Today’s post is an example of how tarot can be taken out of rather limiting fortune-telling shackles and be freed up to engage us in the creative practice of inner work and outer knowing. Inspiration for this post came directly from an interview that Enrique Enriquez conducted with Paul Nagy in June 2010, which is included in Vol. I of Enriquez’s two-volume series of interviews, EN TEREX IT and EX INTENT ER. As an aside, I cannot recommend these two volumes highly enough. I told Enriquez that if I ever teach tarot, these two books would be required texts. The range, depth, and diversity of perspectives here is priceless, and for a tarot reader of any level, the ideas presented are endless jumping off points for new discoveries and explorations in the craft of reading, magic, and living.
Nagy is cited as an esotericist and tarot scholar (visit his site Tarot Hermaneutics: Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot). From my involvement in the tarot community online, I can say that Paul is a vibrant and active participant and supporter of his colleagues, and offers a wise and very well-informed voice to our community of readers. His interview with Enrique (as well as their collaborative interview concluding the second volume of the series) is one of the most thought-provoking and challenging interviews in the book. One of the parts of the interview that stuck with me most was this, from Paul:
My instinct is that after serious nods to archetypal numerology, one must find the key in the living symbols of the tarot, not initially in the images on the cards but in the images from our dreams. […] I would begin any study of the tarot with serious and perpetual dream work.
The reason I mention this quote is that recently I’ve been going through a very trying and confusing period on multiple levels in my life, and as such I’ve been having dreams that are more intense, vibrant, and cryptic than usual. Some have been so striking that they’ve resurfaced the next morning without warning, breaking that veil between subconscious knowing and conscious awareness. Today was a particularly resonant example, one that continued to come back to my consciousness over and over, and continued to demand of me to give it a place, to assign personal meaning to its symbolism and integrate it consciously. I chose not to ignore it, and immediately thought back to Paul’s statement. I searched the lengthy interview until I found that portion about dream work again, and decided to take his suggestion to apply the tarot to my dream image. Paul continued in that interview to say:
By dream work I mean a commitment to remembering and recording one’s night dreams, struggling with self and others to learn how to understand and interpret them on any and all levels, and then inquiring of the tarot by random draw to comment on the dream and the process toward understanding.
Now, I’ll be honest here. I haven’t ever given much credence in the past to dream work. Especially in the context of psychoanalysis, I’ve always had some difficulty in accepting what seems to me to be such an arbitrary or subjective assigning of meaning (analyst) to random (dream) symbols. I feel like the analyst has too much power in that situation, giving voice and meaning to what the client brings from their dream. I’m always a bit hesitant or suspicious when any “other,” trained and licensed psychoanalyst included, assigns subjective meaning to a privately held and generated symbol. But then again, tarot works along much the same premise, in that it assigns personal meaning to an arbitrary symbol. However, I feel more comfortable about the idea of dream work and tarot together than dream work with an analyst, because at least in tarot, the random draw creates what I would consider a certain objectivity in the assignment of meaning. Using tarot as a key to dream interpretation rather than an analyst makes the process entirely personal, returning power to the individual to assign meaning. The use of tarot objectively supplements the interpretation, because the images themselves appear randomly as a key to dream interpretation (rather than being a product of subjective psychoanalyst choice), even though the personal interpretation itself is subjective. It seems to make sense to me from a self-empowerment standpoint.
So, for this exercise I’ll use myself as the guinea pig, as an example of how this can be taken from theory to practice.
The bit of dream that kept resurfacing was this: My arm was pierced by a tree, in which a long, long splinter of the tree was somehow injected or inserted deep into my arm. It didn’t hurt, but it was strange. Then, immediately after, I myself extracted the long splinter, and it came easily out of my arm, and it was still surprising how long it was, but equally surprising was how I myself was able to extract it after I hadn’t been the one to insert it. In fact how it came to be in my arm wasn’t even exactly clear, although in retrospect it almost seems if it were the tree itself that put it there. The most striking part of the dream for me was the end, that once the long splinter emerged from my arm, or rather, once I finished pushing it out, it started to gush out clear sap. It was producing sap, like the sap from a tree, but instead of being brown like I imagine sap normally is, it was totally clear, thick and viscous but transparent like a crystal. Then I looked at the tree and the tree was oozing the same clear sap, as if to communicate that that’s where it was coming from. The sap continued to flow for a bit from the spot in my arm where the splinter was extracted, and then, the “wound” or opening where the splinter had gone in, sealed itself over with this sap.
I started to contemplate this image, and immediately it conjured up for me ideas of a sort of shamanic initiation and healing having taken place. It also called up images of male/female energies, passive/submissive, action/non-action, and penetration/being penetrated. Then I thought, before going too far off on tangents, why not follow Paul Nagy’s advice about a random tarot draw to “comment on the dream and the process toward understanding”?
So, I decided to pull three cards in a random draw without any positional meanings, and here are the three that emerged:
The first thing that struck me about this draw was not only two major arcana or trumps out of the three total cards (trumps making up less than 30% of the entire deck, and here representing 66% of the spread) but also the contrast between the two cards themselves. In taking a few notes, I came up with a list in that The Moon and The Chariot seem to almost be polar opposites when we look at the energies and qualities I saw in them in this side-by-side comparison:
- Unknowing vs. feeling in control
- Bewilderment vs. Clear sense of direction
- Feeling out of control vs. taking decisive action
- Intuition vs. rational, logical thinking
- Inner vs. outer
- Insecure/unsure vs. confident/certain
- No road map, wandering vs. clear road map, going straight ahead
- Watery, female, passive, yin energy (Neptune, Pisces) vs. Fiery, male, active, yang energy (Mars, Aries)
Then I began to examine the images themselves and found some interesting paradoxes and contrasts to the list above, some merging and mingling.
- Two towers in The Moon are solid and identical vs. two sphinxes in The Chariot are complementary and opposing (this seems to turn the meanings from above on their heads)
- The large moon in The Moon transforms into two small crescent moons on the shoulders of the charioteer. We could surmise that the charioteer has somehow incorporated elements of the moon into his being.
- The lingam/yoni symbol on the chariot itself. “The union of lingam and yoni represents the “indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the passive space and active time from which all life originates”.“
All of this without even taking into account the Two of Pentacles, which seems to me a clear statement of finding balance in these opposing factors. The juggler stands stable but not too stable, with one foot off the ground, and the water behind him is rather rough and wavy, and yet, he has a handle on it. It brought to mind the idea of staying present in the midst of uncertainty.
Now, when we look at tarot and dream work as a practice, I’d add that it’s important to allow unexpected associations to freely surface and follow them to wherever they may lead. At this point in contemplating the Two of Pentacles, I was reminded of some notions by Pema Chodron in a book of hers called The Places That Scare You. One of Chodron’s constant teachings is about staying comfortable in the midst of uncertainty. So, I opened the book randomly to a page and looked for commentary. I had previously highlighted several phrases on the pages that I turned to randomly (120 and 121), and they apply here:
Our practice is to stay with the uneasiness and not solidify into a view.
I thought that quote represented well the Two of Pentacles in this context. Keep one foot in both worlds, action and non-action, intuition and rationality.
Then, I read the other highlighted phrases, and found that on page 120 they applied to The Moon, and on 121 they applied to The Chariot. This first set of sentences on page 120, again, found randomly, seems almost drawn from a tarot workbook talking about The Moon:
Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it.
Then, on 121, we see a resemblance to The Chariot:
The crossroads is an important place in the training of a warrior. It’s where our solid views begin to dissolve. That’s why we’re encouraged to spend our whole lives training with uncertainty, ambiguity, insecurity. To stay in the middle prepares us to meet the unknown without fear; it prepares us to face both our life and our death.
Such intense word imagery that brings to mind the charioteer as warrior, as facing the possibility of both life and death, and finding balance and comfort in the midst of not knowing, as part of his actual training itself.
And then, in conclusion, I wanted to bring back all of these free-associations and bibliomancy to help assign personal meaning to the original dream. In the original dream, a wound is inflicted, then through my own initiative and will and strength, I extract the source of the pain and it heals over with sap from a tree. How can I take what I’ve seen now in terms of finding balance between inner and outer life and finding balance and “staying present” in both, and relate it back to this image from my dream?
To me it seems straightforward that the clear sap from the tree represents this inner life, this inner knowing, the inner “salve” for healing an outer wound. Also, it comes forth spontaneously, through no direct action of my own, and yet it comes mysteriously from within, and not only: it comes from the tree as well, strangely enough, the source of the wound and the source of healing. The long, piercing splinter is action taking place in the outer world, first an action I have no control over, then a decisive action I direct myself, which leads to the healing and inner sap of the tree (trees also being symbolic of life, growth, and wisdom).
I found this exercise worthwhile. I plan to continue it when I have a particularly compelling dream image I’d like to delve deeper into. The message that came from this exercise, that of “staying balanced in uncertain times” as well as the image of how action and non-action meld, and how one aspect can heal the other, as well as the interesting example of homeopathic care (tree splinter as pathological symptom and tree sap as life-infusing healing) is easy for me to transfer directly onto the current personal life experiences that I’m struggling with, as well as recalling ideas I’m examining right now (see my other recent post on Maelstrom, Tarot and Care of the Soul).
So, what can we take from this overall? When choosing tarot as a tool for insight and growth, there is no end to the creative variations in the way these cards can be used to generate narratives and meaning. I encourage you to try Paul Nagy’s advice about tarot and dream work for yourself, and see where it leads you.