Checking in, January 2016

Well, I had some big blogging plans for this month, but this month did not want to go along with them. It’s been a very interesting time for me, and as I look at my planner, I see where I’ve written down the cards that I drew for January for my big Year Ahead Spread. When doing that spread, I thought it would be fun to check in every month to see if the cards I drew for the month actually described what happened. This is not because I think the cards predicted what will happen for each month, but because it’s fun, and because the cards can provide a focus around which I can consciously build my experience of the month.

In a way, this month’s cards were spot on: The Chariot, the Knight of Wands, the Three of Swords, and Life from the Earthbound Oracle.

january 2016.jpg

Looking at the cards in the abstract, we see the beginning of something new and creative, although the experience is not without loss and grief. I originally pulled the tarot cards from my Wild Unknown deck, but I decided to use the Wooden Tarot to revisit them this month, just for a change in perspective.

The Chariot, despite its associations with movement and victory, is actually a water card. In some ways, the Chariot and the Knight of Wands are similar in spirit, but different in their approaches. The Chariot in the Wooden Tarot is probably my favorite of any that I’ve seen, and it was the card that really floored me back when I first saw the deck. The snail here picks up on the card’s watery properties beautifully, showing that it’s not about kicking ass and taking names, but rather, it’s about becoming victorious by honoring organic growth.

The Knight of Wands/Stones signals a lot of forward movement in career and creative projects. Much has happened career-wise this month. Although I haven’t started applying for jobs yet, I met several people and made several contacts, getting a better idea of what kinds of jobs I’d like to do and what kinds of organizations I’d like to work for. Much is also happening creatively. I began to learn how to knit on the 20th of last month, and I have made a lot of progress in that time. I secretly knitted two mini-scarves for outdoor statues at my temple and placed them on the statues under the cover of darkness. I’ve seen and heard people remarking about them, and pictures of the statues were even included in my temple’s weekly newsletter! I’m also working on my first legit project: a cowl. And I made a mini-deck bag for my Earthbound Oracle. Everything that I’ve made so far is lumpy and full of mistakes, but the more mistakes I make, the more quickly I learn.

I’m also taking a Sketchbook Skool course right now, which is really pushing me to confront my apathy and laziness when it comes to drawing. Like knitting, I am having to deal with mistakes and discouragement and persist in the face of them. Somehow, doing so with knitting is a lot easier than doing so with drawing! But still I go on.

But then we come to the Three of Swords. Which has, indeed, been appropriate for this month. Usually when I see this card, I go, “Who died?” And well, yes, someone did die. At around 4am on Monday the 11th, my husband crawled into bed. I’d been awake for about 10 minutes, having woken up from a nightmare. “Are you awake?” he asked. I said yes. He said, “David Bowie died.” I would have really liked to have believed that this was a nightmare as well. Generally, I don’t grieve over celebrities or people I don’t know, but Bowie’s passing continues to be difficult. While many people my age only know him through Labyrinth, my husband (who, btw, has been a fan of Bowie’s since 1973 or so) introduced me to Bowie’s music about ten years ago and I’ve been a big fan ever since.

In our culture, we get the message that grief is generally bad. I mean, it’s appropriate for a short amount of time to grieve in public, but after that–why don’t you just get over it? Also, it’s OK to grieve over a friend or family member, but an animal, or someone you’ve never met? Sorry, that’s just embarrassing. You can be sad for a day or two, but otherwise you need to get over it.

I think David Bowie’s passing led me consider grief more deeply than I had before, and it made me more open-hearted toward other people I don’t know who have died of cancer. I was very much saddened by Alan Rickman’s passing as well (I was literally closer to Rickman than to Bowie, having been within about three feet of Rickman a couple of years ago.) He was one of my favorite actors even before the Harry Potter films, and I remember being overjoyed when I heard that he was going to be playing Snape, my favorite character. And yet for some reason, David Bowie has been the locus of my grief. I have put a picture of him on my altar, and it will stay there until February 20th, his 49th day in the bardo. (Traditionally, in Buddhism, it takes someone 49 days to transition from one incarnation to the next. Even though I’m a Buddhist, the jury is still out for me on whether reincarnation actually exists, but I do love the idea of having 49 days of formal grieving.)

Opening to grief has had a deeper impact on me this month than I would have ever thought possible. For I have begun to seriously think about and feel grief, not simply for indiviual people, but for our planet. Last week I attended a panel on climate change, held by some local delegates who were at the Paris summit last month. What I took from that panel was the unshakable conviction of something that I have been avoiding looking in the face of for a long time: at this point, climate change cannot be stopped. Even if we were to stop the use of fossil fuels tomorrow, there is no way we can stop the effects of climate change, which will continue to persist for at least a thousand years. At first, this seems like deeply despair-inducing news. And yet, it made things very simple for me, really. While I’ve been thinking a lot about my career and what I can do to further it in the short term, this has also made me think much about my purpose in this life, on this earth, at this time. Overall, I have been feeling tender and joyful, more sensitive to the beauties of our world which we are about to lose. I have come to understand that my purpose in this life is to help people cope with collapse and disaster mentally and emotionally. My purpose is also to help them understand the beauty of life that we have on this earth, and to cherish it while we still can. I don’t know if the future is going to be some sort of Mad Max scenario (I actually kind of doubt that it is) but it is clear that Business As Usual is going to become impossible during my lifetime.

Last night I did a tarot reading to help me clarify my focus and approach to all this, which I may share here. For now I’ll say that I have let the Three of Swords come into my heart, which I am holding lightly and tenderly, and for which I am thankful.

So there has been my month. One one hand, all I’ve been doing is sitting around knitting! On the other hand, I’ve been growing and opening and grieving and enjoying life in ways that makes me think I haven’t just started a new year–I have started a new era of my life. And this is where the Life card, with its little sprouting seed, comes in. Yes, new life is coming and it’s taking root.


A Spread for Daily Practice and Ritual

One of the biggest things that has influenced my life since becoming Buddhist actually has nothing to do with Buddhism specifically: daily practice. Many religions have daily practices built into them, and there are many daily practices that also have nothing to do with religions: exercise regimens or the practice of an art. The important thing is that we devote ourselves to doing something daily because it is the process doing a continuous practice–no matter what the practice is–that actually trains us, in the words of Martha Graham, to be “an athlete of God.”

I say this as someone who struggles with cultivating and maintaining a daily practice. I was raised in a Protestant culture where daily practices were not really a thing. (Sorry, Protestantism, but you kind of suck at this one.) I was also raised in consumerist US culture, which doesn’t really encourage people to have self-discipline. So–living the first 25 years or so of my life without a daily practice or any models of daily practice, it was difficult to begin to meditate daily.

The worst part is that the Protestant, US culture I was raised in also has a very quick, very simple-minded view of failure. It’s easy for our self-hatred to talk us out of commitments because we have “failed” at them–fallen off the wagon, missed a few days of practice, broke a vow or commitment. Only recently have I realized that the point is not about being perfect at practice–it’s about recommitting over and over. That’s the moment when practice actually happens.

This morning it occurred to me in a flash that tarot–or any kind of divination tool, really–could reflect some interesting things about my practice back to me. And so I created this five card spread–what I might call the Five Eyes of Practice (Buddhists love numbered lists, after all.) They are: discipline, sincerity, joy, hindrances, and encouragement/admonishment. (Note: there is probably some traditional Buddhist version of this, but I just made this up.)

I–rather casually, actually–mapped out the spread, drew cards from my Wild Unknown deck, and was surprised by the result. Lately, practice has been a bit of a struggle for me. I’m willing to accept that struggle (rather than be ashamed of it, as I would have been a couple of years ago) and investigate it a little bit. Here’s what I got:

20151030_103834Discipline: The Magician On one hand, my discipline does have power. I have learned to listen to the voices in my head that offer excuses for why we should not practice today. I know those voices do not operate in my true interest, but only in the interest of my ego. I have the ability to sit down and do the practice despite them and that’s my power. On the other hand, my practice is a little flighty. Just like the juggler/conjuror/magician who can do all kinds of tricks, I tend to go from one aspect of my practice to the other, favoring or disfavoring them, rather than being more solid and stable.

Sincerity: The Heirophant, reversed. Yup. I have definitely been getting this feeling lately of just going through the motions. The reversal of the Heirophant is showing me that I don’t have the Key right now–that is, I am doing my practice but it is not allowing me to access deeper things. My heart is in a dry spot.

Joy: The Chariot. The joy here is in getting the practice done, in checking things off the list. The joy is in the doing, rather than the being. As long as I do my daily practice, certain kinds of self-reproach and guilt won’t be allowed to surface, so I blast through the practice.

Hindrances: The Father of Swords. There is beginner’s mind–which in the Korean tradition we tend to call “don’t know” mind. So the Father of Swords is “I know” mind. Hindrances are living in the head, rather than the body and allowing the intellectual satisfaction of “I did my practice today” to get in the way of practicing right NOW. As Suzuki Roshi famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.” I need to keep my expert’s mind (lovingly) in check.

Encouragement/admonishment: The Son of Cups. (I include “admonishment” here because Buddhism ain’t all sweetness and light–sometimes you get hit with a stick instead.) This encouragement is: “Take heart.” But it also shows me how to bring more sincerity into my practice: fall in love with it. Let it make things feel rich, juicy, and enjoyable.

What’s new?

new decks

I’m back after over a month on hiatus. I returned from my wonderful trip to Vermont on August 8th and spent the next three weeks finishing my dissertation. Tarot was indeed a powerful part of my experience in Vermont and I’m drafting a post about it, but right now I thought I would do the easy thing: a big fat update on all the stuff I’ve bought.

Before all that, though: you’ll notice that I’ve tinkered with the design of this blog a little. It took a long time for me to find a theme I was happy with. I also updated the about page and decided to unashamedly write this blog under a pseudonym: Emily Francis Clare–Emily to you, bub! The reason behind the pseudonym is that down the line I may want to start a tarot business and I have ideas for an oracle deck and a book on tarot that I’d like to publish. I’d like to keep these separate from my day job and academic publications, at least for the foreseeable future. Those are huge plans, though–many years in the works. In the meantime, it’s fun to take a new name, so why not?Continue reading “What’s new?”

New Name: Dharma Eyes Tarot

So I decided to change the name of this blog to reflect more of where I want to go with it. This blog is definitely still a tarot journal and will document my journey learning tarot, but the more I get into tarot the more I want to integrate it into my Buddhist practice. In the header I have picture the High Priestess, the Eight of Cups, my mala or yeomju (prayer beads) and a little statue of Ji-jang Posal. To me, the two cards signify the spiritual path, or parts of it, at least. The way of the High Priestess is to see our spiritual development as the highest purpose of life. In the eight of cups, we have to discern what the most important thing is, even if it means leaving behind a lot of really good stuff and setting off on our own path. I don’t think of the spiritual journey as happening in isolation. I think it rarely happens without a good community of teachers and fellow practitioners. But we are responsible for our own journey. Nobody can end our suffering for us.

The Dharma Eye is the eye that discerns all phenomena, sees their true nature, their arising, and their passing away. Beings who posses the Dharma Eye can see the causes of suffering–their own and others’. We all have the capacity to develop the Dharma Eye, and I see tarot as being one way to help that development. Tarot connects us with the wisdom we already possess and see things with clarity.

Nutriments Spread

The Buddha taught that we have four nutriments–the literal and metaphorical food that feeds our existence and keeps it going. Ultimately, one who has attained nirvana is said to have “exhausted” all nutriments, have no food to give future existences. From my perspective, since I don’t think I’ll become enlightened anytime soon, this all seems rather abstract. I had heard of the teaching of the nutriments before, but it went in one ear and out the other. But recently I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. He breaks down the four nutriments in a really relatable way and makes it something that I can work with at an everyday level.

The Four Nutriments

1. Edible Food. “What we eat or drink can bring about mental or physical suffering.” (p 32) And this is not only what we eat, but how we eat it. Are we appreciative of our food and understand the work, suffering, and sacrifice it took to make it to our mouths, or do we just shovel it in? (I’m pretty guilty of the latter.) Do we use food for things that have nothing to do with food, like eating out of boredom or stress?

2. Sense Impressions. This relates not only to what we see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and think (Buddhism considers mind to be the sixth sense) as we walk down the street or go about our lives, but also what kind of media we consume.

3. Volition/intention/will. What we fundamentally believe about life, and believe to be our goal in life, will determine how we act and where we place our attention. Sometimes these beliefs are so deeply believed that we don’t even notice them as beliefs even though they motivate everything we do. Examples of non-helpful volitions would be, “My dad is to blame for all the problems in my life” or “once I own my own home, I’ll finally be happy” or “life is always going to be hard and unfair.” I know one volition that drove my actions for many years was, “My purpose is to be a professor of literature.” Letting go of volitions can be very freeing.

4. Consciousness. Consciousness is the ultimate repository for all the other nutriments and the place from which we act in response to them. “Every day our thoughts, words, and actions flow into the sea of our consciousness and create our body, mind, and world. [. . .] Our consciousness is eating all the time, day and night, and what it consumed becomes the substance of our life. We have to be very careful which nutriments we ingest.” (p. 36)

When I read this today, the thought popped into my head: this would make a great tarot spread! I mean, it seems esoteric, but Thich Nhat Hanh has a point: we are what we eat, literally and metaphorically. Over the past few years, I have come to understand this more clearly through my own experience. He advises: “Use your Buddha eyes to look at each nutriment you are about to ingest. If you see that it is toxic, refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, or touch it.” (p. 34)

Ultimately, what we choose to consume determines so much about our lives. Paying attention to how we feed ourselves is useful for well-being on a daily level, even if we have no plans to exhaust all nutriments any time soon!

I think it’s important to look at what we consume and really experience it, but I also think tarot can be a supplemental set of Buddha eyes. So I thought, OK, let’s make this a spread.Continue reading “Nutriments Spread”

Dharma and the Dreaming Way

The Dreaming Way Tarot, written by Rome Choi and illustrated by Kwon Shina was published in 2012. I’d seen many photos and reviews of this deck online and was attracted to it, but had no plans on buying it any time soon. But a few weeks ago something happened that shook me up a little and the next day I had to be out and about for an appointment, so I decided to go down to my local woo-woo store and have a luxuriant browse through their extensive set of demo decks.

I was looking through the decks and thinking about buying the Mystical Cats Tarot (I know, I know. But I live with two cats every day and I’m pretty good at reading cat behavior, so why not read it on a card?) They had some ancient decks on demo that I’m sure were long out of stock, like the Tarot of a Moon Garden (this deck apparently sells in the 3 figures nowadays, so they had punched a hole in each card to deter theft.) My heart jumped a little, though, when I saw the Dreaming Way Tarot. So I plunked down my $20 and went home with this deck.

And to be honest, as I looked through the deck, I had a bit of buyer’s remorse–but not because of the deck itself. I don’t often indulge in “retail therapy” nowadays–it’s not particularly Buddhist, is it? I felt a little regretful about buying this deck on a whim, but as it usually turns out, most of the stuff I buy on a whim ends up being something that I use and enjoy a lot. I don’t need it and the money would have been better unspent, but it’s not exactly a bad purchase either. This deck was going to prove that to me from the very beginning. Once I had looked through all the cards in order, I did what I usually do: shuffled it hand over hand a few times, fanned the cards in my hand, and drew one at random. And what did I get? The Seven of Pentacles.Continue reading “Dharma and the Dreaming Way”

4 Noble Truths Problem-Solving Spread

A reading I did with this spread.
A reading I did with this spread.

Lately, I’ve been inhaling Holistic Tarot by Benebell Wen. In her chapter on creating tarot spreads, she says that when creating a new spread, you should really think about the larger ideological framework on which the spread rests. For instance, the Celtic Cross is based on, well, a cross. It has its roots in Christian belief. This makes sense to me for the reason that religious and philosophical underpinnings of a spread will already have done the work of thinking through which questions and answers go well together. I think it’s nice to make up spreads on the fly, too, but using a spread based on a tradition of belief or thought will allow us to tap into wisdom that has already been useful to the lives of many people.

And once I started thinking about it, it occurred to me that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism would make a great tarot spread. So…here it is! This spread is for specific inquiries, and in particular for problems–great or small–that need to be solved. [Recap: the Four Noble Truths are (1) there is suffering (dukkha–perhaps better translated as dissatisfaction), (2) suffering has a cause, namely clinging, aversion, and ignorance of the way things are, (3) there can be an end to suffering, and (4) the way to get there is the Noble Eightfold Path.] The Buddha applied this formula to a pretty big problem–human suffering–but he was not the first to use this it. As many people have noted, it’s almost certain that the Buddha modeled his teaching on the medical formula: diagnosis (this is your disease), etiology (this is why you have this disease), prognosis (your disease can be cured), treatment (this is how you cure it.) Thus, while I’m pulling the structure of this spread from Buddhism, it is really not necessarily affiliated with any religion–it’s a pretty universal process for problem-solving.

Although the Four Noble Truths seems like a no-brainer for a tarot spread, but I immediately ran into some problems with constructing it because the Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path. Laying out eight cards, especially if they were to correspond to each element of the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration), would just be information overload, and might not be very flexible. Fortunately, the Eightfold Path has been traditionally divided into three parts: wisdom, conduct, and concentration, which are very adaptable.

If you use a signifier/significator in your readings, put it directly under card 1. Lay the first 4 cards out in a line reading from left to right.Continue reading “4 Noble Truths Problem-Solving Spread”

Retreating and Advancing

Over the past couple of years, I have had the immense privilege to go on several multi-day meditation retreats. I say it’s an immense privilege because it really is–I don’t have children, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to take the time off, and I have the funds to pay for it. But it’s also kind of funny, because retreats are hard, so it’s like paying money for the experience of being miserable. Whenever I tell people I’m going to a meditation retreat, they usually say, “Oh, that sounds so relaxing.” That’s how you can tell a person has never been on a meditation retreat.

Basically, on retreat  your job is to meditate all the time, whether you’re sitting on a cushion, walking, eating, resting, working, peeing–all the time. At my temple, there are about 9 hours a day of formal meditation interspersed with other activities. By the end of the first full day (which feels about as long as 3 normal days) your knees hurt, your back hurts, your ankles hurt, and every mental demon you have has decided to come out of the woodwork and do a merry jig on the living room carpet of your consciousness. You don’t have a choice as to how you spend your time, what food you eat, how much sleep you get. You can’t talk or write or even look at yourself in the mirror. (Well, of course you can do all these things, it’s not like the Buddhist police are going to throw you in jail if you do. But these are the guidelines for the retreat and pretty much everybody follows them.) As a friend of mine put it, “I can’t believe we’re going to pay money to sit on our asses for five days!”

But I do it, and continue to do it, because retreats build stamina, concentration, stability, quietness, and the capacity to be happy even in less than ideal conditions. You also gain a close connection with your fellow retreatants in a way that doesn’t happen in the small talk of our everyday lives.

Before going to retreat last Thursday, I thought it would be an interesting experience to consult the tarot about it. I’ve never really thought of tarot as having a lot of insight about my meditation practice, but I was surprised by the results. So before I left, I asked the question, “What am I carrying with me into this retreat?” and after I returned I asked, “What am I carrying with me as I go back to daily life.” I didn’t have any set spread–just pulled three cards–but the answers were quite illuminating.Continue reading “Retreating and Advancing”

“Knowledge is made for cutting”: Swords, Intellect, and Suffering.

swords pipsOf the four minor arcana suits, Swords tends to have more than its fair share of dark and scary cards. Where to even start? The confusion of the blindfolded figure in Two who balances crossed swords on her shoulders, the pain of the swords in Three piercing a heart, the unethical behavior of Five and Seven, the bondage and torment of Eight and Nine, the black skies and over-the-top back-stabbing in Ten? When I first took up tarot cards as a teenager these cards creeped me out, but I didn’t know why. Now that I’m older, with some Buddhist teachings and painful but valuable life experiences under my belt, I have a better understanding of of the perils of this suit. Swords are the suit that represents intellect, reason, logic, and empirical knowledge the the product of these things: our beliefs.

Thinking about the suit of swords brought to mind one of the Buddha’s more famous teachings, the simile of the two arrows. You can read it here, but it goes something like this:Continue reading ““Knowledge is made for cutting”: Swords, Intellect, and Suffering.”

Bodhichitta Tarot Spread

When I became interested in tarot again, I really had no sense of how it might connect to my Buddhist practice. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between tarot and Buddhism–as I understand each of these–a lot lately and haven’t really seen much of a connection. I see Buddhism as my main practice which guides all other facets of my life, including tarot. Rather than see tarot as a transcendent path, I see it as a helper on the everyday level. (And this is not to knock tarot–everyday life, as we say, is the Way of Buddha.)

But the more I work with the cards, the more connections become apparent to me. So much so that I have created my first spread based on Buddhist ideas–although it’s useful to anyone.

A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with creating my own tarot spread, one that would give me a sense of where I am at the beginning of the coming week. Two of the card positions are: how I can take care of myself and how I can take care of the people in my life. As it turned out, I love the latter. It’s my favorite damn question of the whole spread. The first time I got it, I got the Knight of Cups and I was like, “Oooh! I can be creative and bring beauty into people’s lives!” The next time I got The Heirophant, and was like, “Oooh! I can support my religious community and help be a moral compass for people!” It was here that I got my first inkling into how I can integrate tarot into my practice. I call this the bodhichitta card and later decided to do a bodhichitta spread.Continue reading “Bodhichitta Tarot Spread”