Two nights ago, I attempted my first tarot spread.
In the Celtic Cross formation, there’s a place for a card the reader interprets as “how you perceive yourself”—or that’s how the YouTube tutorial explained it. I drew the Five of Pentacles, a card Wikipedia characterizes as follows:
“The Five of Coins, or the Five of Pentacles, is a card when upright means to lose all faith, losing resources, losing a lover (mostly shows up when you’ve had a breakup), and losing security whether financially or emotionally (or both).”
My powers of interpretation are still in their diapers, but to give you an idea of what this suggests for my self-image, some words associated with the Five ‘o Pentacles include unimaginative, worry, toil, carefulness—and, hey, kindness!
I’m not qualified to write about something I’ve only attempted once. I am, however, qualified to write about something I’ve been doing all my life. I’m willing to bet you’ve been doing it too—perceiving yourself one way, answering the “how you perceive yourself” question with a single card.
Ambiguity—the human ego can’t make heads or tails of it. I used the “heads or tails” idiom. A literal interpretation of the phrase would make just the opposite true. Our egos can’t make heads and tails of ambiguity, so it makes heads or tails, “one or the other.” If something is something, it can’t be something else. Except this is hardly true of anything material, and when it comes to abstractions like “past,” “present,” and “self,” it isn’t true at all.
Tarot doesn’t have to be spiritual or academic. The practice also offers practical value as a means of forced reinterpretation. A tarot reading is comparable to locking your ego in a room with a set of possible, alternative selves and forcing them to have a meaningful conversation.
As chance/fate/the universe would have it, the card I drew for the “how you perceive yourself” spot is dead ringer for my diminutive self-image. As this novice understands it, the Five of Pentacles denotes deficiency, adversity, defeat, and despair. I tend to have little faith in myself.
I wouldn’t invite me to a party, assuming I threw one.
One practical benefit of playing with tarot cards: You have no choice but to hang out with yourself. When I flipped the Five of Pentacles, I inadvertently invited myself to the shindig I was hosting. I chose to use the Mythic Tarot deck because the Thoth cards are too big for my clumsy hands; I had a good idea who the cloaked loser on the card was before I hit the books.
A tarot deck is intended to correspond to the workings of the mind. Each card represents a particular human experience and particular feelings. The icing on the cake is that tarot practice also corresponds to the workings of the mind. Tarot practice involves shuffling and reading cards, and each card is charged with a set of ideas. The shuffling and reading of ideas… That wouldn’t be the same process the human mind follows to make sense of itself and its world, would it?
I can’t understand the “chance” argument against tarot, that it’s all bunk because the outcome is decided solely by chance and the subject’s expectations. In addition to arising from the misconception that all tarot practitioners believe their cards are walkie-talkies shared with ghosts and gods, this argument overlooks the roles chance and expectation play in the thought process.
We’re conditioned to associate chance with chaos.
However paradoxical it may seem, chance also opens the door to freedom. Unless you fix the deck, consecutive repeats are unlikely. When we find ourselves trapped by external circumstances we have no control over, we can “draw a new card,” or change ourselves to fit the circumstances.
We don’t have to be slick carnies to stack the cards in our favor.
If the tarot deck simulates the operation of the mind, then it also simulates its limitations. Why limit our perceptions of ourselves to a single card—to a single idea or adjective? Each shuffle of the deck creates 78 possible outcomes.
Each moment of life is the unfolding of infinite possibilities.
What’s infinite minus 78? Answer: the potential oozing out of every second for the rest of your life.
Identity is a decision we make that we’re forced to make again. Our “selves” don’t have to be consistent. As a matter of fact, they can’t be. The Five of Pentacles stuck out for me because it echoed an idea I cling to—an idea I choose to cling to. That shrouded, night-wandering creeper could easily become the life of the party.
I can draw a stronger card in the “how you perceive yourself” spot any time I want. I don’t even have to break out the cards.
C.W. Smith is a Colorado-based writer, artist, and recovering cynic. His spiritual awakening is still a work in progress, and that progress can be followed via his blog.
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Assistant Ed: Linda Jockers/Kate Bartolotta