I was sitting with an artist friend the other day demanding an explanation for why on earth Aleister Crowley called the Seven of Pentacles “failure” in his Thoth tarot deck when the same card looks like the start of a promising harvest season in the Rider Waite.
My friend—a Sagittarius who doesn’t believe in things like ownership and property and who has a better relationship with the Thoth deck than I do—suggested that a field full of gold coins might not actually be all it’s cracked up to be when what you were really needing was some long thick yams or some plump grains to make bread with or any living thing for your life to feed on in return for the life you’d exchanged.
A few weeks ago, I shared a line from an article written by psychologist Jay Efran that included the unattributed quote, “you can never get enough of what you don’t really need,” and that quote resurfaced as I reflected on how a field full of gold coins could possibly mean failure.
There’s an old folk tale in which a small girl in winter (Five of Pentacles), desperate to stay alive, sells matches—the one thing she owns and also the one thing that could keep her from freezing—in exchange for coins. She sells something of great value for too little (a penny per match, in the version told by Clarissa Pinkola Estés) and eventually, she dies.
We have all had moments in which we’ve traded something precious for something worthless and if you’ve never sold off a nourishing, warming, life-giving thing for a thing that looks hot but is frozen and hard at the core, or not only void of life but toxic to it, you are rare and maybe you should be in a museum or something?
Most of us have sacrificed our lushness at one time or another for something of far lesser value—our art, peace, solitude, time with family, a spiritual practice—only to be left shriveled and shrunken and dried out beyond recognition. We have traded in our most precious and non-renewable resources—the sharpest attention (Ace of Swords) and most vital energy we have—for things like companionship, status and illusions of security that have no real generative or protective properties. If you’re reading this that means there’s still time to reclaim what’s been lost, but not everyone is so lucky.
It’s naive to think that we can just will ourselves to stop doing bad deals without looking deeply at what underlies this drive to do them. What things we’re hoping to be rescued from. What feelings we’re unwilling to feel in the moments when we know we’ve overdrafted our psychic accounts but keep spending, or when we’ve taken a wrong turn and know it, but choose not to turn back. When we’ve cycled through the same excruciating pain over and over and over again, for no gain to speak of.
Because if it’s belonging or fulfillment or feeling seen or even being relieved of the work that is our lives that we’re wanting, well then we should be truthful about that so that we can make trades that are capable of addressing those things in a real and sustainable way. Trades that don’t leave us cold and depleted with only metal spheres to feast on and cold hard things to snuggle up to where warm living ones should be. Joseph Campbell said, “We’re kept out of the garden [of Eden] by our own fear and desire in relation to what we think to be the goods of our life.”
In the cognitive behavioral therapy tradition, behavior is viewed as a tool to regulate mood so rather than waiting to be in the mood to do the thing you know is good for you, you use behaviors that facilitate and support the moods you want to be in.
One of the ways this is done is by scheduling activities; people who live with depression and bipolar disorder often watch daily rituals fall to the wayside because depressive episodes make it really hard to get things done and when you engage in what’s called “mood-dependent behavior”—in other words, you let how you feel determine your actions—patterns start to form and they get sticky really quickly.
Scheduling things like sleep, waking, socializing and meal times is one way of helping you do the opposite of what you sometimes feel like doing and it is a technique for protecting the vibrant life rhythms that challenge the heavy beast of depression, which prefers to camp out in a state of rest, isolation and inaction rather than go there only when it’s appropriate. So when you don’t feel well, check in with your sleep, food and social rhythms because if those are off then you’ve identified at least one place to make adjustments.
I think about Circadian rhythm as a kind of physiological bass line, the first place you go when you need to strike balance (Temperance). A place where you can stand and figure out how to hold what appear to be opposites but are actually two sides of the same coin, complements.
That we have a cellular rhythm at all is evidence that we are rhythmic beings and the more aware we are of our own particular rhythms the better, because sometimes they get out of sync and if we don’t know where to look we could feel stuck or bewildered when a little shifting and jiggling could sync things right up.
There are rhythms of sleeping and waking, eating and digesting, being social and in solitude, learning and letting it all sink in, creating and sloughing off what is dead. There are also rhythms of love-making and abstinence, service and being served, exertion and rejuvenation.
If you think about your life like a musical arrangement you will see that there are many rhythms going simultaneously. On a good day, there is harmony and melody and just the right balance of soothing and stimulating.
When a crucial rhythm like creative life or resting or love making has dulled down to a barely audible throb you can turn up its volume by taking what’s here and dragging it over there, re-distributing energy as needed. Maybe you’re working too much and not making enough love, or going on five dates a week when what you need is the medicine of your own company. Be a composer, change the arrangement, make this into a kind of masterpiece (The Magician).
And even though the arrangement will sometimes feel chaotic and the rhythms out of sync, the snare will be too loud and the chimes inaudible (Five of Wands), you can always bring everything back down to the bare bones of your most primal rhythms; sleeping, eating, being in the company of others, getting fresh air. If you can regulate those, you’ve got the foundation you need to start listening for other signs of irregularity or imbalance in those secondary or tertiary rhythms, and to address them.
There are always little things to do in life that remind us of our agency and I suspect that the brain registers the experience of achievement in similar ways whether it is getting an exciting new job or getting dressed for the first time in three days. The impact is that you remember who you are, the composer of this life, and that you are, at least somewhat, in charge of what your arrangement looks like. You determine what is precious and you determine the best ways to have and maintain those things. It is you who sets the tempo, tone and timbre of the thing, and it is you who performs it. Because whatever you make, ultimately it is you who must listen to it, too.
If you’d like to learn to read tarot cards, enrollment is still open for my self-paced Tarot Fundamentals online course. To book a one-on-one session with me or learn more about what that entails, click here.