One of many things I learned from my career in self-help book publishing was the way that words make the difference between whether an idea is medicinal or ineffective. What I loved about tarot cards when I first started using them was how they shared many of of the same ideas that I was seeing in self-help books—avoidance, self-compassion, mindfulness—but in a language that was so much more soluble for my particular spirit. That was the beginning of a personal journey that many of you have born witness to; a walk down a “middle path” that integrates concepts from contemporary evidence-based psychotherapies with the mysterious images of the tarot.
Lately, I’ve become more and more interested in magic. I think the language of magic and alchemy have a lot to offer in the kind of work that I do, which is really about miracles and transmutation. Any process that involves using the invisible, subtle aspects of our experience—which includes thoughts, feelings, energy—to influence the visible and denser ones—namely, behavior—is magic. And the aspiration of taking something of seemingly little value and transmuting it to something precious, is truly the vision of the alchemist.
This isn’t to take lightly these ancient arts which are complex, but to use them as metaphors for starters, and then experiment with their energies and see what magic and miracles we can do. Hermetic law states that in order to understand anything, we must also understand its opposite. So let’s start with what magic is not.
In On Becoming an Alchemist, Catherine MacCoun writes that when things happen that we didn’t consciously intend, or “when our unconscious will is stronger than our conscious intention…it is unmagical.”
She’s saying something similar to what Rachel Pollack wrote in 78 Degrees of Wisdom about the Justice card:
By accepting responsibly for ourselves we paradoxically free ourselves from the past. Like Buddha remembering all his lives, we can only get loose from the past by becoming conscious of it. Otherwise, we constantly repeat past behavior. This is why Justice belongs in the center of our lives.
Living without examining the whys of our particular lives is essentially living a life that is characterized by a sort of meaninglessness and mundanity. In other words, a life that is devoid of magic.
I like using language like “miracles” and “magic” to describe things that are difficult and maybe counterintuitive. Therapists use terms like “doing the opposite” and “exposure” to describe ways of working with our internal experience—by directly defying it in service of living better. They also use words like “post-traumatic growth” and “recovery” to talk about taking traumatic experiences and using them to grow, a process of transmutation and in a certain sense, alchemy. These are extreme expressions of will and personal power and I guess I’ve just never felt like those terms were adequate for what they’re talking about doing.
As a language artist who is also a healer, I’m concerned with the medicinal uses of words, the right concoctions to administer a treatment in a way that’s going to be effective. Some say my interpretations of the tarot are too loose, too creative, too far from the traditional. To that I say: I’m less concerned with what is “classical,” than I am concerned with what works.
Humans are born with a built-in program whose primary operating mode is this: Secure as much pleasure as possible for the least amount of discomfort. When you’re operating from this program, your behaviors are mostly habit and machination. Everything from the route you take to get to work or school, the events you attend or don’t, the things you consume, all are performed with the aim of maximum enjoyment at the cheapest cost.
An anonymous Hermeticist wrote that anything that is done from this mode is not really done at all, in fact, it just happens. Which is to say that it happens automaticlly, unconsciously and unmagically. Referring to the biblical teaching “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,” he says that this teaching, which instructs us to do the opposite of what our programming tells us to do, is wisdom straight from a “school for the miraculous.”
So anytime you do something that breaks from the operating system of maximum pleasure for minimal discomfort, you are practicing magic. Doing a miracle, you might say. Physics teaches us that objects will move in the same direction and speed that they were going unless they are intervened upon by something. When it comes to our habits, there are many ways to intervene. But we have to be conscious of them first. From this perspective, becoming conscious is the first step to performing miracles.
So you can start by looking at the things you do automatically, without interrogation, intention or even awareness. Pick a behavior, look at it, and trace it back. Ask yourself, why? Why did I do this? What was my desire? What was I trying to accomplish, trying to catch hold of, or trying to avoid?
This doesn’t mean that intention is everything, it isn’t. Impact is what counts, and that impact is often directly correlated with the true motives of an action, not the motives one presents so as to appear righteous, or whatever. Impact stems from what onetruly wants (Nine of Cups), not what they say or pretend to want. This requires radical honesty.
Doing miracles begins with insight, with making the things we do automatically, which is to say, unconsciously, conscious so that we stand a chance at changing them. This is what early analytic psychotherapies aimed to do, to make the unconscious conscious. It is also one of the many things that tarot can do.
The lesson of the Justice card is that we are co-creating our realities to a very real extent, whether we are conscious of it or not, and that when we aren’t moving with a certain level of awareness—or when, as Catherine MacCoun wrote “our unconscious will is stronger than our conscious intention,” we are bound to continue living under the rule of the same patterns and struggles, living lives that are mechanical, not magical.
Sometimes the consequences of a mechanical life—that is, one that is based entirely on the program of getting the most for the least, aren’t that bad. But oftentimes they are.
Like if you’re avoiding the search for a new job because it makes you feel fearful and possibly inadequate. The only thing even resembling pleasure that you get from your current position is in the familiarity, and that’s going stale, but the cost of change is a willingness to feel that fear and inadequacy, a fee which you’ve determined is just not in the budget.
Or maybe you have an amazing idea for a project but every time you pick it up, incompetence creeps in, so you avoid, avoid, avoid. It would bring you pleasure to make progress, but you’ve deemed the discomfort of feeling not good enough too pricey.
Maybe you have no one to talk to about the stuff you’re into because you think the group in your town that’s dedicated to it is probably full of weirdos. You might feel annoyed if you go, so you’d rather stay home with the dull pleasure of watching documentaries alone, even if that pleasure would pale in comparison to social connection with people who get you.
You don’t have to want to do miracles in your life. But when you want more than the pleasure you have access to for what you’ve been willing to pay, you might change your mind. You might be willing to experience discomfort in service of something that can bring more healing, power and ultimately pleasure into your life.
Desire is a birthplace of miracles. Desire is where we work with the subtle energy of the latent spaces between what we have now and what we hope for. In psychotherapy terms, we’d say that what we hope for is a life that’s in alignment with our values, or the things we hold precious that are worth doing the work for. In old stories, we’d describe what we hope for in terms of what moves us toward some mythic treasure, the thing that sets our sails, the Holy Grail (Ace of Cups).
Another great thing that MacCoun writes in her book about alchemy is that “desire, to the magician, is as essential as water.” Where we have become hardened, detached and defended, desire makes us soft, awakens our receptors and lowers our shields. When it is a desire that comes from our depths and heights (not from things like television, social pressures, insecurities) it draws us out from the isolation of our shells and into belonging (Four of Wands). It challenges us to grow, nudging us gently and sometimes not-so-gingerly toward our edge. Like a good mother or teacher would.
But getting at the desires of the Soul is sometimes half the battle. Clearing away what we think we’re supposed to do or want, what would look cool or sound good or give us some kind of legitimacy (Two of Wands). You will know true desires from false ones because the true ones will fit realistically into a vision of life that feels lush, textured and multidimensional (Ten of Pentacles). Other visions that appear to be real desires might be exciting in some way, but will feel flat, like the image on a television screen. You’ll be in the frame, but you’ll look basically the same as you do now. MacCoun says the desires you want to watch for are the ones that have the capacity to change you. The ones where when you get there, your whole Being looks different.
So if you want to do magic, and you want to make miracles, desire is an excellent place to start. If you have a desire in the first place, you’re in luck, because desire is good base matter for alchemy. Because it activates you on the cognitive, emotional, energetic and behavioral levels, it gives you lots to work with.
You might think, write and speak about the desire using affirmative statements; “onceabc happens, I’ll be xyz.” You might visualize the thing happening and see how it feels in the body, which is where emotions happen when we get underneath the trick of intellectualizing and calling it feeling. You might go to that place as often as you wish, and indulge in the sweetness there, you may get acquainted with the energetic signature of the desire fulfilled. And you might choose behaviors that move you toward that thing and not away from it, and also ones that extend compassion to yourself when you slip up or get distracted.
Because you will get distracted and that’s okay. I’ve worked with and known a lot of people and I’ve yet to meet anyone who struggles with being too gentle on themselves. I’m not talking about people who avoid discomfort at all costs—when you look closely that’s not gentle at all, it is actually quite forceful. Gentleness is a subtle energy that can influence the physical reality (Strength) and so it is yet another way to practice magic.
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