Functional Divination and the Star Effect (aka “The Bubble”)
In a brief essay about his aphorism “Every man and woman is a star,” Aleister Crowley made the point that it’s physically impossible to stand in someone else’s shoes at the same instant in time and look at the world from exactly the same perspective; thus, each of us inhabits a private universe of which we are the existential center. We share this universe when it’s socially expedient or necessary for survival, but we normally act as if we’re the only one in it. This phenomenon is nowhere more evident than when observing how people drive the roads. I call it the “bubble effect.”
This “bubble” seems to be operative in the tarot universe as well, separating the Jungians from the mystics and pragmatists (aka “fortune tellers”), and all of them from the historians and scholars. There are those who insist that tarot should only be used for psychological purposes in seeking self-knowledge, and that divining with it is a benighted practice, an anachronism left over from the 19th Century. Others claim that it’s a vehicle for divine illumination, while still others see it primarily as a useful tool for prying open the future or as nothing more exotic than an intriguing historical artifact of academic value.
My answer to all of these diverging viewpoints is “Yes, of course it is.” While we do our best to convince ourselves that tarot can be “all things to all people,” opening the door to the sloppy generalization that “If it feels good it must be correct,” there is certainly truth in the observation that the tarot has multiple facets that invite more than one approach. If we can agree that no one path is inherently better than the rest, perhaps we can find common ground for appreciating what is a marvelous source of inspiration at any level we care to engage it.
Personally, I’ve come down a long road with the “occult” arts. I began in 1972 as a student of the Hermetic qabalah with a strong interest in the esoteric foundations of tarot, astrology and ceremonial magic, and I eventually started a small-scale suburban divination practice. At the same time I was busily becoming a psychological astrologer, doing countless natal horoscopes with a Jungian focus. This remained my exclusive purview for nearly 40 years, during which I relocated to the country and retreated from public dialogue, cultivating my Crowleyan “star potential” in private. This was fine for enlarging my practical knowledge base but did nothing to expand my awareness of what was happening in the broader tarot culture beyond what could be gleaned from books.
My wake-up call came in 2011 when I first encountered the on-line tarot forums, where a debate on the contentious subject of how best to use the cards was in full flower. The diviners were in the ascendancy, followed by the Jungians and the esotericists with the scholars only present as a fringe group. It became clear that divination was far from obsolete, although I found its modern form to be somewhat lacking in substance. Around the same time I began making forays into local metaphysical shops, looking for a venue in which to restart the professional practice I had abandoned years before when I began my descent into relative isolation. I found one and began sharpening my rusty face-to-face divination skills. That led to eventually coming to terms with the concept of doing on-line readings, something I had initially dismissed as unreliable.
What brought me to this wool-gathering exercise was a rather startling admission I discovered not long ago in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s book The Way of Tarot. After spending two-thirds of the book coming across as a surrealistic mystical guru reminiscent of his art-film persona of the 1970’s (if you aren’t squeamish, go find his El Topo or The Holy Mountain), he began offering some clear-headed, practical advice for reading the cards. (To be honest, I’m not positive that it wasn’t the contribution of his co-author, Marianne Costa.) These slightly-condensed comments in particular caught my attention:
“During my first years studying the tarot, seeking the meaning of its symbols, I considered them to be a tool for self-knowledge. Influenced by my reading of books on alchemy, the Kabbalah, and other initiatory traditions, I believed that whoever aspired to wisdom had to work in solitude. This is why, combined with the commercial use of the tarot by the fashionable fortunetellers, I disdained the reading aspect.”
Eventually, while contemplating what he called “a clear message from the High Priestess,” Jodorowsky noted that, in his estimation, “The High Priestess is not reading her book but offering it. This can indicate an individual who has moved from solitary study to giving to the other. This convinced me that the purpose of the tarot was fulfilled when it was used to help others by means of a reading that consists of presenting Arcana to an individual that have been transformed into a mirror of his or her soul.”
This idea of a “soul-mirror” coincides well with my own position that the querent “owns” the reading by subconsciously choosing the cards through the shuffle and cut, a process that captures the private “communion” between the two and displays it in the form of a specific arrangement that perfectly conveys the subject’s current status and any developmental opportunities that may lie just over the horizon. It shows not only where he or she may have been and is right now, but what it is possible to become by aligning oneself with one’s inner awareness of emerging trends and tendencies. In that sense, the “mirror” isn’t merely a snap-shot frozen in time, but an interactive movie that lets the querent (with the reader’s help) fill in the narrative details around the suggested plot. The final step is for the individual to take these insights under advisement in a “forewarned is forearmed” sense and, if sufficiently impressed by their authenticity and urgency, to pursue appropriate action to either bolster an agreeable outcome or defuse an unpleasant one. However, it can become as much a matter of “defensive positioning” as one of mounting an immediate, active intervention in one’s future interests and uncertainties (unless a more compelling reason presents itself).
Recently, while re-reading Isabel Kliegman’s The Tarot and the Tree of Life, I came across the following passage that invoked tarot grandmaster Rachel Pollack:
“The humanistic tarot, as opposed to the esoteric tarot, concerns ‘who we are, how we act, what forces shape and direct us,’ according to Rachel Pollack. We use it to raise our level of awareness, shift our attention, and recognize our patterns of response — and our responsibility in those patterns.” Kliegman goes on to say: “The reader, like the cards themselves, is an instrument of insight and growth. The querent can change the reading.”
However, my own opinion is that the legitimate pursuit of divination does not presuppose a dualistic tug-of-war between the self-help legions and the occult scholars and mystics, but is rather a triune affair that includes the purely utilitarian forms of “fortune-telling.” While the latter are often denigrated by those who see them as unrealistically presumptive in a world that reveres free will, there are many times when mundane assurances are all a seeker wants out of a reading, typically in the form of “yes or no, and if so, when.” There is ample room for the avowed pragmatist to ply the diviner’s art without relying on either psychological insight or metaphysical reinforcement, except as accompaniments to the “main course.”
I’ve met Rachel Pollock, and we are “of an age.” I would venture to say that we both got our start at the very beginning of the 1970s when the burgeoning “New Age” movement funneled all of the traditional “esoteric” arts into the service of individuation under the banner of Carl Gustav Jung. As a psychological astrologer, I was fully on board with this objective (and I still believe astrology works best for it), but as a student of the synergies apparent in the Qabalah and the tarot, I initially set foot on the esoteric path. This was largely an intellectual pursuit — what I now like to call “clinical” — rather than a spiritual or wholly intuitive one, although the mystical undercurrent bubbled not too far below the surface. I spent the first four decades of my practice putting my own psyche — and that of anyone who wandered into my sphere — under the tarot microscope.
Over time, however, as I developed self-awareness this became a case of diminishing returns. I eventually recognized that the best way to help myself and, more importantly, others in practical ways was to apply my interpretive skills to the problems of everyday life. I found that the fabric of the objective Universe can be combed using the wisdom in the cards and the threads most worth pulling in an individual’s life can then be picked out and given a good yank. This is where the mysticism comes in: the operative principle is to bring querents into contact with larger forces that may be at work just outside their waking consciousness, forces that those seekers can ideally bend to their will once they are made aware of them; at the very least they can assume a defensive posture if conflict appears to be imminent.
But the above discussion only concerns the pragmatic or external aspects of the tarot. The humanistic perspective is that it is best used as a tool for self-discovery and self-development. The “Big Questions” (such as Douglas Adams’ “Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything”) can be put to the cards with the understanding that the answers to their individual application lie within each of us, waiting to be illuminated by randomly-drawn symbolic images that mirror our psychic landscape. The goal of divination in this model is to “explain us to ourselves” by tapping into the personal subconscious and our innate knowledge of the psychological “forces that shape and direct us,” those motivators that nobody can grasp better than we can once they are laid bare for us. Many tarot practitioners are content to stay in this mode of interpretation entirely, and to promote its virtues in their readings for others.
The esoteric approach is more impersonal and universal. The goal of divining with the cards and other “occult” forms of inquiry is to penetrate the inner workings of the Cosmos in the same way that religion purports to do in its more conventional fashion, but without the myths, mysticism and smug “Father-knows-best” obscurantism fostered by a patriarchal priesthood. Aleister Crowley’s early motto, “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” spoke directly to this objective: a spiritual aspiration subjected to the rigors of intellectual scrutiny. A number of modern writers have endeavored to aid the neophyte by rendering this often indigestible mass of information into plain language; the best of them succeed at transforming the arcane jargon into accessible terms while the worst simply denature it. The good news is that hitting the high points will generally suffice to bring a new depth of understanding to one’s appreciation of the cards, and the rest can be filed as “food for thought” to be pulled out periodically and gnawed away at.
When I read for others I try to match my interpretive style to the context of the inquiry. I’ve had questions ranging from “What is my boyfriend up to?” to “Where is my life going and how can I leverage my strengths and capitalize on my opportunities?” — although not often in such high-flown language. It’s fair to say that most seekers don’t want to know what makes them tick psychologically (they’re all too aware of their mental and emotional status in any matter they bring to my doorstep), and they most certainly don’t want a lesson in esoteric correspondences. They want something solid they can sink their teeth into so I give them the pragmatic version, at most only slightly embellished with more profound observations unless the discussion happens to take us there.
One final quote from Jodorowsky (whom I’m coming to appreciate when he isn’t being quite so annoyingly bombastic):
The querent “should personally penetrate the messages his subconscious sends him. The individual should choose the path that best suits him.”