When I first began reading Tarot publicly, I would point out various symbols on the drawn cards and explain their correlations by rote. I felt exhausted from talking; I had not yet learned to manage or protect my energy. I just let it rip and hoped my recipient would gain something from my spewing.
My reading style began to mature as I began to enter into deeper relationships with the archetypes. I often say that there is a difference between the meaning and the medicine of the card.
For example, the 8 of Swords in the Smith Rider-Waite features a woman surrounded by swords. Her hands are tied with rope that is falling off of her arms; her eyes are closed behind a blindfold she could easily remove herself. The 8 of Swords may mean a chosen sense of disempowerment or self-limitation. You can memorize the keywords, but the potency of its medicine comes from lived experience.
For many months, I drew the 8 of Swords two or three times a week. I was moving through a painful breakup, living in the laundry room of a friend’s house, and crying myself to sleep each night. I would draw cards every morning and each time the 8 of Swords would reappear, I would throw it across my desk.
“What do you want from me?” I would hiss. “What are you trying to teach me that I am missing? Haven’t I learned the lesson yet?” The answer was no, I had not learned the lesson. I was still integrating the medicine of the 8 of Swords. The card finally subsided and left me alone when I acknowledged and processed my emotional habits of victimization and codependency. I finally allowed myself to feel the depth of my loneliness without immediately numbing with alcohol, sex or social media. The saying, “You gotta feel it to heal it,” became real to me. As I integrated the medicine of the 8 of Swords, her appearances subsided.
When the 8 of Swords comes up in readings with clients, I feel as though an old friend has popped in to share a bit of wisdom. I understand more nuance about the card because I lived the archetype of the card. Or the archetype lived me. The relationship is reciprocal and profound. I understand the 8 of Swords beyond keywords because I experienced its medicine down to my bones. This is the medicine of a card.
Medicine cannot be rushed.
To read Tarot fluently is to learn the language of archetypal wisdom through the lens of your own experience. You must learn the archetypes in the same way that you integrate into a community of new people. You befriend the ones closest to you.
Learning an archetype is like meeting a new person. The two of you meet, you share name, nicknames, and first impressions. Perhaps you hang out again. You learn what they like to eat, their pet peeves, their strengths and blindspots; you notice they look really nice in a certain color or you spot the tiny birthmark hidden under the chin. You begin to understand their dualities, their humanness, and the flaws they try to hide. You begin to see this person in a nuanced and full sense. And they begin to see you.
This is the lot of human relationships; we only have projections of each other until they are replaced with the reality of our experiences with that person. In the same way, we only have memorization until we embody the archetype. Like becoming intimate with another person, the more one understands about an archetype, the more ineffable and indescribable that archetype becomes.
As we become more adept at recognizing the patterns of color, symbol, element or number in the archetypes, so we become more adept at recognizing the same patterns in our outer and inner experiences. As we learn the stories and contexts of various archetypes, so we model their strengths and recognize our own shortcomings.
What seems like coincidences become synchronicities as we train our minds to notice and to collect information in this way. We learn to see like hawks, high above the earth, noticing the lay of the land and simultaneously spiraling back to the personal details that tug at us.
Learning Tarot is not just a fun party trick or a handy psychological tool; interpreting symbols is a way of perceiving the world. The mind becomes open to the patterns that run through all things. We begin to see that our bodies are not separate from the earth or from animals, that our stories and feelings transcend identities and hierarchies, that every little detail is communicating some profound depth if only we are attuned to receive it. Become the vessel and the wisdom will flow.
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