Most of us are so used to engaging with the world through the exertion of will (The Chariot) that we feel lost and disoriented when we aren’t able to bend life to our liking.
Willpower is useful when there’s an external obstacle to overcome with a relatively clear path forward and a level of malleability to the circumstances. But have you ever tried using willpower to get over a breakup? Or to make anger go away? To forgive someone? To feel less anxious? Applied to internal challenges, willpower doesn’t work, it’s not helpful, and in some cases it’s even a liability.
Willpower is best for times when it’s clear where you’re going and what you need to do to get there (note the yellow background in Coleman-Smith’s illustration of the Chariot, symbolizing the clear vision of daytime and the absence of mystery).
Where willpower is significantly less functional is when night falls in the psyche. When we are lost or exiled. Cast into a metaphorical desert or sea. Wandering without a map, compass or constellation.
In a culture that worships at the altar of knowledge as power, confusion is generally devalued, considered a condition to be remedied and rid of, and preferably with a quickness. A reflection of this collective bias toward knowing, people who seek counsel through the tarot tend to fear and reject The Moon because it appears to be about the exact opposite of what they think they need, answers.
The Moon archetype is a symbol of psychic nighttime and the way what we see becomes obscured when we can no longer see by the light of day. And honestly, what use could a symbol of confusion possibly be to those who are confused?
One evening over tapas and Grenache one of my therapy mentors told me how you can stimulate a sense of confusion in clients by relating to them in a way they’re not expecting, or asking the sort of well-crafted question that challenges their mode of being. This may sound cruel or unusual to someone unable to make space for the possibility that confusion can be useful, but bear with me. When a stuck person becomes confused, the path they’ve been walking vanishes before their eyes & they’re forced to forge a new way.
This was fascinating to me. It made me wonder whether we could exalt confusion as a kind of crucible, rather than a thing to be fixed. Maybe confusion is when you get to work on your ancient and atrophied modes of seeing, moving and knowing. Maybe if you sit with mystery, new ways of navigating emerge, ways that are more wild and instinctual (see the wolves and crawfish in Coleman-Smith’s illustration), intuitive (the moon) and rooted in higher states of consciousness (the sun, which is not actually down in Coleman-Smith’s illustration, but merely eclipsed).
Maybe times of confusion are like these perfectly designed psychic situations that let us call on parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise use.
I couldn’t help but do more research into the healing properties of confusion after that dinner. As it turns out, healers and teachers have been using confusion as a tool since time out of mind.
Zen koans, ancient riddles used by Zen Buddhists in meditation, date back centuries and are designed to help people better understand the nature of reality by puzzling them, revealing the limitations of knowing with the analytic mind.
“When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
A classroom study was widely written about after finding that when teachers stimulated states of confusion in students, they learned more. And in the field of mental health, psychiatrist Milton Erickson taught “confusion techniques” to hypnotherapists, who learned to use disorientation in therapy to help patients change.
To know something for sure it to build a psychic wall against anything that might challenge it (eight of swords). For example, if I assume that certain feelings are dangerous it will keep me from doing anything that might trigger those feelings, even though the truth is that feelings themselves aren’t dangerous at all. (It is in the elaborate ways in which we avoid and reject them that damage is done). A person who believes they’re terrible at math might avoid any course of study that requires them to do it, but what if their contributions to those fields could change the world?
Knowing things is limiting. Not knowing on the other hand, makes life broad and full of potential. When our psychic defenses drop, doorways that challenge our concept of what a door even looks like appear and fly open. Daring us to trust that we know a portal when we see one. When we are disoriented all we can do is grab for a foothold or solid edge to hold onto. We don’t have the energy to defend against our own growth.
During a discussion about The Moon card in a recent tarot workshop, a participant shared a line from a short poem called “Our Real Work” by Wendell Berry:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
When the things we take for granted stop making sense, we must abandon our stiff wooden ships for tiny rubber life rafts. We must set sail on a sea that we don’t feel ready for, in search of a more sustainable and versatile vessel.
Confusion rips away facets of our identities that we may have clung to for comfort, but that only know how to do the same stuff that doesn’t work. When overused muscles become injured or non-functional, we’re forced to engage those that have dwindled and atrophied.
The thing is, we’re a member of a species that has evolved to fear uncertainty. Our disdain for the unknown is an ancient survival tactic that served a function at one time but might not be needed anymore. We can acknowledge the therapeutic value of confusion while also recognizing that to embrace it is to go against our grain. We’re probably not going to like these moments. So we do need tools to get through them.
A model of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems approaches people with the assumption that we are each made up of a diverse “internal family” of psychological parts, each with unique wants and needs. These parts are sometimes in agreement and sometimes in conflict (Five of Wands).
Confusion is a symptom of parts in conflict. We might find ourselves toggling between options from one moment to the next. No sooner than we’ve made a decision, a second part pops up with a compelling case for the other option.
In times like these, there is a visualization practice for finding clarity that goes something like this:
All of the parts of you that are conflicted, chattering, pulling, pushing, vying for the position of leadership in the psychic realm, climb a mountain in your mind’s eye and leave them all at the trailhead.
Go up and up and up until their voices become mumbled, then quiet, then silent. When you reach the summit what are you left holding? What is your truth? Hold that in your awareness. (The Hermit) Feel it. Say it aloud. Stay as long as you need to to get to know its essence. When you’re ready, carry it down the mountain with you.
And hold that truth lightly. If you get confused again, that means you’re on the path.
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