn, I stood in the center, took the small shell that was handed to me, put my head back as I’d watched others do, and tilted a spur on the shell into my nostril. The theory might have been that the liquid would pass from the nostril into the throat – in my case it made a detour up into my sinuses, burning all the way, and leaving me gagging when it did hit my throat. When I finally got it down, Eduardo told me to take another shellful. I didn’t like this one any better, and by the time I finished, my mind was in an uproar of anger and defense.
Eduardo proceeded to tell me about my life, and everything he said to me was wrong! By this time I was done with experimenting with Peruvian shamanism – I would sit through the rest of the ceremony and never think of it again. And then, after doing the last part of the ritual, to which I hardly paid attention, Eduardo asked me to take off my eye patch. I did, and only very slowly did I realize that my ‘normal’ double vision was gone: I could see clearly directly ahead of me. I could not move my injured eye freely, but I did have a clear field of vision in front of me that I had not had since before my accident.
I sat back down, completely thunderstruck. What had happened? How could Eduardo be so wrong and ‘right’ at the same time? What did all this mean for me? Far from bringing an easy answer, my experiences threw me into a storm of questions.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of a pattern: reach out for direction, get something back, wonder if the answer was right for me, listen within for the resolution to that. I could have skipped the intermediate steps and gone directly to ‘listen more closely within’, but that’s exactly the point: the Trickster is the means by which we learn to do that.
A long and close examination of Tarot images pays off. Initial impressions of scariness in a card can be resolved in more than one way. The first thing to keep in mind is this: the card poses not just the predicament, but also a solution. If you participate in the image fully enough, you will find it.
Here’s an example: Let’s look at the three of Swords in the Waite Coleman deck:
Grey skies and slanting rain are in the background; in the foreground, three swords pierce through a red heart.
This card gives an initial alarming impression of heartbreak and loss, but is that what it’s really about?
The suit of swords in general is associated with the faculty of thinking, reasoning. The three of swords in particular is about pain – pain caused by the way we are thinking about things, rather than a pain caused by real loss. The sword-struck heart on this card is a Valentine cutout – a sentimentalized short-hand for feelings, not the real deal – and represents false heartbreak.
When we draw this card, we should examine what we are adding to the difficulty of the moment by the way we frame events. It may be that we are not going deep enough, or we are not quite wise enough, to recognize the tricks that we play on ourselves with our own minds. This card can help reveal some of those manipulations to us, or at least alert us to their existence in the situation.
With this richer perception in mind, we could even welcome the appearance of the three of swords!
Among gardeners there’s a saying that goes something like this:
”The best thing you can put on your plants is the gardener’s shadow”.
What does it take get your shadow on a plant?
If you think about it, this is one of those adages that can be applied very broadly.
To get the most out of your life, to handle any situation the best way possible,
show up, see what’s really happening, pay attention.
You’ll know what’s needed.
Here’s another way to work with the cards: when you’ve finished a reading for yourself, don’t put them away. Instead, set them out somewhere that your eye will fall on them from time to time, perhaps on your desk, or beside your bed, or in a place you’ve set aside for this kind of thing. You will continue to perceive them, in what is perhaps a more potent fashion, indirectly. The images will inform your unconscious mind, bypassing the intermediary of consciousness. Your mind responds to coherence even when it can’t identify it, and this coherence gradually leads to a more explicit expression of itself in the form of intuition. Perceiving the cards subliminally also changes the background of our experience; over time a change in our background experience can lead to a change in our storyline.
Sometimes people ask me what it is I like about using the Tarot. Mostly, I like the feeling of looking inside, of using the Tarot as a mirror of experience. I like looking at the cards I’ve drawn and not knowing what they mean for me right away. I take them in for a while, and then something occurs to me, I have the thread in my hands – little by little, I follow where that thread leads me. When I’ve done as much as I can at the time, I put the cards away in their box. Throughout the day, or the week, they return to my mind, singly or in groups, unwrapping another level of understanding as I think about them.