By Sarah Taylor
I believe that tarot has a valuable (if not always as widely valued) place among those systems that we can draw on to help us orient ourselves in our lives — astrology, the I Ching and shamanic journeying being just three of many others.
For hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, people have looked to the tarot in its various forms to answer their most burning questions, and to give them direction at times when the way through feels obscured, or lost. As a tarot reader, I rarely see clients who are seeking only confirmation of something they already know. For the most part, it is because they don’t know that they come to me. (And it isn’t always that simple: some clients don’t know that they don’t know!) I, too, consult the cards when I am in a particular struggle to know. Both of these perspectives — of others and of myself — have helped shape my ideas about when tarot is constructive, and when it is a tool of delay, obfuscation and denial.
You see, tarot is frequently not enough.
Like all other methods of divination, there is a person at the receiving end of a reading — a living, breathing, thinking, feeling entity. But the risk is that, in approaching a tarot reader, we as recipients of a reading can forget this: that we are active participants in the process of living our lives. And perhaps that is the point — that we often see ourselves more as recipients than participants. Add to this the relatively recent understanding (in the Western world, at least) that a large part of us is locked away to ourselves — what in psychoanalysis would be referred to as the unconscious — and we run the risk not only of believing that it is the reading itself that is going to be an agent of change, but of believing that we are fully aware of our motives and motivators at all times.
It is at times in our lives that we are feeling helpless that we feel most moved to seek answers in divinatory tools. And why not? They can be powerful agents in communicating information. The problem for me lies in the word ‘helpless’, because what can happen in those moments when we feel like we have lost the ability to get a handle on things, is that we receive the wisdom from these tools with a certain helplessness too. We want answers; we want clear instructions as to what to do; or we want confirmation of a hope that we have, rather than the courage to face perhaps a painful truth.
When we approach tarot in this way, the tarot reading has the feel of a parent-child relationship, where the tarot reader has access to some secret knowledge that will spontaneously deal with the issue we are facing. In essence, we are reaching out to the tarot with the impassioned plea of ‘Please make this all go away!’ or ‘Please don’t tell me anything bad!’ or ‘Please tell me this is going to happen!’
These may sound like harsh words, but I write them with a deep compassion, knowing that I have done this in my own readings with humbling frequency. Maybe, too, they sound harsh to those parts of us that want to get swept up in someone’s arms, be told that everything is going to be okay and that they are going to sort things out for us. There is a time, however, to open to the gift of realising that the only person who is fully equipped to assist us, is us. We can be supported in this, and asking for support can be one of the best, and at times only, resources available to us. But support is most effective when it operates as a two-way process — however it is that we are able to put ourselves behind the task. Tarot is no exception.
There are two terms that are used frequently in some modes of therapy: insight and working through. Although in that realm they are used in a highly specific way, I think that the broad idea can be expanded to working with the tarot — and all other forms of divination for that matter.
Insight is the moment when we are able to make a connection — to see the relationship between cause and effect. When we have an insight, what we are really saying is that we recognise the active role that we have been playing in our experience. We are no longer merely recipients, but participants. Tarot presents an opportunity for insight. Through its symbols, and our identification with what they represent about us and our situation, we can start to see how things work. Most importantly, tarot puts us at the centre of the reading, in the same way that we are at the centre of our experience. Through tarot, we are able to get a glimpse of cause and effect.
For example, the seventh card in a Celtic Cross reading (here is a sample reading) is the one that corresponds to ‘you’. It symbolises who or what we are in relation to the other cards and the question we have come to the reading with. When this card — you — is explored in conjunction with, say, the fifth (near past), first (current situation) and sixth (near future) cards, we can start to get a feel for cause and effect. We have the ability to see the consequences of our thoughts, feelings, actions in our world. We have that potential for insight.
I write “potential for insight” because that is all it is — the offer of a deeper understanding extended to us, which we are free to take or leave. All of us at some point will not be able to take it, for whatever good reasons that we have (and I believe that all reasons are good, no matter what judgements we might attach to them). We might be too invested in a particular outcome; it might be too much to take that good look at ourselves; it might be that there is a factor so far out of our awareness that we see the reading through a particular pair of tinted spectacles — we cannot see it any other way.
That doesn’t mean that a tarot reading where there is no insight is a waste of time. Absolutely not. Sometimes the message needs to come to us many times, and in many forms, until a critical mass of information gives us a welcome shift in perspective. And, then again, sometimes that shift in perspective is never made.
Then there are those times when we are open to the offer of insight — and we take it. Fabulous! And now it is over to us. This is when we can choose to take up the reins and begin the process of working through. Again, the definition of this term in therapy-speak is narrow, but I’m going to adapt it here to mean the ability to apply what we have learned from our reading in our own lives — and to keep re-applying it until we start to see the extent to which we are the architects of our experience. Working through can be challenging. It can ask a lot of us. We can feel vulnerable in the way that a crab is most vulnerable when it has shed its old shell. If that’s the case, then our need for support grows, and it might be wise for us to seek it out as a matter of priority. Nevertheless, when we are shedding a shell that we no longer need, our awareness can serve us in another way: to remind us of the potential that we are growing into.
Life doesn’t happen to us; we happen to life. We have much more power than we might think we have to make different choices, to take different paths, to move through life with greater consciousness. But it takes work, and life will bring us seemingly repetitive encounters in the face of which we might be tempted to throw up our hands with the utterance, ‘Not again!’ But, if seen differently, these are uncut diamonds: they give us the opportunity to work with our rough faces again and again until we have crafted something beautiful and of value from what seemed like something worthless.
Tarot on its own is rarely enough. But tarot is a start. It is what we do with it, and how we use it, that make all the difference.
If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread.