How a Tarot Card Can Have Multiple Meanings (Part 1)

If anyone is wondering, it has been 12 months since I left the monastic community where I intended to spend the rest of my life. And it’s still hard… I’m still having a really tough time coming to terms with it. I don’t seem to be able to move on…


There is plenty of wisdom out there by which I can try to console myself. When life is throwing you bewildering blows, every piece of advice can seem to feel like it is speaking directly to one’s personal issue. A lot like how that old trope of how when you break up from a significant relationship with someone, every love song on the radio feels like it is speaking directly to you, like the composer was writing a song just for our very own broken heart. Sometimes it feels like I could open a million fortune cookies, and every single tiny scroll of paper might be relating to my distress and sadness about leaving the life I so much wanted to live.


In the last few days, I have received advice from two tarot-reader professionals: one who is a dear friends, the other a respected acquaintance. And the wisdom that they had to dispense was like that all-encompassing worldly insight that seemed like it was pertaining to my problem specifically. Except that each of these friends’ words of wisdom seemed at surface value antithetical towards one and the other. Both seemed valid, but they contradicted one another. How can the universe’s core wisdom be paradoxical like that? Is it possible? And what piece of wisdom should I choose or follow?


Here is the first piece of wisdom [which was a quote that one of these friends repeated from a Buddhist philosopher and teacher]:


“Letting go gives us the freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free. People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. …Vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.”

Thich Nhat Hanh



Here is the other piece of wisdom quoted from one of my former teachers:


“…The Hanged Man is that point of complete surrender… the mind has all of these [learned tools] and strategies for trying to take control of our life’s circumstance [away] from the universe. We have our own ideas of what we think we need or want… trying to override the system. The Hanged Man is simply giving up all of those strategies of trying to take control from God or the universe.


“The mind takes the concept of surrender or giving up and may turn it into a way to escape. [Meaning] you’re just pushing it away for another time and admitting that we don’t understand what’s happening in the present, so we ‘put it off.’ It can be a very subtle difference—between ‘surrendering’ and ‘escaping’; it can be very slippery for the mind.


“Another way that people turn surrender into escaping is through this whole idea of ‘being on a spiritual path’…People will say I’m a ‘seeker.’ But if you examine the concept of ‘seeking,’ it entails looking for something that’s not in the present; it’s somewhere in the future… It’s out there, somewhere in a time or place that I’m not. When we’re fixing our thoughts on someplace else or on the future, we’re not focused on the here and now. [True] surrender is sinking down into being here and now… You give up all manner of escaping… You surrender to what IS here and now. And then what is here and now is simply something that you experience, and you don’t need to do anything about it—you surrender.


“So trying to push away what is in the present moment, you are pushing away both…One can’t push away the painful circumstances and ‘be in the peace.’ [that which everything comes out of]. You’re either here or you’re not.


“We don’t see the pool of consciousness [that encompasses the universe’s actualizing itself through us]—we don’t see it, because the trance of what we think is reality is so, so powerful. We are ignoring the pool of consciousness (the peace) out of which everything is arising.


“Emotions are here.

“Thoughts are here

“Personality is here

“Consciousness is here.

“Body is here.


“And it’s all just experience, and the peace that all comes out of it is here. The only difference is that the circumstances come and go, come and go, come and go. And in that sense they aren’t real; they are impermanent. We are here to [simply] experience.”


At first glance, these two bits of wisdom seem to be talking about very different ways of thinking, ways of tackling a situation. The first seems to be saying that we have to consciously let go of our emotions and thoughts and hurt [in order to get past them].


The second piece of wisdom seems to be saying that we shouldn’t “put-off” the emotions and thoughts and hurt, but rather that they are part of the experience about which “we don’t have to do anything” outside of the simplicity of experiencing them.


So which is it? Let it go (surrender it in order to move forward)? Or, observe and acknowledge it (surrender to it washing over you as part of the greater pool of experiential consciousness that the universe is unfolding through our lives)?


Both of these approaches are born out of eastern philosophies of which I am not very learned or practiced. The first is the musings of a Buddhist Rinpoche. The second—if I’m not mistaken—is part of Zen philosophy. And while I have admired the philosophies of both traditions through the friends that practice them, they seem no easier to actualize than Christianity or Virtue Philosophy—both of which I do study and [try to] practice. And what I mean by that doesn’t intend to detract from the universal truths that these Buddhist or Zen wisdom philosophies are attempting to dispense at all. Both of these interpretations are completely valid But


…I think the hard part about subsuming, internalizing, and practicing a philosophy is that the “circumstances” (spoken about by advisor number two) are sometimes so egregious that the external affects that bombard us can REALLY affect us, sometimes beyond the point of being able to remove ourselves objectively as observers. It’s one thing to objectify circumstance as a stream of universal consciousness that can’t really hurt us if we simply observe it,… and a circumstance that wracks our bodies with pain to the point of not being able to think clearly, or affecting our psychologies so drastically that our subconsciousnesses lash out in the middle of the night in terrors (as with military-experience PTS disorder), or child sexual abuse that pervades our fears into adulthood relationships, etc. etc.


It’s one thing to say that we don’t have to do anything about it. It’s something else, I think, to admit that we can’t do anything about it (regardless of whether we might want to stop the pain or the hurt or the recurring nightmares…). In this sense, it doesn’t seem like wisdom-recommendation number one applies very well, either. Letting go of suffering is sometimes not so easy, and sometimes is not possible in the case of terminal illnesses. (I think people would argue that point with me—trying to convince me that all illnesses come from the mind. I subscribe to that argument to a certain extent, but I also believe and acknowledge that environmental factors contribute to illnesses that reach beyond our control or beyond what people can reasonably prevent.)


It’s one thing to be an observer and simply note the universe playing-out its story. But it rather removes us from being conscious decision-makers about whether the universe—or other affecting temporal factors—are being just, whether or not we are making virtue-based decisions, and whether we are reacting in a way that offers ourselves as virtue-ethical examples for our community or the greater human race.


I have a lot of feelings about that last paragraph. I must admit that it is entirely possible that a person might feel empowered to make the choice to live in the here and now simply as an observer. That is definitely a choice—as in, “an option.” But that seems like an awfully passive choice-option. And I think that it’s an important first step in a decision-making process—a very important first step. One really ought to be able to observe even the most personal things objectively, to be able to take a step back and assess and take stock of a situation before acting or making brash decisions. In fact such a process is known in virtue philosophy as Prudence.


Can you also imagine if everyone simply lived in the moment—completely in the present here and now, only to experience things, but not to actively mold and shape the way we live and the world in which we live? Pros and cons for and against that idea, I guess, but we’d live in a much different place if people didn’t use foresight—which is also a facet of Prudence. Obviously, there has to be a certain amount of foresight involved in a survival-invested species (which includes we humans).


Otherwise, I feel like the choice to simply live in the here and now solely as an observer might, perhaps, in some definitions be considered as nothing more than a coping mechanism. As was noted, “circumstances come and go, come and go, come and go…” But we are meant to be participants, experiencing but also creating circumstances. We are not simply maypoles around which everything revolves and twists and turns; we are among the dancers dancing and twisting among the other revelers, weaving our ribbons into the braid that consists of the artistic game.


As participants, we’re also not victims…


Which brings me to my next point, …because I tend to ascribe a different meaning (generally) to the Hanged Man card of the tarot. The most common definition I apply to the card is that of “sacrifice.” Just as with the definition of “surrender,” however, semantics and subtlety of meaning can be a slippery slope in the mind. I assume that a lot of people equate “sacrifice” with “victimization,” imagining a virgin damsel chosen by fate from a primitive tribal Pacific island community who is marched up to the lip of a smoldering volcano, and “sacrificed” against her will in order to placate the volcano gods and save the village for another year.


Um… yeah, not really what I’m talking about. Rather, when I speak of the kind of sacrifice that the Hanged Man embodies, I am speaking of active sacrifice. This still flows with the theory that the Major Arcana of the tarot are divided into three segments, of which the second segment includes the Hanged Man. It is the second segment of the Major Arcana that initiates a phase outside of or more pertinent than the temporal and earthly concerns of men; it’s a more theoretical, philosophical tour in response to circumstantial affectations.


Divisions of the Major Arcana

This is the division of the Major Arcana that is being referenced. Notice the Hanged Man (XII) in the second row.


Both of my tarot-reading associates would probably agree that what they are referring to is also outside of the temporal experience of man, or rather, that the act of “surrendering” demands placing one’s self outside of the physical realm of action (either surpassing it in order to leave it behind as less relevant [to the present, or relative to more important thoughts]; or to become larger than the physical nature of things and be able to simply observe it as part of the flow of life that surrounds, subsumes, washes over and through us. Certainly that dude hanging upside down probably wishes he could get past the juncture of what’s holding him back—but it’s a pretty drastic juncture (Death [XIII] comes next in the consecutive order of things). So perhaps the question at hand is: Is “surrender”—or “sacrifice” for that matter—cogently transferable, as meaningful, and as satisfying as another definition/term… “acceptance?”






As a writer, as a linguist, as a poet, as a creative soul… semantics mean a lot. I might be at a point of surrender. I might even be at a point of sacrifice. But neither necessarily means that I am at a point of acceptance. By anyone’s definition or reading of the cards…






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Posted in Close to My Heart, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Psychology of Tarot, Tarot Reading and tagged , , , , , , .

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