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. 

1 comment:

  1. As a professional tarot reader I cannot begin to tell you how important articles like this really are, especially since while clients aren't dupes many ARE hopeful and even when you tell them those hard truths they run from they can become addicted to the sense of "control" that comes from getting a tarot reading from a trusted adviser. I've personally had clients I had to put on tarot-time out because contacting me two-three times per month just wasn't healthy or beneficial in my opinion.

    Maybe that was me trying to "diagnose" them or maybe, deep down, I have this fear of someone putting so much faith into what I say to them that I want them to step back. Ov erall, I think tarot is one of the most useful forms of divination because of all the information one can glean from just one card and by encouraging clients to also examine what THEY say, it builds a dialogue that allows them to use the advice to muddle through their issue (s). But that's just my opinion and play style.

    Great blog post!