In a brief essay about his aphorism “Every man and woman is a star,” Aleister Crowley made the point that it’s physically impossible to stand in someone else’s shoes at the same instant in time and look at the world from exactly the same perspective; thus, each of us inhabits a private universe of which we are the existential center. We share this universe when it’s socially (and sexually) expedient or necessary for survival, but we normally act as if we’re the only one in it. This phenomenon is nowhere more evident than when observing how people drive the roads. I call it the “bubble effect.”
This “bubble” seems to be operative in the tarot universe as well, separating the Jungians from the mystics and pragmatists (aka “fortune tellers”), and all of them from the historians and scholars. There are those who insist that tarot should only be used for psychological purposes in seeking self-knowledge, and that divining with it is a benighted practice, an anachronism left over from the 19th Century. Others claim that it’s a vehicle for divine illumination, while still others see it primarily as a useful tool for prying open the future or as nothing more exotic than an intriguing historical artifact of academic value.
My answer to all of these diverging viewpoints is “Yes, of course it is.” While we do our best to convince ourselves that tarot can be “all things to all people,” opening the door to the sloppy generalization that “If it feels good it must be correct,” there is certainly truth in the observation that the tarot has multiple facets that invite more than one approach. If we can agree that no one path is inherently better than the rest, perhaps we can find common ground for appreciating what is a marvelous source of inspiration at any level we care to engage it.
Personally, I’ve come down a long road with it over the last ~50 years. I began as a student of the Hermetic qabalah with a strong interest in the esoteric foundations of tarot, astrology and ceremonial magic, and I eventually started a semi-professional divination practice. At the same time I was busily becoming a psychological astrologer, doing countless natal horoscopes with a Jungian focus. This remained my exclusive angle of attack for over three decades, during which I relocated and went dormant from a social standpoint, cultivating my Crowleyan “star potential” in private. This was fine for enlarging my practical knowledge base but did nothing to expand my awareness of what was happening in the broader culture beyond what could be gleaned from books.
My wake-up call came in 2011 when I first encountered the on-line tarot forums, where a debate on the contentious subject of how best to use the cards was in full flower. The diviners were in the ascendancy, followed by the Jungians and the esotericists with the scholars only present as a fringe group. It became clear that divination was far from obsolete, although I found its modern form to be somewhat lacking in substance. Around the same time I began making forays into local metaphysical shops, looking for a venue in which to restart the professional practice I had abandoned years before when I began my descent into “star-crossed” isolation. I found one and began sharpening my rusty public divination skills. That led to eventually coming to terms with the concept of doing on-line readings, something I had initially dismissed as unreliable.
What brought me to this wool-gathering exercise was a rather startling admission I just discovered in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s book The Way of Tarot. After spending two-thirds of the book coming across as a surrealistic mystical guru reminiscent of his art-film persona of the 1970’s (if you aren’t squeamish, go find his El Topo), he began offering some clear-headed, practical advice for reading the cards. (To be honest, I’m not positive that it wasn’t the contribution of his co-author, Marianne Costa.) These slightly-condensed comments in particular caught my attention:
“During my first years studying the tarot, seeking the meaning of its symbols, I considered them to be a tool for self-knowledge. Influenced by my reading of books on alchemy, the Kabbalah, and other initiatory traditions, I believed that whoever aspired to wisdom had to work in solitude. This is why, combined with the commercial use of the tarot by the fashionable fortunetellers, I disdained the reading aspect.”
Eventually, while contemplating what he called “a clear message from the High Priestess,” Jodorowsky noted that, in his estimation, “The High Priestess is not reading her book but offering it. This can indicate an individual who has moved from solitary study to giving to the other. This convinced me that the purpose of the tarot was fulfilled when it was used to help others by means of a reading that consists of presenting Arcana to an individual that have been transformed into a mirror of his or her soul.”
This idea of a “soul-mirror” coincides well with my own position that the querent “owns” the reading by subconsciously choosing the cards through the shuffle and cut, a process that captures the private “communion” between the two and displays it in the form of a specific arrangement that perfectly conveys the subject’s current status and any developmental opportunities that may lie just over the horizon. It shows not only where he or she may have been and is right now, but what it is possible to become by aligning oneself with one’s inner awareness of emerging trends and tendencies. In that sense, the “mirror” isn’t merely a snap-shot frozen in time, but an interactive movie that lets the querent (with the reader’s help) fill in the narrative details around the suggested plot. The final step is for the individual to take these insights under advisement in a “forewarned is forearmed” sense and, if sufficiently impressed by their authenticity and urgency, to pursue appropriate action to either bolster an agreeable outcome or defuse an unpleasant one. However, it can become as much a matter of “defensive positioning” as one of mounting an immediate, active intervention in one’s future interests and uncertainties (unless a more compelling reason presents itself).
One final quote from Jodorowsky (whom I’m coming to appreciate when he isn’t being quite so annoyingly bombastic):
The querent “should personally penetrate the messages his subconscious sends him. The individual should choose the path that best suits him.”