Sunday, October 27, 2013

10 of Cups

Pamela Colman Smith's famous interpretation of the 10 of Cups gives us an Edwardian petit bourgeois paradise. A couple stare blissfully at the rainbow which sparkles above their homestead: beside them their their children dance joyfully. It is a place where love has attained to its full fruition and their union has been blessed with progeny and prosperity. Today we know that there are many different kinds of love -- and "Married with Children" isn't the only successful culmination to a romance.  But in emotional matters, the 10 of Cups generally signifies some form of commitment.  Cohabitation; marriage or civil union; a casual fling becoming something more serious; a series of events that turns a nodding acquaintance into a close friend -- all of these are possible ways the 10 of Cups might manifest in a querent's life.

 Cups can also represent creative matters. If the 10 of Cups shows up in an artist's reading it suggests their project will be a resounding personal success.  In conjunction with cards like The High Priestess or The Chariot, it might signify an important new development in one's  art. Alongside the 10 of Disks or Wheel of Fortune we might expect the project to be both artistically significant and financially lucrative. (Working artists know all too well that one does not imply the other!)  Whatever its placement, it evokes that "click" when you find the right word, the perfect color, the chord progression that brings your work-in-progress to a glorious conclusion.

With all that, it's not surprising that the 10 of Cups is generally considered one of the most positive cards in the deck. But that's not to say that it is always a beneficial influence.  As with all Tarot cards, the 10 of Cups is a complex and nuanced symbol. While it's easy to focus on the silver lining, a reader should also pay close attention to the clouds it can portend.

In 1938, nearly 30 years after the Rider/Waite Deck's release, Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris began work on the Thoth Tarot.  The sun was setting on the British Empire: the children dancing beneath Smith's rainbow had matured amidst the horrors of trench warfare and had little reason to believe Chamberlain's promises of "peace in our time." It's not surprising, then, that Crowley's take on the 10 of Cups was considerably darker than Arthur Edward Waite's. He described the card as "satiety" -- desires fulfilled to the point of nausea.   Where Waite saw a proper English home Crowley saw a Roman wastrel stumbling off to the vomitorium.  His 10 of Cups is not contentment shading into bliss: it is a turkey coma where gluttony gives way to regret.  (Given Crowley's life story, one suspects he knew this feeling all too well).

These contrasting interpretations point to the paradox at the heart of this card.  The 10 of Cups is simultaneous satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Things are better than ever but you can't shake that nagging feeling of discontent.  You've achieved everything you ever wanted, and now you're not so sure you want it.  If it lands in a challenging position the 10 of Cups can mean complacency and a sense of entitlement: you are taking your comfortable position for granted and may be setting yourself up for an unpleasant surprise.  Near the Moon or 7 of Cups, it can suggest that you have idealized your situation and may be ignoring or making excuses for serious problems: combined with the Devil, it can point to an obsession with some past happiness that is holding you back in the present.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Aleatoric Counseling: Finding Meaning in Randomness and Order in Chance

Or could it be... SATAN!?!?!?
A common explanation for divination's efficacy is the old Hermetic expression, "as above so below." According to this axiom we live in a giant Mandelbrot Set where the universe is reflected in a grain of sand and the patterns our future is revealed in the falling of cards.  This explanation is particularly popular among New Age thinkers who name-drop fractals, quantum mechanics, string theory and other impressive-sounding terms.  (Shades of Victorian spiritualists and "Ectoplasmic Aethyr!!!") Unfortunately very few of these "thinkers" have a nodding acquaintance with these concepts. The end result is bad philosophy and worse science.

One can hardly blame those who write Tarot off as a silly diversion used to fleece the gullible. As skeptic Robert T. Carroll says of his research, "By investigating this nonsense I've gained a world of knowledge about confirmation biascold readingmagical thinkingshoehorningsubjective validation, and a host of other cognitive illusions." And of course he has a point: we've all heard stories of lovelorn clients losing enormous sums to fortune-tellers and psychic phone lines.  Tarot, like everything else, is best taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

That being said, most Tarot readers are not con artists.  Neither are most querents mindless dupes. Many readers believe sincerely that they are helping their clients: many clients find their services helpful.  Are the Tarot cards keys which unlock precognitive abilities? Are they symbols which open the Akashic records and collective unconscious? Or is something else going on here? One possible answer may lie in a technique favored by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, aleatorism.

Aleatoric music incorporates elements of chance and uncertainty within the score. Cage used the I Ching for his 1951 piano piece, "Book of Changes" and in many other visual and musical works.  As Steve Marshall says:
The basic principle is to remove one's own intention from the work and hand that over to the oracle. Intention is always to some extent circumscribed by one's own tastes and personality, whereas non-intention moves beyond like and dislike and becomes something more resembling an act of nature. In a sense then, you can hear what the I Ching would compose as a piece of music, or what it would draw as a picture (much as you can see what kind of life it would create by using it for every non-spontaneous decision). Although I don't think Cage necessarily considered that – that the oracle itself may have an intention – he used it to free himself, in the large part, from having to choose. The artistic choice he reserved for himself then became solely choosing what questions to ask, something he constantly emphasised the importance of.
We cannot be neutral observers of our own lives.  Our hopes, fears and preconceptions inevitably color our interpretation of current events and shape our predictions for the future.   We can seek advice from disinterested third parties. But counselors come to the table with their own prejudices and their own temptations to squeeze your life story into a spiritual parable or a DSM diagnosis.  We can shrug our shoulders and say "everybody has an agenda." Or we can look for techniques which might help both parties to challenge their expectations.

Tarot offers non-intentional commentary on the situation: the cards chosen and where they fall is a matter of chance.  Yet this randomness happens within an intricate, carefully controlled structure.  Each card contains a great deal of symbolic and metaphoric information, both in itself and in its placement within the spread.  Using these a reader can create a story around the querent's concerns. This story may reveal problems and suggest solutions the querent had missed.  It may serve as a framework for querents to tell their own story and come to clearer self-knowledge.  It may also encourage them to take action -- any action -- instead of continued dithering. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Princess of Wands

Like all court cards, the Princess of Wands most frequently represents an individual involved in the querent's life.  Typically this person will be youthful and female: she will be inquisitive, active, impulsive and possessed of what used to be called a "fiery" temperament. She may have reddish-tinted hair and a ruddy complexion: she may also have a lean, muscular runner's or yoga instructor's build.  (But be careful about assigning too much importance to appearance: the personality does not always match the body).  The role the Princess of Wands plays depends on the question and on her placement in the spread.  But however she manifests, she will be difficult to control. She is capable of exerting enormous effort toward things which excite her: her joie de vivre can become screaming rage without warning.

The Princess of Wands can also represent the actual querent. In these cases she represents a state of mind and approach toward life: the querent's physical appearance, and even gender is unimportant.  This Princess is not the sudden flash of inspiration you might expect from the Ace of Wands but a long-smoldering ember that is about to ignite.  She is a passion which will no longer be denied. Whether she will burn or illuminate depends on the surrounding cards and how the querent channels her force.  She is a powerful catalyst for growth, but one which will as happily raise briars as flowers.

When the Princess of Wands appears in a hostile or threatening position, there are several possible responses.  One is to fight fire with fire. Understand that you're facing a fast-moving opponent and move faster so that you get the prize and she gets scorched earth.  But you can also stop fire with water: when she wants a heated argument you can shut her down by remaining calm and sympathetic but unfazed.  Without an angry response to keep the conflagration going, she will soon turn her attentions elsewhere.  And if she is manifesting as a nagging temptation remember what every firefighter knows. Take action as soon as you see smoke: the longer you wait the worse the ensuing blaze will be for everyone concerned.