Trimming the Sails

One of the best quotes I’ve ever seen describing the nature and purpose of tarot reading comes from respected occultist Dion Fortune  in her description of the “intuitive compass:”

“A divination should be regarded as a weather vane which shows which way the winds of the invisible forces are blowing, but it should always be remembered that a weather-vane was not meant to determine the course that a ship is to take; it merely indicates how best to trim the sails.”

As I understand it (not being a sailor), trimming the sails means fine-tuning them to an angle that takes maximum advantage of the prevailing winds in plying our chosen route, which is as exact a description of the correct use of divinatory guidance as I could ever hope to come up with. Divination doesn’t hand us a “free ride” straight to our destination, just a series of signposts by which we can plan our own itinerary and successfully navigate any bumps, forks and detours in the road. Like the old seafarers’ nautical charts, it may give warnings (“Here be dragons!”) but it is primarily a roadmap or a “star to steer by.” If we never get started on the journey or insist on disregarding the barricades and taking wrong turns all along the way, the chance to make the most of the wise advice may well be lost.

This observation holds true even if we’re using the cards for the purpose of self-awareness and self-development, with no intention of trying to peer into the future. If an act of self-improvement is contemplated as a result of our appeal to the divinatory arts, it usually involves conscious adaptation or adjustment to align our personal bearing with the circumstances we hope to enlist in our favor. It is often far easier and more efficient to change ourselves to match speeds with available opportunities than to remake the world around us. Although Buddha may have implied that we can alter our outer reality by “thinking” a new one into existence (and the Hermeticists seem to agree), there is always some inner work involved. Only when no worthy options present themselves do we need to push into uncharted territory if such can be inferred from the reading. In any event, we want to sail before the wind whenever possible and not directly into its teeth.

I sometimes think of a tarot reading as emulating a “vector,” a force that exhibits both a magnitude (the rank of the cards present) and a direction (the trajectory of the spread). Reading results also suggest some of its other properties, such as displacement (movement over time in a particular direction) and velocity (a consequence of the momentum evident in the cards). The scientist in me appreciates the “quantification” this implies, although the mystic must still translate it into metaphysical terms for it to be useful for anything other than deterministic prediction (aka “fortune-telling”). The higher the rank of the cards and the more energetic their suits or elemental correspondences, the more urgent and persuasive the testimony of the reading is likely to be.

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