January 10, 2016

Left-hand Tarot #4: Questions & Answers

... in which I discuss: the best questions to get the best results in a Tarot reading; the difference between closed- and open-ended questions; blind spots; New Year's predictions (and the lack thereof); which cards can describe New Year; why I celebrate New Year in March; the problems with the Celtic cross arrangement and why I don't use it; the myth that you can't become a Tarot reader unless somebody gave you your first Tarot deck as a gift; my friend Kit who did in fact give me my first Tarot deck as a gift; lines of authority and lineaged Tarot readers; white-light Tarot readers; and a discussion about why I decided that I needed to start a left-hand Tarot blog.
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To start our episode, let's talk about questions, and about asking the right questions. I ran across an image on my Google+ stream that originated with a website that's not operating anymore - I guess the owner didn't predict that happening, eh? - but it was still worth resharing and talking about because it directs the reader's attention to the question of, well, questions. Some of the questions on the list are just stupid, such as "How is fortune smiling on me?" The question is asked in such a way that only a positive answer should be provided in return, but as big as the world is, chances are excellent that Fortune - if such a thing even exists - doesn't do a lot of smiling. 

Or the question, "How can I know that there is meaning in my life?"  Listen here, boys and girls: if you want your life to have meaning, then you have to create that meaning yourself. Plenty of people will disagree with me, but I don't think that life has any grand meaning at all. It's a beautiful, frightening, dangerous, and merciless world in which we live, and meaning is an artificial construct that we give ourselves to make our limited amount of time on this planet more engaging. I don't think my life has any particular meaning. My life has direction, and there are goals that I pursue to further mine and my family's happiness and security, but meaning? No. If you want to discover the meaning of life, then I recommend you watch The Life of Brian. Or go read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. So I hear it, the ultimate answer to everything is 42. But what's the ultimate question?

Where was I? Right, questions. In my job as a Tarot reader, one of the things that I have to teach my clients is the value of asking questions. And not just any question, but the right question. Granted, people will ask their own questions for their own reasons, but different questions will produce different kinds of answers. Low quality answers are typically produced by answers that begin with "Should I...," "Will he...," "Yes or no...," and so on. I do my best to answer these questions as I see fit and expand on them where I can, but when clients contact me before an order to ask, well, what to ask? 

I remind them of the importance of asking open ended questions. For example, there's a big difference between, "What did you eat for lunch?," and "Tell me about a memorable dining experience?" Likewise, there's a difference between, "Will he marry me?," and "What do I need to know about my relationship with John Doe in 2016?" I think you'll agree with me that one of the two questions will produce answers that are far more interesting and relevant than the other.

It's also worth remembering to ask about what you're not seeing. We all have blind spots, but not as many people as you'd think are aware not just that they have a blind spot, but of what's in that blind spot. The challenge, of course, is that when you learn about your blind spot you don't discard the message. Isn't that the point of fortune telling? To hear things you didn't know and, thus, didn't expect? Time will tell if the prediction was accurate, but then, as long as the message got you moving and prompted you to become more aware and responsible for your own actions, then wasn't it still worthwhile? 

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon?
The answer is no. If somebody wronged you, don't let them do it again.
Over at Biddy Tarot, the host shared an article related to expanding your Tarot vocabulary, and in this case, identifying cards that would indicate a New Year. This sort of thing has come up before, and I think it's a good exercise for looking outside our individual boxes. I also think it's a good exercise because it shows you the relative strengths and weaknesses of your reading style. 

For example, in this post where readers are asked to identify cards which go along with a New Year message, I think it's largely a matter of interpretation and perspective. Which is fine if that's how you read your cards, but me being who I am, I get irritated when somebody tells me that the exact same card can mean two things that are opposites. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for mental gymnastics, but when your method of reading the cards is to just look at the pictures and let your imagination run wild, you may as well be swimming naked in a pool of Jello salad.

If you want your Tarot to answer questions in a way that goes beyond your personal knowledge and experience, then you need a framework that forces you out of your comfort zone. And again, don't get me wrong: if Tarot is just a creative thought process for you, then that's fine. Run wild with your bad self. But if you're an "intuitive," then why do you need a deck of Tarot cards at all? If you're really so "intuitive" or "sensitive" then you ought to be able to use your innate skills without the use of a deck of Tarot cards. I'm just saying, people: ask yourself the tough questions, and you'll find some very revealing answers. 

In fact, here's a challenge for you: if you consider yourself an intuitive, and you make use of a deck of Tarot cards, do a reading for yourself to answer the question, "Why do I need the Tarot to use natural abilities?" If you take up the challenge, record your reading as an MP3 and send it to me so I can feature you on the next show - inquiring minds want to know the answer!

Where was I again? New Year's related cards. There are plenty of cards in my deck that can talk about beginnings - for example, I read all 7's as being cards of risk and adventure, so in that sense any of them would be useful for starting new goals. Or, if the primary focus is looking back over the previous year, then any of the 3's would talk about knowledge, wisdom, and experience, as well as the caution gained from learned dangers.

Seeing as how the change of the calendar year is a time for people to commit themselves to new beginnings, I would also select any of the face cards from the suit of Spades paired with nearly any trump card. In my method of reading the cards, any such configuration would discuss the subject's goals and objectives. The nuance would be very different in any of the 88 combinations that could be produced, but there you go: New Year's goals.

And seeing as how so many people commit to personal change at this time of year, there are two cards in particular that I would include: the Magician and Strength, both of which talk about chaos and destruction, but both of which also permit the destruction of the established order so that new life may take hold. The difference between these two cards is that the Magician disrupts others' lives and disorders existing circumstances to achieve the subject's desires, whereas Strength directs the same influence upon the self and is the card of the subject destroying itself in order to make itself new again.

And who can ignore the Tarot tradition of drawing cards to make a New Year's prediction? Well... shame on me for being a bad Tarot reader, but I don't like to make New Year predictions, draw a card for the year, and so on. Celebrating New Year in January is so fucking depressing in northern Ontario. I mean, maybe in southern climates New Year in January is perfectly tolerable, but in northern Ontario, the dead of winter is just starting. We're usually buried in snow - and the day that I wrote this particular segment, I had to clear a layer of thick, wet snow off my parking lot. And while Sault Ste. Marie isn't Attawapiskat in the far north of Ontario by the Hudson Bay, we're still shoveling snow in March and it's not even until April that we can put our snow-shovels back in the basement and safely assume that we won't need them for another eight months.

Celebrating New Year and setting new goals when it's bitterly cold outside and the big snow is just getting started is terribly depressing. March still gets some snow and ice, but I much prefer the spring equinox for celebrating the New Year. Historically speaking, the ancient Babylonians celebrated New Year relative to the spring equinox, and this habit is the same for contemporary Iranians. And no, I don't claim any connection to Babylon or Iran, but I give them a hat tip for celebrating the New Year when it isn't the depressingly cold and dark. Blech... cold and dark are two things that do not in any way encourage my initiative.

I think the change of the calendar is a good time to evaluate where I stand and what I'm doing, but me being who I am, I don't think I need Tarot to do that. Tarot serves many purposes, and while it can absolutely provide New Year's predictions (and I've done a lot of those over the past month), my personal Tarot practice involves very little prediction and very lot contemplation.

Well, true enough, I also use the Tarot to purge my mind of worries that keep me up at night, but for me the predictive aspect is the least valuable take-away. Instead, I use the Tarot to help me connect the dots that are hidden in my blind spot. And the whole point of this is to say, you have to ask questions. Ask yourself these questions. Ask yourself how you'd describe something new and different with your Tarot cards. Ask yourself how your cards could predict something that seems impossible. Ask yourself how your cards could predict something slightly out of the ordinary. Ask yourself how your cards could predict the every-day. And then ask again, and again, and again. These questions and the answers that result will do more for you than any New Year's resolutions.

I think the Celtic cross arrangement is stupid,
and I dare you to change my mind.
A great Tarot blogger that I've added to my news feed is this guy Matthew Phillip Harris. Now, when I say that I like a particular blogger, it's not necessarily because I agree with his or her view on Tarot - because quite often I don't - but it is because I've found a blogger that I think is well-spoken, articulate, and just plain interesting. So check out the link to his website - maybe you'll enjoy his style, too? At any rate, the reason I'm talking  about him is because I empathize with a confession he shares in one of his blog posts: He doesn't like the Celtic cross arrangement. 

Now, for some of you who've known me for a while, you already know that I have absolutely zero love for the Celtic cross arrangement. I wonder sometimes that the only reason that the Celtic cross even has the standing that it does is because it was formulated and presented at a moment in time critical to the development of Tarot? After all, Mr. Waite's decision to fully illustrate the entire 78 cards of the Tarot wasn't his only accomplishment: his pictorial key to the Tarot continues to be referenced today, and even though I think pretty much everybody understands that the Celtic cross is not some deep occult secret recovered from the ancient past, it continues to get much use and attention because of who formulated it and the time in which it was born. If the Celtic cross was formulated today, I rather doubt it'd get much attention at all.

Like a lot of Tarot readers, I was taught to do the Celtic cross, and like a lot of Tarot readers, I didn't like it. My complaint with the Celtic cross is that it's duplicitous. For example, the top arm of the central cross is what's "above" the subject and is used to discuss goals and aspirations. But then, this is nearly the same as the second card from the top on the side staff, "hopes and fears." In theory, these are two very different things, but in practice I've yet to met a Tarot reader who adequately distinguishes between the two.

Or consider the crossing card on the central cross which is intended to add detail about what the seeker if facing right now, and then compare that to the bottom arm of the central cross - what's "below" the subject, which is intended to show the foundation. Like my previous example, these are two very different things in theory, but in practice I've yet to meet a Tarot reader who makes sufficient separation between the two. In practice, these two things are read together as a pair and used to say the same thing.

Perhaps the most glaring example of duplicity in the Celtic cross is the position of what's ahead of the client - or the future - and the top card on the side staff is "final outcome." Again, these two aren't the same thing, and while you could in practice read this pair as "near future" and "distant future," what I've found in my own practice and when receiving this arrangement from other readers is that the position "final outcome" is frequently used as a one-card summary of the entire arrangement.

And as a matter of personal preference, I think the bottom position on the side staff is just stupid: Advice. I mean, seriously people: if you can't infer advice for the client based on all the other cards on the table, then you need to invest some serious effort in becoming a stronger reader.

Now, this isn't to say that the Celtic cross has always been, is now, and will always be a monumental waste of time. What I mean by this is that the way the cards are arranged is innately connected to the way the cards are read and understood. Because I am who I am, I rarely read any card in isolation: every card is read in combination to at least one other card, and for that reason there are positions in some arrangements (such as the Celtic cross) that are already provided by the cards themselves, or can be inferred from the greater message.

But that's how I myself read the cards, and it's not how everybody else reads the cards. Because many people who read with a RWS-based deck with fully-illustrated pips are using a different language - the language of the symbols and archetypes embedded in the images - each card is, in a way, better read in isolation. In that way, the Celtic cross - as an arrangement - is better suited to a reading style that examines individual cards in isolation without being modified by other cards in the reading. So for that method, these extra positions become necessary to provide the nuance that can't be achieved through a careful evaluation of the dignity of the cards in relation to one another.

And that's the benefit of asking questions. Don't accept sacred wisdom simply because somebody who came before you said it was sacred. Question it. Grill it like a police sergeant giving a 10-hour interrogation to a child molester who abducted a little girl and won't tell you where he's hidden her. Be relentless in your questioning, because in the end the person who wins will be you. Ask questions, and don't stop until you get answers.

So, having said all of that... If you don't understand why these things I've discussed are problematic, then I welcome you to provide a reading for me using the Celtic cross arrangement. I dare you to prove me wrong, and I'll feature you on my blog and podcast for everybody to see and hear. If you do it well, I'll have great feedback for you and will always remember this as the day That Great Tarot Reader Named Such And Such Proved Me Wrong. But if you fall into the traps that I've pointed out here, well... it's probably better that you don't waste your time.

The concept of apostolic succession and lines of authority in the Christian over-culture has absolutely nothing to do with having a mentor who welcomed you into the practice with the gift of a deck in the Tarot under-culture.
I don't usually highlight an author twice in an episode, but I have to give credit where credit is due to Matthew Phillip Harris and his post where he discusses what's not Tarot. There's a potpourri of stuff in the blog entry - and you can get the link it below - but what I'm really drawn to is his take-down of the myth that in order for you to be a Tarot reader, somebody else (preferably another Tarot reader) must give your first deck to you as a gift. Or said simply, You can't buy your first deck for yourself.

I wonder where this rule came from? I've never heard any good explanations for its origin, but I imagine that its roots took place in one of two places:

First, this is part of a broader development to create a Tarot culture. While it's true to say that Tarot itself isn't a religion, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference based on what you see and hear from the most vocal and devoted Tarot readers. And, as you know, every good religion needs traditions and rites of passage, including rites of initiation which could take the shape of being gifted a deck of Tarot cards. This is really charming when you think about it, because it fits right into a delightful sense of child-like wonder in which you find yourself thinking that someday, somewhere, somebody will walk into your life and give you the gift of knowing that you have untapped abilities hidden within you, something that makes you special and unique and different. Which, again, is a lovely fairytale, but it's also a fun way to provide a rite of initiation in a community of Tarot readers looking to create their culture.

And second, you have to ask yourself that same question that Anton LaVey always came back to: Cui bono? Who profits? A look at other occult traditions will reveal that the people who push the value of rites of initiation are trying to protect something. Perhaps they're trying to keep secret knowledge secret, but odds are excellent that they're really just trying to protect their own standing and are looking for ways to de-legitimize the competition. Oh yes, they'll allow enough people to participate in order to keep their tradition alive, but they'll do everything they can to prune upstart weeds that threaten to undermine the authority and standing of those in power.

At any rate, where was I? Yes, the rule that says you have to be given a Tarot deck to be a Tarot reader. I happen to think that this rule is just plain silly, but as it happens, I'm also lucky enough to be able to say that my first Tarot deck was given to me as a gift. A birthday gift, no less. I'm pretty sure it was given to me on my 12th birthday, and it came from a friend that was in my class. At the time, I had zero interest in Tarot, so his gift was quite a surprise to me. The deck he gave me was the Egyptian Tarot created by Comte Saint-Germain. If you're listening to the podcast, then I apologize for the pronunciation - the only French I really know how to pronounce is the name of the city in which I live, Sault Sainte Marie, and even then I know I'm butchering it.

I'm not certain why my friend picked out that particular deck. Maybe it just looked cool? Whatever the case, if his goal was to get me started in Tarot, I might have been better served at the time with a Rider-Waite-Smith deck that was more accessible to my teenaged self because - if you didn't know - Saint-Germain's Egyptian Tarot is a Marseilles-style Tarot deck with only the trumps fully illustrated. The pips are standard occult fare - swords, staves, pentacles, and cups arranged in geometric patterns - and the entire deck is drawn in black ink on a tan background.

Incidentally, this whole story is deeply funny to me because - even though I learned to read with the fully illustrated RWS-style deck - these days I only read with Marseilles-style decks which only include illustrations for the trump cards.

At any rate, even if the Egyptian Tarot didn't become my go-to deck, it was the gateway drug that opened the door to the occult. Even though later in life I had a brief eight-year relationship with the LDS Church, I never could deny the love affair I had with Tarot. I did eventually formally renounce my membership in the LDS Church in 2007 and have my name stricken from the rolls, which is really something since I held both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and to gain those I had to have a testimony of Christ. I guess it turned out that my testimony wasn't much at all.

I wish I had video-taped the meeting when the missionaries came to persuade me to come back to church and I pulled out a copy of the Kybalion and told them to read it. Which, in hindsight, is also quite funny since - although the Kybalion is generally pantheistic in theology - it's also positively steeped in the language of the right-hand path.

If only I had been into Satanism then and pulled out the Satanic Bible instead? Oh, the hand-wringing would have been deliciously entertaining. My local bishop assured me that I was destined for Hell if I didn't repent, and even then I couldn't become a full member of the LDS Church again, but at least I could escape the "endless wails and gnashing of teeth."

Anyway, where was I? Yeah, the Egyptian Tarot. So, even though I didn't read with the Egyptian Tarot at the time that it was given to me, it did get me started. As for the fate of that deck, I wish I knew. It sent missing within a couple years, and one of my parents probably threw it out. Who knows? Who cares? At any rate, that deck is long gone and probably still relatively preserved in a landfill somewhere in Indiana. I did eventually buy another copy of that same deck out of nostalgia, but like so many things from childhood revisited as an adult, it wasn't the same.

I had progressed enough in my Tarot studies by the time I purchased a second copy that I appreciated the freedom that comes with the Marseilles style's lack of illustrated pips, but after having read with regular playing cards for several years, I found that I had become dependent on color coding and an ability to instantly see suit and number. You'd think this is very easy to do with a regular deck of Tarot cards, but I can tell you that's not so.

Maybe you don't notice this because you've never had the same experience, but having to look at the entire picture on the card to get the suit and number isn't nearly as easy as just looking at the top left or bottom right corner. That and the black-or-red dichotomy of playing cards makes for immediate distinction of the broad currents running through an spread of cards.

But the other thing I noticed about the Egyptian Tarot on my adult return to an old childhood acquaintance is that with every card being black ink on a beige background, every card looks exactly alike. Maybe the intent was supposed to be that when you look at a spread of cards from this deck you'd get the feeling that you're looking at a sheet of papyrus? Or maybe it was just poorly conceived.

At any rate, the Egyptian Tarot by Saint-Germain sits on my shelf, completely unused, but completely loved. And even though I don't have the exact deck that was given to me on my birthday so long ago, I'll still be grateful to my friend Kit who opened a door to magic and mystery, and gave me the ability to say that my very first Tarot deck ever was given to me as a gift, and if not for that, I probably wouldn't have become a Tarot reader.

And what makes this whole story hilariously funny to me is that my friend Kit didn't then, and doesn't now, read cards or have any interest in them. So if you ever asked the question, "Does it matter if I'm a lineaged Tarot reader?," the answer is no. Lineage counts for nothing. Effort counts for everything.

On the subject of questions, here's one that presented itself to me this week: Why did I start the Left-hand Tarot blog and podcast? A big part of it absolutely is self-promotion. You'd have to be pretty daft if you thought I wasn't using this place to promote myself. But truth told is that I was promoting myself very effectively even before I started this blog, and again - truth told - I'm spending a lot more time on this blog and podcast than I am on anything else in my life. Did I strictly need to launch this venture? No. But I wanted to, and here's why: nobody else that I can find is already doing it.

I like to read. I like to learn. I like to see what my professional peers are doing in their own Tarot businesses. And what I've found in the past, and continue to find today, is the new Christianity of which Anton LaVey spoke, or as Magistra Ygraine has put it, "Jesus with tits." A lot you reading this blog are going to take offense at this, and if that's the case, maybe you'll see my point. And maybe you'll just think I'm a Satanist crank and you'll bugger off to complain about me elsewhere on the Internet. Whatever.

At any rate, this new Christianity that I keep finding in the Tarot community is pretty hard to miss. If you don't know what to look for, it's easy: Imagine a Christian minister carrying a Bible and who has a holy connection to God and angels. This minister's Bible is his Good Book from which he dispenses sacred, noble knowledge. This minister's holy connection gives him the right to speak for angels and God, and to impart the healing spirit of the holy ghost.

Now, replace Christianity with Wicca, or any other neo-Pagan religion. Self-appointed Pagan priests and priestesses are a dime a dozen, so you can just assume you're still dealing with a minister. Replace the Bible with a deck of Tarot cards, and seeing as the Tarot is already steeped in Christian symbolism and metaphor combined with the white-light leanings of the right-hand path, and you're still not any different. And, for what it's worth, consider the relative rise in the popularity of that most detestable method of cartomancy, "angel cards," and associated rise in the people who say they talk to angels. Again, nothing different - especially if you're reading angel cards. Finally, replace the Christian minister's friendship with the holy ghost with the new Christian's use of Reiki, lightworking, or any other hands-on, meditative, or prayerful healing practice and voila: you've got what is essentially a mirror image of a Christian minister complete with a guilt-ridden philosophy that he or she can use to beat you over the head and push you away from all the really good things in life.

If you're one of these new Christians, and you genuinely like the life you're living, then you go right ahead and keep doing it. But I'm still going to think it's silly. I abandoned Christianity and theism in general because I got tired of that shit. I'm a Satanist, which means I not only accept, but embrace the carnal, animal qualities in myself. This means that I alone choose the rules that I will follow. Life is too fucking short to worry about scoring points in the afterlife.

It's also way too fucking short to worry about getting a good-guy badge. In the words of Anton LaVey, quoted from The Devil's Notebook, 
Man is a selfish creature. Everything in life is a selfish act. Man is not concerned with helping others, yet he wants others to believe he is! [...] The first rule of the prideful is to make an exhibition of piety and charity, with a Goodguy Badge to pin to his lapel. Man cannot progress one step further towards his own godhood until he removes that Goodguy Badge.”
Make no mistake: in the game of life, I'm not a team player. I'm in this game for myself, and I'll run up the score as high as I can so long as it suits my purposes. You may not believe it from reading the things I write, but I really am very kind and generous. The only thing is, my kindness and generosity extend only to those people, organizations, and issues that are important to me personally. Contrary to what some people say, kindness is not free, and I'm not going to sprinkle that shit everywhere, because my time is precious and, frankly, not everybody and everything is deserving of my kindness.

But, getting back to the subject of a good-guy badge... I have no need for a glowing white aura that shines so bright people have to shield their eyes when they look at me. Perhaps you're a Satanist and this speech is one that you've heard before. And perhaps you're among those new Christians that I've described? If you're the latter and not the former, then you probably don't realize how sickeningly sweet you are. You probably don't realize that your white light isn't revealing, but blinding, and it's this blindness that hides the carnal, bestial reality in which we find ourselves. 

If you're the one shining that glaring light in my eyes, remember that light is a key element in any magician's act. Light certainly illuminates, but it also spotlights what you want to show and directs attention away from the other things you leave buried in the outer darkness. Ask yourself: Why are you highlighting these particular things? What are you leaving in the darkness? Extinguish the light of the right-hand path and follow the darkness of the left-hand path. You may think you're going to find death and depravity, but in the words of Dark Helmet, "No, it's not what you think: it's much, much worse!"