Tarot and Divination as Spiritual Training

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That which first connects man with the surrounding universe is the power of reflective contemplation.
—Friedrich Schiller, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XXV

In today’s secular world, speaking about spirituality can seem taboo. Anything that might refer to a “higher power” or “spirit world” can be seen as either fundamentalist and dangerous to free thought or as naive, childish magical thinking.

There are polarized lines drawn between Church and state, and strong feelings regarding organized religion and its impacts on individuals and society. Many people are seeking something “out there” to fill a sense of lack within.

The Secret History of the World

I’m no exception, and I am a big book worm, so when I have existential questions I often start reading. Recently I finished an 800-page magnum opus of a book, The Secret History of the World by Jonathan Black (Mark Booth), which a friend gave me when she was cleaning out her bookshelves. It got brutally panned with reviews that had mocking overtones and angry undertones by basically every critic I could find who took the time to read it.

I wasn’t reading it for technical prowess or even accuracy – many of Black’s assertions are stated as fact without any citations, so you certainly can’t be expected to take them as some sort of divine truth. What I did like about the book, however, was that it brought together tidbits from a random compendium of thinkers in esoteric circles throughout the centuries, in a sort of mishmash that was fun to dig into. I have no qualms with Black’s wild claims; I say write what you want and let the reader determine its worth. Those of us who enjoy metaphysical meanderings don’t mind reading great big whales of a tale – mystery and absurdity are interesting, and metaphor can open our minds.

Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy

I mention the book because it introduced me to Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th-century founder of a philosophy called anthroposophy. I started reading a bunch of Steiner’s lectures from the early 1900s and found them compelling. He proposes a series of specific thought exercises designed to increase a person’s capacity to come into contact with higher worlds or spirit worlds. While that’s interesting in and of itself, what struck me is that many of these exercises were nothing more than training in being more observant and contemplative, and sounded to me a lot like the process of divination through cartomancy.

Regardless of your beliefs in terms of religion, metaphysics, scientific truths, and the origins of the world, taking quiet time to contemplate images in terms of their meaning and relationship to your own circumstances can be beneficial on various levels.

When you read cards, you take time out to reflect on your personal questions (or help others reflect on their questions). You use images assembled in a random, acausal, synchronistic way to contemplate imaginary solutions and outcomes to the questions. This process ultimately helps you find meaning that’s personally relevant.

Does this mean we’re “contacting higher worlds” when we read cards? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Much about how you answer probably depends on how you define higher worlds. But, just as with the questions posed about St. Expedite in my recent post, I’d venture to ask something else: if the results are personally relevant and useful – does it really matter? 

The practice itself holds inherent worth and value in terms of spiritual development, simply because it’s a conscious act of self-reflection and digging deep for personal meaning.

Spiritual training and contemplation

Spiritual training can be defined in many different ways. What I think is inherently important in spiritual practices is that they provide a sense of meaning and purpose, a feeling that we aren’t in control but rather are part of a larger whole with which we co-create. Call it what you will.

How can the act of quiet contemplation through tarot and divination help us deepen our spirituality?

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Here, the Magus stands between two opposing situations: the flow of the wheel, where the people have little control over where they find themselves and the only certainty is constant change, and the brute force of the woman opening the lion’s mouth, making it submit to her will with her physical power and determination. And yet, the magician continues to look at the wheel. Who turns the red crank? Who is ultimately the creator?

The act of quiet contemplation through tarot and divination helps us deepen our spirituality by helping us to remember that all of life is in constant motion and change—we are all riding along on the wheel that turns, but asking who or what makes it turn prompts questions of a deeper spiritual and existential nature.

The act of contemplation reminds us that we can adapt to and work with our current circumstances and position, but where we find ourselves at any given point in time is only partially within our own control. The act of contemplation also reminds us that we are not isolated pieces but rather parts of an integrated whole that move together.

Who is the creator and what is created? Is it magic, conjure, a trick? Or is it that the creator is watching over us all as we take our turns on the wheel?

Sight cards

My friend and colleague Isabel uses a technique that I’ve adopted, called sight cards. When a line of cards has a figure looking towards something, we take the next face-down card from the shuffled deck to represent what that figure is looking at.

Here, I first drew a sight card to see what the woman in Force was looking at.

Then, I noticed the little crowned man on the Wheel is also looking in the opposite direction. So we expand our answer with two more cards, both of which close the sequence because they both look out directly at us:

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Force looks at Le Diable, reminding me of the phrase a very wise man once taught me: “that which we try to control will ultimately control us.”

The crowned king on the Wheel looks at Lemperatrise: we let go, we roll with the motion of life itself, and in so doing, we become the master of our own destiny.

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