In my home town way up north, there’s this chill, new age hippy shop that sells crystals and CBD and such down on main street. I’ve not yet been there, but I imagine it smells like incense and rosewater, and maybe a bit like uhhh… burning leaves.
You: Or maybe it smells like a Macy’s. Maybe you should pedal your stereotypes elsewhere.
Me: Fair enough. As long as it doesn’t smell like the Subway that was in the same place when I was a kid. You ever walk into a Subway for lunch, and then your clothes and hair smell like Subway all day?
You: Ew. And yes.
A friend of mine (that helps manage the business) and I started talking about maybe having a couple copies of my Nexus books in the store. And I don’t know how the convo turned to tarot cards, but I haven’t been able to shake the vision of a Nexus series tarot deck from my mind.
If you read urban fantasy (or any kind of fantasy, really), there’s a better than 50% chance you have at least seen a physical deck of tarot cards. Perhaps you’ve even tried one. If you’re like me, you may have said, screw the fortune-telling; these things are works of art!
Tarot cards are objectively beautiful. Even when they’re not. They’re like… red-blend wine labels in the grocery store gallery. Man, that’s a whole other conversation right there.
And if I was actively planning to build a Nexus series tarot deck, I have to consider things like the guide book. That’s the thing that comes with the deck and tells you what the cards mean. (Mine will def be an app, but the content is still going to be the same).
It got me thinking about the validity of tarot.
Look. I’m going to be straight with you. I’m not a spiritual believer. I’ve been planning the Nexus series since I was in middle school, trying almost constantly to unify physics with Catholic and a smattering of eastern philosophies. (I was a weird kid). And since then, I’ve had decades to do the math, and I’ve talked myself out of pretty much all of it.
Except… I think there’s something to tarot.
You: Hold up.
Me: I know.
You: Because you just said…
Me: Yeah, I was there. Let me explain.
But before I get into greater detail, I want to tell you that I’ve spent many hours researching this. (Yes, on the Internet. Judgy). And my journey took me through the websites of yogi and true believers, through Scientific American articles and neuroscience research journals, through the ramblings of total hacks, through the meaning and perception of time and the value of emotion in decision-making. On the back side of all that, I feel strongly that tarot has wellness advantages if practiced regularly. I also feel strongly that I should clear my browser history.
(Disclaimer: I’m not going through the exercise of proper citations because this is an entertainment blog, not a dissertation. At the end, I’ve included a selection of websites that I used so that you may peruse them at will).
Here's the thesis:
Tarot card readings, like other new age readings, can tap into our complex human intuition to facilitate clarity and prompt the synthesis of (potentially novel) insights.
Said another way, tarot works if you set your expectation accordingly, and it might have a place in your daily or weekly wellness routine.
The accuracy of a reading, of course, will vary with the psychological intuition and experience of the person interpreting the cards. (New-agers will tell you that a well-worn tarot card deck is how you know you’re working with a pro). There’s also an argument to be made that a strong belief in the efficacy of the cards, mystical or otherwise, may result in deeper insights.
Of all the research I’m going to provide as an argument for this thesis, one of the most accessible relates to meditation.
There’s been a lot of hype about meditation since the 1970s when the west started wholesale imports of eastern culture, particularly mysticism. (Note: tarot may have started as a bridge-like game in 15th century Europe, and didn’t start telling fortunes until the 18th century). And while science has been unable to verify the sensationalism around broad range meditative benefits, component benefits (such as a sense of calm and improved decision-making) have been rigorously and empirically verified. By extension, calm has been shown to improve self-reflection, introspection, and aid in all aspects of cognition. (This kind of neuroscience is almost always done with brain trauma patients, but my sources on this topic used sociopaths. FUN!)
While simple enough in theory, quality meditation is shockingly elusive. Like speed-reading, the moment you become aware of the mechanics of your process, the effect is ruined. One goal of meditation is quieting your conscious mind so that your subconscious thoughts can emerge. (This is also the purpose of ‘you’re getting sleepy’ in clinical hypnotism). But neurological experiments with mice show that the calming benefits of meditation may come largely from full, rhythmic breathing. Any runner can confirm this, and they’re not exactly sitting on a rock in lotus pose. And if we don’t have to be hypnotized to acquire the calming benefits of meditation, then we’ve got some options for active meditation.
I hear you. Being calm is a pleasant way to live, but what does it actually DO for me? Glad you asked.
We should first note that a number of cognitive improvements have been attributed to meditation such as greater capacity for sustained attention, working memory, and executive function. From a less ‘heady’ perspective, certain types of meditation increased happiness and decreased anxiety due to emotional suppression. (You gotta’ let it out people!) It improved empathy, kindness, and harmonious altruism, and improve abilities to moderate compromise during planning and negotiation. It helped reduce impulsiveness and risk-taking behaviors… The list goes on.
But calm, specifically, is shown reduce the more reactive, reflexive, and behavioral aspects of decision-making, allowing for a more purposeful blending of rational evaluation, emotional values, and intuition to achieve better thought-out decisions.
The psychological and physiological aspects of calm create a self-reinforcing feedback loop with a sense of safety and reduced time-pressure. That’s not to say that the all-important American value of urgency is out the door, merely that a calm person can reason why urgency is required (or if it’s an illusion) and choose to prioritize a particular task or play the long game, lining up tasks in a more efficient, effective order.
And this urgency issue is worth examining closer. Linked to dwindling happiness and quality of life in the higher-paced cultures, the illusion of time-pressure is often perpetuated by fear emotions, which drive emotion-biased (lopsided) valuations of a particular task or experience. And when we don’t reach these goals or group too many together, mediocrity or failure can lead to disappointment, anger, resentment, and another round of excess time-pressure and bad decisions.
Okay, so calm is important. With it, we can live in the moment, achieve high-performance flow states, and open the doors on creativity.
Did you say flow states? Come on, man, enough. No, no, stick with me. This is the last subthread, then back to the cards.
I remember this interview a friend told me about. The interviewer asked how a hockey player managed to play so well. Without any reservation, the player said he was “magic”. He said that when he was on the ice, time slowed to a crawl. He could see everything as if it was happening at half speed, see the path of all entities the field of play, and anticipate the position of the puck with ease.
This is flow state. Video gamers have it when they’re pwning non-n00bs. Artists have it when they’re creating. Readers have it when they got lost in a good book. Meditation can take you into flow. Posture, breathing, and calm are all proposed conditions of entering flow.
Others have described flow from the opposite side. Like a moving meditation, action and awareness merge when we become totally absorbed in the doing.
So interesting. But what does all that have to do with tarot cards?
I explored a lot of articles on tarot cards while trying to figure out how to build a deck, and I saw patterns emerging. The reading of the deck is all about empathy, introspection, or perhaps both depending on the situation. The mindfulness exercised by the reader - whether reading one’s self or another - as described in the articles sounded a LOT like meditation.
But there were two differences.
First, there is no focus on breath control in reading tarot. As I’ve loosely and non-scientifically alluded to, breath control is a pathway to calm. While I’m not in a position to run this experiment (what with all the American time-pressure breathing down my neck), I wouldn’t be surprised to learn tarot card readers experience extremely regular and full breathing associated with highly insightful readings. But given that level of assumption holds little value, let's own the activity. If we approach the tarot reading process while mindfully coordinating breath control, can we not achieve these calming benefits on purpose?
Second, traditional meditation doesn’t have cards. BUT, flow states can be achieved with any activities that make you forget about the clock (a.k.a. temporally dissociative activity - for all you precision nerds). So, if we let tarot cards become the focal point around which we release our sense of time, living only in the present while purposefully breathing with deep regularity, reading the cards with pure intuition, we can theoretically achieve the cognitive and emotional stability that we achieve from meditation - without dealing with the intimidating goal of learning how to meditate.
This could be one reason tarot is given reverence in new age circles. The mindful processes required while reading the cards begins the meditative process of opening the doors of intuition, and subsequent calm and clarity of thought leads to greater insights that are so accurate as to feel mystical, particularly insights that expand from given information over known systems and constraints. Intuition and clarity allow the reader to stack cause-effect chains to reach a predictive solution may feel like prognostication.
Go a step further, and the tarot cards when read as a random topic generator can have a range of positive impacts on your creativity, expose and encourage purposeful emotional regulation, and further support decision-making with fewer psychological biases.
Go even further, and perhaps tarot cards could be used to initialize a strategy session or innovation workshop, to shotgun the creative engines. Or they could get you sacked. I guess it depends on how you bring it up?
Ironically, I submit this may work best if the reader goes all-in on the mysticism, treating the deck like it has the power to find order in chaos. And if you think about it, that’s kind of what is happening. Reading a tarot deck is, perhaps, a meditation exercise with an aesthetically pleasing focal point, but your brain is doing all the work.
My point: Tarot cards are cool, and I’m going to make some.
Christian Andreo is an author of Young Adult novels spanning contemporary fiction, science fiction, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance. You can find his books on Amazon.
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