A common goal in therapy is to increase psychological flexibility. This looks different for everyone, but the main premise is that when we are flexible we are able to stay in alignment with what we care about, even in the face of difficult thoughts, feelings or sensations.
In tarot, this concept is represented by the Temperance card.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it. Lao Tzu
Temperance is about trusting that you can handle what comes up, that you can hold what feels difficult, and that you can ultimately regain your balance as often as you need to. It’s about the alchemical process that occurs when we make room for our suffering, rather than falling back on patterns that help us resist or avoid what hurts.
Even when we choose to release things that we know aren’t good for us—a relationship, job, pattern, addiction, disorder—there are often mixed feelings involved; grief, doubt, loneliness, longing, regret.
With psychological flexibility, we can learn to hold feelings of loss without taking them as signs to turn back. This kind of agility allows us to hold that mixed bag of feelings and still move in our chosen direction, knowing that the direction we’ve chosen is toward our highest good.
Just as physical practices like yoga and dance can build flexibility in the body, there are psychological practices that can build flexibility of the mind.
If you’re still not convinced that psychological flexibility is good for your health, check out this study, Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health.
I’ll use the minor arcana that came up in this month’s spread to share some practices designed to boost mental agility.
Page of Pentacles asks that we take a step back and examine what we truly value. The process of clarifying our values fosters psychological flexibility by giving purpose to the path of healing, and providing us with the motivation we need to make better choices.
Make a list of the areas of life that matter most to you (i.e. relationships, family, work, health), and write down what’s most important to you for each.
The Four of Cups illustrates the practice of grounding ourselves in the present moment, and focusing on what’s directly in front of us. This also helps us build mental agility.
When we’re not present—caught up in stories about the past or worries about the future—we simply have less energy and attention available to make a choice and act on what’s for the highest good in the moment.
One very simple practice to help ground in the present is to say to yourself (silently or aloud, depending on where you are) “right now I’m aware of…” For example: my feet on the ground; the scent of a candle; my hunger; my sadness; my shallow breathing, and so on.
Another practice that builds psychological flexibility is remembering that we are not our thoughts. Until we understand the distinction between who we are and what we think, we remain at the mercy of every thought that passes through.
You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather. Pema Chodron
Page of Swords and Queen of Swords depict two stages of the process of learning to defuse from thoughts. Take another look at the illustrations on these cards. Imagine that the clouds in these illustrations represent thoughts.
The Page is a beginner. He is submerged in his thoughts and cannot see far beyond them. His sword is drawn and he is ready to react, defend or fight at a moment’s notice.
The Queen, on the other hand, is an expert. Seated just above the clouds, she is perfectly positioned to simply observe her thoughts, rather than be ready to react at any time. Though she maintains an attitude of openness to her thoughts (notice the open hand), she also understands that not every thought warrants a response.
To get better at noticing your thoughts, a short daily meditation practice can work wonders. If you’re not feeling quite ready for that, you might try out this guided meditation with Dr. Dan Siegel.
And one last, good, evidence-based practice for being more flexible is good old-fashioned commitment.
Cultural beliefs about commitment (Two of Cups) may sound like the literal opposite of flexibility. But when you go back to the practice of identifying your values (Page of Pentacles) you may realize that staying in alignment with those things is not always easy.
There are the things that matter to us, and then there are distractions, old habits, and dysfunctional patterns some of which we’ve been unknowingly reinforcing for years. Values are nice, but without commitment they’re not of much use to us.
Making commitments to ourselves to move in alignment with our values is part of what helps us be flexible and to do what Temperance asks of us; to make space for mixed feelings, fearful and anxious thoughts, scary emotions, and shadow parts without allowing them to dictate our behavior.
And that is what being flexible is all about.
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