Can The Tarot Be ‘Real’?

(Living Now magazine, May 2010)

Can the tarot be ‘real’? – a psychotherapist explores the modern relevance of an ancient tool
by Finn McMillan


Gazing at her favourite deck of ornately designed Vacchetta tarot cards, a friend of mine recently asked me an evocative question, “Why can’t this stuff be real?” A tarot reader, she was frustrated by the fact her clients enlisted her services seemingly for entertainment, or for nebulous answers to even more nebulous questions to do with ‘destiny’ and ‘true love’, but attended counsellors, psychologists, doctors or other mentors for assistance with ‘real’ problems.

A believer in the deeper potential of tarot than mere fortune-telling, she began to doubt herself and the cards she had learned to trust and respect.

I use tarot as a psychotherapeutic tool. I wish the tarot could be taken out of the world of entertainment and invited into the world of psychotherapy. I too found that a very different sort of person typically saw a tarot reader or fortune-teller from the one who would enlist the services of a therapist. Need the world of academic psychology spurn the experience of mystics and sages? Need the tools of the ancients be useless in the hands of the doctor?

My experience is that these divisions are arbitrary, and more to do with the political, religious and social conditions of Western Europe than any inherent opposition between the respective schools of thought. Mathematics began its recognisable life as an art of the mystery schools of ancient Greece; chemistry is the son of alchemy, and astronomy the daughter of astrology. Similarly, the quantitative advances of psychology and medicine rest upon the qualitative observations of witchdoctor, shaman and oracles of the far, and not so far, past. Modern metaphysics is seen as a development of physics, which in turn was born of ancient metaphysics.

That the two worlds have been torn apart in popular and conventional thought is no reason not to consider the two as simply estranged, not divorced, with both becoming confused and bitter as a result. The tarot, and its application as a tool in psychotherapy, offers the potential to ‘reconcile the separated.’

To many rational and thoughtful people, the question must arise – how can it be that pulling random picture cards out of a deck could be relevant to a person’s life? How could it speak credibly about their psychological state, or their personal wellbeing?

Perhaps, at this point, I should suggest that there are two ways of looking at the art of tarot. The first is to see it as a tool to ‘divine’ the future; as one of the oracular ‘mantic’ arts, best described nowadays as ‘fortune telling’. The second is to view it as a deeply analytical device, capable of uncovering and highlighting inner psychological, and dare I say, ‘spiritual’ dynamics. Where the former might promise you will meet the lover of your dreams, the latter might suggest why you have those dreams, and how you might (and if you should) pursue them, and what problems you may encounter on your journey.

The tarot I refer to is that instrument which enables a skilled counsellor (shaman?) to help people travel that inner journey, to discover that inner lore that writes one’s destiny in secret, and thereby helps rewrite it at will.

So again, the question – how can pulling pretty cards out of a deck achieve such a visionary purpose? To answer this, we might look at a concept called ‘synchronicity’, coined by the famous psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung in the early 20th Century. Carl Jung was the greatest of pioneers in bridging science and mysticism, medicine and alchemy. He believed that Freud’s mechanistic psychological scheme was limited to overly deterministic formulae and neglected the ‘magic’ of the inner life. Indeed, it was he who coined many of the most commonly used phrases in modern ‘new age’ and occult circles, such as ‘collective unconscious’, ‘anima’, ‘animus’, and reinvigorated such concepts as the ‘archetype’, the ‘inner child’ and the ‘higher self’.

Simply put, synchronicity refers to those phenomena we typically refer to as ‘meaningful coincidences’, or as Jung called them, ‘acausal connecting principles between two events’. What this means is that two phenomena may relate to each other in a way that is not based on cause-and-effect, but on other more covert factors.

All of us have experienced this sort of ‘meaningful coincidence’ to a more or less dramatic degree. Thinking of a person just as that person rings you (even if you haven’t spoken for months or years), reading about an event in a novel and then seeing it replayed in the world around you, or (in Jung’s case) having a patient talk about a scarab just as a very rare beetle (closely resembling a scarab) flew through his window – and the scarab representing death and rebirth in ancient Egypt, while his client discussed moving on and new beginnings. One interesting phenomenon which will be recognised by many is that the more we tend to the ‘inner life’, particularly through such practices as meditation, the more synchronicity appears in our life.

In science we see examples of this in the development of the hologram or in advances in cloning, both suggesting a link between images or entities not based on causality, but rather some sort of implicit and inherent connection between them. Physicists have shown that two separated photons, no matter the distance between them, will reflect changes the other experiences. Fractal geometry and chaos theory also posit an underlying connection, a shared experience, between all phenomena at a profoundly deep level. It is a viewpoint which presupposes (and demonstrates) that there is a connection – some sort of unity – underlying our observable reality.

As an interesting and relevant aside, astrology is fairly easily debunked using scientific cause-and-effect arguments. It may be absurd to think that distant planetary events ‘cause’ events or personality traits, but it may be reasonable to think that the ‘zeitgeist of a moment’, the essence of the universe, can be read by the astrologer by looking at the stars and planets. The heavens simply represent a readable reality, the astrologer reads that reality, and synchronicity makes the exercise plausible by suggesting there is a reflective link between the events of the planets and the conditions of humanity.

In a similar manner, the tarot counsellor invites a questioner to consider a problem or situation, and to choose a card. A cause-and-effect model assumes a meaningless coincidence, whereas synchronicity assumes a meaningful connection. Synchronicity sometimes is said to describe an acausal connection between matter and mind, and, in the case of the tarot counsellor, the connection is between a card and a query. Synchronicity is the ‘link’, the ‘substance’, of this connection.

The art of the tarot reader (as with the oracle, the diviner, the shaman, and the mystic) depends on this connection, and the underlying unity of phenomena. An important element of this unity is what Jung calls the collective unconscious. Within this collective unconscious are the archetypal images of the tarot, such as the Father (Emperor), the Mother (Empress), the Wise Man (Hierophant), and the Wise Woman (High Priestess), etc., which resonate in the experience of human consciousness regardless of time or place. The cards contain these potent archetypal images, which also reside within each individual’s unconscious mind.

Vital to understanding how the tarot works is to recognise that the unconscious mind does not think in a logical, word-based manner. Rather, it works in a more holistic and image-based manner. Its natural language is the language of symbols, specifically (for the purpose of reading tarot) archetypal images. Understanding the link between the cards and the unconscious mind, the tarot counsellor invites the unconscious mind to communicate in its own language, through the powerful pictures of the tarot. The link between the unconscious and the chosen card can be described as the principle of synchronicity at work.

Sometimes those of us who live, work and play in the esoteric world are easily described as gullible, naïve and a bit too credulous for our own good. Perhaps this is often the case. So let me say from the outset, I would not use principles such as synchronicity to suggest that tarot has a scientific justification. Most assuredly, it does not. The scientific method demands a hypothesis, the proof of which is definable and repeatable. Synchronicity is a theory, a model, and by definition there can be no scientific theories – a scientific theory can only be an unproven hypothesis. Like many models of the universe (such as ‘God’, ‘karma’, ‘soul’, ‘free will’ or ‘destiny’) it can neither be scientifically proven nor disproved, and “absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence”.

However, synchronicity is a workable model, a theory that makes sense of otherwise inexplicable occurrences and can also be recognised in the worlds of science, nature and psychology. The famous occult writer of the early 20th Century, Aleister Crowley, once wrote that it could not be proven that the universe worked according to a magical model, but that didn’t matter because it behaved as if it did. The synchronistic model of how the tarot works uses the same justification.

So, next time your trusted tarot counsellor draws a card and uncannily pinpoints your deepest fear, or uncovers a realisation you had not known but now gives you that magical ‘Aha!’ moment of recognition, don’t feel you need to doubt your experience because ‘it’s probably all coincidence’.

It’s simply synchronicity!

Artwork: Compassion by Katia Honour


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