A Reader's Accounting
Tarot, Psyche, & the Matter of Self-Activism
In 2019, I decided to discontinue one-to-one tarot readings*.
Once again I had reached the crossroads that I’d been to several times as a reader: the one signposted “Continue Private Readings” straight ahead, or a sharp turn into “Quit”. Each time before, I had always managed to bargain my way out of my show-down with my own particular Devil – the one who told me that I could only be considered legitimate and successful as a reader if I ignored my misgivings and kept going. And so I did keep going. I could read cards damn well, after all – and weren’t one-to-one readings the staple of most tarot readers?
Over the following years, I kept ducking and diving to find a way to continue:
First, I placed restrictions on the kinds of readings I would do: no third-parties; no will-they-come-backs; no twin-flames. (Answer to all three: “You are the only person who is important here.”)
Then, I eschewed free readings: when no money is present to engage a sense of accountability, most clients don’t show up either.
Next, I took a certificate in psychodynamic counselling: it seemed I was referring so many clients to therapy that I needed to equip myself more. I also raised my prices: monetary investment often mirrors personal investment. To an extent this last one worked, but I still couldn’t escape the feeling that the sessions were a defence against the work of the Soul – painstaking, often painful, inner work undertaken with no map and no promises – and no cards.
Finally, I stopped altogether. This was a personal decision, for personal reasons – yet perhaps there is something in this that is if not universal, then familiar to some.
Step 1 – False Gods – Looking to another authority
Having gone through my own – and my counselling clients’ – therapeutic stages of denial, flight, bargaining, anger, confusion, and grief, I came to understand that it is far easier to find substitutes for change rather than undergoing the process of change itself. We tell ourselves we’re going to change. We read books, we attend workshops. We talk about the possibility of having therapy or some similar intervention “one day”.
We also seek out astrologers, psychics, mediums - and we seek out tarot readers. Most of us do this when we’re in a bind: we need answers, and we need them quickly. The best answers don’t come quickly, though, because they reside deep within; as long as it took for us to hide them is frequently as long as it takes for us to rediscover them. Even therapy itself is no guarantee that we won’t avoid the therapeutic process: it is simpler to talk endlessly about the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly than it is to bow to the visceral reality of pupation – of committing to our own confining process of being broken down irretrievably in order to be reconstituted.
Last summer, as I was walking and talking with an acquaintance, who was full of the ‘lightworker’ ardour of someone who has recently discovered the New Age, I said something that made them recoil.
“No-one needs my help.”
Honestly, when I put myself in their shoes it made me recoil too. But how I came across to them, and what I meant, were two different things. To my acquaintance, I think I sounded heartless. Their gasp suggested that. But there was a different driving force behind my words, and it had been informed by all the stages of my own therapeutic process.
As I began to realise that, contrary to my regressed fantasies, my therapist could not help me, I realised that I couldn’t help others either. Not in the way I had envisaged when I first started out on my tarot path. Back when I started, I had imagined that tarot would be the ideal way to save others. The cards would offer pearls of wisdom that would hold the power to change their lives. (I, of course, would be the sagacious but suitably modest intermediary delivering the message.)
But any pearl worth having isn’t a facsimile. Facsimiles are made quickly, with inferior materials; as far from the real thing as a false enlightenment. Real pearls are formed layer by layer, over years; beauty crafted from unwanted silt.
Quick-fix help, when it comes to the matter of how to live your own life, helps no seeker who looks to others to find their own authority.
Once we have exhausted all self-reflective options, what typically happens next is interesting.
Step 2 – “If I could change the world ...”
1957 saw the publication of a small book written by Carl Jung. The Undiscovered Self was one of the last works released before his death in 1961, and I believe that it carries inside it the substantial wisdom and insight Jung had amassed through decades of professional and personal study and observation.
On the surface, the book concerns itself with the emergence of Communism on the world’s stage, and yet it can be extrapolated to what is happening in our own times in a way that gives me pause every time I dip back into it. In it, Jung prognosticates on an eruption of the unconscious into the collective, the reasons for it, and the consequences it holds for us all. Bear with me here; the passage quoted below isn’t easy to read or to absorb (and there may well be a psychological reason for that):
“Separation from his instinctual nature inevitably plunges civilized man into the conflict between conscious and unconscious, ... a split that becomes pathological the moment his consciousness is no longer able to neglect or suppress his instinctual side. The accumulation of individuals who have got into this critical state starts off a mass movement purporting to be the champion of the suppressed. In accordance with the prevailing tendency of consciousness to seek the source of all ills in the outside world, the cry goes up for political and social changes which, it is supposed, would automatically solve the much deeper problem of split personality. ... What then happens is a simple reversal: the underside comes to the top and the shadow takes the place of the light ... . All this is unavoidable, because the root of the evil is untouched and merely the counterposition has come to light.”
[Jung, C. G. (2002). The Undiscovered Self (p. 58). Oxford: Routledge.]
When we aren’t able to confront ourselves – when we have the discomfiting and only barely conscious realisation that there is something there that we cannot get to, for whatever reason – we unconsciously throw that ‘something’ out into the world and take up arms against it. We become activists.
Our single-minded aim: to heal, or to convert.
No matter what we stand for, we do it by striking out into the world – much like the Knights in the Waite-Smith tarot, who are outward-facing, their horses denoting physical movement. We become heavily invested in change. Others’ change. We are aware of a burning desire to march, campaign, condemn, legislate, reform, transform.
Some of us join political organisations, or ideological movements. Some of us become missionaries, or mercenaries. Some of us choose to become healers. Some of us choose to read tarot.
Yet the real motive for our desires lies hidden to us.
Our crusade, in spite of and because of all its fiery zeal, is a defence against the truth, and that truth is always a personal one. We find it when all artifice is removed – when, as prodigal adventurers, we return home, hang up our armour and chain mail, and we finally agree to sit down at the hearth and look into the flames.
In this moment, we are committing to self-activism.
Step 3 – Self-activism and the role of tarot
So what do I mean when I write “self-activism”? I’m referring to the practices of introspection and assuming of personal responsibility. Self-activism is the rite of passage into adulthood; the act of individuation.
I am deliberately using the word “activism” because I want to set it in contrast to the kinds of activism that we are used to – namely, those pursuits that are externally focussed and driven by the desire to change someone or something ‘out there’. There is a place for this kind of activism, of course: we learn how to define ourselves in the context of others and the world. We grow from naïve Pages into Knights, and we enter a period of Ego-centricity, where values are grounded in recognition, achievement, success.
All of these are important if we are to develop a strong enough sense of self to have it dismantled when, in mid-life, we step into the roles of Queen and King.
The King-Queen dyad in the court cards describes the balancing of opposites and the maturation into self-acceptance and authority. If you notice, all high royals in the Waite- Smith deck are seated. They’ve been out into the world and done their adventuring. They are the realisation and manifestation of what happens once that Knight has looked into the flames. They have been through the fire, all unnecessary materia reduced to ash, and have emerged as archetypes of individuated personality types. Collectively, all eight of them are the graphic depiction of whole-object relatedness.
Self-activism is nothing new. Mahatma Ghandi exhorted us to “be the change that [we] wish to see in the world” (the emphasis on “be” rather than “do”). Looking at it from a different angle, the famous Zen koan suggests that “when [we] meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” In other words, we must be prepared to throw out everything we have learned from others so that we can follow what is true for ourselves.
Finding out what we individually stand for - and then standing for it, individually - is one of the most courageous acts we can perform. But perform it we must if we are to find peace in a world that is primarily invested in doing everything it can to waylay and distract us from the task.
So where does tarot fit in to all this?
I believe tarot can become a formidable instrument in our psychic toolbox when it is used with precision and due consideration.
If we look to someone else for step-by-step instructions on how to change ourselves, we are perpetuating a parent-child dynamic – and we give away our power. If we seek to change or to help others, driven by an unmet need in ourselves, we risk being subsumed by the collective – and we give away our power.
But if we approach and work with tarot as a gateway to greater awareness, we become self-reflective and self-reliant. We learn to trust our wisdom through profound uncertainty; we tolerate – maybe even align with – paradox. We begin to connect with a part of us that seems to respond by offering up more to us in return. By degrees we move in front of a mirror, and we accept that it is non-selective; we learn to own the good, the bad, and the ugly. We learn that we are good, bad, and ugly.
Working like this helps us to avoid selectivity with our cards, too. We can include everything. We meet The Tower with less dread; we meet the Two of Cups with less enthusiasm. We can appreciate that The Sun is not as straightforward as we once believed; we can sympathise with The Devil. We understand that the connection that we have with our cards is both alive and ever-changing.
In short, we begin to have a whole-object relatedness to what we see when we look at a card, at the same time that we begin to have a whole-object relatedness to ourselves.
We grow up. And this is hard.
So how do we work with tarot if we want to work like this, and how do we avoid pandering to our desire to be spoon-fed (a little snack here, a little snack there, to ward off the existential pangs), or attempting to change ourselves by proxy?
I can only speak for myself and my experience, in which case I can say this with utter certainty: I am not sure; I am still experimenting. After all, you’re reading the words of someone who is trying to teach the world something, and who still calls themselves a tarot reader!
However, I no longer do one-to-one readings*. That, for me, was the start. Instead, I do one-to-many video and podcast readings.
I know, I know! Group readings are poopooed by certain elements of the tarot cognoscenti (I can practically hear toes curling!) for being too general to be in any way useful or relevant. How could three cards be applicable to multiple people while still retaining a sense of potency? And yet I believe that there is something to be said for broad, archetypal strokes in a reading rather than the finer detail.
Consider this: as skilful as one-to-one readings can be, they limit our options – and our participation – the more specific they get. Conversely, the broad strokes of a solid general reading allow our imaginations to play with the imagery and information offered to us. We are doing some of the work ourselves. We are filling out the details – details that are entirely personal to us. We are fleshing out the framework, and it starts to look deeply familiar: we have imagined an aspect of ourselves into awareness.
This is invaluable; it is one way that we can access the unconscious without simply being confronted by it. To use a rather strong metaphor, instead of looking the Medusa in the face and so being turned to stone – where the aliveness of our psyche, if you will, is quashed by concrete and highly specific interpretation – we look at it indirectly, in a mirror, so that we can better acknowledge and address what is there.
Have you seen those images that are highly pixelated when in focus, but if you close your eyes, they become intelligible? That’s what I mean by a general, many-to-one reading: we each pull it into focus through our minds filling in the blanks. The picture we see is a product of our own psyche as much as it is our optical nerves.
We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
Am I still trying to get people to “see the light”? Yes, I am. Am I still working things out? Yes, I am. Maybe one day, when I have fully divested myself of the need to change anything, including myself, I’ll take up knitting. In the meantime, my own form of self- activism is to turn those who are so inclined on to their own forms of self-activism.
My journey may be flawed and contradictory in places, but it is my own. In no small part, I have tarot to thank for that.
* For those of you eagle-eyed enough to look at the menu bar, then you will see that I now do offer a one-to-one reading. However, this time I have decided to further experiment and offer it as a recording, which cuts away the real-time, person-to-person interaction. Why? Because I want to see if the result can offer something that is both objective enough to steer away from the spoon-feeding that I refer to, and yet specific - and private - enough to be for that client/sitter alone. As ever: still working things out! ~ Sarah