Tarot as “Projection”

There is a common belief among those who dismiss tarot reading as a naive exercise in self-deception that the results are merely a fanciful “projection” of the seeker’s fondest dreams or deepest fears, and that the agency of the cards cannot reliably come up with unbiased testimony about future circumstances. In my opinion, this argument is not entirely without merit, at least at a functional level, since I think tarot “works” as a form of subconscious induction, in which the subliminal awareness that the seeker imparts during the shuffle emerges in the form of a personalized prediction with the capable assistance of a seasoned reader. The “magic” isn’t in the cards themselves or even in the skills of the reader, but in the presentiments and premonitions of the enquirer that articulate their latent foreknowledge through the individual’s manipulation of the deck. The cards simply provide an impressionistic mode of “visual shorthand” for capturing these fugitive visions with sensitivity and precision.

But – and it’s a big “but” – I also think it cuts much deeper than mere hopes and fears. It comes down to the extent the sitter is psychically connected to extra-personal channels of universal knowledge, by whatever term we choose to describe those sources (“Collective Unconscious” is one modern favorite, although there are several others). It also presumes that the intentions and aspirations behind the reading are above reproach (e.g. not just idle curiosity or wishful malice) and are, in Aleister Crowley’s words, “delivered from the lust of result” as a conscious objective The more we want something without actively striving for it, the less likely we may be to get it in the way anticipated, Law of Attraction notwithstanding. A reading may offer insights into how to achieve our goals, but it seldom drops the rewards directly into our lap with no further effort. The annals of tarot are rife with instances where a reading promised and often delivered something else entirely. Rather than faithfully presaging reality, the projection comes “through a glass, darkly” and the reader’s job is to render it with as much clarity as possible. The seeker’s obligation is to act opportunely on the wisdom received to either attain a favorable outcome or avoid an unfavorable one.

There is certainly room in the concept for the notion that “we create our own reality” through directed intent and force of Will. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (now discredited as a “self-hypnosis” manual), might well have titled his book The Power of Projection. But in tarot reading it’s probably more honest and in line with the nature of the art to project “what is likely to happen” rather than “what we want to happen.” My understanding is that Buddha’s maxim “We become what we think” was misquoted by Western interpreters, and it strikes me that the “create your own reality” paradigm is a byproduct of thought and not the centerpiece of the philosophical process. Then there is the related caveat “Be careful what you wish for.” Divination can be misused as a form of “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which recipients only hear what they want to hear and then proceed to misapply the advice given in ways that are completely subjective; in other words, they do what they were going to do anyway no matter what the cards say.

Regarding projection in a more psychological sense, one definition states that it occurs when one person tends to shift the ownership of unseemly feelings, emotions and desires onto the shoulders of another person. (“It wasn’t my fault, it was Fred’s idea!”) It’s considered a defense mechanism that individuals employ to deal with their own perceived culpability and negative self-image. We imprint our less honorable motives and any suppressed character flaws they suggest onto the imputed conduct of these people and then relate to them as if they embrace those motives as their own while they are instead unconsciously “acting out” our personal sense of inadequacy or inferiority. I think of it as “pinning the blame,” and it’s something we often do to other people whom we choose to view as embodying particular qualities even though there is no hard evidence for it. Thus we can conveniently pigeon-hole them in our belief system.

This might be considered a perverse manifestation of “group-think” in which we self-righteously disassociate ourselves from mindless herd responses while at the same time accentuating their existence through our focused attention (we accord them the authority of recognition). Although we would never consciously acknowledge it, if we convince ourselves that our less-reputable herd-mates are “bad actors” who would do the things we might like to do but are afraid to, we treat them in ways we would subconsciously expect to be treated ourselves if the roles were reversed. In social terms, projection is close kin to presumption and its cousin, assumption. We see what we want to see and then react as if it’s the whole truth. The clever cliche is that the folksy etymology of the word “assume” devolves into “makes an ass of you and me,” but unless we’re called out on this kind of cynical transference of guilt we can get away with it for years, as the numerous long-term dysfunctional marriages amply illustrate.

If we approach the tarot as potentially “opening a window” on the querent’s deepest and darkest mental/emotional complexes through their projection onto the cards drawn for a reading (even when the original purpose of the reading was nothing of the sort), we can begin to unravel what those buried implications portend for the overt answers received. The trick for the reader is to insert such observations into the overall narrative with delicacy and empathy since they could very well signify extremely sensitive issues for the seeker, highlighting vulnerabilities they had no advance warning were going to surface. We as ad-hoc advisors and counselors may not be trained (or more importantly, licensed) psychotherapists, but we must still comport ourselves with professional integrity in a “life-coaching” capacity. That said, I admit I’m not much of an apologist for the “human condition” since I can’t (and won’t pretend to) affirm that we as a species are as spiritually evolved as we pride ourselves on being; at least in the United States, the proliferation of enthusiastic “beer-drinkin,’ hell-raisin'” social events makes that abundantly clear. So “hitting below the belt” is tempting (at least in a public essay) and more philosophically satisfying than it should be. But I refrain from doing so in a personal setting where a client’s questionably resilient ego is exposed to scrutiny and their internally projected self-realization and individual fulfillment are foremost on the agenda. Without encouraging unrealistic expectations, I go as far down that road as the cards will support.

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