September 14th, 2012
This is a more formal essay written with a broader audience in mind than I typically write for. I want to reproduce the essay here since I feel the topic of ethics in divination can’t be discussed enough, and I’m eager to offer Tarot’s virtues as a counterpoint to the suspicion it endures in popular culture. Enjoy the essay and let me know what you think!
Tarot has come a long way from being a niche fortune telling tool. One can enter a mainstream bookstore and buy dozens of decks and books selling tarot as an oracle, meditation device, path for spiritual development, and a method of insight and healing. Contemporary psychologists have considered and documented Tarot’s therapeutic usefulness. In Tarot and Psychology by Arthur Rosengarten, a practicing psychologist, writes at length of Tarot’s usefulness in healing and therapy.
Unfortunately, tarot reading is represented in the mainstream as either hokey fortune telling or con-artistry, preying on superstition and magical thinking. Tarot Totes informally maintains a list of movies which feature Tarot, and it is clear that in film Tarot is used as a device of premonition, particularly of death or great danger. The most recent film on the list is Now and Then, from 2009, where the character Kate “jokingly predicts her own death.” Horror flicks on the list use Tarot as a device to foreshadow terror and violence. From Hollywood’s perspective, it seems tarot cards oscillate between spooky fun and terrifying glimpses of the future. Therapeutic uses for tarot cards in personal growth or counseling are not significantly represented in film, and unfortunately this representation leaves persons with a budding interest in tarot cards unlikely to consider responsible counseling techniques when learning to read Tarot.
In films, tarot readers are passive interpreters and the cards are giving the message. This depiction shows readers as kind of magical grifters, and strips them of responsibility for the impact their readings may have on the client’s life. I have never met a professional reader with such a passive approach. These days, many readers have their own approach and philosophy published on a blog or in their brochure so prospective clients can easily examine them. Theresa Reed, a professional tarot reader, asserts on her blog that “our lives are determined by our choices and we can live consciously if we are aware of the consequences of those choices. [Her] readings are geared towards those who are ready to take control of their lives” (Reed). The impression of Tarot she gives is that while still divinatory, the cards are flexible in their interpretation: Fate can be changed for the better, and a skilled reader can advise the client in making those changes. Theresa’s approach is a much better example of where the practice of Tarot is presently situated. The trend is for readers to act like spiritual coaches or guidance counselors for their clients in respect to the cards drawn, rather than the passive approach more often depicted in films.
Whether readers consider themselves fortune tellers or not, a feature of a good tarot reading is receptivity of the client. Good readers want to build rapport and have a positive influence in the client’s life, which requires a measure of openness and trust. An effect of this openness is that the client becomes more vulnerable to bad advice or manipulation. To say it is questionable ethics – to give people negative suggestions in this state of vulnerability – sells it short, it is abusive to do so. Is it the reader’s responsibility to consider their impact, or is it up to the client to have good judgment? Rather than searching in the dark for answers to such questions it would be simpler to have ethical guidelines for the reader to follow. This way the reader can have confidence that they don’t make egregious errors in manner or communication which might cause very real anxiety and harm to their clients. How should such guidelines be put forth, and by whom? Standardizing anything about how tarot is done is a detriment to the diversity and accessibility of the practice, and it raises questions about how to select and enforce such standards.
A better approach is to conflate tarot reading with ethical counseling, even for the amateur reader. Discussion of ethics and responsible communication early and often on blogs and in books about Tarot helps seed these concepts in the community. But the question remains, which conception of ethical counseling would be presented? There are too many ways to discuss such a topic to expect any kind of consensus among content creators and publishers of tarot materials. One way is to just leave it up to the authors of such materials to present their own approach to these questions, but then we are back in the dark, asking who is right and wrong.
I prefer to cultivate a more formal approach. The American Psychological Association has a well-defined code of ethics, as do the American Counseling and Psychotherapy associations, all readily available on the internet. The dedicated reader should consider reading some of these different views on what is expected of professional counselors. Even just an internet search of ‘Counseling Ethics’ can get one started on understanding current policies on the subject. Professional counselors are prepared with knowledge and techniques to treat all their clientele thoughtfully and with respect. This is explicitly ensured by their codes of ethics. Usefully included are thoughts on when and how to end the therapeutic relationship, how to establish boundaries, and when to consider referring your client. Tarot readers know they are becoming professionals when they are asked what they will do when faced with a possibly suicidal client, and good answers are contained in many available sources for professional and amateur counselors alike.
It isn’t appropriate to expect tarot readers to follow any particular code of ethics, the field is too diverse and among tarot readers individual expression is incredibly important. Rather, I want anyone interested in reading tarot cards to consider studying how to behave and think like a counselor as a part of learning tarot, so they may become social artists and healers on behalf of their clients. Instead of two bit characters who drive the plots of bad writing, tarot readers are often thoughtful and compassionate people who help initiate practical action and provide useful insight through their use of the cards – whether their approach is divinatory or not. I hope all tarot readers can understand what goes into the therapeutic relationship well enough develop their own sense of conduct and act with dignity in their role – that is, with respect and compassion to the people who come to them, be it explicitly for help or just to have their cards read.