“Sensory Complexion” — Six Tarot-Learning Tricks

The “tricks” of the title is an intentional misnomer. There are no gimmicks or reliable shortcuts for instantly absorbing and retaining the gist of the 78 cards of the tarot, but there are some convenient alternatives to memorizing reams of keyword text. This fanciful method was brought to my attention recently, and I thought I would elaborate on the basic approach as I see it. It serves my objective of trying to capture the essence or theme of a card without relying on the verbatim recall of textbook contents. It brings the five senses — and a supposed sixth — to bear in an imaginative way to create what I’m calling the card’s “sensory complexion:”

Sight (Appearance): What does the card look like? This is a literal impression derived from the visual details in the card’s illustration, sometimes called “free-association,” and it is by far the most dependable way of deciphering the content. It will work for any card if enough imagination is applied, but it is most effective for cards displaying scenic vignettes. Is the scene gloomy or luminous? Is there a lot of activity or virtually none? Does it exhibit conflict or harmony? Is the image itself “busy” or sparse in design? Are the colors “hot, warm, cool or cold?” What kind of “story” do these features tell?

Touch (Sensation): What does the card “feel” like? This is an intuitive extrapolation from the appearance, which can evoke an emotional reaction; I’m not talking about the Reikian “heat or magnetism” some sense when holding their palms over certain cards. Does the image on the card depict a “taut” or “loose” sense of tension. Is there a feeling of elasticity and buoyancy (like a helium balloon) or inescapable gravity (like a “lead balloon”) about it? Does it convey any tactile proclivity (firmness, hardness, softness, etc)? Does it appear light or heavy, rough or smooth? Do these qualities hint at anything in the traditional meaning of the card? Do these illusive associations invoke any specific sentiment such as pleasure or repulsion at the prospect of touching the objects in the picture?

Hearing (Tone or Pitch): Is it possible to imagine what kind of sound the card might emit based on the activities underway in the image? This is harder with non-scenic decks but still feasible if you look at the interplay between the suit emblems and any decorative embellishments. Would you expect to hear a rumble, a sigh, a hiss, a screech, a bang, a crash, a shout, a roar, a grunt or any other conceivable sound? Consider elemental associations like the clash of swords, the dull thud of bashed stones, the gushing of water or the crackle of flames. On the other hand, does the card convey a “dead silence?”

Smell (Aromatic Singularity): Do the activities or landscapes shown suggest an aroma or stench of any kind? Is anything burning in the picture? Is there evidence of water, ranging from an ocean vista to a rippling stream, a quiet pool or a fetid swamp? Each of these gives off a unique smell in Nature for those who pause to appreciate it. Is the sky bright and clear with the inferred bouquet of sunlight, greenery and flowers or redolent of storm clouds, lightning or rain, evincing an unmistakable tang (it “smells like rain”)? Does any of the visible soil appear to be moist and rich, muddy or dry and sandy? Different types of earth have smells all their own.

Taste (Savor): Does the image — if you could stick your tongue in it — give off an impression of “sweet, sour, salty or bland?” Does it resemble an overcooked mess or an underdone disaster, or does it appear to be “just right?” Does it suggest a delicate confection, a hearty steak or a pot-luck casserole (7 of Cups, maybe)? Imagine where you would slot them if you were planning a seven-course meal of tarot cards (as Monty Python once said in a parallel universe, “with some stuffing, a little broccoli and a few french fries,” they’d be delicious).

Another aspect is the function of “Spirit” in relating to the cards, the so-called “sixth sense” typically characterized as instinct, second sight or clairvoyance. Some occultists take this into the realm of “personification,” in which they attempt to inhabit the scene in the card as the central actor, putting it on like a costume and imagining how they would execute their role in the script (which obviously doesn’t work very well with non-scenic “pip” cards). Others will voyage into the ethereal world of the Creative Imagination through “scrying in the spirit vision,” in which they endeavor to meet the personages shown in the cards upon the Astral Plane and interact with them in meaningful and instructive ways. “Pathworking” with the Major Arcana on the Qabalistic Tree of Life is one structured approach to this, as is the “Inner Guide Meditation” approach of Edwin Steinbrecher. As I see it, the essential ingredient in these metaphysical recipes is a willing “suspension of disbelief,” in which we accept whatever comes to us through these subconscious channels as manifestly honest and truthful, something that dabblers in the Ouija board often learned to their chagrin isn’t always the case. Plumbing the depths of Spirit through these portals amounts to what tarot innovator Enrique Enriquez described as the “irrational” act of tarot reading (although I see it as more “extra-rational”), which brings us squarely into the sights of twentieth-century psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.

Jung subdivided the discriminating faculties of the human personality into four general “types:” sensation (encounters with the physical world that trigger our five bodily receptors); thinking (the intellectual function by which we process the evidence of our senses); feeling (the emotional ways in which we do the same thing); and intuition (the subconscious “hunches” by which we “connect the dots” and try to make sense of the experiential landscape). Tarot writers later in the same era decided that these four types should be assigned to the classical elements as used in the tarot as follows: sensation applies to Earth and the suit of Coins (Pentacles/Disk), the realm of mundane phenomena; thinking relates to Air and the suit of Swords, the domain of the intellect; feeling belongs to Water and the suit of Cups, where all “affairs of the heart” originate; and intuition corresponds to Fire and the suit of Wands, the spark underlying all aspiration and initiative.

I have no quarrel with the first three of these allocations. But Fire as intuition never did much for my comprehension of how tarot fits the psychological model. I see the association as an expedient non-choice rather than an ideal match like the rest; after all, Fire had to go somehwere. To me, intuition makes much more sense as a subcategory of “feeling” since it relies on sensitivities that are more elusive and mystical than the brash forthrightness of Fire. (It’s customary to say we “feel” something is true but we “can’t quite put our finger on” why.) However, in the Qabalistic system Fire also does double duty as “Spirit,” so I can certainly see “inspiration” as the appropriate cognitive activity. Our waking consciousness is “in-spirited” by subtle influences outside ourselves that give subliminal hints of occurrences the senses can’t intercept. The processing of these intimations happens at a level below the rational purview of the intellect, falling more into the sphere of emotional integration.

A comparative definition is probably in order here: Intuition is knowledge obtained by non-rational means; inspiration means being “invested with Spirit,” kind of like “push” advertising. One you actively seek by focusing your attention, with the other you open yourself to unbidden insights. Inspiration operates at the creative level of “art” while intuition is more interpretive in nature. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I do believe there is a subtle difference. Much of what we call intuitive tarot reading involves free-association from the images, which is a form of focusing even if we do intentionally blur the boundaries. As a visual artist I can vouch for the fact that inspiration often comes completely out of the blue when I’m not seeking it. To show that I”m not completely deaf to counter-arguments, I did learn from a Facebook acquaintance that “Jung saw intuition as an ‘awareness of possibilities’ rather than intuition as we understand it. It’s more entrepreneurial, which does fit quite well with Wands and Fire.”

The truth of the matter may be that those who profess to reading the tarot intuitively (which has always struck me as a purposely non-rational approach) are tapping into the “spirit vision” and not drawing their conclusions directly from the cards, which serve more as convenient “signposts” by which to steer the querent into constructive avenues of understanding. Thus, on the scale of psychological responsiveness, the individual grows from automatic “knee-jerk” reactions to stimuli into both an objective (reasoned) and subjective (creatively surmised) estimation of circumstances and finally into an inspired contemplation of the abstract significance of one’s experiences. My main point in all of this is that either Jung could have chosen a better word or the original tarot incorporators could have found a better way to integrate Fire into the model. As it was they had little choice since Wands was “the last man standing.”

These are just a few of the sensory impressions I was able to come up with off the top of my head. This seems like fertile ground for improvisation in the service of learning.