February 22, 2020

Swords, Tarot & Pema Chödrön: How to use the Tarot as a Tool for Mindfulness.


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It’s not until you’ve experienced real pain, hurt, and despair, that you will finally be ready to grow—the right way.

I was meditating on this message while contemplating a card from the Radiant Rider-Waite tarot Deck. The card is called “Ten of Swords,” and it’s probably the creepiest looking card in the deck.

In the picture, you can see a man who has been stabbed to death by ten swords. Since death in the tarot is symbolic, the card invites you to take a look around and explore it more. Beyond the man on the ground, we can spot the ocean and the mountains. The clouds above suggest that a storm has passed by. The sky is starting to clear, and sunrise is coming.

This card used to give me the chills because of the strong imagery of stabbing. It doesn’t anymore.

But let me tell you a bit about my background experience with tarot before I get into why.

I use tarot as a rich tool for self-discovery, self-awareness, and grounding. tarot is a practice that started probably around the mid-15th century, and it’s filled with stories and archetypes. I like to think of tarot as a pure representation of the human condition. It shows people suffering, struggling, then finding happiness and their place in the sun.

The Major Arcana basically tell the story of the Fool and his journey (our journey) until the end when he finds the “World.” The Minor Arcana represent basic features of our lives, like being influenced by someone, changing careers, or meeting someone special.

Regardless of how major the cards seem in relation to one another, one thing is for sure: they all teach us lessons about our place in the universe.

So, I advise you to read more about the tarot, even if you don’t believe in energy and manifestation. Even if you don’t believe that physically it is impossible to pick a card you really need. Even if you laugh at the absurdity of choosing cards. Simply understanding the archetypes and the story behind tarot cards can be a powerful lesson for all of us. We have all been the characters in the cards at some point in our lives. We have all struggled and found our spot in the sun. We are the archetypes represented in the tarot.

Back to the powerful card I was referring to, the Ten of Swords:

Chills. A stabbed man lying on the ground while the sun is rising after the storm passes. The card represents us when we hit rock bottom. It’s as low as we can get. We’ve been hurt, or we may have lost a battle we considered important, and we were brought down. But the sun is rising.

Pema Chödrön shares an anecdote in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. The anecdote is about a man who lived in a concentration camp in Japan. He said that every day, he would watch the sky and the clouds. No matter the horrors of the war he was experiencing, the sky was a reminder that somehow there was hope.

The Ten of Swords is similar to Pema’s anecdote for this reason: This card serves as a reminder that we survived the pain, and that the sun will shine. Our old identity has died. A new chapter has begun. Although a lot of people hate to draw this card, I now see it as good news. My pain finally brought me my most precious gift: awareness.

I must state, I’m not here to romanticize the idea of pain and suffering. I find myself resisting it like everyone else does. But the Ten of Swords card teaches us an important lesson: our contact with pain and suffering, if tended to, can awaken us to a higher consciousness that sometimes lies dormant behind our modest human condition.

We have absolutely no control over anything in life. We can have all the money in the world but lack health. We can have good health but struggle financially for the rest of our lives. We can have it all, love, money, career, friends, and lose everything tomorrow while crossing the street.

The bottom line is: life can be tragic and there is nothing we can do about it.

The sooner we accept that there is so much we can do to shape life the way we want it, the faster we will become in touch with our human condition. I often find myself to be more compassionate and giving while I’m in pain. My pain serves as a reminder that suffering is an experience that we all share. If you have a family member who dies of cancer, for example, you’ll soon find yourselves caring even more about people whose lives have been touched by cancer. Our pain connects us in times of despair and fear.

Our pain can be grounding and yet a powerful lesson of strength and hope.

But this card also sends us messages about power—specifically that we have absolutely no power over anything. Life is as it is. We fall, we get up.

That doesn’t mean that we have to sit down and do nothing. We are not talking about inaction here. We can still act consciously to change our condition and fight for our needs. We’re talking about letting go of a resistance to suffering. We all want to numb our pain. We all seek comfort in people, pets, food, media, etc. Whatever we can do to relieve our agony, we will do it.

Living in awareness, on the other hand—plunging into darkness and accepting our wounds—can minimize our pain since we are not giving it so much power. We are giving power to our experience. To the present moment, no matter how hard it is, as resisting will only make it worse. We can remove the swords from our backs, but we must do it with mindfulness; we cannot forget about the tender wounds the blades of mindfulness and compassion left behind.

It is by being tender and mindful of our pain that we learn how to bless it for the lessons it gave us and how to move forward. Even if we have been a victim of a cruel act; even if we are not ready for forgiveness (it is okay not to be able to forgive), we can still take care of ourselves as our body heals. Mindfulness will bring the gentle touch we need for every bad situation we find ourselves in.

So next time you feel like life doesn’t make any sense, or that you’ve hit rock bottom—that you’ve reached the lowest point of your life—remember that not everything is lost. Everything in life is fluid and changing. We go from good to bad, from hot to cold, from well to ill in seconds, but it can also change the other way around. Living with the awareness that everything—every little thing—shall pass will give you the strength to keep moving forward, not focused on the future only, but also in the present.

The next time you feel like you are the man on the Ten of Swords card, remember the light that is on his horizon.

Don’t give up. Be strong. Be bold. All shall pass. The sun will shine again.

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