Connecting with Tarot
A personal story . . .
We are not likely to know the right questions until we are close to knowing the answers . . .
Physicist Steven Weinberg
By the end of the following account, I had become a full-time Tarot reader, author, and teacher.
But at the beginning, I was in graduate school, continuing my studies of archetypal psychology and cultural anthropology. For research purposes, I wanted to understand more about Jung’s fascination with image systems and the phenomenon of synchronicity — not just in the abstract, but through some sort of active experience.
So I tried to study the I Ching.
“Tried” is the operative word here, because the I Ching was entirely opaque to me. I never experienced whatever it is that other people, including Jung, find in the I Ching.
My analysis: For Westerners, the meaning of the I Ching is largely carried by language, and I think it’s hard for highly verbal people (raising hand) to move beyond a logical, linear, language-based interpretation.
The Tarot, by contrast, is carried largely by visual images that are familiar to the Western imagination. Jung had some interest in the Tarot as well as the
I Ching — and I thought I might have a better chance of relating directly and intuitively to a system of representational pictures.
But what actually happened at the time was that I followed my habitual inclination and learned about the Tarot cards rather than learning with or through them.
And so, after a while, I knew quite a bit about the history and symbolism of the Tarot. But nothing about how to use it.
I had zero interest in prediction with the cards at that time — in fact I doubted the whole idea of gaining future (or even present) knowledge through divination. But I thought it might help me understand the phenomenology of Tarot if I took a typical “fortunetelling” sort of Tarot class, and this I did.
Luckily, I had a very good teacher, who was traditional in her approach to the Tarot but also very sensible. And I emerged after several weeks of instruction with the general idea that Tarot cards could be read as a pictorial language. My theory at the time (scarcely original) was that one might employ a spread of cards to catalyze the creative imagination, and thus open up to insights that would otherwise remain unconscious.
In the case of reading for another person, I reasoned, the process could be carried out through some form of covert communication or even (a stretch here) intuitive interpersonal connection.
Okay so far. By applying familiar skills and habits of thought, I had formed an internally consistent theory of how Tarot “works.”
But . . .
In my experience — and I’ve heard something similar from a number of other people — the Tarot always takes you further than you meant to go.
At the time I’ve been describing, I was a graduate assistant at a large-ish university; and for three semesters I had been co-teaching a class called “Creativity and Consciousness.” This wildly popular course was part of the Visual Arts curriculum, but due to the unusual philosophical foundations of that particular program, the syllabus included such fringe-y, consciousness-related topics as sacred geometry, astral travel, reincarnation, and ESP.
I hadn’t designed the class, and honestly harbored doubts about some of its content. But when a local community college decided to offer a version of the course in its continuing education program, they asked if I would teach it.
Doctoral students are almost always hard up for cash, so I was delighted to oblige. And since going to a distant campus for just one class wasn’t very cost-effective, I suggested teaching something else on the same evening.
They asked what else I would like to teach — and I heard myself saying “Tarot.”
Preparing and presenting such a course, I reasoned, would create an enforced “opportunity” to organize my research on the subject. And how hard could it be to fill up eighteen hours with some chat about symbolism, art, et cetera?
Well . . . I taught the six-week course more than two dozen times, on five campuses, to several hundred people over the next three years — and I never did get organized. In fact, my ideas about Tarot were radically changed within the first few months of that adventure.
I soon found that I couldn’t teach the class without doing some reading of the cards, as a means of demonstration. And as I read for more and more people — total strangers — I realized that against my own will I was extending my interpretations not only beyond the evident scope of the cards, but more and more into the future.
No matter how much I tried to remain in the designated space of present events, I wandered out of it and into a realm of future impressions.
I also discovered that the Tarot process can be a phenomenal short cut to psychoanalytic insight. As it turns out — people will tell their Tarot readers in a moment things they will work for years to avoid telling their shrinks!
I think this may be so because contemporary people don’t really believe in divination the way they believe in psychotherapy. They regard having their cards read as an entertainment — perhaps a serious, even enlightening entertainment, but not an ego-threatening experience.
Put another way: People very often fear self-recognition in therapy. But they don’t think of Tarot as a “real” therapeutic process, so they don’t set up the intricate and nearly impenetrable layers of resistance that slow down or even defeat many conventional approaches to psychotherapy.
Of course I still believe that conventional psychoanalysis and certain other therapeutic modalities (including psychiatry and pharmacology) have an important place in mental health care — particularly for dealing with any disorders serious enough to impair normal functioning. But there are plenty of people with the patience to practice conventional therapies, and I realized that I wasn’t one of them.
On the other hand . . . I found that by using the Tarot I could work quickly and effectively with people whose problems are fairly ordinary, stemming from unconscious blocks and distorted thinking patterns.
And after all, extending the client’s considerations of self and life into the future is part of any therapeutic methodology. So when you think about it — psychoanalysis has its divinatory aspects.
My deeper connections with Tarot didn’t come through teaching, though, or through working with clients in an office setting (though I did quite a bit of both). For me, those activities continued to rely as much on intellect as on intuition.
It was actually three summers spent in a field at the Scarborough Renaissance Faire that taught me divination. Every weekend I consulted the Tarot for dozens of complete strangers, and before long . . .
I discovered that the faster I read, and the less time I had to think about the cards or the querent, the more likely I was to have a confident sense of the person’s present and future.
Now that I look back on how this all happened, I can see several factors at work. For one thing, the more I was forced to recognize and interpret the cards quickly, the more I began to read them almost exactly as I would read a written-language text. We don’t think about each word sequentially when reading a page, and I soon stopped thinking about each card individually, focusing instead on how they work together to tell a story.
And for another thing — there’s something creative about the pressure of “performance reading.” When you assume the role of a Tarot professional, there’s an unspoken but meaningful promise that you will give querents information or insights they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Or at least that has always been the agreement in my mind.
Other Tarot readers may have different views, and approach the reading event in different ways. But I quickly learned that I couldn’t meet my own expectations without trusting the cards.
In the middle of a field, with a line of people waiting, I just couldn’t think fast enough to create a meaningful story for each person. So without exactly intending to, I began to assume that the cards always had something to say — and that my role was to share their message with the querent.
Of course my own knowledge and experience came into play, but in what I now think of as a more symbiotic way. To form a strong connection with the Tarot, I discovered, you have to surrender some of your ego/control and allow the cards to offer direction.
The foregoing story explains how I came to think of divination in a certain way. But there was much more evolution to come, during several years spent writing about Tarot and getting to know some remarkable people — scholars, artists, visionaries, and adventurers who were bringing new life to the Tarot.
I began by drawing on my academic background for a book that explored the history of Tarot, and various aspects of Tarot divination. Then I followed with a second, more journalistic volume — analyzing cultural aspects of Tarot practice, profiling important authors and influences, and linking the Tarot with contemporary issues.
But I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate I was to be in the midst of such a pathbreaking period in modern Tarot history. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, a stream of seminal books, diverse publications, and bi-coastal (even international) events greatly expanded our understanding of Tarot as a symbol system — and our appreciation of divination as a meaningful practice.
Equally important, there was an amazing rebirth of Tarot art, with dozens of new decks drawn from many different traditions.
The energy generated during that time spread widely, and lasted for many years afterward. But commercialization and simplification were also spreading quickly — and after a while, exploitation seemed to dominate the Tarot landscape.
In part for that reason, my involvement with Tarot gradually became personal rather than professional. Yet because I had been so deeply engaged, for so many years, Tarot remained part of my imagination. Even today, it shapes my thinking, in ways I’m not always consciously aware of.
But for quite a while I’ve been gathering notes toward another book — and for whatever reason, my plan to write it “someday” has begun to seem urgent.
Partly that’s because I’ve realized the creative, exciting ideas that emerged in the late twentieth century were not merely, or even mainly about the Tarot. They reflected an ambitious, adventurous vision of imaginative life that is sorely needed today.
And given the many challenges now faced by humankind, it seems like a very good time to revisit — and revitalize — some of those ideas.