Why Does the Tarot work?
by John Timperio
Ever wonder what the 'mechanism' is that makes the Tarot (or the I Ching, Runes, Astrology, etc.) so insightful? Is there some all-knowing Supernatural Force that guides the cards to line up in a particular way that predicts future events and provides specific guidance that can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck? Is it the skill of the reader to interpret, or their psychic ability to channel the Truth from On High?
These are really interesting questions and maybe there is something to all the above possibilities and maybe there isn't. Such conclusions are all rather difficult to demonstrate with any degree of certainty. But I believe that there are some things we can say about this mysterious phenomenon that have a more acceptable appeal to our rational mind, and can demonstrate value in the use of the Tarot without either confirming or refuting the former explanations.
What this article is really about is our marvellous faculty of intuition and its relation to our unconscious. Now by intuition, I don't mean anything paranormal, although it is rather mysterious. Jung defined the intuition as "perception via the unconscious". (I am a big proponent of Jung, as you will see.) I have been consulting the Tarot and the I Ching for many many years, but in my day job, I am the head of the IT department of a mid-size business. Quite often I am presented with technical difficulties that cause things to stop working. Usually, after a few minutes examining the situation, an explanation just sort of bubbles up into my mind, and I am able to fix the problem. I am often surprised at the way this works when I think about it. After all, there is usually any number of possible explanations for the situation, but I do not go through a process of elimination to arrive at the correct one. This is the intuition at work. I believe that my initial investigation provides a wealth of data to my unconscious, which also has access to memory and all I have ever studied about my craft, and the 'processing' goes on there, beneath the surface. It is not infallible, but I am right far more often than not.
So it would seem clear that the unconscious is able to do some pretty amazing things in ways that our conscious mind is not. The trick is finding a way to get it to collaborate with our conscious mind. This is where the medium of the Tarot comes in. Tarot cards are made up images and symbols, which is exactly the language of the unconscious. One need only look at one's dream life to see that. While it is true that each card has a set of 'meanings' and the symbols and images deal with specific areas of life (i.e. pentacles associate with money), one could say that present in any question put to the oracle there will be aspects to it that relate to any of the areas found in the cards. The symbols and images in the cards have general meanings that will need to be related to the questioner's situation. This calls for interpretation. What usually happens with me is that I will immediately associate the symbols and meanings in the cards with certain circumstances in my current situation. In other words my intuition sees the symbols and will 'recognize' the way they fit for me. This recognition is usually accompanied by feelings of import and even awe. This is the unconscious is telling me "this is important".
And it doesn't end there; on the basis of the clarity brought to that one area, further associations with all the others aspects involved in the situation also become clear, again owing to the activity of the unconscious mind's ability to connect things up. More cards add to this process until I come away feeling I have had guidance in how to proceed as well as the likely results of actions to be taken.
Although we all possess intuition, not everyone seems to have the same facility in using it. To come back to Jung, he saw intuition as one of the four basic 'functions' of the mind. The other three being sensing, thinking and feeling. Further, he saw these functions as being polar opposites; that is thinking at one pole and feeling the other; sensing at one end and intuition the other. He believed that preference of one pole over the other gave people a particular 'psychological type' (in fact the definition of intuition comes from his volume entitled "Psychological Types").
To illustrate, let me take an example from my IT job again. I have a colleague who works in a very different way to me. When he is confronted with a problem, unlike me he does go through a systematic process of elimination before coming to a diagnosis and a fix. He takes a bit longer than I do to come to conclusions (I think its a lot longer), but when he does he is almost never wrong (unlike me who is right about 90% of the time). He prefers to rely on his sense function in his work. He only relies on what he can see and verify. I take from this that there is such a thing as an intuitive type; someone for whom 'perception via the unconscious' happens more readily due to a preference for this function.
Such people generally would make good Tarot readers, (or the I Ching, Runes, Astrology etc.). When someone comes to them, they can use their intuition to read people as well as the cards. The unconscious can pick up on all manner of signals during their meeting and discussing what they have come to ask. They even pick up on what is happening even in the unconscious of the other person! Again referring to Jung (told you I liked him, didn't I?) he saw the unconscious as having both a personal and a collective dimension. The 'collective unconscious' connects us all; and it is where such symbols as are found in the Tarot ultimately derive and gives them their great power. He believed that contact with the collective unconscious through 'Archetypal Images' almost always evoked that sense of awe to which I referred above. He called this a 'Numinous' experience. This is often what one feels after a visit to a really good reader.
One last point ought to be brought out in this discussion and that is to do with what Jung called 'Synchronicity'. However there is not space in this article to do it justice. (Looks like I will have to write another article!) But so as not to leave it totally unconsidered I will give you one of my favourite quotes from Jung in his introduction to Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching; "...synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers."
It is worth keeping in mind that we all have intuition. It may not be our preferred function, but it is there never the less. And it can be developed. In fact doing things like Tarot readings for oneself (or others) is itself a way to exercise this function. Even intuitive types can benefit from further development of their preferred function.
To sum up, I believe it can be left unanswered whether there are psychic powers, supernatural forces etc. To me, it is quite enough to see that our unconscious mind can find relevant meaning in the symbols found in the Tarot and other oracles; and that the numinous experiences really do have the power to inform our lives and even prognosticate likely events.
© John Timperio
Proprietor of GuidingStar Developers, creators of divination software. John is an ordained buddhist, and has been the head of the IT department of a mid-size business in Cambridge, UK.