Do Tarot cards belong in psychotherapy? I think so. And my hunch is that Carl Jung would say so, too. Once in awhile, when a client needs something extra to get through a block or get support for a mental or emotional shift, I become their Tarot-ist (careful how you pronounce it!). I use the tarot cards in the same way that I would suggest someone make a drawing, use the sand tray, or act out a dream. All of these are ways to activate the unconscious, and all can create a dream-like state where something hidden can become clearer. As humans one of the problematic things we do that disturbs our awareness of ourselves is projection. When we project, we place and see "out there" what we don't want to know is "in here." When we draw a tarot card from a face-down stack, and then look at the card we pick, and slow down enough to notice all the thougts and feelings and sensations that come up when we see the image, we give ourselves a chance to stop projecting and start reflecting. The Hermit above is an image of Looking Inward, or of Lighting the Way Inward. The traits and experiences and parts of ourselves that we don't want or can't see are now there in front of us in an image, sort of staring back at us, taking on a meaning and significance that is unique to us, in that moment. What follows below is some older and more informative writing of mine on the tarot. I really did my research back then! So here it is, again.
CARL JUNG AND THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS
To begin to understand uses for the tarot in psychotherapy, we start with Carl Jung, who was the first psychologist in the modern western world to conceptualize the Collective Unconscious. While Freud “discovered” the Unconscious, Jung felt that Freud only understood the Personal Unconscious, and that there is also the Collective Unconscious. The Personal Unconscious is unique to each person, and according to Freud is made up suppressed or repressed memories and experiences of which we are unaware. The Collective Unconscious, in contrast, is universal, exists before the individual, and holds all of our religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols and experiences. We are not conscious that we have this knowledge, but through endeavors like dream work, art, or psychotherapy we will often get in touch with what is unconscious to us, whether it is personal or collective. I think of the Collective Unconscious as a deep ocean. We are floating on the surface of the ocean, and sometimes we dive below to understand the source and creative flow of all life, or the depths of our hearts and minds. In these depths we can experience an “oceanic feeling” that we are all connected and all one.
UNIVERSAL SYMBOLS AND ARCHETYPES
There are universal shapes found in every culture. Some of these are the circle, the spiral, and the cross. All humans in all cultures can identify these shapes as significant, and the meanings we assign to them seem to exist in the collective unconscious as universal symbols. The meanings seem almost to “come from” the shape: the circle represents “wholeness” and the equi-distant cross, “union.” The meanings simply feel right. That is because these shapes as symbols pre-exist us: for many, many, many years these shapes have been used to understand and signify aspects of existence and experience that are valued. Imagine sitting on the beach, hearing the steady crashing of ocean waves, and drawing a spiral in the sand with a stick; now imagine someone from hundreds and hundreds of years ago doing the same thing. You can probably fairly easily imagine an ancestor doing so. That’s because the shape represents a universal experience, and it is usually in such moments that we can truly feel our connectivity to our ancestors, to each other, and even to our predecessors.
The particular shape of the spiral is drawn as a self-affirmation of growth that is happening within. On the beach, you were simply moved to draw a spiral. Or perhaps you doodled it on a paper while talking on the phone, while your attention was “elsewhere.” In both scenarios the symbol would have emerged from your unconscious and found expression because the current experience somehow helped that to happen. In case of being at the ocean, perhaps it was being close to a powerful force of nature with repetitive, soothing sound. The timelessness of the ocean facilitated your awareness of the timelessness of yourself, and that you are always growing and always will grow. In the case of being on the telephone, perhaps it was having your conscious, logical, day-to-day mind distracted with someone else’s problem that allowed a little space in another part of your mind (the unconscious) to give you a symbol you needed (or your friend on the phone needed!)
The Archetypes (“Types from Before”) are like these universal shapes, also exist within the Collective Unconscious, and are the primary universal human experiences and processes. It was actually the philosopher Plato that first used the word “Archetypes” to mean the perfect spiritual forms that pre-existed human forms. Jung interpreted Plato psychologically to explain and re-define the Archetypes as the root of humanity’s spiritual and mythological concepts. The Archetypes show up as particular qualities of behavior and expression in different ways in different cultures. The Archetypes seem to be related to rites of passage and developmental stages that we all go through. Some of the Archetypes that Jung wrote most famously about are the Mother, the Trickster, Spirit, and Rebirth. Other Archetypes are the Wise Old Man, the Eternal Youth (such as Peter Pan), the Crone (Old Sage Woman), the Maiden (Innocent Girl), and the Lovers.
While the images of the Archetypes can symbolize a common experience, there is still a mystery and not-definable quality about them. That is because the Archetypes are not static, and the specific shape they take depend on the human (or art form, etc.) that is embodying them, and the history and culture of the human or form. In this way, there is no one image of an Archetype; in fact, an Archetype can be said to be image-less. They are actually more like shape-shifting concepts. When you walk down the street, you can see and know the difference between the person whose Archetype is Wise Old Man, and the person who is the Eternal Youth; the person that is Crone, and the person that is Maiden. Regardless of actual age or gender of a person who exemplifies the Archetype, Wise Old Man carries himself differently than does and Eternal Youth, just as Crone shows herself differently than Maiden.
WORKING WITH THE TAROT
In Psychology and Tarot: Spectrums of Possibility, Arthur Rosengarten describes how the seventy-eight cards of the tarot deck represent the whole range of human experience, divided into twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana and fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana. Rosengarten discusses the obvious parallel (long held by Jungian analysts) between the Major Arcana and the Archetypes that Jung described. The common player’s deck of today is thought to be derived from the Minor Aracana, with only one card of the Major Arcana included: the Joker, a.k.a. the Fool. The Minor Arcana can be understood as further variants of the Major Arcana, with many particular cards of the Minor Arcana linking back to a card in the Major Arcana.
Rosengarten points out that the cards of the Minor Arcana depict variations of experience within our four basic faculties: emotions (cups), thoughts (swords), intuitions (wands), and sensations (pentacles or coins). Jung himself originally described our four faculties as Thinking, Feeling, Intuiting, and Sensing. The faculties are the capabilities we have to process information and stimulus. Along with Extroversion and Introversion these faculties are the basis of his Jungian Type Test and of the modern Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (personality tests).
The connection between Jung and the Tarot does not end there. It is also the methods of Tarot interpretation and divination that can be related to Jung’s work. Tarot practitioners rely on a phenomenon that Jung coined and described, called synchronicity, a meaningful connection. Importantly, the connection between two things or events is not explained by cause and effect. One event did not cause the other, they both happened together. When we choose a card, there is very often an uncanny connection between ourselves and the card that is felt as more than a coincidence. Because cards are drawn at random, we are allowing for synchronicity to be at work. Even if we do not believe in the concept of synchronicity, the connection we make when viewing a card does have meaning to us and therefore can be used as a tool for self-understanding and healing.
Rosengarten suggests that using the Tarot is a universal, easily applicable, efficient and direct way to work with Jung’s understanding of the Archetypes and his theory of synchronicity within a psychotherapeutic setting. I find that usually within the symbol of an Archetype or any card of the Minor Arcana one can find a lesson, an important reminder, a clarification of the conflict, and/or a suggested doorway to another perspective that suits us right now. At different times in our lives, one or more Archetypes may feel most relevant to our current bundle of feelings, thoughts, troubles, and other experiences.
If there is interest, I bring in the Tarot as a part of psychotherapy because I believe that working with the images can powerfully engage our inner knowing and the unconscious. I do not work with the tarot for purposes of prediction or to conduct a “reading”; I simply use the images to explore with you whatever process or experience you are having. We can explore which Archetypes you may be connected to, how you relate to yourself in an Archetype, and which you might consciously attempt to bring into your life.