Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic
by Inna Semetsky
This book originated as an action-research project conducted between 1992 and 1994 under the auspices of the Californian Behavioral Board Science Examiners when I was a postgraduate student enrolled in the Masters of Arts degree program in the area of Marriage, Family and Child Counseling and Human Development at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. Unbeknown to me at the time, my study was to be a type of research analogous to what Jungian scholar Robert Romanyshyn will have called more than a decade later “research with soul in mind” (Romanyshyn, 2007). Yet back then in 1992 I was not only ten years away from the subject matter of my future doctorate in the area of philosophy of education and cultural studies, but also quite undecided on the topic of my Masters thesis that was eventually to be called “Introduction of Tarot readings into clinical psychotherapy: a naturalistic inquiry”.
Interestingly enough, and once again in accordance with Romanyshyn’s imaginal approach, my topic was about to choose me rather than the other way around! Referring to the imaginal, Romanyshyn emphasizes the role of this “third” dimension between the senses and the intellect as enabling an embodied way of being in the world within the context of complex mind reaching into the whole of nature. It was Henry Corbin who coined the imaginal world – Mundus Imaginalis or mundus archetypus, the archetypal world – as a distinct order of reality corresponding to a distinct mode of perception in contrast to purely imaginary as the unreal or just utopian. Yet, it is our cognitive function enriched with imagination that provides access to the imaginal world with a rigor of knowledge specified as knowing by analogy.
The method of analogy that mystics around the world have practiced for centuries defies the privileged role allotted to the conscious subject that observes the surrounding world of objects – from which he is forever detached – with the cool “scientific” gaze of an independent spectator so as to obtain a certain and indubitable knowledge, or episteme.
Mystics and poets (from whom Plato used to withhold academic status) historically played a participatory, embodied role in the relational network that forms an interdependent holistic fabric with the world thus overcoming the separation between subject and object. This dualistic split has been haunting us since the time of Descartes, confining us to what Corbin calls the “banal dualism” of matter versus spirit. As for the “socialization” of consciousness, it pretends to resolve the dilemma by making, according to Corbin, a fatal choice: either myth or historical reality. Either facts or fiction! This book avoids the binary fatality of either/or choice: we will see in Chapter 3 that Tarot renders itself to explication in both mythical and real historic, cultural, terms.
The sociological dimension is significant: Philip Wexler (1996, 2000, 2008), pointing out the current importance of religion and spirituality for socio-cultural life, ascribed the status of symbolic movement to sociology of education that aims to bring spirituality to secular, long-disenchanted and alienated, contexts so as to satisfy their hunger for meaning.
Wexler emphasizes an approach from within long-standing religious tradition and focuses specifically on Jewish mysticism. He calls for the “broad-scale revitalization…of the culture of modernity, a re-articulation of ancient religious traditions, and…the anti-institutional, but religiously-oriented movements of everyday life that we often referred to as instances and heralds of a ‘new age’” (Wexler, 2008, p. 9).
I share with Wexler his conviction that our present postmodern age calls for revision of the pre-modern traditions of theory, interpretation and understanding and especially in terms of following “the new age…tendency [by means of] opening the reservoir of the cultural resources of traditional, religious understanding… [in] mystical, experiential and spiritual aspects: from Hinduism, Tantra; from Islam, Sufism; from Christianity, mysticism; from Judaism, Kabbalah and Hasidism” (Wexler, 2008, p. 10).
This book will not only have added Tarot as a spiritual, both metaphysical and practical, system to Wexler’s list of multicultural traditions but will focus specifically on Tarot hermeneutic or on the art of, using the term from popular culture, Tarot readings. Etymologically, the Greek words hermeneuein and hermeneia for interpreting and interpretation are related to the mythic god Hermes, a messenger and mediator between gods and mortals, who crosses the thresholds and traverses the boundaries because he can “speak” and understand both “languages”, the divine and the human, even if they appear totally alien to each other.
As a practical method, Tarot hermeneutic allows us to relate to something essentially other but nevertheless understandable, knowable and, ultimately, known. The relation thus established between the generic “Self ” and “Other” in our real practical life is significant and has both epistemological and ontological implications. The dimension of the foremost importance is however ethical, considering that we live in a time of the multiculturalism and globalization when different values appear incommensurable and continuously compete, conflict, and clash!
In our current global climate permeated by diverse beliefs, disparate values, and cultural conflicts, understanding ourselves and others and learning to share each other’s values is paramount for the survival of our species. This requires an expansion of our consciousness using all available means, including the knowledge of the symbolic language of Tarot pictures that are worth more, as the saying goes, than many thousands of words. Classical Russian author Ivan Turgenev pointed out that a picture shows at a glance what it can take dozens of pages of a book to expound. Without making grand metaphysical claims concerning Tarot, this book will focus on its practical side as comprising my empirical research data. Yet, important theoretical stepping stones will be laid down through chapter 1 to chapter 7 to ground the empirical data that will be presented in minute detail in chapter 8. Chapter 8 will comprise the fifteen actual Tarot readings that have been documented as constituting the core of my research and published with the written consent of all participants.
So, coming back to 1992, I remember the day when I took the November- December issue of The California Therapist out of my mailbox and my eyes fell on the letter to the editor. The author of the letter was interested in learning of other professionals who were encountering in their practice people who were more interested in learning about their past lives and going to psychics, as the author put it, rather than discussing their parents and more recent childhood. The author felt that she and other therapists working with quite a number of “new age” clients needed more publicity.
When I read the letter written by a qualified mental health professional and published in a respected professional periodical, my first feeling was that of belonging. Wow! I am not alone in my pursuits! At that stage, being a postgraduate student, I did not widely publicize the fact that I was a Tarot reader. Yet the very fact of being a reader is what originally motivated me to want to become a professional counselor and to invest my time, money, mind and soul into the intensive research culminating in the book you are now reading.
Many years ago, eager to listen to anyone who would have provided any guidance to me in my seemingly vicious circle of then current life-tasks, problems and issues, I turned to readers. Nothing seemed to help, and I found myself going from crisis to crisis and losing the thread of connection with not only the external world but myself as well. Moving from one counseling room to another, I did not feel understood, and more and more doubts about my own integrity started to occupy my mind, further contributing to the loss of that connection, that fragile link, which enables one to know oneself.
It was the ancient “Know Thyself ” maxim that was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi and, as philosopher of education Nel Noddings (2006) reminds us, still remains the necessary, even if often disregarded, goal of education. It was the quest for meanings and evaluation of life-experience – an examined versus unexamined life – that Socrates was calling for.
Noddings is adamant about the importance of self-knowledge as the very core of education: “when we claim to educate, we must take Socrates seriously. Unexamined lives may well be valuable and worth living, but an education that does not invite such examination may not be worthy of the label education” (Noddings, 2006, p. 10, italics in original). Still more often than not education is equated with formal schooling (for children) or perpetual training (for adults) thus a priori marginalizing the realm of lifelong human development and experiential learning situated amidst real-life situations.
For me, such an informal – or, rather, post-formal (Steinberg, Kincheloe, and Hinchey, 1999) – education grounded in an existing cultural practice began when, on the verge of despair, I found myself sitting opposite a man who was a genuine Tarot reader. It was his reading that precipitated a catharsis: something that subconsciously I did not want to know or accept, that was repressed and stored away in my unconscious mind and thus not dealt with, was brought to my awareness, then explored and discussed by my reader and me, becoming in this process a meaningful reality.
I left that reading session fully aware that I had to deal with the emergent information as this new knowledge was me, my selfhood that so far has been denied, displaced, or sublimated. This process of informal guidance by means of a Tarot reading, that transgressed the boundaries between education and therapy, facilitated a process of development and personal transformation. This developmental, at once healing and learning, process is still going on, and in this quest I was and still am accompanied by the wonderful world of Tarot: I became a reader, in the parlance of popular culture. Or, in terms of academic discourse, a “bilingual interpreter” who can translate the “language” of the unconscious, projected in the array of Tarot pictures (chapter 7), into verbal expressions; and I consider this one of the richest and most liberating experiences a person can have in life.
The word education derives from Latin educare that means to lead out as well as to bring out something that is within. The word therapy derives from the Greek therapeia in terms of human service to those who need it. Education and counseling alike involve either implicit or explicit inquiry into the nature of the self and selfother relations. Carol Witherell notices that, ideally, each professional activity “furthers another’s capacity to find meaning and integrity” (1991, p. 84) in lived experience. Importantly both practices are “designed to change or guide human lives” (Witherell, 1991, p. 84).
In the area of human development, which is the focus of this book, the rigid boundaries between those apparently separate, in the contemporary context, disciplines of education and therapy become blurred: both are oriented to creating meanings for our experience that includes the realm of the yet unknown and unconscious. The role of unconscious learning has been systematically addressed by the Australian higher educator Marian de Sousa (2008, 2009) especially as a means for focusing on emotional and spiritual intelligence grounded in “the processes of feeling and intuiting” (de Souza, 2009, p. 681) in the combined context of education and mental health.
Tarot hermeneutic provides an unorthodox epistemic access to the realm of the unconscious analogous to Carl Gustav Jung’s analytical or depth psychology, to be addressed in chapter 2, when the effects of the archetypal dynamics comprising the field of the collective unconscious – a theoretical construct posited by Jung – is analyzed in practice. Jung’s biographer Laurens van der Post, in his introduction to Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and Tarot: An archetypal journey notices her contribution to analytical psychology by virtue of the “profound investigation of Tarot, and her illuminated exegesis of its pattern as an authentic attempt at enlargement of possibilities of human perceptions” (in Nichols, 1980, p. xv).
Contemporary post-Jungian scholar Andrew Samuels mentions “systems such as that of the I Ching, Tarot and astrology” (Samuels, 1985, p. 123) as possible even if questionable resources in analytical psychology, and quotes Jung who wrote in 1945: “I found the I Ching very interesting…I have not used it for more than two years now, feeling that one must learn to walk in the dark, or try to discover (as when one is learning to swim) whether the water will carry one” (p. 123). Irene Gad connected Tarot pictures with the stages of human development in the context of Kabbalistic teachings and alongside the Jungian process of individuation towards becoming authentic selves. She considered their archetypal images “to be…trigger symbols, appearing and disappearing throughout history in times of transition and need” (1994, p. xxxiv). Such historical and socio-cultural value of Tarot hermeneutic in the context of collective – not solely individual, but social – consciousness will be addressed in Chapter 9.
This book will demonstrate that Tarot, as an existing, albeit marginal, cultural practice traditionally located at the “low” end of popular culture, plays a significant role in the process of self-formation or construction of human subjectivity, thus becoming a means for the re-symbolization of the Self. Philip Wexler introduced the concept “resymbolization” as focused on the “collective symbolic or cultural work” (1996, p. 115; italics in original) constituting a process of cultural, societal change due to the reinterpretation of human subjectivity as grounded in “the interactive dynamics of relationality” (Wexler, 1996, p. 115) especially as it pertains to Jewish mystical teachings, Kabbalah, which is literally translated as Tradition. It is a relation as ontologically basic (versus an isolated and self-centered moral agent) that is also central to Nel Noddings’ ethics of care in education.
Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber, whose concepts were instrumental for Noddings, referred to the “wordless depths [when we] experience an undivided unity” (1971, p. 24; brackets mine) between the two people at the soul-level in the form of the famous I-Thou relation. These depths are filled not with words but with images, and the task of this book is to elucidate the images, to articulate them, to appreciate their role in the re-symbolization of the relational Self at both individual and collective levels.
For Buber, it is the lived world that engenders the personality of a particular individual. It is the world comprising the whole environment, both natural and social, that “‘educates’ the human being: it draws out his powers and makes him grasp and penetrate its objections” (Buber, 1971, p. 89). Buber deliberately puts the word educate in quotation marks to distinguish his new mode of the relational, shared, erotic educational experience from the old one-sided model based on the will to power and authority that neglects “experiencing the other side” (p. 96). It is the integrative dynamics between self and other, between consciousness and the unconscious, between I and Thou that constitutes an element of inclusion comprising education in which educator “is set in the midst of the service” (p. 103).
A relational, integrative approach is also a formidable Zeitgest in the area of another human service profession, that of psychological counseling and therapy (Corey, 1991). In the early ‘90s, Corey has been already advocating an integrative perspective taking into consideration therapists’ willingness to look into the expansion of their own outlook and into possibility of widening the range of techniques to accommodate a diverse population. Including rapprochement, convergence, and integration in the psychotherapeutic Zeitgeist, Corey envisaged that the current “Zeitgeist…will continue with this trend toward convergence and integration and that there will also be an increased emphasis on a spiritual perspective” (p. 429).
Michael Murphy (1993) also called for the integral practices that encompass a wide variety of domains in human nature in a comprehensive way; including somatic, affective, cognitive, volitional and, importantly, transpersonal dimensions. Edward Whitmont (1985), in the context of post-Jungian practices of psychotherapy, pointed out that solely verbal or reflective methods may not be sufficient. Acknowledging the limitations of just “talking therapy”, he emphasized that the development of psychic awareness achieved a new quality in terms of a novel relation to spiritual meaning. Whitmont pointed out a new developmental phase in the evolution of consciousness that demands a broader scope of awareness encompassing but not reducible to intellect alone.
Understanding that human consciousness undergoes evolution, growth, and expansion is an important premise in the present approaches to education for spirituality, care and wellbeing (De Souza, M., Francis, L., O’Higgins-Norman, J., and D. Scott, 2009; Gidley, 2009). Jean Gebser, a French polymath, referred to the evolution of human consciousness in terms of its intensification by means of progressively going though the archaic, mythic, magic, and mental structures to be finally superseded by the integral consciousness, which will have incorporated a spiritual dimension. Gebser pointed out that mythical bards like Homer are represented as being blind because their task was not to observe the visible world with the organ of sight, the eye, but to use insight, “a sight turned inward to contemplate the inner images of the soul” (Gebser, 1991, p. 271). It is an insight into the meanings of Tarot images, as this book will demonstrate, that leads to intensification, expansion, and re-symbolization of consciousness.
Another memory comes to mind. It is summer of 1993. I am busy working in my clinical internship in West Hollywood. The client population in the area, and accordingly in the agency I am working for, consists of mostly gay men. I am having a counseling session with “John”, in his thirties, and HIV positive. We are discussing his outbursts of sudden anger in the relationship with his live-in boyfriend, when abruptly John switches the issue: “I saw my spiritual guru yesterday,” he says. “She said she didn’t see a speck of death in me.”
The impact of that phrase on me, and the timing of it, was like a turning point. It brought a paradigm shift in my professional relationship with John. The session became illuminated by what was of paramount importance, significance and value in John’s painful and uncertain internal world. It redistributed the weights of issues he was overwhelmed with. It indicated that John was reaching out to whoever could understand his hopes and fears, acknowledge them, reflect back and help him in working through his problems. It happened to be his spiritual guru who cared about him and was able to provide him with the necessary reassurance.
This emotional desire as “the longing to be cared for…is manifested as a need for love, physical care, respect or mere recognition – [and] is the fundamental starting point for the ethics of care” (Noddings, 1998, p. 188). Such was John’s internal subjective reality – and this reality was addressed and mirrored in his spiritual quest. I began to wonder about the ambiguity of my professional role in this situation: what response or intervention could I, in my capacity as a counselor, provide in agreement with the framework of the behavioral-cognitive approach advocated by the agency I was working for?
What could one do within the limitations of a solely cognitive orientation aiming to behavior modification for this particular person whose initial assessment, according to his intake form, indicated an early stage of dementia? Desperate and overwhelmed by the turn of events in his personal experience, he turned to somebody outside this formal counseling room, to somebody he perceived as a spiritual guru. My immediate feeling was: if only I could introduce into our counseling sessions a spiritual dimension – and specifically by means of Tarot readings – John may very well benefit! At the very least his world view, which obviously included spiritual aspects, would be validated; at the very best, the meanings of the events in his life and the value of his personal experience, however tragic, would become open to his awareness.
Slowly the idea emerged. Nothing should prevent an existing phenomenon from becoming the subject of inquiry. The phenomenon of Tarot readings does exist; the shelves in the bookstores are crowded with popular publications; there are more than two hundred and fifty various decks available. There is a variety of advertising in popular media. TV channels have their own “psychic networks”; yet all of this exists mainly at the level of popular culture.
As noticed by Emily Auger (2004) in her research on Tarot and other meditation decks in the context of aesthetics, Tarot decks represent a popular, or “low”, rather than “high” art forms such as painting, architecture, or sculpture. Yet, it is Tarot that was to become the subject matter of my postgraduate research in the area of behavioral sciences, thus transgressing the borders between popular and academic cultures. Similar to Robert Romanyshyn’s “wounded researcher” (Romanyshyn, 2007) I was ready to step into the untapped unconscious field and to explore the many “wounds” underlying our perceptions and judgments.
There was no aim to prove or disprove anything, to qualify or disqualify, to compare or contrast. This study grew out of a desire to bring light to the often misunderstood realm of Tarot which is so much richer and valuable than its reductive popular role as a fortune-telling device, yet which is more often than not considered as such. The main “objective” of my study was, is, and will remain, the wellbeing of those who are seeking Tarot counsel.
A Tarot deck consists of seventy-eight pictorial cards, or Arcana. The meaning of Arcana (or Arcanum, singular) is that creative, but often missing, element in our lives, which is necessary to know, to discover in experience so as to be fruitful and creative in our approach to multiple life-tasks situated in the midst of experiential situations, events and our complex relationships with others. If and when discovered – that is, made available to consciousness – it becomes a powerful motivational force to facilitate a change for the better at our emotional, cognitive or behavioral levels and thus to accomplish an important ethical objective.
What is called a Tarot layout or spread is a particular pattern of the picturesque cards with a variety of images that are full of rich symbolism. Each position in the sequence of pictures constituting a particular layout has some specific connotations that will be addressed in detail in chapters 7 and 8. Tarot pictorial symbolism embodies intellectual, moral, and spiritual “lessons” derived from collective human experiences across times, places and cultures.
As such, Tarot “speaks” in a mythic format of symbols, the metaphorical universal language full of deep, even if initially opaque, meanings. The interpretation of Tarot images and pictures indicates a specific “hermeneutic, composed from the juxtaposition of disparate elements, [or] what Freud called pictographic” (Grumet, 1991, p. 75). As a symbolic system of reading and interpretation, Tarot is oriented toward the discovery of meanings for the multiplicity of experiences that would have otherwise appeared to lack meaning and significance. Thus the readings necessarily “honor the spontaneity, complexity and ambiguity of human experience” (p. 67).
The educational function derives from the holistic dimension embedded in experience that transcends the dualistic mind-body split and the scope of which expands to also incorporate the spiritual, transpersonal, domain. We thus acquire a better ability for self-reflection, self-knowledge, and a sense of value, purpose and meaningfulness of our experiences. Importantly we achieve a better understanding of what may appear to be the otherwise irresolvable moral dilemmas and which subsequently leads to the choice of right action and developing a better-informed, intelligent, decision-making ability.
In their monumental study, Crawford and Rossiter (2006) equate young people’s search for meaning, identity and spirituality with their very reasons for living and point out that meaning and identity are the same psychological reality looked at from different perspectives. From the viewpoint of meaning, it is an explanation of individual intentionality. From the viewpoint of identity, it is the individual’s distinctive self-understanding and self-expression (p. 33).
Noticing the link between the search for meaning, personal identity and spirituality, Crawford and Rossiter suggest that teachers should help their students “to look on their experience of education with a greater sense of its value” (2006, p. 321). It is a noble task, indeed, but it should be performed by teachers equipped with at least an equal if not greater sense of value and meaning of their own professional practice and their own personal development in terms of what Jung called selfeducation (chapter 2). Nel Noddings (2002) keeps reminding us that the aim of moral, holistic, education is to contribute to the continuous education of both students and teachers, in the dynamics between selves and others embedded in the caring relation.
“The attitude of care” (Noddings, 1991, p. 161) is characterized by the presence of attention or engrossment and is especially significant in the context of Tarot. Noddings refers to the story of the Holy Grail as told by Simone Weil (1951): In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail…belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”… It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us. … This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this. (p. 115).
Yet, John was not asked the question, “What are you going through?” within the agency’s behavior-modification approach. Nor that he would have been able to – consciously – answer this straightforward question anyway or wanted to engage in an explicit dialogue so as to intentionally share his pain and suffering with me. The counseling sessions under the adage of behavioral modification of the agency were supposed to “instruct” John to not get into arguments with his boyfriend. John’s referring to a conversation with his spiritual guru was an indication that he was looking for an alternative way to be cared for, to get attention especially because the probability of his early passing was his very reality.
To connect with the Other at the soul level means to connect via corpus subtile – the subtle, spiritual, “body” of emotions and feelings that are so often difficult to articulate precisely because they are buried deep in the unconscious, in the psyche. Their expressive language exceeds and spills over the limitations of our conscious discourse. It is the Tarot hermeneutic as the metaphorical, symbolic, quest for the Holy Grail that helps us in articulating what otherwise betrays words. This takes place because of the symbols’ functioning to bring the unconscious wounds and pains to the level of cognitive awareness, therefore engaging with the psyche and making it whole, healing it.
The psyche becomes filled with the new meanings of experiences and the acquired sense of not only interpersonal connection but, ultimately, spiritual communion. The plurality of evolving meanings express themselves indirectly, in symbolic form, and symbols act as transformers capable of raising the unconscious contents to the level of consciousness, therefore ultimately performing what Jung called the transcendent function when the implicit meanings become explicit by virtue of “becoming conscious and by being perceived” (Jung in Pauli, 1994, p. 159). The readings described in chapter 8 of this book were conducted in the spirit of what Jean Watson (1985) called, in the area of nurse education, the occasions of caring. Noddings explains that the occasions of caring constitute the moments when nurse and patient, or teacher and student, meet and must decide what to do with the moment, what to share, which needs to express, or whether to remain silent. This encounter “needs to be a guiding spirit of what we do in education” (Noddings, 1991, p. 168); such a guiding, relational and caring, spirit ontologically preeminent in Tarot hermeneutic.
Referring to “a hermeneutic lag [as] a poor reading of cultural tendencies” (Wexler, 1996, p. 5) that has become frozen in the dominant structures of the over-rationalization of knowledge, Wexler calls for the cultural, theoretical, and educational renaissance. His intent is to gather the holy sparks of the Kabbalistic creation myth told in the mystical Judaism as “the vital residue of an uncontainable supernal light [that] remain glowing in the dross of fragments of worldly vessels unable to contain them. So it is with…reinterpret[ing] ancient traditions in contemporary fields of thought. We have some glimmering, but only within the prevailing cover of opaque and limiting fragments. What I hope for…is an opening toward those premodern traditions, and their inspirational ‘sparks.’” (Wexler, 1996, p. 113) To reclaim the divine sparks at the level of human cultural practices is a challenge that this book intends to meet. The restored light as the central metaphor will have contributed not to the over-rational Enlightenment of modernity but to a postmodern spiritual Illumination that would defy pessimism and the frequent fatalistic resignation currently permeating individual and collective consciousness, locally and globally.
In the remarkable book Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, Nel Noddings (1993a) comments that some of the new age criticism appears superficial and “lacks the intelligence” (p. 39) which she encourages in her work. Noddings points out that this type of education will put “great emphasis on self-knowledge… that… must come to grips with the emotional and spiritual as well as the intellectual and psychological” (p. xiv). Analogously I encourage an intelligent and open attitude in the book you are going to read.
Furthermore, you will discover that Tarot hermeneutic paves a road toward such expanded self-knowledge and that using Tarot symbolic system as an educational and counseling “aid” enables us to learn from life-experiences hence becoming able to acquire intelligence and wisdom, indeed urged by Noddings. Philip Wexler suggested that many of the assumptions underlying the new age culture should be deeply deconstructed into the ancient core religious traditions from which they perform their bricolage. The next chapter 2 will focus on the notion of bricolage per se as constituting a theory-practice nexus in which the Tarot hermeneutic is embedded.