One of the things I love most about tarot is that it provides metaphors for understanding the more measurable aspects of human experience—thoughts (swords), feelings (cups) and behavior (pentacles)—while holding in equal importance the less measurable aspects of energy and Spirit (Ace of Wands).
I don’t know what Spirit is exactly and I don’t think I need to, there are definitions that I could draw from but I’d prefer we leave it to each individual to decide for ourselves what it means and why it matters.
So the wands are perhaps the most overtly spiritual of the suits, but the swords, cups and pentacles each speak to an aspect of the human experience that can be harnessed and used as an entry point toward a more mystic experience, if that’s what we seek for.
For example, the swords suit and thought-focused therapeutic models like cognitive behavioral therapy teach us to work with the intellectual mind to more effectively manage emotions and behavior. The cognitive model teaches the ways in which thoughts influence feelings and behavior, and throughout the tarot deck we see that the psychological swords cards are inherently emotional (Nine of Swords), a testament to the power of thoughts to stimulate and maintain whole feeling states.
Attention, a product of intellect, is our most precious resource. It is how we ascribe worth to any thing, which is the very definition of worship (to give worth to). In focusing on a thing we are, to a certain extent, expressing that the thing matters, for better or for worse. Attention is an offering, a prayer, a thing we pay, that we would get something in exchange (Four of Cups). A blessing, perhaps.
In her book Waiting for God, French philosopher Simone Weil writes:
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.
And she shares an important note about the legend of the holy, coveted and sought after Grail:
It is said that the Grail (the miraculous stone vessel which satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound: ‘What are you going through?’
This question is an expression of raw attention, and nothing else. No judging, evaluating, solving or fixing. It is simply attending to suffering as it is (Strength). The skill of offering raw attention has a transformative, miraculous and healing quality.
In giving our raw attention we say “this matters,” we offer a prayer and blessing simply by witnessing. In return, we are blessed. With healing, presence, connection, the Holy Grail. This is one of many examples of the prayer and blessing dynamic, which we’ll explore further in a moment.
What distinguishes mysticism from science is its interest in occupying mystery rather than seeking to know what is unknowable. While science treats not knowing as a problem to be solved, mysticism pulls a chair right up to the void, and makes itself comfortable.
In the spirit of mysticism I will now pose more questions than answers. One thing science does tell us (somewhat ironically, I might add) is that not being able to tolerate uncertainty is an underlying feature of many anxiety disorders. That to say, it’s good for us to to practice not knowing and being okay with it. We can use words like maybe and perhaps instead of always and never.
I invite you to wonder.
Maybe to pay attention to anything at all is to offer up prayer for that thing. And tooffer up prayer for anything is to prepare oneself for benediction (The Hierophant).
The anonymous author of Meditations on Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism likened the cycle of prayer and blessing to the circulation of blood, and compared spiritual practice to respiration.
Yoga, which is both a spiritual and respiratory practice, illustrates this concept well. On each inhale, we lift our prayers up toward the proverbial heavens and on the exhale, we bring down whatever God has offered us in exchange. Or perhaps it is the other way around. On each inhale we receive the blessing of oxygen, on the exhale we connect back with the Earth, humbling ourselves in prayer.
The concept of spiritual practice as respiration makes me think about how a literal breathing practice like yoga, whose aim is to become one with God, is actually a practice in blurring the lines between prayer and blessing. Through a continuous rhythmic repetition of inhale and exhale and grounding and lifting, we find a certain level of stability, peace and balance. The prayer becomes the blessing and the blessed becomes the blessing giver. The yogi becomes one with God (The Hanged Man).
Maybe the ultimate duality is that between man and God, and that the Ultimate spiritual enlightenment is the dissolution of that false separation (The World). In mystic practice we sit with these questions without needing to know their answers. We sit with them because it reminds us that it’s okay not to know.
Maybe a spiritual life could be one in which we understand any thought, feeling or behavior as prayer, and then anything that comes as a result of those things as a benediction of some kind, a sort of cosmic response from God or the Universe or the Higher Power.
Which of course might mean that a blessing could hurt or frustrate or make us suffer. The blessing in disguise, so to speak. Maybe then that hurt, frustration or suffering, would also become a prayer.
And then maybe after much anxious prayer, we are blessed with a break—so brief that we almost miss it—a 30 seconds or so in which we feel only the sun on our face and nothing else. Maybe we sometimes have to use our attention and focus in to see the blessings. Maybe a blessing is a dream realized, but maybe it’s also a dream dashed. Maybe it is a hunger satiated, a suffering alleviated, or a suffering maintained that illuminates a wound in need of salve. Maybe benedictions, all.
Because I feel like if we understood ourselves and everything we do as being in constant conversation with a higher power we might start to chip away at duality. At this illusion of above and below, within and without, self and other.
We might begin to experience what the anonymous author refers to as a kind of breathing, in which “one freely breathes the divine breath, which is freedom.” (The World) A life in which we fully understand that while we do have a big role in this thing, we don’t get monologues, just dialogues. In which we realize that we are not all powerful, nor are we powerless.
I don’t think tarot has to be a spiritual practice but I do think that it can be. And if we choose to view it in this way we can understand the Major Arcana as a series of challenges specifically designed to help us move back toward the innocence of the Fool, who doesn’t know they aren’t nature itself, anything separate from God. Who doesn’t understand the world as being male/female, good/evil, above/below, inner/outer, prayer/blessing and so forth. Whose every step is both a prayer and a blessing.
I will leave you with a few questions from our anonymous friend who wrote the book about tarot and Christian Hermeticism:
What is benediction? What is its source and its effect? who has the authority to bestow benediction? What role does it play in the spiritual life of humanity?
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