with Jeannette Roth
"Found in Translation": Improving Communication via the Tarot
The Rosetta Stone is among the most important archaeological artefacts ever discovered. Containing the same text inscribed in three different languages, it allowed researchers to finally "crack" two previously undeciphered languages - Egyptian hieroglyphs and demotic - by comparing them to the text of the known language, Greek. The results opened up a whole new world of understanding about ancient Egyptian history and culture
We generally tend to think of "translation" as the process of taking a totally unfamiliar form of communication and mapping onto a familiar one - that is, the restatement of one language into another. Yet there is sometimes a more subtle translation process that can occur even between people who share the same spoken and written language. How we use language is partially dependent upon our own perceptions and world view, and upon the limitations of the language itself. For example, a simple statement such as "you're a lot like my mother" can be a compliment or an insult, depending on what the speaker thinks of his or her mother, or the idea of motherhood in general. If the listener's (or reader's) perception of the concept under discussion differs from that of the speaker (or writer), misunderstandings can occur, and thus effective communication cannot take place. The familiar plaintive wail "you just don't understand me!" does not arise because different forms of communication are used, but because the parties involved are applying the form itself differently. This fact often goes unrecognized, but once identified and acknowledged, we can begin to take the first steps toward a "translated world view" that can help us to succeed in the communication process where we have failed before.
In cases of simple misunderstandings, a little empathy may be all that is needed to "translate" one perspective into another. We may not ultimately agree with that perspective, but at least we can understand it well enough to communicate more effectively with those who share it. But what can we do when empathy fails? What if we are attempting to communicate with others whose world view isn't at all clear to us? Unfortunately, there is no "Rosetta Stone" available for translating the subtleties of one person's psychological makeup into the terminology of another.
Or is there?
The "Language" of the Mind
As any student of tarot knows, there is information in the unconscious that is not always readily brought into consciousness or easily put into words. One reason we turn to studying, reading, or meditating upon the cards is for their ability to establish, through their tableau of visual symbols, a pathway into parts of the mind that are less accessible via "everyday means." If we are reading for ourselves, regarding a personal issue, we are most likely to grab our most trusted "comfort deck" - one whose familiarity allows us to travel those pathways with insight and ease. But if the issue under examination is closely tied to our interactions with another person (or group), can such a reading give us equal insight into both our perceptions and the perceptions of those with whom we must communicate with on the matter? To be sure, certain types of readings are designed to provide us with at least some of this type of information. But if communication barriers figure prominently into the problem, then perhaps a more thorough, yet unbiased (or at least less biased), examination of how our counterpart views the same problem - stated in terms that we can understand - would be more likely to yield a solution.
But to what end? In order to establish why such an examination is important, we must first take a short side trip into some communication basics.
In her excellent Gentle Art of Verbal Self defense series, noted psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin discusses an effective set of communication processes that she groups under the heading "Matching Realities." Her explanation of how this is done is worth reading in its entirety, as it provides an excellent guide to navigating communication problems in general. However, for purposes of the present discussion, the most important concepts of the Matching Realities approach are as follows:
1) Do not expect the communication process to be founded on logic. On this point, Dr. Elgin says:
One of the hardest things for people to accept about human communication is the uselessness of logic. It comes as something of a shock to go to the research literature and discover that [the use of] logic has been proved to have almost nothing to do with the effectiveness of language. (From More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin, Prentiss Hall Inc., New York, 1986, p. 169)
2) We all construct our own realities, and the way we use and understand language will reflect the realities we construct. Since we cannot rely on raw logic to help us navigate this myriad of realities, we must instead find another way. Dr. Elgin paraphrases the work of George Miller in providing this guideline:
What does all this mean, now, for the person who wants to communicate effectively with someone else? It means that, whether you are trying to understand others or cause them to understand you, one basic rule holds without exception: You must find a way to enter the reality of the other person(s) involved in the language interaction. (Ibid, p. 171.)
Dr. Elgin makes sure to emphasize that by "entering the reality of the other person," you are not necessarily accepting that reality as valid. But you are at least providing yourself with an effective way to understand and to be understood. At worst, you and the other party (or parties) involved in the exchange may at least be able to "agree to disagree" without the stressful emotional components that tend to accompany communication breakdowns.
Tarot as Rosetta Stone
In her books, Dr. Elgin goes on to provide some techniques for using metaphor to match realities in the communication process. Through the use of metaphor, we can build our own "Rosetta Stone" of correspondences, between our perception of reality and that of another person. For the tarot practitioner who uses the cards as the metaphor to draw out information about the more subtle dynamics of a relationship, beyond those expressed by words, these techniques can be creatively adapted to provide us with not only insight, but with real solutions.
In the remainder of this column, my goal will be to describe a process for using tarot as a Rosetta Stone that can be used to map one reality onto another. (From this point forward, I will formally refer to this procedure as the Rosetta Stone Method.) Once this mapping process is complete, we should have the tools we need to establish the appropriate metaphorical foundations for effective communication. A detailed example follows the instructional section, to provide some guidance as to how the process might be approached and applied.
The Rosetta Stone Method
It is important to keep in mind that since we are dealing largely with perceptions, and not necessarily with "real" reality, the type of reading spread used should be selected with care. It is possible for the techniques described here to be used for readings as simple as single-card draws, or as complex as the Golden Dawn horseshoe-style spreads. But the meanings assigned to the positions within the spread should be focused primarily or entirely on internal, personal dimensions, and how we express them, and not on external abstractions. For example, spreads designed to explore emotional and intellectual aspects of a situation would work well with the Rosetta Stone Method, while spreads which are intended to give information about actual past, present, and future events, or provide specific outcome information, would be less suited to working within this procedure (unless the spread was redirected toward an exploration of one's perception of past or future events, etc.).
The specific steps of the process are as follows:
- 1) Begin by securing your most "comfortable" deck - the one with which you are most experienced and feel most confident in the results. This deck will be used to represent your "world view."
- 2) Carefully select a second deck, which will be used to represent the world view of the other party. This step shows that this process is admittedly biased toward practitioners with a larger deck library, but it can still be used effectively by a motivated "single-deck purist." The good news is that the second deck need not be physically present during the reading. As long as images of the second deck's cards can be referenced by some means - through illustrations in a book, for example, or via an Internet website - that should prove sufficient.
When selecting the second deck, care should be taken to do the best possible job of choosing one that accurately reflects the general character of the other person. In an ideal situation, where several decks are actually available and you can feel comfortable with directly approaching the other person, you might actually let him or her choose the second deck themselves. If you own few decks, but will be using this process with some frequency to examine communication issues arising between yourself and a particular individual - a spouse or closely collaborating co-worker, for example - you may wish to research the "best match" for that person, and then invest in an actual copy of that deck for such readings. In any event, the effectiveness of this technique will rest largely on how well this second deck functions as an accurate metaphor of this second person's perceptions.
- 3) Decide on the spread to be used, and lay out the cards for the spread from deck #1. Take some time to reflect on what the results say about you, and about your perceptions and behaviours in regard to the situation in question.
- 4) Next, find and pull the matching cards in deck #2, and lay them next to or above the corresponding cards in the spread from deck #1. If the second deck is not physically present, use your reference materials to access the illustrations of the corresponding cards.
This second set of cards is, of course, intended to represent the world view of the other person in regard to the same question. Explore how the same metaphors and archetypes are executed in the second deck. Find the interesting aspects of how they differ from those of the first deck, and how they are similar. Don't be afraid to make associations based on surface attributes - it isn't essential to delve into all the minutiae of any esoteric symbolism that may be present. Keep in mind that our perceptions are not always based on logic or profound truths.
Remember: the goal is to come to an understanding of the other's views, not to judge them. While it is certainly okay to disagree with what you are seeing, keep in mind that there is no "right" or "wrong" at this stage. For the moment, your only concern should be to establish the metaphorical groundwork for future communication on the matter.
- 5) Once you have finished reflecting on the spread results, use your conclusions to guide your future communications on the issue. Whenever possible, you will want to build on elements of the situation where your perceptions overlap, and propose alternatives from within the metaphor of the other's world view when they don't. How this might be accomplished will be made clearer in the examples that follow.
Using the Rosetta Stone Method: An Example
The situation. Dean, a 23-year old male reader, is involved in what he considers to be a committed relationship with Bess, a lovely woman of approximately the same age. Bess has stated that she has deep feelings for Dean, and that she, too, is committed to their relationship. Dean believes that Bess is sincere, yet he can't understand why she doesn't seem to want to spend more time with him. The time they do spend together is wonderful, but they only see each other about twice a week. Bess spends the rest of her free time in other activities - going to the movies with her girlfriends, attending church socials, visiting her sister in the next town, etc. When Dean has brought up the subject of being together more often, Bess has dismissed his concerns politely but firmly, stating that the time they spend with one another is "just right for the type of relationship we have." Dean is not quite sure what Bess means by this, and would like to make sure that she understands how much he values the opportunities he has to be with her.
The reading, step 1. Dean's primary working deck for personal readings is the International Icon Tarot - a Rider-Waite clone with its imagery pared down to the important essentials.
The reading, step 2. In order to provide a well-rounded understanding of this most crucial step, we'll actually look at three possible "Besses," which we'll distinguish from one another with the additional designations of "A," "B," and "C."
- Bess A is, fittingly enough, a "type A" personality. Strong and self-confident - a "no nonsense" person - she knows what she wants in life, and isn't afraid to go after it. For the Bess A examples, we'll use the Ramses: Tarot of Eternity deck. This Egyptian (but non-hieroglyphic) themed tarot features characters and images from the legendary years of the ancient nation, full of proud pharaohs and glorious accomplishments.
- Bess B is a free spirit - playful, a little eccentric, and perhaps even a bit mischievous. These elements are expressed well in the Halloween Tarot, with its impish figures and not-really-so-scary monsters executed with an undeniable dash of innocence.
- Bess C is moody, intense, and a tad dramatic. She has an artistic side that she tends to express in a rather Bohemian fashion. We'll represent this Bess with the Londa Tarot - a character-driven deck with meanings expressed through the personalities of its rather theatrical figures, rather than through symbolic nuances.
The reading, step 3. Dean chooses a three-card "Body Mind Spirit" spread to explore the question at hand. (Note: while the story described above is fictional, these are the actual cards I drew to examine this hypothetical situation.) He pulls the following three cards:
- 1) The first card, "Body," represents how the situation is expressed in the external world. Here, Dean pulls the "Lovers" card - an interesting start, given the subject of the reading. In this position, the design in the International Icon Tarot suggests that it is important to Dean that he and Bess be viewed as a "couple" - that their commitment to one another doesn't feel "real" unless others acknowledge that status. The presence of the traditional angelic figure above the man and woman may further imply that Dean sees marriage as the natural culmination of such a relationship.
- 2) The second card, "Mind," presents the intellectual elements being brought to bear on the situation. Since we have established that the thought processes driving communication exchanges are not always truly logical, this card can provide insight into the "internal logic" of the world view under examination. For this position, Dean has drawn the "Four of Cups." In the International Icon Tarot, we have the Rider-Waite figure with his three cups refusing the fourth, indicating that Dean sees little need to go beyond the boundaries of the relationship: "if we have each other, what more do we need?"
- 3) The final card, "Spirit," reflects the emotional and spiritual components. The Hierophant has turned up here, suggesting Dean is most interested in a "traditional" style romance. He's somewhat of an "old fashioned" guy, one who perhaps enjoys the courting process as much as the relationship itself.
The reading, step 4. Dean now pulls the corresponding cards from the second deck. We'll examine how the results are coloured by the differences in each example.
- 1) The "Body" card. It's interesting to note that in all three "Bess" examples, the cards of the other decks contain much more overtly sexual implications than the deck Dean uses for himself. The illustration below is a side-by-side comparison of the "Lovers" cards from the three decks:
- Bess A: The "Lovers" card of the Ramses deck is a stark contrast to that of the International Icon Tarot. Here, nubile young women surround an Egyptian Pharaoh. This image reminds us that one of the common themes associated with this card is the idea of "choice." Our strong-willed Bess A welcomes the myriad choices she's faced with in her life (in this particular example, choices about how she spends her time), and she isn't afraid to "take charge," making the decisions that put one thing in front of another.
- Bess B: The "Lovers" card of the Halloween deck is interesting, and might be interpreted differently for males and females. Despite the hovering vampire, the illustration style is more suggestive of sexual games than of real danger. Perhaps our Bess B prefers to express herself in a relationship this way, more so than might seem natural for the chaste, separated figures of Dean's International Icon deck. Alternatively, we might identify Bess B specifically with the female figure in the Halloween Tarot illustration, and assume that she finds the sexual elements of her relationship with Dean intimidating enough that she would prefer to minimize this aspect of their involvement by finding other things to do.
- Bess C: In the Londa Tarot we see a much stronger passion and raw sexuality than in any of the others. If Bess C feels more of a need to express herself in a more intense manner than Dean does, she may choose to spend a larger portion of her time in pursuits that can provide her with more of this type of experience.
2) The "Mind" card. In our three example decks, there is less deviation from the Rider-Waite "standard" here than in the "Lovers" card. Yet the differences that exist can provide some striking insights.
- Bess A: While the aristocratic figure in the Ramses deck is likewise not accepting the offered cup, his reasons seem to be much different than that of the lone figure in the International Icon Tarot. Here, the man is more distracted than sated, suggesting that he's simply more interested in pursuing whatever captures his attention at that moment. He doesn't appear to harbour the belief that one needs to place (artificial) limits on one's activities.
- Bess B: Huddled against a tree in a fashion similar to the figure of the International Icon Tarot, the central character of the Halloween Tarot Four of Cups nonetheless finds himself in a somewhat different situation. Here, two smiling, ghostly figures appear to be urging the boy to take the cup, and other faces on the card look at him expectantly. Nonetheless, he almost defiantly refuses to be swayed. Thus, our Bess B may put a strong emphasis on the importance of making her own decisions, and may not be inclined to respond well to what she perceives as pressure to act or behave in a certain way.
- Bess C: Our moody Bess C doesn't refuse the cup that, in fact, in the Londa Tarot is not actually being offered to her. Instead, she retreats sadly into a corner, hemmed in by the four cups that surround her. She may equate Dean's requests to spend more time together as unnecessarily limiting or restricting, and the general results do not bode well should Dean choose to pressure her on this point.
3) The "Spirit" card. It may be somewhat jarring to see the stodgy, ordered Hierophant in this fluid, emotional position. Yet his presence here is not necessarily incongruous.
- Bess A: For all intents and purposes, the key elements of the "Hierophant" cards from the Ramses and International Icon decks are the same. In fact, Bess A may not only not fear a more "traditional" relationship, she may desire it. Perhaps, given her strong personality, she simply wishes to feel more in control of how the specifics are "played out."
- Bess B: The bandages of the Halloween Tarot's Hierophant mummy carry strong overtones of unwanted restrictiveness. Our carefree Bess B seems to find Dean's desire for a more traditional relationship almost incomprehensible from an emotional standpoint. The two cats at the bottom of the card eye the strip of bandage that extends from the Hierophant's feet uncertainly, as if it is something of an unpleasant curiosity.
- Bess C: The most inscrutable of the three, the Londa Tarot gives us an ostentatiously garbed Hierophant whose piercing eyes issue either a dare or a warning. Perhaps Bess C is saying "love me at your own risk," and seeks emotional fulfillment by waiting to see how Dean takes up her challenge.
The reading, step 5. Now that Dean has gained some insights into Bess' viewpoint, and had a chance to reflect on how it differs from his own, he has the information he needs to "enter her reality" and communicate with her more effectively. Let's examine how this might be done in each example.
- Bess A: Luckily, in this scenario, Dean has found a definite area of "overlap" between himself and Bess A in the spiritual/emotional arena. Since both Dean and Bess A enjoy the idea of a "traditional" relationship, all Dean may have to do is to make sure that Bess A feels as though she plays a significant role in the dynamics of the process. For example, instead of saying, "I'd like to see you tonight; let's go to the movies," Dean might instead say, "Let's get together this evening - would you prefer to go to the movies, take a walk in the park, or just stay in and snuggle?" Or, perhaps better yet, something like "I'd like to see you this weekend - you pick the time and place, and I'll be there." General world view metaphor to use: "I love ya, baby, and I know you love me, too - so where do you think we should go from here?"
- Bess B: The last thing our carefree Bess B needs is pressure. The more Dean overtly urges her to be with him, the more likely the relationship is doomed to fail. Instead, Dean should look for opportunities to express his wishes in terms that the impulsive, high-spirited Bess B can best relate to. When speaking, he should choose words that emphasize the most engaging and compelling elements of his proposal. For example: "I was thinking about going to the Nosh Pit tonight - they've got an exciting new band playing there that sounds like a lot of fun. Would you be interested in going with me?" Or: "This may sound silly, but I had this sudden urge to check out the WWF jamboree at the coliseum tonight. How's that strike you - are you up for doing something a little crazy like that?" Dean may want to place less emphasis on actually talking about being together, and simply look for more ways to be together, and let the relationship take its natural course from there. General world view metaphor to use: "Anything I do is a lot more fun when I do it with you."
- Bess C: Finding a "matching reality" with the emotionally intense Bess C may be a difficult task for Dean. While Bess has said she is as committed to their relationship as Dean is, the reading suggests that she may define the idea of "commitment" differently. To Bess C, commitment and passion may be one-and-the-same. She may see Dean as an exclusive partner for now, but when the most intense phase of passion ends, so may the relationship. Thus, we see both her fear of being "trapped" by the relationship, and her challenge to Dean to find ways to satisfy her emotionally (and quite probably sexually as well). Since it can be difficult for even the most "robust" couple to sustain a high and continuous level of real passion over a long period of time, Bess C may be wanting to limit her contact with Dean in order to "keep the fires burning" as long as possible. At the same time, Dean may do well to ask himself whether he can achieve the "traditional" relationship he wants in the long term under such conditions. If Dean decides to proceed, he'll have to work hard to find a bridge between his and Bess C's realities. One possibility might be to slowly introduce his need for more regular-but-casual interactions as a natural extension of the more emotional portion of their relationship. Consider the following statement: "Darling, you are incredible. Sometimes I feel as though I can barely keep up with you, but at the same time, I can't stand to be apart from you. If you're going to be home tomorrow night, would you mind if I came over to your place for a while? You don't need to entertain me - I'll just bring a book and spend some quiet time reading. But it would feel so right to know you're nearby." (Note: If Dean actually takes this approach, then he'd better be ready to go to Bess C's place and read a book. No matter how well it matches another's world view metaphor; out-and-out lying is never a good communication tactic.) Here, Dean has underscored his strong feelings for Bess C without pressure for her to reciprocate at that particular moment. He acknowledges her own strong emotional tendencies, but doesn't "trap" her into thinking she must make them available to him "on demand." General world view metaphor to use: "My love for you is a flame that can burn equally well together with or alongside yours."
Effective communication rests on the foundation of understanding and being understood. When understanding fails, so does communication. Fortunately, as students of the tarot, we have a wonderful tool available to us for enhancing understanding and gaining insight. Using the Rosetta Stone Method described in this column, in conjunction with a tarot reading, allows us to explore both how we and how others perceive a particular situation. The results can then provide us with the necessary understanding to make effective communication possible. The metaphors revealed can be applied in our verbal and non-verbal interactions to clarify and, when ethical, to persuade. While we may not always succeed in reaching a consensus, we can at least feel confident that we have removed the barriers of confusion and misinterpretation. But at its best, successful communication can open up doors to marvellous opportunities and experiences that may have appeared permanently inaccessible to us before. And that fact, gentle reader, is as great a discovery as any archaeological find could ever hope to be.
Please check out the International Icon Tarot, the Halloween Tarot, Ramses: Tarot of Eternity and the Londa Tarot at the Tarot Garden today!
Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.
Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!