Tarot as a Healing Path
I've been a student of the tarot for over a decade. I am continually finding new ways to work with these timeless archetypes for more clarity and empowerment in my life. Recently, I have begun to fold the wisdom of the tarot into my work as a hypnosis practitioner and also with my plant studies.
A Healthy Skeptic's Take on Tarot
Telling people you're into tarot can be kind of awkward...
When it comes to talking tarot with ordinary folk, I find there are usually only two types of responses from people: they are either enthralled and eager to try it, or completely repelled by the notion of it. There are very few who remain ambivalent. I like to do readings for true skeptics the most. Why try a tarot reading for a skeptic? Well, for one, because it is fun to win people over despite themselves. And I can say that because I am skeptic too. True, I am more comfortable with the ‘woo-woo’ than most ordinary Americans, but I haven’t always been this way. In the past, I felt allergic to anything that smacked of new-age nonsense. And even with all my training in holistic wellness and spirituality I have managed to retain a healthy inner skeptic, or as I like to call her, Bullshit radar. So really, I have an innate respect for those who are so gullible. But especially to those people I enjoy demonstrating the scholarly side of the tarot. It's entirely possible to get excited about the tarot from a purely atheistic, pragmatic, profane perspective. Even a hardened cynic is intrigued by the mysterious origins and history of the 22 major arcana, spanning Egyptian, Greek, Roman and medieval eras into 18th century France and through to the modern day. If that is not enough to please, there is the obscure occult symbolism woven through each key, hinting at the accumulation of profound wisdom to be found there. And besides that, the fool's journey as it is told throughout the tarot is simply a good story. It's the hero's quest - and we all love a good hero, especially one who undergoes trials and challenges and lows and highs that we all face in our lives. Finally, if none of those fascinating aspects of the tarot please the hardened skeptic, the beautiful images and iconography inherent in the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck makes everyone want to look, and then look again, more closely. And of course, there are thousands and thousands of beautiful and imaginative versions of different decks with all manner of artistry and styles and renditions of the classic tarot and beyond to keep up looking.
To me, tarot is just one more beautiful language through which we can express, understand, define, and create the world. I don't question the "truth" of this language any more than I question English as a vehicle for the same goals. I know it works because I use it daily to communicate. So the question then, is with what are you communicating when you use the language of tarot? Well, my answer to that is: who cares? Speaking this symbolic language is therapeutic - it enriches my life and imbues me with a greater sense of well being. It reveals my fears and challenges me to integrate my weaknesses. Does it matter if it's "real" or not? When Carl Jung infamously spent 5 years in and out of trance he claimed he was "speaking to his soul". Is tarot another window into the soul? Am I receiving wisdom from something larger than my little conscious mind (my soul? god? with my higher self? With divine spirit? Is the distinction important?)? Perhaps. Asking is attempting 'to know what cannot be known.' But it can be felt when you pose a question and pull the card that perfectly illustrates the answers you most needed to hear. The truth is our minds are powerful, amazing and more magical than we know. And if you doubt your own power notice this: when you start looking for something, you tend to find it. What are you looking for?
I love reading tarot – it’s my favorite book on the human experience and my teacher with the best advice. Do I still question its worth? I still have a healthy skeptic in me that rolls her eyes from time to time at some of my more outlandish shenanigans. But in truth, I've had too many bulls-eye readings that were just too accurate to be anything less than magic. So my inner skeptic and I have a common understanding when it comes to my love affair with tarot: she turns a blind eye and I don’t pester her about her stubborn doubts. Happily, we both are pleased by this arrangement.
How I Learned to Read Tarot
It all started when...
I found a deck of cards hidden at the bottom of the bargain bin at a large bookstore with a couple of my high school friends. It was called Dragon Tarot. I picked them up and for a moment there was a hush in our conversation as we all privately imagined what the cards would reveal about our own lives. Quickly, I put them down, feeling self-conscious, and the moment was gone. My friends moved on to another shelf. What can silly picture cards really tell you about your life anyway? But part of me really wanted to know more. The back of the box claimed the cards could reveal the future and give advice for every situation. And for $8 on clearance, what did I have to lose? Without giving myself time to second guess, I purchased the deck and put them at the bottom of the bag, concealing them from critical eyes until I could open the box in the privacy of my own room.
At 17, I had no idea what to do with the cards. I tried a few basic spreads and flipped through the mini book that came with the deck, but none of it made much sense. The illustrations were beautiful, and the depicted characters where both terrifying and fascinating. But my initial curiosity quickly gave way to confusion when I tried to apply the abstract platitudes offered as interpretations in the book to my actual teenage life. I put them in the back of a drawer, hoping my mom wouldn’t find them and throw them out in fear I was becoming tempted by Satan. And back then perhaps part of me worried that I was.
A few years passed while the cards sat dusty and mostly unused at in this time of my life. Still, for some reason, I held onto the Dragon Tarot deck, bringing it with me as I moved from college to apartments and various houses. From time to time I would continue to try and read for myself, sometimes getting a glimpse of wisdom or a particular card that would resound more sharply than others. I found a few friends in college who were curious about tarot cards too, and we broke the deck out once in a while as a fun party activity. But of course, we never took the advice on the cards too seriously despite the uncanny coincidences that would show up even in those casual readings. We were all too smart and rational to look too deeply into it. But I remember the way the air would go still and silent, the way it does when people are really listening with their whole attention, as I would flip over cards in a spread for a friend while others watched. It was that feeling of silent, hungry listening that stayed with me, keeping me curious and eager for more answers.
Sometime in my early twenties, probably during yet another move, I rediscovered the cards, dusted them off and took another look at the beautiful images. By this time, I had been through a enough challenging life experiences to have gained a little wisdom of my own. I had taken some interest in Jung and Joseph Campbell and had studied archetypes in college courses. I had also studied great poets and began writing my own poetry. The images on these cards moved me, like great poems did. They were complex; they depicted complete scenes and moments in time that were specific in detail and yet universal in theme. They were narrative and told stories of great human experiences. They were evocative. For the first time, I started looking closely at these images, studying them with the same skills I used to do a "close reading" of a great piece of literature or a profound poem. I had learned to decode and discover the meanings in the poetry of Yeats and Donne and Whitman and fell deep in love with their work and so many others. And in the same way the tarot cards began to unfold for me, revealing deeper and deeper layers of meaning with each reading. In a short time, I was hooked.
I began learning about the different "spreads" and how to read the cards, and practicing whenever I had friends over. The skills that had served me well in my literature classes naturally transferred to this ancient practice of card reading, where symbol and image and metaphor is layered upon itself to convey deep human truths. I still didn't "get" the genius of tarot - I had to flip through pages of books each time I pulled a card to recall its meaning, and each description only left me with more questions. For a long time I struggled with rational doubt and acceptance of belief. I read a lot of books and tried to memorize spreads and all the keywords associated with each card but I still struggled to keep track of them all and was very dependent on other's interpretations. I became frustrated easily. Sometimes it seemed like endless mirrors and a whole lot of nonsense. Those times, I would put the deck away and try to forget about it.
When my son was born, I gave up teaching and academia and made the choice to stay home and care for him in his early years. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the time that I delved deep into meditation and plant studies and began practicing folk herbalism. It was during those busy years when I found time between juggling children and home and garden and herbal studies and a myriad of other projects, when I really get to know the tarot.
Anyone who has chosen to give up a salaried job to stay home and raise children knows how important structure and routine become for mental sanity. It is so easy to feel lost and directionless when working from home without the rigors of boss and deadlines and schedules. To steady myself, I worked with the basic rhythms that guide our lives: the moon and the sun, the cycles of my body and the cycles of growth and death in the world around us. I committed myself to rising daily with the sun for meditation and a daily tarot card study. I followed my dreams and wrote every day on how these larger rhythms and patterns were manifesting in my life. I set my short term projects and goals each waxing moon, and let go of what wasn't working each waning moon. At full and new moon, I rested and celebrated the process of birth and death. In this way I learned to align my body's energy, activity, mood and menstrual cycles with the moon's monthly progression. I also learned to pace my longer-term projects in a way that honored the ebb and flow of the seasons and honoring my need to slow down and germinate each winter. Honoring my own connection to these rhythms and cycles was at first hard work, and took a lot of commitment. But it was also the most ordinary, natural thing to do, and living my life consciously in tune with those larger cycles gave me the ability to tune into many other ways of knowing. I found that the key to developing your intuition is to slow down, and listen, and get in tune with what is. Becoming proficient with the complex symbols of the tarot, for me, was all about slowing down enough to cultivate a deep practice of listening, observing, feeling their energies in the same way a mother instinctively connects to the energy of her newborn baby.
I missed the public recognition and the income that come along with having a career, and in my weaker moments I felt insecure about my purpose and place in a world that celebrates the extroverted doers and achievers. I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to do more, to produce more, to keep up with the pace and ambition of the world at large. Looking back, I wish I had known earlier how to honor the times of seclusion and introspection that are so essential in creation. I wish we were raised in a culture that valued the receptive quiet as much as the active , androcentric noise of our go-out-and-conquer society. Our imagination, our beliefs and desires, all the stuff that dreams are made of begin in what Carl Jung calls the 'unconscious'. In shamanic terms, this is where our power originates, in the unseen, hidden aspects of creation. All this I came to understand on a deep level as I learned to listen and be still. There are many paths to this wisdom. Tarot is just one teacher.
I gained so much from the time I spent delving deeply inward during those years. The daily practice of pulling a card, writing about it, finding connections throughout the day provided many insights, as did sleeping with the cards under my pillow to induce dreams that could teach me lessons and meanings that my conscious mind missed. It was over four years ago that I made the commitment to study the 78 tarot keys in daily practice and to this day I rarely go more than a couple days without doing a full spread for myself.
These days, my challenge is to step out as I am being called to stand once again more publicly and share what I have learned with the world. As I continue to develop new ways to weave the wisdom of tarot into my work as a hypnosis practitioner and herbalist, I find there is no bottom to how deep one can go in the quest for truth as the layers of meaning in the language of symbol just keep peeling back to reveal more room for exploration, more opportunities to become more fully aware. Jung tell us, "Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." The journey begins within. - Audrey
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