Tarot cards are ingrained into popular culture, to the extent that most of us will be familiar with them even if we don’t quite understand how the deck is comprised. When a supporting character in the horror film we’re watching draws a death card, we understand that their prospects aren’t stellar.
In the real world, many shy away from the tarot, thanks partly to its association with the occult, and partly thanks to its perceived silliness. After all, aren’t the magical, predictive properties of the tarot deck on around the same level as those of crystal balls, voodoo dolls and bone fragments?
With that said, tarot cards aren’t without their uses. For one thing, they’re fun. For another, they have a therapeutic use that psychologists (including, famously, Carl Jung) have been exploring for decades. This use of the deck is, a little unimaginatively, called Tarot Therapy. But why would a therapist whip out their tarot deck when more traditional methods are available?
The precursors of tarot therapy
It’s difficult to understand what a person is really thinking. If they’re especially articulate, then they might be able to tell you – but what if they don’t know what they’re thinking? And what if they have a mistaken impression of their own thoughts?
It’s here that we encounter the limits of conversation as a therapeutic tool. That’s why psychologists like to bring to the table ambiguous images, onto which patients can project their own underlying, unconscious thoughts and feelings. If one person sees a grave while another sees a lollipop, then we can make a few assumptions about their relative states of mind.
Perhaps the most famous of these tests is the Rorschach Test, a series of ink blots devised to treat patients with schizophrenia. More broadly, it’s used to shine a light on the way that people perceive the world around them – making the object of their attention vague and cloudy allows those perceptions to take centre stage.
Another example of this sort of thing is the Thematic Apperception Test, which was developed by Harvard psychologists in the 1930s. Again, it uses ambiguous pictures – though the images this time do actually represent something. Subjects are then asked to tell a story based on their perceptions of the image.
What is tarot therapy?
Tarot therapy is another take on this formula. It offers something slightly different, but the object of the exercise is the same: to persuade patients to reveal the contents of their subconscious. Let’s consider some of the reasons we might explore this practice.
An image speaks a thousand words
As we’ve mentioned, it can be difficult to articulate certain thoughts and feelings – even relatively mundane ones, like the colour pink. What’s more, some topics might be traumatic, and therefore difficult to talk about even if they’re easy to explain and articulate. You might find it easy to describe how someone was knocked over by a bus in your town, but if the person was a close friend or relative, the emotional weight of the accident would probably impede the conversation.
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and so the image on a tarot card can provide the nudge people need to address a difficult topic, offering comfort and familiarity, and prompting them to open up.
The tarot makes abstract concepts concrete
On a related note, the average tarot deck is packed to bursting with metaphorical imagery, distilling abstract concepts into graspable, concrete things and people. It might be difficult to draw or see ‘change’, or ‘luck’, but the same is not true of Death riding his pale horse, or the Wheel of Fortune.
This is part of the design of the deck itself – none of the picture cards, after all, are designed to be taken literally. If the patient doesn’t understand the traditional meanings behind the cards, then so much the better; they’ll be able to project their own meanings onto the images without orthodoxy getting in the way.
Tarot as an agent of empowerment
Traditionally, the person performing the reading will draw the cards and explain their meaning to the client, but in a psychotherapeutic context, this arrangement can be adjusted slightly – the patient can take the cards themselves and select those that stand out the most to them. This way, they’ll maintain control over the process – and with any luck, they’ll take a more positive view of it.
The tarot provides a new perspective
If a person has been agonising over a particular situation for a while, then they might become entrenched into a set point of view – and persuading them to move to another one can be difficult. This is especially so if the person in question has a stubborn streak.
The random nature of dealt cards can help to break through this initial resistance. A set of dealt cards can provide both patient and clinician with an entirely new way of looking at a given situation – thereby freeing the former of their preconceptions.
So is Tarot Therapy Worth It?
You don’t need to be well-versed in the tarot deck to appreciate its potential application in a psychotherapy session. It’s a neutral surface onto which the patient can project their innermost thoughts and feelings. No mysticism or scented candles are required – and one need not adopt a mysterious, booming voice to guide a patient through a session!
While you might imagine drafting the tarot deck into a psychotherapy session to be a gimmick, it’s no coincidence that this particular object of distraction has proven so effective – it’s been designed in order to grapple with the big, abstract ideas that we wrestle with every day, and it’s always been intended as a tool with which one can examine one’s own life. Given the chance, it can help to overcome psychological obstacles that many modern techniques might fail to surmount!
You may also be interested in The Chakras: How to unblock emotional and physical pain.
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