My Guide, My Self

Since having a tarot reader profile on Instagram, I’ve enjoyed following along with several of the many tarot challenges that tarot readers post on the social medium, but the one that has had the most powerful impact on me thus far has been the Spirit Guide Challenge by Spiral Sea Tarot. What’s most perplexing and thought-provoking about this challenge is that I’m not sure that I believe in spirits or similar guides. I remember reading the host’s blog post about spirit guides and thinking, Wow. I don’t know how I feel about some of those guides. But I was interested in the challenge, and I’ve often wondered how fellow readers and friends came to know their “guides,” their “team,” the being they call “Spirit,” and their “Self” (note the capital S). Rather than just asking them like the sociable person I am, I went on a self-reflective journey. When it comes to personal beliefs, who better than your self to ask?

As you might guess from the title of this blog, I’m still not sold on the idea of a “guide” outside of my own subconscious. I’m a proud person, so perhaps it’s just arrogance. But if you’ve read “About Hermit’s Mirror,” then you’ll know that I focus more on the agnostic side of tarot, the counseling and life coaching side, than on the spiritual or religious side. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is my one agnostic view of spirituality. It’s hard to rationalize some of my beliefs, such as reincarnation and how I work with the tarot and the energies that I feel with a client, with some of my non-beliefs, such as connecting to past lives, soul mates, and spirits. There’s really not a good reason to disbelieve any of it, but I also can’t thoroughly articulate in what ways I do believe in certain things, so I’d rather that the practice speak for itself. After all, just because you believe in one thing and I in another doesn’t mean that we can’t do some great tarot work together. If you ask me about certain aspects of spiritual practice often associated with tarot, such as crystals or angels or auras, I might have to plead ignorance on the specifics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do some great work on helping you connect with your highest self. There might be specifics that you see or want to know about in a reading where I haven’t addressed those things, but we can still work through those with you over email dialogue. I’m always happy to learn from clients about their own beliefs, and I’m happy to help put my readings into their frameworks. From a pragmatist’s perspective, having a fairly blank slate just makes things easier to adapt to others’ beliefs. But enough with the disclaimers and rationalizations. This month-long conversation with my “guide” was much more special than rationalizations.

With the exception of one day, I used the Fountain Tarot (see “Decks for Readings”) throughout the challenge because of its modern imagery and blending of fantasy with science fiction and arcane symbolism with everyday people. Also, it’s shiny. While that seems silly, it turns out that it actually matters for me. The card edges are printed or painted with a sort of “liquid metal,” and that molten look is tied very strongly to my ideas about the energy behind my guide, a sort of deconstructive smith working with molten metal and rock, glowing earth, earth infused with fire. Throughout the challenge, I kept returning to the idea of Vulcan, which is would be funny to my younger self who loved Greek mythology and thought the Romans were incredibly lazy in terms of their deities. Vulcan was probably the least appealing of all the gods to me, not only because he wasn’t physically beautiful like the others, but also because his name sounds so . . . vulgar, literally and in its common phonemes compared to Hephaestos. It also brings to mind a certain Star Trek character that I couldn’t properly appreciate as a child even though, as an adult, I probably make some people wonder if my periodic lack of empathy might properly tie me to that fictional race of aliens. I also associated volcano gods with bad 80s movies and, relatedly, tropical locations having no relevance for my beloved Mediterranean myths. These days, my sun-loving self would greatly enjoy a tropical location, but that’s straying toward another guide, which is for another post.

At the end of this past summer, I’d been feeling a pull toward fire cards in tarot (Wands) despite my earthier sensibilities and the earthiness of my astral chart (that’s another one of those things that I don’t know whether I believe in, but it’s a useful schema for analysis). I realized that there was a bit of a “volcano” happening, where the earth on the outside helped contain all of the fire inside. No, that’s not how volcanoes actually work, but it’s a metaphor for how I felt about competing impulses and personality traits. I had never thought of this “volcano” as a guide specific to tarot since that energy has lots of functions in my daily life, but that idea came up in immediately because it had been lingering in my subconscious for months, and it expanded in ways that made me at least willing to believe that there might be something worth paying attention to.

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Days 1 & 2 of the challenge

The reversed Three of Coins signals the need to look inward and work with myself, but it also reflects the desconstructive energy of the smith perfecting his craft, taking apart that which doesn’t work and making it stronger. The King of Wands is a shot of fiery power that draws people to him and inspires them to do more and be more than they might otherwise imagine is possible.

The challenge begins with getting to know the guide (or that part of yourself) that helps you to work in alignment with your highest self, such as helping a tarot reader properly read the tarot. I should be clear that I don’t necessarily think I was talking with some supernatural or paranormal entity or “other side,” and I can’t claim to either have done so or not to have done so. I really don’t know, but my openness to the possibility of insights coming from both the inexplicable Other and the subconscious is an important part of the way I practice tarot. I can’t always explain it, but if it helps people make the best out of their situations, then I’ll work with whatever it is.

Since the Spirit Guide Challenge is someone else’s idea (see the link to Spiral Sea Tarot at the top of this blog post), I won’t repeat the prompts for each day; instead, I’ll summarize what I uncovered for myself about the nature behind my own motivating energy. There’s an enormous amount of confirmation bias in this exercise, but that in itself is useful as this was an exploration of what I believe and what matters to me on an irrational level as much as anything else.

In learning about my guide, I asked the deck about the energy guiding me: what sort of thing it was, what it was like, where it was “from,” and associations. From the beginning, I homed in on the idea of the volcanic. It started with the first two cards (The Three of Coins reversed and the King of Wands), pictured above, which spoke to me of a craftsman who worked alone and was as much about breaking things down as building them up. The earthen nature of the Coins and the fire of the Wands, combined with that inspirational force of energy from the King’s explosion of energy really started me thinking about the volcano and the continual process of finding fault lines and building supports in order to fix what was built poorly or has become damaged over time, in myself and, indirectly, in others. The next two cards (the Fountain and the Devil) emphasized the chaos of the energy source and its destructive and fiery power trapped within earth, and the visuals were really quite striking there. (You can see all the cards on my Instagram.) The next day was very watery, showing me with Cups that I need to be more emotionally available and nurturing, but the day after that was all about flashes of light (Eight of Wands and the Star), and that’s when I understood the visual appeal of the volcano and its brief moments of molten lava, when the fire within the earth gets too hot to be contained. And even though the following day showed an airy Swords card with a wind-whipped ocean, I was able to tie this back into my own tarot-reading ritual of visualizing warm beaches and the slight sting of salt water misting through the air to land on hot, perhaps slightly burned golden skin.

The following days brought reinforcement of past themes, the letter V-O-L and the Sun and a mountain seen in reversed Justice, the Sun, and the Fool: these major arcana readings really supported the idea of an energy inspiration like Vulcan or a volcano. And there was another Wands card, and there were repeated fiery cards (the King of Wands and the Devil). But there were some new ideas, a few more Cups (and repeated Cups but this time in a reversed orientation, such as the Queen of Cups and Two of Cups). I started wondering if the Sun was playing a role, and Helios sprang to mind, undoubtedly inspired by descriptions of his liquid golden self in Circe by Madeline Miller, which I was reading at the time. But there were significant deviations, and I began wondering if the V was actually a fox or vixen, and I started to see the letters V-I-X. Was there some trickster fox energy at play? I started noticing the foxes in the Wands suits of the Linestrider Tarot and the Shadowscapes Tarot, foxes and fire? Surely Mozilla’s Firefox browser was based on a mythological creature (just as its mail app Thunderbird was). There were pipefoxes in role-playing games I knew, so I started there. Before long, I was making connections to the patronus I matched under my Pottermore account (a kind of weasel), and it started feeling like things were really getting out of hand. I kept it all in my mind, rolling it around, tumbling it into smooth corners like rough stones, but I stayed focused on what I’d learned would work for me: the focus on breaking down what is weak and building back up strong, the hope of inspiring, the flashes of brilliance on metal and golden light at the liminal hours, the thoughts of a warm and windy beach, and the music of course (there will always be music, regardless of what any spirit guide prefers).

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Day 12 of the Challenge

Judgment demands that we awaken to our true potential and purpose. It’s a card of revelation and ascension from everyday concerns and into the big lessons of our lives.

That’s when I had a revelation. I could not for the life of me fall asleep even though I was tired. I had taught two fitness classes and was probably still amped up by that, I was excited by the development of this website after months of dormancy, and I was energized by this Spirit Guide Challenge. But I think the real reason was that I hadn’t even looked at the question for Day 12, let alone done the draw. So I got out of bed and looked at the question: why is my guide here to guide me? What an important question, even if it’s just a question to ask yourself! I did the quick, 30-second ritual I’d developed over the previous few days to center myself and focus on the cards and the question, and then I drew a card. It was Judgment, the card of revelation and of finding one’s calling. Throughout this challenge, I’ve been stretching myself to do more, an idea that I’ll explore in a sec, but I think what’s been so powerful for me in this has been the focusing on my attention on the online presence of my tarot practice and of actually putting my ideas down in a way that goes beyond Instagram posts and readings via DM. It hasn’t come out of nowhere by any stretch, but it’s been the push I’ve needed.

Once I had that push to do more work, it became easier to brush off the next four days. I was actually sort of excited for Day 13, which asked about the effect of past lives, something I should ostensibly believe in, given belief in reincarnation; I mean, they go hand in hand, right? Yet I have often been ambivalent about following that foundational belief of mine to any logical outcomes beyond how I behave in this lifetime. Silly, I know. Being forced to think about past lives would be a useful exercise, but I saw the cards (the Emperor reversed, the reversed Page of Swords, and the Eight of Wands) and said, “Nope. I don’t get it.” And then I moved on. The next three days were all a blur of “Oh, I’ll have to think about that,” when I had other things to think about and do. Really, I didn’t like some of the messages that I got in them. I knew that then, and I certainly can admit it now. While I couldn’t process the cards fully at the time, some of their lessons poked up through other readings that I did for myself at the same time, such as my recognition of how far I’ve grown regarding the Emperor’s energy and also of how limited that growth has been in some ways. But their message resonates rather well now in contrast to what I did then: take the time to reflect and corral your thoughts into something that will help guide others. It’s a lesson I’ll take into future endeavors.

The next four days brought things back into focus for me as I had several a-ha moments. I saw the Vulcan energy of the guide come through Temperance to provide a completely different take on the card than I’d previously considered. Instead of diluting liquids by tempering them, the smith makes metal stronger by tempering it. My own life path card came back to me after those harrowing Days 15 and 16, where my life path felt like a mess, and I was happy to see the Hermit finally in the challenge before finding a card with which I already resonated before this challenge yet I’d never drawn for myself with this deck: the Knight of Coins. (I draw the Knight of Pentacles all the time in other decks.) In the Thoth system, the Knight of Coins/Pents/Discs is the “Fire of Earth,” which is about as good a name for that molten earth energy I’d been thinking about. Seeing him was a bit like running into an old friend but also like seeing myself in the mirror. Both it and the Hermit are cards I have associated with myself for different reasons, and seeing them was a useful re-grounding of my position that this guide could just as easily be my subconscious as some external agent. But it wasn’t until Day 20 that I had another electrifying draw.

As with the revelation of Day 12, I had planned things poorly and not gotten to draw a card for the challenge until late in the evening. I’d drawn a card the night before, shortly before midnight, but I didn’t really understand it, so I decided it didn’t count because it wasn’t on the proper day. When I finally did the draw, I had to use another deck because of where I’d left my decks, and the Tarot del Fuego called to me. It has such a different feel from the Fountain, but it seemed like a good deck to use for some reason. I drew the equivalent card as the night before and in the same (reversed) orientation. In the Tarot del Fuego, the card had very different visuals and my intuitive response would not have been possible with the Fountain Tarot. There are a few cards that would have worked visually from the Fountain (the reversed Nine of Swords for instance), but the Page/Knave of Wands is the “Earth of Fire” in the Thoth system, and it was too appropriate a card to imagine any other card doing such a good job cementing the card to this guide challenge. And nothing would have better reinforced the perfection of drawing the equivalent card as the night before, this time from a different deck.

The last eleven days of the challenge came and went with a mix of nervous energy as I was conducting my own tarot challenge by that time (see “The Star Seeker Challenge Begins”). I was feeling the strain of finalizing website content and completing readings and changing business paperwork (I would do things so differently if I had to do them again). Even work at my gym was causing strains of various sorts. I was being tempered by the culmination of these experiences. I’m not out of the fire or off the anvil yet, but I’ve certainly felt a renewal as certain things have fallen away and others have sorted themselves out (the worry of Days 21 and 22 seemed to have resolved by Days 27 and 28). And what was left after that? Encouragement to keep going (always keep going) but to focus that progress. I was being asked to really plan for the future by cultivating what’s been planted. What I learned in looking back through this challenge and re-examining Days 15 and 16 is that if the Knight lets his lands go wild every time he looks away because he ends up searching some other field, then he can’t complain when his farm is gone and he’s left with nothing more than lovely meadowland. And of course there’s beauty in those wildflowers and nourishment in those weeds, but that’s not what he’s tried to create, so there’s a reasonable question to ask about how he’s spending his energy. Whether that question is being asked by himself or some external guide, it’s still an important question on which to reflect. The smith-god can create anything, but if he continuously starts new things then he ends up with nothing, and he must surely begin to wonder whether he’s still a craftsman or someone who just swings a hammer.

The cards pictured on this page come from the Fountain Tarot by Jonathan Saiz, Jason Gruhl, and Andi Todaro, published by Roost Books © 2017.


Fishing for Data

Just for posterity, I listed all the cards I drew for each day at the bottom of this post. And because I’m a Capricorn rising, I mean a total nerd, I’ve categorized some salient details of the cards to see big-picture patterns. Cards in bold type were drawn twice, both times in the same (upright) position. There’s a clear slant to fiery cards and to court cards, as well as fiery and earthy cards that were repeated. I’ve put some graphs side by side for comparison.

I should note that I didn’t use the elements tied to court ranking, only to the suits. Doubling-up on elements for court cards would just make the water segment a bit smaller, relatively, in the Repeated Cards graph. And when determining deck cards by element, I made some planetary associations that may or may not be orthodox, but since they almost perfectly balance my assignments seem defensible.

Total cards drawn: 42

Total distinct cards drawn: 31

Major arcana drawn: 14 (5 fire, 4 earth, 3 air, 2 “all elements”, 0 water)

Repeated major arcana: The Fountain, the Devil, & the Hermit

Court cards drawn: 11 (5 fire, 2 earth, 2 air, 2 water)

Repeated court cards: King of Wands, Queen of Water, Knight of Coins, & Page of Wands (sort of)

Pip minors (Ace–Ten) drawn: 17 (6 fire, 5 water, 4 air, 2 earth | 1 ace, 5 twos, 2 threes, 2 fours, 3 fives, 0 sixes, 1 seven, 2 eights, 0 nines, 1 ten)

Repeated pip minors: Two of Wands, Two of Cups, Five of Swords, Eight of Wands

Guide Cards (Type)

Repeated Cards (Type)

Deck Cards (Type)

Guide Cards (Element)

Repeated Cards (Elmt)

Deck Cards (Element)

Guide Challenge Cards by Day

  1. Three of Coins (reversed)

  2. King of Wands

  3. The Fountain

  4. The Devil

  5. Five of Cups and Queen of Cups

  6. Eight of Wands and the Star

  7. Two of Swords

  8. Justice (reversed), the Sun (reversed), and the Fool

  9. Queen of Cups (reversed) clarified by the Devil and Two of Cups, and Two of Wands

  10. Two of Cups (reversed)

  11. King of Wands

  12. Judgment

  13. The Emperor (reversed), Page of Swords (reversed), and Eight of Wands

  14. Five of Swords

  15. Strength (reversed) clarified by Seven of Coins (reversed)

  16. Four of Swords (reversed)

  17. Temperance

  18. The Hermit

  19. Knight of Coins

  20. Knave of Wands (reversed) from the Tarot del Fuego, replacing an earlier (and equivalent) draw of the Page of Wands (reversed)

  21. Four of Wands

  22. Ten of Cups

  23. The Hermit (reversed)

  24. The Fountain

  25. Knight of Swords (reversed)

  26. Knight of Wands

  27. Three of Cups

  28. Five of Swords (reversed)

  29. Knight of Coins

  30. Ace of Wands (reversed)

  31. Two of Wands