If there’s one thing that working with the tarot over these past 12 years has helped me to gain, I would certainly say “perspective.” The reason I’ve always found tarot to be such a constructive process for me is that when I bring a situation to the cards, the images and the narrative produced help me to view things literally outside of myself. By turning over a challenge or question I’m struggling with to the cards, I’m able to creatively brainstorm new approaches, or see things from an angle that I didn’t want to look at or was avoiding facing up to.
In my own life, one of the most difficult things for me to do is to let go and not try to control things. Control was something I used to be a lot more obsessive about, because it gave me a sense of security, thinking that I had everything accounted for and all contingencies mapped out to produce optimum results. If I was able to orchestrate everything to my specifications, I suppose I figured I could avoid mishaps, problems, conflict, struggle…any number of undesirable outcomes. Then, as a result of some unexpected and very deep crises in my life, I was shown first-hand that control is an illusion. There is very little beyond ourselves that we can actually control in this life, and oftentimes our biggest challenges are actually those in which we can’t even control ourselves (serious illnesses, for example). These are the times in life where I have been brought face to face with a stark reality: letting go and non-resistance often produce the best results, or at least are the energies that are most called for, in situations when we feel desperately in need of having control.
In my own readings, in times when I’ve brought situations to the cards that I felt impatient with, or situations that dealt with things that were out of my hands, I’ve often been shown specific cards that illustrate, in different ways, the quality and action of letting go.
1) The Hanged Man
The Hanged Man might be the quintessential card to represent letting go. The man is literally hanging by one foot, and he’s not holding on to anything. In fact, his hands are behind his back. We don’t know if they’re tied up, or if he has consciously placed them behind his back, but the fact remains that he doesn’t seem to be holding on to anything, and he isn’t visibly struggling against his situation. It doesn’t seem like he’s trying to get loose, or even that he’s in any sort of pain or discomfort. This, despite the fact that if we think about this position literally, and we look at historical accounts of this actual practice (which was used as a torture or execution method for traitors), it’s quite clear that it was excruciating to hang upside down like this and be left there.
In the Rider Waite Smith deck, we even see a yellow glowing sort of halo around the head, which to me indicates some sort of enlightenment or spiritual state of being.
In readings, when I see The Hanged Man, I try to hone in on what specifically needs to be “hands off” or if the “hands are tied” or any other number of appropriate metaphors that represent the literal position we see here of the man and his hands behind his back. Clearly the aspect of hanging indicates a wait, and in this sense, given the non-resistance stance we see depicted in the image, it shows the type of waiting that requires acceptance. This card is the type of letting go that’s required when there’s no other choice. The Hanged Man isn’t going anywhere right now. He has to simply “hang out” and bide his time, making the most constructive use of the fact that he is constrained and forced–possibly against his will–to remain exactly where he is.
2) The Wheel of Fortune
This card is a clear indication of when things are out of control, or outside of one’s ability to control them. The Wheel of Fortune shows us that there are some things in life that are going to happen regardless of what we want or what we do, and in those cases, the best advice is, like the water wheel, to go with the flow. Again we see a theme of acceptance, but also here a sense of “fate” or “destiny” playing a role, and the hint at a power or force greater than ourselves, that ultimately determines the way that things will proceed.
This card also shows us that consciously letting go is the best approach, because everyone will go through life having both moments on the top as well as moments on the bottom. Therefore, trying to desperately hold on to the moment on the top is as futile as despairing while at the bottom that things might never get better. Letting go of the need to control and letting go of the illusion that we can control are messages in this card.
This card is like a traffic light, perhaps that moment between yellow and red. It’s the sign that tells us to slow down. Besides the literal meanings related to moderation and patience, Temperance has a natural ability to take things as they come, and work with them as they are. This translates to our theme of letting go, because what we’re often trying to do when we want to hold on desperately, is try to make the circumstances and the situation bend to our will. While that can sometimes be appropriate in certain circumstances, when we see Temperance we can be sure that an approach of gentle assessment and balanced blending is called for. She’s less about sheer willpower and more about relaxing into the reality of the moment, and letting things flow as they will, or as they wish to. Again, the issue of control appears. If we look at that water in the image from a literal perspective, we might say, “That’s impossible! She couldn’t possibly control the water and those pitchers in such a way as to make it suspend itself in thin air: water is liquid, not solid.” So, here we see flowing with current reality as a way to transformation of a substance, read: situation. By not trying to actively control and letting the water flow as it chooses to, and by subtly directing its path rather than forcing it into submission like a rigid ice block, the impossible becomes possible.
When these cards come up in a reading, we do well to ask ourselves about issues of control versus acceptance, flow versus disruption of process, manipulation of circumstances through sheer will versus allowing reality to unfold organically without us trying to consciously direct it. These polarities are among some of the most profound lessons we can learn as we approach the various challenges that life presents us with.