Tarot cards are said to have originated in mid-15th century Europe and were believed to have been used at that time to play games. Today, they are most associated with divination practices that provide insight into an issue or problem and as a tool to explore the unconscious mind and engage intuition.
Though divination practices like tarot have been historically dismissed by the dominant contemporary scientific and evidence-based psychology communities, the function of tarot cards in psychotherapy sessions as a tool to incorporate the evidence-supported power of metaphor and symbol remains.
Dr. Art Rosengarten wrote the first dissertation on tarot and psychology and later published the classic text on the topic, Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility. He is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in San Diego, California and an adjunct professor of psychology. He is also a meditation instructor and a skilled reader and teacher of tarot who has dedicated his life’s work to incorporating the powerful, healing practice of tarot in psychotherapy practice and teaching clinicians and others the skills to do the same.
The following is an interview with Dr. Rosengarten. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you began to incorporate tarot into your clinical work.
I actually learned the tarot in graduate school in the mid-70s in San Francisco at the California Institute of Asian Studies, as a student of East-West philosophy and psychology and a Jungian even at an early age.
When I took a weekend seminar on the tarot, which was taught by an eastern philosophy scholar, I immediately saw tremendous potential for psychotherapy in the tarot and went on to write the first dissertation on tarot which i compared with dream analysis and the thematic apperception test or projective storytelling.
When I finished my PhD in 1985, I moved down to San Diego to do my post-doc at a psychiatric hospital. I had then—and still do—a fairly conventional, small, solo private practice, but I’ve always continued with the tarot simultaneously; teaching, writing and implementing and experimenting with my clinical work.
What was it that was most compelling to you about using tarot as a tool in the context of psychotherapy?
When you look at the tarot images, particularly in the minor arcana, you can see there are so many psychodynamics in them. Anybody trained in working with dreams or symbols can see that these symbols are rich with psychological information and they’re excellent illustrations of certain psychological constructs, like transference, addiction, emotional eating or many, many others that the tarot reveals very clearly in images.
The major arcana are compatible with the Jungian archetypes and the perennial philosophy which is very important and relevant in depth psychology.
Even in the age before the evidence-based objectivists, behaviorists, cognitive corporate powers took over the field of psychology, there was still quite a bit of interest in depth psychology, dreams, the spiritual dimension and things like that.
Unfortunately, mainstream psychology has veered in a different direction, but in my writing I’ve addressed this pretty strongly on a number of fronts including showing ways that even mainstream psychologists and therapists can utilize tarot cards as a supplemental tool in their practice.
How would you describe the function of a tarot card in the context of a psychotherapy session?
There are many different uses and it depends upon the particular clinical situation and the creativity of the therapist. For instance, the simplest way that I’ll often bring a tarot card into a therapeutic hour is when somebody will be talking about a particular dynamic or issue in their lives that is very clearly represented in a particular tarot card, I’ll say, “there’s a tarot card and it shows a picture of exactly what we’re talking about.”
Let’s say we’re talking about the eight of swords, which is a picture of a woman who’s bound and gagged, standing barefoot near the ocean, and there are eight swords surrounding her. This is a great illustration of cognitive distortion; such that the swords represent negative thoughts which are blinding and binding the person’s ability to see clearly, when in fact she’s standing on the shoreline right next to the open ocean. The ocean symbolizes the unconscious—and in the background, on top of a mountain, there is a beautiful castle that she cannot see because of the distortions of her negative cognitions.
By showing them a picture and being able to point to the different internal images within the pictures, it’s very useful in that it gives them something to hold onto. It’s an alternative to the studious cognitive reframing exercise—which is very left-brained and word-based and they come back with all these rational ideas about their depression but they don’t really have an intuitive connection to what’s going on.
Clients often say that it helps them see the bigger picture.
Why are symbols so effective for people in psychotherapy?
This is what I’ve written about in my book. Tarot is nonverbal, universal, and cross-cultural. It stimulates intuition, it can be used in brief therapy and it doesn’t require dream recall. It’s spiritually-based which is unique—probably only Alcoholics Anonymous and a few other models offer a spiritual approach to psychotherapy.
Also, tarot operates through the mechanism of synchronicity, and that’s really the key to what makes tarot cards and other forms of divination like the I Ching—so unique in a psychotherapeutic process. Because when you do depth psychotherapy, you are opening up a lot of energies outside the narrow ego frame of the mind. And when you do that, you’re moving more into deep emotions, intuitions, instincts and things like that. It becomes a very powerful field for synchronicity to occur. And tarot cards invite that.
I sometimes call the tarot a synchronicity generator. Synchronicity is a term that Jung coined, and he wrote in great depth as have many others about what synchronicity is; it’s not this kind of commonplace term. Jung called synchronicity equal in its importance to causality—which is the whole underlying basis of western philosophy and western psychology.
Jung said that synchronicity is acausal, which means that some things occur naturally, without anything causing them. To the western mind, that’s kind of a foreign way of thinking. There must be an explanation. There must be a reason. Something’s doing that. Synchronicity opens up another window of looking, where things are seen as already as they are. It’s very Zen-like.
Tarot makes that very immediate. We know it’s working, we know something significant is happening, we simply don’t know why, and we try desperately to find a reason why this thing is working and we can’t find it. It is an experience of synchronicity.
So is having an experience of synchronicity useful in and of itself?
It’s kind of like a confirmation of what we suspect, or maybe what we didn’t suspect. It’s a confirmation that’s not coming from another human opinion. It’s coming from the natural universe, and it’s underscoring what we may have thought. That gives it a tremendous amount of power emotionally. When you walk out of the therapist’s office and you’ve had such an experience, that’s going to stick much more.
When you describe it this way it sounds like tarot may be just an inherently validating tool for people.
Exactly, very much.
In a powerpoint presentation of yours, you wrote “for the broad range of problems that clients bring to psychotherapists there is still no convincing evidence that one system is any better than the others,” and when I saw that I thought, “wow, that is a bold statement.”
The thing that you left out about that statement is “…in all cases.” There’s no single approach that’s been shown to work better than all others, in all cases. That silver bullet that is the therapeutic answer to all therapeutic problems, no there’s not. There’s no single thing. Do you know of one? I haven’t heard of any.
There are many good approaches and many good approaches that work and get good results. I use many approaches, not just the tarot. However, one of the things that I’ve run into is that there is an invisible, but very aggressive wall of politics that pervades all of the sciences, not just psychology.
It’s not often talked about, but people who specialize in say Freudian therapy or Cognitive therapy, they all start developing a very strong bias; they’ve built their careers on it, they write their books on it, they’re living by it. And it’s fine to want to support and defend their particular school of thought, and to compete against all competing schools and that happens everywhere.
Unfortunately, in such a particularly aggressive and powerful world as the health care industry is, things that are anomalies—things that are quirky or don’t have tremendous endowment, academic support, professional organizations and people who’ve invested their whole careers in—such as tarot cards, are not really going to be given their fair due.
Even if it was treatment x—and it was an absolutely transformative thing that was unparalleled—unless it had the proper political lineup and support, it would probably go by the wayside.
The tarot itself has been so controversial and the real message of the tarot has not really gotten out there into the mainstream. Part of my solo mission of over 40 years of doing this is trying to present a clear and professional advocacy for the potential and the usefulness of the tarot, as a tool to be used in 21st century psychotherapy.
Are there some schools of psychotherapy that are more compatible than others for those interested in incorporating tarot into their practice?
Most experienced therapists become increasingly more eclectic as they’ve been doing it over time and so they have a whole bunch of skills and tools in a lot of different practices. You have to these days, in order to survive in private practice. I teach in a way where people are given free reign to work with the cards in the language in which they are most comfortable and trained in.
I give them some basic foundation in how to understand the structure of a tarot deck, how to utilize their intuition first with the card, and how to amplify, as opposed to reduce imagery. That’s a key training there. This is the difference between the Freudian and Jungian schools; the Freudian are reductive.
Freud didn’t really understand the power of symbols. He was working with signs, and was wrongly calling them symbols. What those types of practitioners do is they look at tarot cards and they try to reduce them down to a “this means that” statement. And whatever their belief system or their philosophical orientation is, they will say, “well this is your interjected mother defense,” and that reductive method is discouraged in true symbolic work.
Rather, it’s more relevant to say “this corresponds to, that. But it means many things, and perhaps you have other thoughts about what it might mean as well.” That’s what amplification is about. Rather than reduce, what a skillful reader does is he facilitates a client to come to their own direct understanding of a card.
What does the research look like for tarot as a psychotherapeutic tool, and in light of what you said earlier I imagine there’s not a lot.
There are only a few PhDs that have done serious work with the tarot, but there are a few. But in terms of research, precious little. I’ve done a study of tarot readings and domestic violence, a comparative study of tarot readings, dream analysis and projective tests and a few other, smaller studies and experiments. But no, it’s something I’ve been calling for for all of my career. Unfortunately, I’m talking mostly to tarot readers who are not very academically based and do not have the wherewithal to do scientific research.
But in fact, the first famous psychologist to call for scientific research with tarot cards was Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology. Right in the preface of one of his first books.
I believe that as the world continues to go the route that it is going, it will become increasingly important and valuable to have highly skilled readers of tarot in the professions. There will be an emerging and large group of maybe 20-30% of people that are going to be hungry for deep, soul-based, psychotherapyand will reject all of the current biopharm products and the rather conservative psychotherapies that are out there. These people will gravitate towards practitioners who are deeply developed and have integrated wisdom teachings from the great traditions into psychotherapeutic practices.
To some of us, engaging the intuition and doing deep work just sounds inherently rewarding but to others who may be skeptical, or in tremendous psychological pain, why would this person want to go deeper into their psychological life?
I don’t think of this as for the masses. This is not going to be a popular thing. People who have done the work themselves, and are wanting more, people that are doing everything they can do, people that are doing yoga, and reiki, and meditation, and all kinds of great things. What they will find is that tarot will be a natural enhancer of all that they do.
To get to higher levels of consciousness, intuition has to be activated. You can’t get to it by rationality. And unfortunately, most of the world operates on that level of cognition that’s based on causality, on subject/object duality, on ego perceptions and you’re not going to be able to have a spiritual experience from that level. What is required is something that can only be experienced once the intuitive faculty is activated.
His forthcoming book, The Tarot of the Future (Paragon) will be available late 2017.
This interview was originally published on Psych Central Pro.