Tarot and Dream Work

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:

MoonChariot2_Pent

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”.[9]

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.

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27 comments

  1. Wonderful article. A dream about healing, a beautiful dream. I had done a lot of tarot and dream merging. I have a lot of nightmares, specially during stressful times, and also remember easily my normal dreams. I dream a lot with the elements, specially water and earth. Had read a lot of books on dream interpretation. And yes, the symbols are personal. I use the “mind map” technique with the most important symbols of the dream. The author that guide me in mind map elaboration is, Tony Buzan. But there a lot of other authors that had written about the theme.

    I have a journal divided in 2 halves. The second half is for dreams. I had drawn a lot of mind maps there. I also use the tarot after doing the mind mapping. I ask directly the tarot to know the core message of the dream. I also ask if there is something to be recognized, acknowledge or act, in my daily life when awake. My dreams are almost always about something that is happening in my life, very present. Many times my dreams are about unsolved issues of my childhood – I`m 66. Some dreams themes revisit me from time to time. Thanks for sharing your experience, Shelley.

    I totally agree with you about Enrique`s books. Though still I`m in the middle of the first volume.

    Blessings.

    • Hi Aurora, thanks so much for your thoughts and comments. I’ve never worked much with dreams before so this was a good introductory activity for me. I’d like to look into the author that you mention, Tony Buzan.

  2. Thank you, Shelley Ruelle for your close reading of my initial interview with Enrique Enriquez. Your adaptation of the ideas I expressed then about the role of dream interpretation in how to read freely with tarot cards. One of the reasons that I do not write much on tarot interpretation is that sense of that interview my own appreciation of tarot and the dream work has drifted into some unexpected places. The unconscious is patient with our little floating ego upon the vast ocean of primordial life and awareness. For instance, with the appearance of The Moon and The Chariot as a Yin Yang polarity the dancing juggler of the Two of Pentacles symbolizes the floating ego that occasionally gets it, holds onto it, tosses it in the air, and catches it over and over again. These ideas keep reoccurring and you keep annotating them in your reading. All of which shows the tree that encompasses the range of the Moon card, being under world of swampy crayfish, middle world with the baying dogs and towers, and upper world of the moon in seasons. The shoulder crescent moons on the right and left shoulder of the charioteer represents the waxing and waning moon and may easily allude to the global ball like pentacles being juggled. The head of the charioteer is the moon in all its phases as well as the perplexed face of the dancer juggler. Your interpretation is apt in that you are seeking some form of integration of the conscious mind with the vast subterranean and extraterrestrial forces of sub and super consciousness. The tree is classically a symbol of weaving the worlds together. The roots of the tree reach into the underworld, its trunk navigating the middle world and its branches and canopy reaching out into the overworld. That’s some part of that is branches splinters into your arm so that your body and the tree share sap and blood, bone and branch, wound and affinity is a recognition that recurs because of the porousness of being awake and distracted with life as an ego-constructed self-made for others. Again I would return to the Two of Pentacles. This is one of her stage cards in the Pixie Coleman Smith depiction. Usually they are identified by the obvious staging and backdrop painting of the figures. The juggler is dancing for an audience. The audience may very well be people who read your blog as well as other people you may be performing for in your wake-a-day life.
    As I alluded at the beginning of this appreciation of your fine essay, my own understanding of the relationship between dream work and tarot reading has changed a little since I express these ideas to Enrique. I have become more respectful of letting the symbols remain symbols without seeking to explain them. Explanation in the way that I’m using it here seems to be more an attempt of assimilating the content of the unconscious to the self-perceived needs of the ego. If this is true, the one thing I can be certain of is that the ego never sees itself or its perceived needs without distortion if not rank self-deception. Some of the work that I’ve enjoyed with Enrique has needled me in this direction of letting the image be itself and not turning it into some servant of my self-defined desire. The reason that the bibliomancy, the tarot reading, and the dream coincide suggest reinforcing messages about what it is one needs to know now is something like a leaky boat. Usually we are a float on our ego vessel and forget that we are on this vast sea of interrelated life. The dream, the tarot, the found passages, all represent leaks into the dry rational container are constructed self. This is done in two ways. The world is a vast dream and all stories are merely variance on the dream eddies of streaming emotion. This is the way the world really is but this is not the way the world pretends to behave in our constructed social space unless we happen to be in that fortunate position when I dream is so intense that it pierces our forgetfulness and lets a little of that wonderful wet world of unbridled life into our everyday concerns.
    I am very capable of offering metaphor links for images and dreams and even adding sap to them, but I do not think that the ego or even the Self controls the dream, tarot, or whatever serendipity sparks insight and remembrance. In other words there is a greater wisdom and just letting the symbols be what they are without an tempting to interpret them along some abstract or concrete grid. Tell me what does a tree mean to you? How is your arm like a tree? Is that splinter a bone? I’m not asking about a tree that is a dream image I am asking about your deep seeded recognition of trees in your life and perhaps in your garden? What do I like about trees and our trees about to like me?
    The purpose of reading the tarot or of interpreting your dreams is not so much to sink the ego into the unconscious but rather spiff up the ego enough so that it realizes it is floating upon the unconscious between the two worlds of above and below. But being of both worlds does not mean that it has to surrender to one or the other of them but just needs to realize that it’s fun to be the mirror and all the images in the mirror at the same time. The mirror seems to be changeless as it holds all change while the major and images seem to be in a procession of transformation yet are held in serenity in reflection. Reflection does not mean explanation it just means appreciating and being aware of the beauty that is within us, around us, and is all of us.

    • Dearest Paul,

      Your response to Shelley’s post and your exploration of dream and Tarot is one of the best written pieces I have seen from you. Thank you for exploring that space between conscious and unconscious, known and unknown, interpreted and experienced.

      In Spirit,
      Katrina

    • Paul, thank you for sharing your thoughts here; it makes perfect sense that you’ve moved to different places in your viewpoints given that the interview happened back in 2010. I appreciate the interview though for the thoughts you shared and for a kind introduction to the idea of using tarot to help elaborate dreams. I’d always had a rather negative view of dream work up until now, so your words and ideas from 2010 helped me to take a first stab at this work and see what it would look like.
      I like your thoughts about the illusion/reality re: mirror/reflection and it brings up a lot more questions. Perhaps I can interview you further for my blog in the future. 🙂

  3. Thank you for this piece, Shelley. My own experience with tarot and dreams is to think of it as dream exploration or dream opening or dream tending rather than interpretation. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman says that the moment we say, “This dream means such-and-such”, we’ve killed the dream. There are many layers to allow to unfold.
    For more ideas about using tarot with dreams, read Gail Fairfield’s first book, Choice Centered Tarot (now called Everyday Tarot). There’s a section near the back of the book about this (written in 1980!).

    • Hi James, thanks for your comment. I definitely agree with the “killed the dream” standpoint. I never really could get on board with this idea that an analyst “holds the key” to meaning, or books on dream interpretation, for that matter. But I did enjoy this little “experiment” because I had always been hesitant to mix tarot and dream work, not really knowing where to dip my toes in. Thanks for the tip on Gail Fairfield’s book. I have that one on my shelf! Didn’t recall the section about dreams–will have to check it out. Then again, I read that one many moons ago. 🙂 James, what about journaling and dream work + tarot? Any pointers?

      • As far as journalling with dreams, one can draw components of the dream, use crayons to colour a page in the colours of the dream, write poems from the dream’s perspective, make a list of verbs from the dream, make a list of nouns from the dream, re-write the entire dream with the words “part of me” after each noun and adjective, read the first and last sentences of one’s dream narrative aloud and treat the first sentence as where one is and the last sentence as where the energy wants to go, rewrite the dream in a more desirable form, rewrite the dream in a scarier form, paste tarot cards that remind one of dream components, make collages of one’s feelings upon awakening from the dream, create a short story or play based on the dream, compose a chant or piano piece based on the feeling of the dream (or words heard in the dream), gather friends and act out the dream, create and enact a ritual based on the dream, and sooooo much more.

    • Thank you, e e. I was just reading a piece on e.e. cummings today. Is that you?

      The “follow a dog” technique has also been known to be effective. In fact much more effective than these meanderings. But I do enjoy me some self-indulgence once in a blue moon. See also: too wordy, over shares, thinks too much, needs to dumb it down.

      But I wouldn’t know anything about any of that! You know!

  4. Dreaming Shelley,

    I admire your ability to bring your personal experience and ongoing learning into a format that inspires so many of us. Thank you for your intimate sharing.

    As a person who considers herself a professional in the realm of Tarot and dreams, I so resonate with your article and the responses you have inspired. I love Paul’s wisdom on this topic and e e’s succinct contribution.

    In my work, following the dog could be rephrased as “Following the Tao.” Follow the energy in the moment. Resist putting it in a box, or a kennel, in the case of a dog. Follow instead of lead. Notice what is wild and alive, much like the two canines in The Moon card image. Have the courage to explore new territory and allow it to change you and the world, as with the Chariot. Notice how you dance with duality, moving between the known and the unknown, the interpreted and the experienced, shown by the Two of Pentacles.

    To take this fascinating dreaming exercise a bit further, in line with Dreamwork from a Jungian point of view, what is it like to be the tree, or the sap? What if you were the splinter? Can you embody each of these archetypes and tap into their essence from their unique point of view in the dream? Once each essence is brought to life, how do they interact? What if they were to dream the dream further…can you integrate your energy and flow with their expression?

    What a wonderful adventure this is!

    In Spirit,
    Katrina

    • Thank you Katrina for your kind words and soulful contribution! Your invitation to embody the elements reminds me of your presentation at TarotCon in the UK with the Voyager Tarot. Yes, these little cards can be taken in so many different directions for exploration… or rather, can lead us in so many different directions! Hugs from Rome!

    • Thanks Bridgett! I know, I often struggle with that too! Especially because, with three little kids, what happens to me quite often is that I get woken up by one of them, which means I’m immediately in “mom mode” right out of bed, with no time to take a moment to reflect on anything I might have received while dreaming. In fact these “bits” lately have come back to me completely unsolicited during the day, unexpectedly. Perhaps we get what we need whether we try to remember or not!

  5. Hi Shelley!

    That was some inspired writing you’ve got there! It’s wonderful to see you spreading your wings and really go out there.

    As a tarotist you have the greatest of tools: a tarot deck. Something that can unlock any venue that you desire. A key to all the worlds there might be. And the dream itself is just another world… An island floating in the midst of th space/time continuum that encompasses all possible worlds, either real or imaginary.

    With the tarot, you can not only explore it’s meaning, but, what could be more interesting, explore the world itself and your place inside it.

    Insight is a wonderful thing. It gives us knowledge and makes everything clear. However, once you have all the answers, what else is left that can pull you back into the story? The mystery is gone. Everything is crystallized into some form or another. However, you also have the option of just follow the story and let the story function as its own entity. As its own thing. And you can explore the story. You can explore that world you got access to. And enjoy it and learn from it. You can become a true imaginaut, unlocking mysteries and stories and bring them forth for everyone else to enjoy…

    • Wonderful! we can follow the dog in La Lvne, although it would be hard to tell the dog from the wolf, just as it is hard to tell the word ‘Tao’ from ‘étau’, which is 50% star.

    • I love you, MM. I have a theory going with EE about those of us with first and last names that have repeating sequences. You have it too: Mig(ue)l Marq(ue)s 🙂 We have another colleague who has that, as well as EE and myself. We should form a collective.
      Thank you for your thoughts here. I am so happy that we met, because your take on the tarot and storytelling has opened it up a lot for me. And: comics.
      I love the word imaginaut. You!
      I still have to read Prometheus. 🙂 Want to get it printed out at a copy shop so I don’t have to read it on the screen.
      Hugs from Roma!!

  6. Just a quick note, since I have not yet had time to properly read the poste. I love your book! Got it here with me. It is such fun to read and has great tips for anybody visiting Rome. I will surely take it along when I hopefully come this year! I hope we can meet up then. All the best to you and Happy New Year still!

    • My book! Wow! Thanks so much! It’s a bit outdated by now, but I sure did have a lot of fun putting it together. So much time has passed and technology has come so far since I published it, I could do an e-version of a new one by now. I would like to do something along those lines with both Rome and tarot, separately of course 🙂 Although a tarot tour of Rome would be fun too.

  7. Thank you for the insightful post and your personal experience with the methods. I am so happy to see tarot used so creatively and yet so functionally in our process of exploring and bettering ourselves. You have shared such a powerful tool (if you connect with your dreams anyway). So happy I got to read this. I don’t feel it demystifies dreams or places rigid constraints on the meanings but rather expands our awareness to the possibilities of meanings and helps us to connect with essences that can direct our progress.

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