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The book of tarot is written in the language of archetype and symbol, with Judgment symbolizing a call to action, a thing that motivates change. A value, a vision, a quest, a dream life. It’s the thing that makes us want to do the hard work of changing because a new life awaits us when we do.
Change is said to occur in stages. First we don’t know that change is needed. Then we realize something isn’t working, sometimes through a blinding revelation and sometimes through a gradual tiring of the way things are. Then we set intentions and gather resources to support the changes we hope to make. Then we take action. And then we focus on sustaining the change and preventing relapse. Relapse is very common and I think it’s worth noting that our intense fear and judgment of it is often counterproductive.
The magic happens in the action stage (Knight of Cups). Most people don’t spend a lot of time here, which is why when you’re in it you might feel profoundly alone. It’s a hard space to be, but the rewards for moving successfully through it are often the greatest.
Intention setting is an important process, but one that realistically demands less of us than action does. Most of us take comfort in the practice of setting intentions and planting metaphorical life seeds at the New Moon. We enjoy reflecting on what has come to fruition at the Full Moon, and find the process of identifying what might need clearing cathartic.
As for the steady, committed work of tending, checking, watering, fertilizing, troubleshooting and pruning? That all gets done (or gets neglected) in the waxing and waning stages. The pleasant aspects of the new and full moons are necessarily dependent on what happens during the interim phases. At the quarter moons. The half moons. These moons get less attention than the New and Full ones, but they are critical.
Though the Knight of Cups specifically emphasizes feelings, the Knights in tarot are all about action. When we decide to stop using a behavior that has helped us avoid something we’re scared of, we tend to feel worse before we feel better because, simply, we’re no longer avoiding.
We’re basically sending out an open invitation to the houseguests whose company we despise. When they arrive, it’s not uncommon to feel panicked. To wonder if change is really what’s needed after all.
Maybe if I am more patient. Maybe if I only drink on weekends. Maybe if I learn to appreciate the moment. Maybe if I master the art of non-attachment. Maybe if I only buy things on sale. Maybe if I do a backflip. Maybe then I can go back to the old way without self-destructing.
If you’ve recently tried doing something different and find yourself toying with the idea that maybe the old way wasn’t so bad, this is all normal. It is in the action stage that our poor, frightened egos begin the mad scamper to find a trap door out of the discomfort. To dead the pain with the old behavior because it’s more than we’d bargained for. Maybe the backlog of unfelt feelings is greater and more overwhelming than we’d expected. Perhaps the things we were afraid to make contact with are more prickly and ugly and hideous than we knew.
I think the bargaining piece of the action stage stems in part from the fact that we’re conditioned to associate difficult feelings with something being wrong and in need of fixing. But it’s also that, as artist Carolyn Lazard writes in their essay The World is Unknown:
The thing about pain is that it’s pain. It is a generative sensation because it always, without a doubt, motivates you to get away from it, to end it by any means necessary.
It is a mistake to underestimate the drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As human beings it is a shared vulnerability that none among us are immune to. There is nothing—I repeat, not a damn thing—wrong with us for not wanting to sit in pain.
If you have stopped doing a thing that’s been helping you avoid grief, loneliness, existential dread, flashbacks, nightmares, social anxiety, that feeling is going to come now. It is your work to tend to it with kindness and curiosity (and professional help if necessary) so that you can make peace with it and lay to rest its influence over you (Ten of Swords).
During the action stage, we have to pay attention to the things we’re doing right because an unchecked mind will focus only on the ways we’re falling short and the things we’re doing wrong. How we feel inside matters. It does. But we can get into trouble when we measure progress exclusively by how we feel. How we behave is also an important indicator of progress.
If you are making choices that are in alignment with your highest truth it isn’t going to always feel good (Six of Swords). If it always felt good, everyone would do it, and look around you. They don’t. The choice to pursue a personal calling often requires that we sacrifice the wants and needs of a part of us that is drawn to behaviors that undermine that quest.
Behavior is not the only thing that matters. But our actions do have the power to influence our thoughts and feelings, and vice versa. In some cases, the actions we take are the only thing we have to know that we’re on the right path. When everything else on the inside is reeling. A wise behavioral choice is like a lighthouse. It is physical proof that we’re moving forward in a sea of the felt and invisible and terrifying.
Feelings are valuable data that serve important functions. But they are also incredibly fickle, and not always the most reliable guides. Feeling awful is not an indicator that progress is not being made. In some cases, I think it is exactly the opposite.
Pamela Coleman-Smith’s illustration of the Ten of Swords always reminds me of somatic therapist Peter Levine’s definition of trauma:
Trauma occurs when we are intensely frightened and are either physically restrained or perceive that we are trapped. We freeze in paralysis and/or collapse in overwhelming helplessness.
Long after, we continue to experience “body memories”—physiological sensations that reverberate from the original wounding—when we encounter energy reminiscent of the original trauma in the present. These sensations are often accompanied by intense emotions like fear, anxiety, rage and helplessness. Because most of us would rather do anything than feel these things, this is when we might start building a life around avoiding any potentially triggering experiences.
You absolutely can craft your life around avoiding things that could hurt you, scare you, or make you uncomfortable. But as time passes, a life fashioned in this way does begin to feel less like a life and more like a prison cell (see also: Pamela Coleman-Smith’s illustration of the Eight of Swords). The antidote for avoidance is willingness (Six of Swords).
We all feel echoes from the past in the present and sometimes it stifles us. Sometimes changing longterm patterns is so hard because those patterns are rooted in our intense fear of feeling something that is very, very old. A wound that has been neglected and re-opened to the point of infection.
And trauma isn’t limited to accidents and assaults. An adult who experienced longterm loneliness as a child could have a physiological reaction to being alone rooted in the sustained relational trauma of being unseen over many years. It makes sense then that such a person might avoid being alone at all costs.
In his book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Levine writes:
The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect…depends upon how we approach it.
This month’s spread offers overarching themes of trauma (Ten of Swords), rest and integration (Four of Swords), and rebirth (Death). A skeleton also symbolizes the indestructible aspects of the Self. Whatever remains of us after we’ve passed through the gauntlets of purpose, behavior change, resolving trauma, and integrating what we’ve learned, is what is real.
This is where Death leaves us; pared down to the parts of ourselves that have withstood the purifying fires of recovery and healing.
You are not required to use your trauma as a catalyst for growth. What one does with their past is an intensely personal choice. Each person gets to decide if, when, and how they will use—or not use—the things that they’ve seen and been through.
Meaning-making can be helpful, and research suggests that work must be done to liberate the body from where it has been pinned to the earth in the time and place when the trauma occurred (Ten of Swords). For most people healing happens through a combination of things. It is an intuitive and highly individual process. In which all we can do sometimes is to keep experimenting.
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