Psychism with Props: Mistaking the Map for the Territory

The Hermetic Qabalah assumes that the material Universe was created through an orderly evolution of increasingly substantive thought-forms (symbolized by the sephirot — Hebrew for “emanations” — on the Tree of Life diagram) that originated in the realm of pure Spirit (aka the “Mind of God”) and terminated in the mundane reality with which we interact as incarnate beings. This model is held to explain all manner of theories about how things work in the experiential sphere where we “live and move and have our being.” For the inquiring metaphysical mind that is unencumbered by religious baggage, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved in making the conceptual leap from the numinous kingdom of spirit to the concrete world of the senses. Liberal applications of creative imagination help.

In philosophical rather than mechanistic terms, I’ve considered the qabalistic Tree of Life to be an intellectual construct or working model that attempts to put order to apparent chaos in a way that is useful in understanding (and manipulating) these exalted principles at a personal level. Sort of like physics, it’s not so much a matter of absolute confidence in the structure as one of systematically exploring the theoretical blueprint (but, unlike scientific research, there is no peer review, and the landmarks and boundaries don’t always stay where we put them). I believe it was Israel Regardie who said that the Tree of Life is like a bottomless filing cabinet in which every idea imaginable finds a place from which it can then be compared with every other idea in a methodical way.

Personal reality as we filter it through our senses is true for us at the moment we experience it, but in the larger picture it could very well be a distorted image of the objective truth (if there even is such a thing). For all practical purposes, as long as we act as if something is true, we can study it, work with it, test it to see if it helps us make sense of our perceptions. Unlike religious dogmatism, beyond that initial assumption it’s not simply a question of faith (hmm, there must be an oxymoron somewhere in that thought, since “question” and “faith” are fundamentally incompatible terms).

I’ve always appreciated semanticist Alfred Korzybski’s observation “The map is not the territory” ever since I first encountered it in Bernard Wolfe’s futuristic novel Limbo back in the ’60s. He amplified that by saying “The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map.” Robert Anton Wilson updated those thoughts by saying “Following Korzybski, I put things in probabilities, not absolutes.” As corroborated by what we often find with divination, that empirical world can be quite elastic and deciphering its convolutions for the purpose of predicting future circumstances and events often entails resorting to what I call the “SWAG” (scientific wild-ass guess) method of informed conjecture. Those diviners who presume to read the cards for someone on the far side of the world with only a tenuous “psychic” link between them must squeeze this nugget of wisdom for all its worth while using the cards as “props” to approximate the “territory.”

While rereading Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot, I came across the following statement that got me thinking about my own assumptions regarding the proper use of tarot for divination:

“The Tarot is best used for divination about mundane matters. It is not particularly well-suited for furnishing answers of an important spiritual nature because it is rooted in Yetzirah, although one brings down insight from higher worlds in interpretation.”

Yetzirah, the “Formative Word,” is the third lowest of the four planes on the Tree of Life and the most closely linked to physical reality (Assiah), lying above and behind it as a kind of “matrix” and engine of manifestation. Anything that emerges in material form — whether bodily or as a directed action — has its antecedent or foreshadowing in Yetzirah. Inspiration, the “in-spiriting” of concrete phenomena, is channeled through Yetzirah from the subtler levels of emanation, percolating downward from the fount of spiritual illumination to the quiescent stratum of elemental substance. While the essence of Yetzirah is still formless and entirely plastic, it functions as a figurative projector or mold through which conceptual existence is particularized into unique forms. Think of it as a kind of metaphysical “extrusion machine” that evolves discrete objects and engenders sensible programs and routines to connect those objects in real time. It reminds me of Plato’s Cave, in which perceived reality is merely a “shadow play” cast on the cave walls by a central fire that lies behind the outward-looking inhabitants; in Qabalistic terms, that fire would be the Sun in Tiphareth pouring its creative influence directly down the Middle Pillar into the sphere of Yesod (Foundation), which holds the pattern or framework for all tangible expression.

I have long subscribed to Wang’s opinion that tarot is “not particularly well-suited” for any divination involving psychological matters, which have their origin in the mental domain — the “Creative World” — of Briah, twice-removed from the realm of the senses. I had forgotten Wang’s explanation of the philosophical reasons for this and merely felt that trying to predict via the cards what someone else is thinking or feeling is entirely speculative and too much like mind-reading for my taste, a psychic fishing expedition involving intuitive guesswork rather than a legitimate form of cartomantic prognostication. I’ve called reading the cards in this way “psychism with props,” and I see no reason to change my mind; not that this is an ignoble pursuit in its own right, but let’s call it what it is. We may “All” be “One” at some abstract level of mental synergism but by the time Spirit devolves into Yetzirah we are at least theoretically beginning to differentiate into individualized entities with a personal Akashic script and private agenda. What Wang has provided is a rationale for my assumption that tarot is ideal for action-and-even-oriented prediction that provides situational awareness and developmental insights — the “mundane matters” of the above quote — and that its putative Jungian psychological ramifications are best indulged during the autonomous quest for self-awareness and self-development rather than being forcibly grafted onto the practice of divination.

At its heart, the act of reading the tarot cards (especially for others) is a psychic one, even though we insist that we “just read the cards, not minds.” The reader’s goal is to solve Winston Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” that obscures the querent’s future, the key to which is already known to the seeker at some murky level of awareness. The subconscious mind doesn’t speak plainly to our consciousness, instead communicating through the cards in symbolic hints of meaning that must be interpreted in a largely non-literal way. The same can be said of any type of divination that isn’t purely mental and involves the use of “props” of some kind. A case can be made that these abstract fragments of hidden knowledge don’t originate in our personal subconscious at all and are actually channeled through it into the arrangement of the cards from a deeper well of universal sapience residing in the Collective Unconscious (or any other oracular repository of your choosing). Linking these subtle impressions in a convincing way to concrete events and circumstances in the “real world” requires, if not an actual leap of faith, at least a judicious abatement of one’s analytical precision. It has been called “trusting your intuition,” but I think of it more as an openness to guidance from the Cosmos if only we have the “eyes and ears” to tune into it.

The scenic images of the standard Waite-Smith (aka “RWS”) deck have typically been used to aid in decoding the subliminal messages received, often through the practice of visual free-association that ideally sparks the intuition in connecting the dots. My suspicion, though, is that the canned narrative vignettes displayed in the pictures can become a crutch that steers the reading away from its true purpose. At the other end of the spectrum, the non-scenic “pip” cards of decks like the Tarot de Marseille are almost entirely cryptic in their symbolism and must be interpreted in more flexible and creative ways. My own preference is to rely on metaphors and analogies culled from shared cultural experience as a way to illuminate and reinforce the often faint glimmering of comprehension that the usual meanings excite in the querent’s imagination.

The form of intuitive insight that assists in blindly segregating a small set of significant cards from a randomly-distributed population of 78 is entirely non-rational and non-linear. In the common method of dealing each card in series from the top of a shuffled deck, a recondite realignment of the cards “just so” for the purpose of the reading emerges from handling and manipulating the deck. The psychogenic import derives from the arbitrary yet fortuitous choice the querent makes in stopping the shuffle when it “just feels right.” It all comes down to intent and demonstrates what I consider to be the as-yet-unexplained “science of how tarot works.” Obviously, the internet-driven upsurge of so-called remote reading does not benefit from this subjective engagement of the querent and relies totally on the psychic sensitivity of the reader with the cards as a focus.

At one time, tarot was used primarily as a tool for divination; its forte was getting under the skin of outward appearances in order to examine the roots of causality found within a querent’s subconscious grasp of his or her personal reality. This was usually expressed in terms of the chance for occurrence of some future event within the context of the seeker’s present inquiry. It tapped a universal (or archetypal) stream of unconscious intelligence that was “personalized” only in the sense that it could be translated into situational awareness and developmental insights that ideally shed light on the subject’s private concerns as they evolved toward resolution. Empowerment for self-willed action resulted from opening a unique window on trends and probabilities that were previously inaccessible to conscious scrutiny, providing useful input for constructive decision-making. “Forewarned is forearmed” was its guiding principle.

This was before the emergence of the New Age fixation on psychological deconstruction, in which every phenomenon must be understood in terms of its effect on the human psyche. Trying to figure out the simplistic “what” and the “how” of something rather than the more complex, humanistic “why” was dismissed by purveyors of the self-awareness mandate as unreliable, old-fashioned fortune telling, the problem being that events don’t always play out as scripted, whereas there is always something going on in our heads that we fancy we can figure out by gazing at images printed on cardboard. Not only for ourselves, but for anyone we choose to point our cartomantic microscope at, no matter where in the world they reside.

There are several major themes that enter the discussion among experienced readers regarding how tarot gets to the heart of a matter and yields useful information. One prominent theory is that it’s a form of psychic linkage between querent and reader that imparts hidden wisdom to the reader’s hands in shuffling, cutting and pulling the cards (although it’s usually couched in more flowery “We-Are-All-One” New Age platitudes). This one is popular among on-line readers who seldom have a “live” connection to their clients, and those face-to-face readers who can’t abide other people touching their cards. Other readers insist that they are privy to divine inspiration, and that neither they nor the client psychically intervenes in forming the judgment. More psychological readers peg it to universal knowledge stored in the collective unconscious, a boundless source from which specific insights are channeled via the reader’s subconscious. But by far the largest group just says “It works and I don’t care how.” The touchstone and inevitable fall-back when posed this question is “I trust my intuition.” Although positive results are almost unanimously reported, evidence of accuracy is for the most part anecdotal. Tarot reading has yet to conform to the Scientific Method.

Those who deal with their clients face-to-face (myself included) have a slightly broader palette with which to work. When the client is physically present, he or she can actively participate in arranging the cards in the sequence most appropriate for meaningful interpretation. Most clients are amenable to shuffling and cutting the deck, while those who are leery of shuffling will usually perform the cut. This degree of client participation instills some ownership in the outcome and relieves the reader of that unilateral obligation. Since clients are imparting order to the cards with their own hands, the apparent mode of revelation takes the form of “subconscious induction” untainted by any preconceptions or personal bias that might intrude through the reader’s involvement in ordering the cards.

Having the client in the room also enables the overworked concept of intuition to be replaced by the other three “I” words — Imagination, Inspiration and Ingenuity — leading to the “Grand I,” Insight. The client can support this application of the story-teller’s art by offering observations and immediate feedback on the relevance of any statements made by the reader. This removes some of the anecdotal sloppiness from the reading and edges it a little closer to empirical legitimacy. Some readers claim that their clients sit there like statues and never say a word. In my experience as an American reader, most people are more than willing to talk about themselves if pointed down the right path. Succeeding in this encouragement becomes a fine point of the tarot reader’s art. The reader’s style has much to do with success in opening the client up to dialogue. A reader who is enthusiastic and gregarious will generally fare better than one who is solemn and measured in approach. My goal as a reader is to engage the client fully and always keep things moving forward, never dwelling on any single card for too long unless it’s the central theme of the entire narrative. Even then, I’m prone to continue on to the end and circle back to re-emphasize key points as part of the closing.

The bottom line for me is that the Jungian flavor of the “subconscious induction” model rings most true as a vehicle for the effective pursuit of foreknowledge via the tarot cards. Other methods give the impression of clairvoyance more than cartomancy, and disassociate the client from direct responsibility for the outcome. You can say all you want to your clients about “free will” being the key to making the most of their readings, and that nothing is carved in stone, but you can’t beat having them take a hand in actually setting the stage for the experience.

However, my goal here isn’t to beat that particular “dead horse,” but rather to slaughter a fresh one for our dissection. Diviners of all stripes do a brisk business with that age-old conundrum “Does ‘X’ love me?” Since the existence of mental telepathy has not been conclusively verified by empirical methods, answering such questions amounts to so much intuitive guesswork masquerading as psychic revelation. While I have no problem with the concept of psychism, since I think all such techniques are simply a form of mental physics — or mentation — that we are not yet able to measure and quantify, I think tarot cards are more a convenient prop than a leading indicator in the exploration of how some typically absent individual “thinks or feels” about the querent. When used privately for the purposes of self-understanding and spiritual development, tarot can stimulate associations with all manner of previously acquired experience and knowledge that can in turn create meaningful insights into personal growth potential. When used for public demonstrations of psychological profiling, it falls more into the realm of mind-reading. I would much rather answer the question of what “X” is likely to do or not do regarding the querent than whether he or she is emotionally predisposed toward any kind of romantic relationship. Even then, when third-party subjects are involved, it barely creeps over into SWAG territory for me.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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