Tarot as a Path of Healing | Embodying (part 1)

Tarot as a Path of Healing is a practical, in-depth series from herbalist Alexis J Cunningfolk, exploring tarot as a tool of healing beyond a focus of plant medicine. 

How do we connect the energetic, intuitive, and analytical experience of tarot with our physical form?

If it’s all just spiritual work and of the soul, why bring our bodies into it?

Because, whatever our relationship to them, all of us have bodies. Because our bodies are soul shrines which require tenderness and care. Because seeing other bodies that look like ours in the world and in the cards around us matter and affirm our right to exist. Because we filter the wisdom received from tarot through our bodies and have lived or will live the stories cast on the reading table.

So how do we embody our tarot practice?

The physicality of the tarot

First, let’s talk about the ways that the tarot can help us to connect us with our physical body. The sound and feel of shuffling and cutting the deck before a reading can become an invitation to return to our bodies. Holding our decks to our belly, heart, brow or any other place on our body can help us to connect our intention for our reading as well as our capacity to embody the knowledge gained from a spread. Even placing the cards on the table can act like a quiet call to attention.

The scent of the cards (I keep my very first deck wrapped up in a piece of amber resin gifted to me by another tarot reader), their worn or brand new texture, the cloth you wrap them in, the bag or box you keep them in, are all opportunities to connect our tarot practice back to our physical senses.

For me, tarot has been a way to slow down time, pause conflict or extend bliss in order to better understand the situation at hand. When we reflect the slow energy of the tarot in our bodies a powerful alignment can occur – we are signaling to ourselves that it’s ok enough to slow down and take up time to reflect, assess, and remember. (And speaking of slowing down and reassessing how we create unnecessary stress upon ourselves with artificial ideas of productivity, please read some healing words by Sabrina Scott on the slow magick of morning coffee.)

To begin to become more embodied in your tarot practice, I invite you to cast your next cards with the intention of listening and observing the cards and how they interact with your senses. Go through the motions of a reading slower than you usually would. A shuffle that takes minutes instead of seconds. Placing a card on the table with the slow steadiness of someone moving it through a million different worlds and realities, collecting information upon the card’s surface before it lands before you. Pausing and taking a series of deep breaths before pulling forth another card.

When you slow down your tarot practice what do you notice? How do you feel? What memories, daydreams or thoughts emerge in your mind? Where are you in your body in addition to locating where you are in your thoughts and feelings?

Changing stories

Our bodies hold on to stories, especially traumatic ones. It’s a primitive instinct for survival that encourages our bodies and minds to remember the bad stuff that happens to us, but it can lead us to using old patterns of behaving (including a fight, flight or freeze response) to new situations where that habit is not appropriate (check out books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk for more information on our bodies and trauma). To even realize that we’re re-enacting old patterns that aren’t reflective of the reality of our current situation is healing and I’ve found tarot to act as a great tool to helping us bring a different perspective to a situation that feels all too familiar in our bodies, helping us to tell new stories instead of just repeating old ones.

Let’s say you’re dealing with anxiety, whether it’s new to your life or an chronic companion.

I used to leave my house each morning ready for a fight. I would walk in a way that would make me appear bigger than I really was, including using magickal glamouries to help me achieve this, and extending my energy outwards to detect any approaching danger. It was exhausting and, in a terrible twist, made me believe that the violence in my environment was necessary to prove my strength. But the tarot cards were a source of soft magick for me – I felt held and heard and spoken to kindly with them from the very first day I ever held a deck.

When I began to untangle this belief of the normalcy and necessity of violence in my life, I began to use the cards to help me understand how I could see the world differently which seemed absolutely impossible to imagine at the time. I began to pull cards that again and again pointed towards being easy in my body. Relax those shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Soften your hands, walk slowly, and take a break. In fact, the Four of Swords showed up again and again, advising rest as a path towards health, but I didn’t even know how to connect with such advice until I entered into the card through trance work. Sitting in the Four of Swords I was struck by what deep rest felt like. The world of the Four of Swords was a quiet calm and within it my mind was not racing, constantly tracking for trouble. I took that gift of feeling gained from the Four of Swords and practiced inviting into my life whenever and wherever I could. It wasn’t easy, and I’m still working on it, but where before I couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to not be in a state of hypervigilance all the time, with the Four of Swords I had a taste of it, and that was enough to help me begin to change the story of how I walked through the world.

You don’t have to do anything extra in your tarot practice to bring a body-centered awareness into it. You just have to pay attention to how you feel during readings and where energy flows or ebbs depending on the cards cast. Look for those cards that turn up again and again – what is it saying about your energy and the way that it manifests in your body? How does a card feel like to you? Is it familiar or unusual or strange or something between?

We can take the cards which represent difficult times in our lives, that are deeply felt in our bodies, and use their beautiful visual language as a balm to the tender hurt we carry within us.

For many years I dreaded pulling the Three of Swords. It brought me right back to these moments when my open heart was so wounded and mistreated by those I had entrusted it to and I didn’t want to be reminded of what felt like foolish vulnerability and unnecessary meanness in my life. And yet, the pain remained whenever I saw that card in whatever deck it showed up in. I couldn’t imagine, though, that this card was simply going to remain a terrible reminder of periods of my life that I would rather forget because the tarot is multifaceted in its meaning and doesn’t lose that capacity simply because I have strong stories tied up with one card.

So I decided to change the story.

With my Slow Holler deck I pulled out the Three of Knives (Swords) and built an altar of other cards around it to tell a new story about an old pain. The Ten of Stones (Pentacles) spoke of being welcomed in instead of pushed out and the power of chosen family. The Kindred (or Empress) spoke of softness, tender welcomes, the security of friendships, and everyone feeling like there is enough to go around. The Three of Vessels (Cups) is one of my favorite cards in any deck and acts as the balm to my Three of Knives wound. Finally, I pulled the Student of Vessels (Cups) who holds their heart with great care for themselves and the world to see, learn from, and understand. The heart remains exposed and open, but not overly vulnerable or unprotected.

Seeing the Three of Knives surrounded by loving stories and people and places in my life, the story of that card and my own story began to change. Yes, those were hurtful experiences but they have not been my sole experiences of relationships and community. And I can see how I’ve learned how to protect my heart appropriately without completely closing it and, in turn, how I’m committed to looking out for the hearts of others after having my own own so mistreated. The Three of Knives is no longer the whole story – it’s just a chapter in my book. Now, I can turn the page because I’ve learned to keep writing my story. My Three of Knives moments are there in the index for me to refer back to if I need, but it’s no longer the whole book.

You can use the tarot to help you change your story, too.

Choose a card that evokes a deeply felt reaction within you that – and this is important – you also feel capable of holding space for at this time. No need to dive deep into reliving traumas if that’s not where you are and especially if you don’t have an appropriate support network to help work through tough stuff. Once you’ve chosen your card, go through your deck and pull out cards that represent what you wished had happened or embody energies that bring the exact sort of comfort you want to this tender place within you. This is less about figuring out the “correct” cards based on what’s written about them in a book or even how you’ve interpreted them before – it’s about following what feels right to you. Surround your big feeling card with these other cards of kindness and care. Take time to feel this setup when you look at it and notice what comes up for you. We can’t always think our way out of something, sometimes we just have to feel through it and the tarot can help us do just that. You can even turn your layout into an altar and perform as much ritual around it as you want. Or you can feel with these cards for as long or little as you like and then put them back in the deck when you’re done, trusting that new stories and pathways of healing have started to take root within you.

Energy centers

Following our feelings back to our bodies, let’s look at how tarot can help us connect with what is happening in our physical forms.

If you’re using tarot as a tool in your healing practice, I think it’s important to have some sort of energy and body check-in spread. There’s a vast variety of energetic systems out there from the Hindu and Buddhist chakras, to the Chinese meridian system, the three cauldrons of the Irish wisdom tradition, the five elements of many modern Pagan traditions, and more. Just learning about the ways that your ancestors understood the energetic anatomy of the body can be healing and useful in releasing ancestral trauma.

Depending on what energetic system you work with, build a spread around it. For myself, I pull three cards each for the three primary energy systems (or souls as my tradition calls them) of the body resulting in a nine card spread. For each soul I pull a card for the physical needs, the emotional/mental needs, and the spiritual needs. What I’m left with is a thorough, but not needlessly complex, check-in. When I’m pulling the triad of cards for each soul, I spend some time holding my hands over the part of the body where they are most easily connected to in order to draw forth and open up that part of myself to be held and seen. If you were working with the chakras, for example, when pulling a card for the heart chakra you might hold your hands over your heart before pulling a card. So not only is it a reading, but a bit of hands-on healing, too.

In creating your own energy centers spread, ask yourself what energy system you’ll be working with. It might be a very traditional system or a deeply personal one that you’ve developed over time but you should feel comfortable working with it. Then ask yourself what information would be most useful for you to gain about yourself through this spread. For me, I want to know what’s happening on a physical, emotional/mental, and spiritual level so that I can do what needs doing to bring myself back into balance. Once you have an intent, pull your cards, and have spend some time getting to know yourself and where you’re at.

If you don’t have an energy system you currently work with, you might begin by connecting with the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit that are relatively common to many modern Pagan traditions and one that shows up in the tarot. I’ve written about the four elements of tarot in my other series in my other series which is a good introduction to working with the elements (and accompanying herbal allies) from a magickal and healing standpoint.

Do you have a energy system you work with? Have you used tarot to connect with it? Let me know in the comments.

That concludes part one of our exploration of body-centered tarot! Next month we’ll explore casting cards on the body itself in a way that can be easily transformed into a community healing ritual.

Decks Featured: Slow Holler Tarot, The Buckland Romani Tarot by Raymond Buckland

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  1. Erin Marie says:

    I’ve started doing weekly readings which I call ‘Brain, Heart, Lungs’ – representing my mind, my emotions and my spirit. These are the parts of my that I often feel get easily out of balance, so it is good to see where I should be focusing my energy in those spaces for the week. I am also working on dealing with old trauma at the moment, and your post has led me to think I need to include ‘Body’ in this reading. I have been so disconnected with my body for most of my life that it feels uncomfortable putting any attention on it, but to really shift out of old patterns, I need to. So thank you for this post, and the prompt.

    • I love your weekly reading and that you’re feeling inspired to throw in a Body card, too. You’re doing powerful and brave work reconnecting with your physical form after trauma and I just want to take a second to say “HECK YEAH!” to that.

  2. Danny says:

    I love your thoughts and heart on connecting tarot with the body and as a treatment for trauma. It’s amazing to me how very multi-faceted the applications for tarot really are; the possibilities and potential uses are endless! Looking forward to the next part in your series.

    • Right?! I think that tarot can be as simple or complex as one needs it to be – and that is a great source of comfort for me. In my own practice I’ve found that the cards show up in different ways for different situations and people, connecting us to a hidden wisdom within and beyond ourselves. And I find that to be reassuring because it can feel like the experiences in my body are too much, too impossible to explain, too overwrought, or not enough. If I can find the self-gentleness to pull out my deck, then I can make space for a story emerge. And these stories hold us and remind us to keep speaking our truth and gathering round kitchen tables, camp fires, protests, celebrations, and memorials to keep hearing the truthful stories of others. There’s enough cards, enough words, enough space. And then it feels less like I have to hold it all in this tenderfierce body of mine. I can let go, open up, draw in a breath, and make space.

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