Spirituality and the Tarot

“Spiritual” use of the tarot is a subject I haven’t revisited often enough in my writing since I moved into “action-and-event-oriented” divination a few years ago. My own approach to spirituality is filtered through my long exposure to esoteric studies and practice; it’s about as far away from orthodoxy as one can get and also beyond the ken of all but a few of my card-reading compatriots. I know that some people use the cards for meditation, and others to facilitate contact with Higher Consciousness in whatever form they envision it. There are some who insist that the intuitive insight gained from reading the tarot originates in the “Divine Mind,” and they harbor no doubt about its veracity. Then there are those who maintain that the “channeled” information we receive through the psychic act of reading is simply a function of the pervasive universal intelligence that anyone can tap into on behalf of anyone else, paving the way for the “remote” reading that is now ubiquitous in the tarot world. Finally, reliance on “Spirit Guides” to keep one on track and moving along the right paths is a course many have chosen (to me it smacks too much of the kind of self-hypnosis that Norman Vicent Peale once promoted). Outside of tarot, a minority have turned to Wicca, Druidry and other alternative ritual practices for their spiritual sustenance. The Law of Attraction (more self-hypnosis) fits into all of this somewhere too, although I don’t believe the Universe works that way to the extent claimed by its proponents. I’m basically a “cause and effect” guy; we act and the Cosmos reacts according to its laws, we can’t just “wish our way” into its good graces, although we can certainly position ourselves to take maximum advantage of its bounty if and when we manage to precipitate it through our “right action.”

These multifarious pursuits leave the distinct impression of gnawing discontent: so many seekers are casting about for a sympathetic model of spirituality they can place their faith in since religious dogma and its patriarchal purveyors have failed to convince them of the value of traditional worship (a word I’ve always felt to be tainted by the assumed abdication of one’s responsibility for making personal choices in matters of the spirit). I see very little of the vaunted priestly gravity and humility in the posture of the modern Catholic Church; outside of the obscenely wealthy Vatican they’re scuffling for a buck just like everyone else – it is a business and I understand it’s losing “customers” – in order to stay afloat and will strain their credibility to the extent necessary by “posing” to keep the faithful in the fold (it sounds like “witchdoctoring” to me – “take two affirmations and call me in the morning”).

There is an argument that the human psyche needs some form of extra-personal mentoring to serve as a moral compass and guidance system, without which it will wander into error; apart from religion, there are civil laws, social mores and other peer-group conventions to fill the perceived void. Back in the ’60s we used to call that a “cop-out.” The psychological use of the tarot goes hand-in-hand with its spiritual potential to dispel the myth of dependency on the conceit of a “Father knows best” hierarchy of superior wisdom. Tarot puts the Pope/Hierophant (the Post-Modern Tarot aptly titles this card “Mr. Religion”) in his place, well back in the early stages of individuation that are soon superseded as one gains philosophical traction and a sense of orientation in the metaphysical landscape. Seeking this type of empowerment is one of the nobler uses for the cards.

Just a few thoughts on the psychic delivery of uplifting messages from “on high” (what I’m going to say here will be heresy to the “woo-woo” faction of tarot enthusiasts). The Western esoteric theory of the Universe describes it as comprised of tiered “planes of existence” (increasingly palpable “worlds”) that emanate from the exquisitely rarefied sphere of supernal intelligence (the presumed “Mind of God”) and terminate in the concrete realm of the five senses. The next-to-last descending layer that borders our mundane, day-to-day reality is dubbed the “Astral Plane” and is often symbolically associated with imaginative flights of fancy and the mystical, illusory light of the Moon. (Unsavory things can happen under the lunar rays that won’t withstand the light of day.)

Those unfortunates who dabbled with the Ouija board back in the mid-20th Century and let their mental guard down learned to their lasting regret that the Lower Astral can be a dangerous place to enter. It has been postulated by occultists that the Astral Plane is home to a host of disembodied entities (not necessarily the “shades of the departed,” although those can fetch up there too); these denizens are fully autonomous, semi-sentient beings (some of whom are characterized as the “elemental spirits” of Greek philosophy) whose temperament may be inimical (or at least indifferent) to that of ordinary humanity, and who won’t balk at leading unprepared visitors astray just for their own perverse pleasure.

My point is that naive confidence in the good intentions of any “Spirit Guide” encountered in this dusky environment can be steeped in self-deception (and don’t fool yourself into thinking it can be skipped; that’s where the doorway to the loftier spiritual firmament lies). When pursuing these associations, it’s crucial to maintain one’s sense of perspective (along with a healthy dose of skepticism) and above all don’t impulsively swallow any seductive enticements; after all, they may only be projections of our own subconscious, which suggests a psychological vulnerability more closely resembling “the blind leading the blind” than an enlightened source of guidance.

Finally, I should weigh in on the placement of “Spirit” within the panoply of classical elements attributed to the tarot cards: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Because there is no assigned slot for Spirit, some metaphysical thinkers have proposed a fifth element named “Aether” (echoing the “etheric fluid” that the ancients ascribed to sublunar space). This has a lot to recommend it, but in common practice Spirit has been subordinated to the element of Fire. A few modern deck creators – if they don’t simply add a fifth minor suit or find Spirit in the Major Arcana – have swapped in Air for Fire as its elemental vehicle, apparently under the assumption that Air more accurately conveys the essential nature of Spirit since it is completely transparent and intangible, while Fire is usually visible and acts aggressively in and on the world of form. The point I think they’re missing is that the “Fire of Spirit” is not your typical campfire but the “spark of inspiration,” an expression of the Higher Mind completely above and beyond physical limitations, while the air we take into our lungs interacts with the body at the molecular level (setting aside Hindu suppositions about the numinous properties of the breath [the all-penetrating prana that reminds me of Spinoza’s “imminence”]). The idea of a “fiery” domain of Spirit makes more sense to me than revisionist assertions of a “pneumatic” one.

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