Trusting an Oracle: Tarot’s Ability to Heal
January 10, 2013
This article was written as a proposal for one of my courses, so its tone is academic. Enjoy!
About three years ago, I was introduced to a young woman, here fictionally named Merida, for a Tarot reading. A friend of mine had met Merida at work, and by listening to her troubles had decided a reading would do her good. Since Merida was a friend of a friend, it felt right to give the reading informally and for free. This ended up being a good choice, since Merida was young and poor, and would never have considered consulting a professional of any kind for help, let alone be able to afford such help. We ended up becoming friends and having several readings over the year, where I found her troubles to be surprisingly difficult and complex. Over the time we met, she realized a lot about her circumstances and made many brave choices to improve her life.
It is this relationship which forms the basis of this proposal. It is common sense, now supported also by research that people can help one another profoundly by being simply available to listen with a sympathetic and honest ear. Amateur counseling using folk therapies – Tarot in particular – can empower each of us to offer intuitive, profound advice in response to even some of life’s most puzzling questions. The surprising part is just how helpful we can be, how a common person uneducated in formal counseling performs as well as the professional in many cases, and why this suggests that we have more confidence in our own intuition and ability to help one another than we think. We will explore this idea through examining Merida’s story, examining along the way the elements which made this particular story a success.
Merida: A Case Study
Merida was an 18 year old who was working a full time job and was living with her long term boyfriend, who we’ll call Cory. Cory was wealthy enough to support her in a variety of ways, the primary of which being that she lived with him. Merida’s family had grown accustomed to her staying with Cory for about a year, and had since moved to a home which didn’t have enough room for Merida to return to without sharing space with her brother and sister. Cory was verbally berating Merida constantly, and often leveraged the fact that Merida had nowhere else to go to treat her however he felt, usually dismissively and cruelly. Cory would go through cycles of treating her badly and then apologizing, putting Merida through a roller coaster of doubt and anxiety about her relationship, her self-worth, and her future circumstances. That Merida’s parents supported the situation out of logistical convenience to the family only scratches the surface of a complex system of psychological entrapment and denigration she was undergoing at the time. One of the things she was sorely lacking were good friends outside of the situation to talk to.
Connected Isolation: A Modern Problem
Popular science literature regularly comes out with articles to remind us about how isolated and disconnected people are despite the proliferation of cell phones and social media. In one such article published on Science Daily’s website in 2006, The average amount of people the average American regularly confides in has dropped from about 3 to 2 over the last 30 years. The most interesting part of these articles is that 25 percent of respondents report having not a single person they confide in. That means nobody at all to reliably depend on when the going gets tough, and definitely suggests a bleak social landscape where many people are simply never opening up about their problems with one another (“Americans’ Circle”).
In 1999, Psychology Today published an article named “The Hug Drug”, which briefly articulated how female sufferers of depression were assigned volunteer non-therapist ‘befrienders’ for a period of about a year. The befriender’s purpose was to be a confidant to the depressed participant during the year through regular, informal coffee dates and outings. The results of the study showed that the sufferers experienced a dramatic remission of their depression compared to the control group, and in fact were comparable to the remission rates achieved by anti-depressants and cognitive therapy. Though not explicitly mentioned, it is implied that the befrienders were not trained as therapists but still served as amateur counselors, listening and giving advice from their personal experience and intuition. The study makes clear that simply being able to reliably confide in someone explicitly about our problems makes an enormous difference in our personal mental health. But depression isn’t the same thing as fear and anxiety, and our personal problems might go far past the scope of experience of the people we might confide in. This is where Tarot becomes an effective tool to empower people to critically examine their lives in a systematic and useful way.
In Tarot and Psychology, Arthur Rosengarten regards Tarot as a “powerful tool and method for psychological exploration” (17). Indeed, throughout his book Rosengarten explains how Tarot is pertinent to therapy as a way to access human creativity during a therapeutic encounter, appealing to what he calls “empowered randomness” (14). He goes on to explain how Tarot’s game like quality is in line with many psychotherapeutic techniques ranging from sandtray therapy and role-playing exercises to diagnostic tests and puzzles to invigorate problem solving and creativity while also giving the client an opportunity for self-expression. In my own reading practice, I often characterize the game-like quality of Tarot as something like a brain-storming session, demanding artistry and imagination on the part of both the reader and the client to interpret the pictures and draw meaning from them. When done collaboratively, many insightful and relevant components of the client’s experience may come to bear.
As the Tarot readings progressed, more and more details of Merida’s sense of entrapment unfolded. She didn’t believe in formal therapy, since her mother – whom she did not trust – was a practicing psychologist. She honestly experienced love and commitment towards her partner Cory, despite his pernicious attacks on her self-esteem. She couldn’t distance herself from her parents socially, since she acted as a second mother to her two younger siblings, and was committed to being a positive presence in their lives. She had never laid out all this information at the same time before the Tarot readings. Seeing her life from the top down like this gave her a sense of empowerment to change her circumstances. Together we discussed and mapped out her situation, and created plans to confront her problems proactively.
Tarot can be used simultaneously as a psychological map, a reflector for present circumstances, and as a projective tool to navigate our choices about the future. Without these techniques, it is possible that the conversations may’ve been less salient for Merida, and doubtlessly Tarot contributed to the breadth and depth of the advice and insight she received. Merida found a confidant, someone who cared that her life improved and moved in the direction she wanted. The role Tarot played was to enhance the quality of that helping relationship, and to provide a layer of uncertain and engaging exploration through the empowered randomness inherent in a reading. The key to this story is not that Tarot was used in particular, or that the readings were done in a particular way, but without some kind of tool or strategy to investigating more difficult questions it can be difficult to know what to say or what to do. Folk therapies like Tarot, astrology, and i-ching bring with them a sense of mystery and authority, in my experience opening people up to thinking about new possibilities and more seriously considering advice.
It is now three years later, and Merida is the assistant manager of a high-end retail shop. She is the legal guardian of her two siblings, and lives independently of her parents. While she has had several relationships since Cory, she decided to spend some time single to sort herself out, support her brother and sister through school, and has even considered attending art school or college. While our Tarot readings can’t be attributed her success over her own hard work and determination, Merida remembers our relationship at that time of her life as therapeutic and empowering. Without it, she may not have been moved to make some important changes for some time, perhaps too late to provide for her siblings what her parents never successfully provided to her: A stable and supportive home life while growing up.
Amateur Counseling and Tarot
In my reading experience, most Tarot readings are isolated events. Of those who do get regular readings, one reading every year is far more typical than readings once a month. That said, I’ve had several people over the years with whom I have had the opportunity to be consistently there for, giving Tarot readings adjunct to personal conversations about our lives, worries, and triumphs. These connections are sometimes formal, where they are the client and I remain the reader, but often they come about outside in the form of friendships which are focused on meeting one another occasionally to share and advise about our lives. Indeed, Merida listened and helped me in many ways during our conversations, and the reciprocity gave strength to our connection.
One challenge in developing our friendships in this ways is that being confronted with real problems can be intimidating. Merida’s friends at the time we first met may’ve been worried her problems were too severe or complicated for them to responsibly handle, and maybe that she needed the help of a professional – not that most people would be comfortable saying that. Even more isolating, her friends may’ve felt that the situation was hopeless and chose to ignore it. With Tarot cards in my hands, I felt capable of helping her, and had reason to believe she could change things for the better. I am an experienced Tarot reader, but I’m not trained as any kind of formal therapist or counselor. If I can do this, I firmly believe anybody can.
Tarot reading is a readily accessible method for empowering people to counsel and support one another across all kinds of difficult life circumstances. From examining Merida’s case, it is clear that a non-therapist can offer tangible help simply by being available and actively believing in the other person’s ability to have the life they want. Through Tarot, this discourse is made more proactive through use of a device to help investigate causes and creatively develop solutions.
What about Psychology and Psychiatry?
It is important to mention that professional psychologists and psychiatrists are usually available for people in difficult or confining circumstances. Unfortunately, therapy is expensive – sessions can easily cost hundreds of dollars an hour – and seeing a therapist is often stigmatized, and many people are resistant to formal counseling for a variety of personal and social reasons. People don’t really want to have a therapist, and a thoughtful friend, mentor, or a tarot reader might be the closest they would ever get. Often people are simply in need of someone to openly talk to, and research consistently shows that the quality of relationship to the counselor – rather than the type of therapy or even experience and level of training of the counselor – is a deciding factor of effectiveness of psychotherapy. There is even evidence to show that some new therapists outclass their better educated peers from the perspective of their clients (Mulhauser). What this all is pointing to is the very real possibility that in situations where a psychotherapist is a suitable choice for treatment, the human relationship is much more important to getting help from another person than actually seeing a psychotherapist. Still, therapists have role authority we don’t always give those we may confide in. We respect their authority, and tend to seriously consider their advice.
Therapists are trained in identifying some kind of rationale or story around our problems and suggesting ways to solve it. The power of the therapy is influenced by how much the therapist believes in their understanding of the problem, and how much the client trusts the therapist (Seligman). For those readers familiar with Tarot, you will probably recognize this process no matter what your style of Tarot reading. The cards provide vital clues to investigating the nature of the question you are seeking an answer to, and then they provide solutions to the problem, often both intrinsically in the card’s own imagery and extrinsically by other cards in a spread. This is the mechanism by which Tarot can help a trusted friend and sympathetic ear to give real and practical help, by automatically guiding even a novice reader through an intuitive process of identifying and resolving problems.
Even without prior knowledge of Tarot, picking up a deck or drawing cards online can prompt thoughtful brainstorming. One can also practice common sense techniques useful in interpersonal communication like acceptance, active listening, showing concern and offering advice from one’s own experience (“The Non-Professional Counselor”). Taking it a step further, using Tarot to inspire intuition and add that extra layer of profundity is easier than ever. The web is full of resources and most bookstores carry a selection of available decks and books to make learning Tarot’s symbols and techniques easy. Tarot is a rewarding path of study, both to improve interpersonal communication and to approach self-development.
Of course, there are some important considerations. Being available as a confidant is different than being in a professional helping relationship. Acute mental conditions may demand the specialized knowledge and clear boundaries of professional treatment. The point here is not to try and replace professionals, but to be of help where those professionals can’t be, and seeing ourselves as capable of providing real support to one another.
In our strange culture of simultaneous connection and isolation, learning to listen and actively supporting one another in creative ways builds increasingly healthy and resilient communities. Tarot is uniquely situated to help one another: It is a folk therapy which requires no expensive degrees or special certifications. Tarot enjoys a mystique, a library of fascinating symbols and visual imagery which immediately engages the viewer and invites interpretation and discussion. Professional techniques like cognitive therapy and psychiatry have their time and place, but for most of our problems believing that we need such help – or actively avoiding it – may be a barrier which distract us from our best resource for well-being and helpful advice: each other. We can think of the people we know who may be isolated and struggling, and imagine how to ask them questions about their life. As long as we’re brave enough to listen, they might just be brave enough to answer.