A critic recently told me that my interpretation of one of the major arcana was not in line with the classical meanings laid out by some of the men who assigned meanings to them in the early 20th Century. It got me thinking about tradition and rules and rule-breaking as they relate to change and evolution and growth and because the work that I do is always concerned with both the external and internal, I decided to dig into some of the science around rules that I’ve been exposed to over the years.
Rules help us create structure in our lives and can be part of how we derive our sense of personal power (The Emperor), but when they’re not regularly interrogated and updated as needed, they become liabilities. This is true in every domain from mental health to social welfare. Catholic Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast wrote, “Although life creates structures, structures do not create life,” and this is why The Tower is so high up in the major arcana sequence; it represents the destruction of old and heralding of the new which makes way for new life and understanding.
It’s summer here in the western hemisphere and that also gets me thinking. Just six months ago it was so cold I couldn’t leave the house. The only reason I can even sit here with the windows open and the hot sun on my face is because Spring had the audacity to interrupt the stiff hard shell of winter. A frozen, dead thing that left to its own devices would probably have stayed forever.
There are things in life that are like winters, too. Habits, patterns, ways of life. Beliefs, ideologies, systems. Some tarot scholars have written about The Fool as being the embodiment of Spring, the Green Man, the April Fool, the human manifestation of a melting icicle or the first green tips of a daffodil. What audacity these things have to interrupt a gigantic frozen landscape.
Breaking rules is necessary because rules that are followed for too long and without questioning become habits, and habits become invisible very quickly. In the behavioral science field, the term “rule-governed behavior” is used to describe things people do, not because those things are the good or right or values-driven things but because they’ve become habit based on some psychological rule that may or may not be rooted in truth and may or may not be useful.
For example, a person who hears voices or sees things that other people don’t see might have a rule that says “people who hear voices or see things that other people don’t see can’t possibly live a vital, fulfilling life.” As a result of this rule, such a person may avoid seeking help because seeking help means accepting something about their brain that they believe means will require them to live a broken shell of a life when in fact, a huge number of people who experience psychosis live deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives.
A person who has a rule that says “feeling good is the goal of life therefore feeling bad means I have failed” will do whatever they can to avoid feeling bad and I probably don’t need to tell you the myriad ways that rule is going to cost them a fortune (Eight of Swords).
There is value in both convention and innovation. In rule-following and rule-breaking. Some people are really good at memorization, recall, adherence and tradition and these people are needed because they are the preservers of history and the culture bearers and they teach us what’s come before.
Others are more skilled at forgetting, which might sound foolish to you but in the world of archetypes, The Fool is sacred. Forgetting makes innovation and the bridging of worlds possible. If no one ever forgot the rules, there would be no new systems to memorize. No new customs to honor, traditions to keep with, strings to the past to tie around our waists as we swim out to explore new domains.
Imagine forgetting all the wrong things you learned about your levels of lovability, worth, adequacy, competence as a child. Imagine forgetting the deficiencies you’re sure—deep down and at the cellular, ancestral level—that you have.
Imagine forgetting heteronormativity and the gender binary and all the conditioning, roles and standards. Imagine forgetting European standards of beauty. Imagine if all the oppressive rules you’ve internalized suddenly slipped your mind, were returned back to sender, never to return. Maybe you’ve felt that before, in tiny fleeting moments with beings you felt safe with (Three of Cups). Maybe you’re holding out for a time like that to bless you for the very first time. What sweet, sacred, wild and unbridled energy. This is the essence of The Fool.
If you’ve identified some rules that you don’t think are working and you’d like to break them, you should know how to break rules well. It won’t be enough to go around rebelling willy nilly for the sake of ruffling feathers or being weird because all of that centers the thing you’re rebelling against and that’s not the point. You need a vision, a quest, a raison d’être that has nothing to do with what’s happening already and everything to do with what’s precious.
Three of Pentacles paired with The Fool reminds me of the unique and peculiar thing that happens when a person is grounding so deep into their haunches that the energy has nowhere to go but up. Threes are always about innovation because they speak to what happens when two energies meet and something new comes out of that confluence. If no one broke rules there would be no new fields, no new systems, no new ideas and no new areas of study and that would render life no longer living.
I don’t know about you, but I think I can do better work in this world if I don’t have to haul the stiff corpse of the past around with me forever more. I’d rather it go deep into the ground where something fresh and alive can grow in its rich soil.
Here is a practice for connecting with the Three of Pentacles energy, because all of this has been heady. Write each of the things you’re good at on little pieces of paper. Don’t worry about making them cohesive or related, in fact the more random they seem, the better. Put them in a hat and pull three. Using the three skills you’ve pulled, come up with a project that lets you use them all. If you have a partner or collaborator, you can also do this together. Let skills go together that buck what you thought you could blend. Watch what happens. This is one solid practice for breaking rules well. Come up with your own.
Tension can sometimes look like stuckness when it’s actually a clearing (Five of Wands). At the internal level, tension happens when one or more parts of us are in conflict or at the least not on the same page. Seeking to have their own unique needs met, each part vies for executive leadership but when no one part is convincing enough, a stalemate is reached. You know you’re stuck and you know you’re not a statue, but you don’t know yet what to do about it.
This is good. It’s so good. It’s so good because it means you’re passing through a stage that every other person who has ultimately altered their physical reality or made a significant life change has passed through (Page of Pentacles). Everyone you can think of who has made great change has been where you are now.
You’re perfectly poised to identify the rules that are keeping you bound and soon you’ll be ready to start breaking them. Get to what’s precious and then look at what’s oppressing that. Protest. Lobby. Draft new rules. Organize. Enlist supporters. Take your freedom by force if you have to.
I recently wrote about how naming something a block or a problem is a protest in itself, a statement that you’re not fine with being oppressed in this particular way and no you most certainly do not plan to shape a life around some limitation that really doesn’t need to be there. Give credit where credit is due. You can call yourself stuck if you want to, but maybe you can amend the rule that says “stuckness is bad,” so that it says stuckness is just one step away from a breakthrough.
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