Tarot: Dreaming While You're Awake
Tarot: Dreaming While You're Awake

This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves. I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.

It has been a dreamy kind of day — well, few days, really. I haven’t felt quite here; time seems to have less meaning and rigidity. And so, instead of working against the flow and trying to engage with the rational side of my nature, I thought I’d harness what’s going on and run with it. In which case, please excuse me if things are a little less concrete today… as if the margins are blurred. Is there anything worth discovering in those blurry borderlands? Let’s see.

What preceded and precipitated this article was a request I made last night before going to sleep. I asked my dreams to reveal to me something that I could use as a basis for my writing. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Last night it did, but not in the way I expected. At a point in my dream, I was having a conversation with Deepak Chopra about the aim of meditation. It was revelatory — even Deepak was impressed. So much so that a part of me reminded myself to remember what I had said when I woke up.

This morning, I can write with some confidence that the statement I made was not an original thought; the Deepak of the waking world would, in all likelihood, not be bowled over with my erudition. I don’t think I’ll be sending him a Tweet about it.

However, the phrase “not in the way I expected” is key here. When we dream (and unless we are seasoned lucid dreamers — more on that later), we enter a world that holds the potential for an encounter with the unexpected at each turn. My so-called revelation was a useful reminder of something, but it was not what I said that turned out to be the most useful aspect of it: it was the meeting with Deepak himself that seems to hold more meaning in the cold light of day. Not because of who he is, but because of what he symbolises. Many of my dreams are frenetic, familiar and anxiety-riddled, reflecting my desire and struggle to break free of some very limiting bonds that have held me in check for so long.

In that moment when I was speaking to someone I consider wise and centred, I was getting in touch with something in myself that I relate to as wise and centred.

In an earlier article, I wrote that tarot has the ability to introduce the unexpected in a way that is surprisingly familiar. In this, it shares common ground with my dream, which was a welcome experience that I couldn’t have anticipated, and yet my dream self was entirely accepting of it. When I began to follow this thread of commonality, I discovered other qualities that dreams and tarot share, and I put them forward here for discussion, as well as suggesting how we can take our inspiration from dreams when using tarot as a tool for self-discovery.

As with dreams, tarot prefers to communicate using symbol and metaphor. Often, it is a language that on the surface appears nonsensical, but which we find we can understand once we become willing and able translators. Elements that would make strange dance partners in our everyday life move together with harmony and fluidity; and we take it all in. There is a part of us that is adept at moving in the same rhythm, and it is this part that takes over when we work with tarot.

A deck such as the Waite Smith tarot couches metaphor in mundane imagery, easily accessed by the waking mind. Other decks — like the Voyager Tarot by James Wanless — immerse themselves in metaphor to the extent that looking at the cards feels like you have plunged into a waking dream; they are designed to speak more directly with that symbolic aspect of yourself. The more familiar you are with the way the tarot communicates, the more at home you might feel with more abstract decks. Just as the more comfortable you are with your own dream language — the more you are aware of it — the more familiar your dream landscape becomes, and the better you can explore it.

As with dreams, tarot offers the opportunity to make correlations that appear to abandon logic, to overturn assumptions, to perform gravity-defying leaps of the imagination. The rational mind takes a back seat and intuition comes out to play — and our intuition is wise beyond our years, instinctive, linked to the collective. Having said that, our ability to think and to analyse is essential if we’re to understand and apply what we find on our intuitive travels. Whereas the rational mind dominates in waking life, in dreams and tarot it plays the role of interpreter, and is most effective when it works as closely with the source material as possible.

While our time awake is filled with things that are firmly seated in the physical world, anyone — and anything — can be used by the unconscious to tell its dream story.

And the story that is being told is the story of you.

In a dream, everything is created by you, for you to discover and uncover. There are no accidents, no coincidences, no booms wandering into the shot that shouldn’t be there. Likewise, with tarot, the cards that come up in a layout are there because they have something to say to you. They lie within your scope of experience, both conscious and unconscious. You might not relate to everything immediately — you might be as repulsed by some cards as you are drawn to others — but all of them will be meaningful.

Lucid dreaming — where part of the dreamer’s conscious mind can manipulate the contents of the dream — is something else entirely. As delicious as lucid dreams can be, I no longer view my brand of lucid dreams as superior to the dreams where I am not consciously in control. Dreams have a message, and sometimes that message isn’t easy to hear. Some forms of therapy discourage lucid dreaming because they are, in essence, acts of censorship. The tarot equivalent would be to go through the pack and cherry-pick the cards we want to appear in our reading, or, more common, to do a second reading because we’re not too keen on the answer we got from the first one. Like lucid dreams, a tarot reading will be less valuable — even misleading — if undesirable elements are sifted out and suppressed. It is when we are able to look at a reading with courage and acceptance that we find something truly useful to work with.

Finally, a word about the unconscious. As with dreams, there will be elements of many (if not most) tarot readings that we are unable to see. Perhaps we are completely unaware of something; perhaps a part of us is not yet willing to acknowledge it. When we feel resistance or fear, it is there for a reason: to protect us. In which case, we would do well to respect that. No forcing or pushing is required. If we are open, however, we make room for the possibility of the unexpected, and it will reveal itself when we are ready. Sometimes it comes as a blinding flash. Other times, it appears as cracks in the walls we have built to define and defend our lives. Soon, those cracks become openings we can walk through, leaving the wall behind. On the other side, our view and our experience change.

How can you apply this information practically in a tarot reading?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Make leaps of the imagination

Where does your eye want to take you? Why do those two colours seem to want to go together so well? How is one card correlating with another? Is that random coincidence really that random after all?

Strike up conversations

Dreams don’t stick to conventions of politesse, and your reading doesn’t have to either. Choose an object and start talking to it. Ask it questions. What does it have to tell you? How is it behaving towards you? How do you feel about it?

Trust your intuition

You have a weird thought that’s so implausible your first reaction is to dismiss it? You don’t want to feel stupid? Invite it in; see what hidden treasures it yields. The treasure doesn’t look too pretty? It might be treasure just the same.

Segue into non-sense

Don’t be afraid to go to a place for which you have no rational justification. If you don’t have words for what you’re getting, translate using your feelings.

Imagine that every element is a part of you

Yes, welcome to the no-fun guide to tarot reading. Approach the cards as if everything they are going to divulge to you is about you only, and no-one else. “What?” you cry. “You mean I can’t know and understand what someone else is thinking, doing, feeling about me?” Indeed. Now let any needs or frustration go, and see what the card says about you. After all, you’re the only person who is going to be sticking around for your whole life.

Don’t force meaning

Work with the flow. You’ll know it when you feel it, and you’ll know it when you don’t.

Try to censor nothing

But if it gets too much, note to yourself that it’s getting too much, walk away, and make peace with that decision.

Pay attention to boundaries

Unlike most dreams, you can walk away at any time. If you feel a pull back, go back in, and ask what it is that still wants to be seen and known.