Zen and the Art of Tarot II: Meditation and Release

In my previous post on Zen and the Tarot (Illusion and Attachment), I talked about an issue I’ve been working on recently: my tendency to feel as though I do not deserve the good things in my life (my job, my loved ones, my access to nature, etc.). Intellectually I know that it makes no sense to even think about “deserving” such fundamental aspects of life, but that does me no good: there is a deep level at which I feel unworthy — or at least, not more worthy than the billions of people who do not have the good things I do. And feeling undeserving is a trap that sabotages my efforts to improve my own life and makes me feel guilty about the good things and good people around me.

ire1In order to find the reason for this feeling and get rid of it, I decided to use meditation and the Tarot, inspired by Zen philosophy.

The first thing I did was draw Tarot cards. My intuition told me to draw three, so I did: the Hermit, the Six of Wands, and Strength. However, I had no idea how to interpret the reading.

I decided to meditate on the cards. Before I talk about those meditations, though, I need to introduce a little more Zen philosophy.

Attachment to the Transient

According to Zen Buddhism, problems in life are caused by bad attachments: that is, emotional attachment to things that are unreal or transient. It is fine to be attached to permanent things, but almost nothing is truly permanent, no matter how hard we may try to hold on to them. Our families, our countries, our loved ones, our bodies, even our very selves are transient, and attaching ourselves to them is not just a recipe for pain, but a fundamental error of belief. In the most essential sense, these transient things do not really exist.

The immediate reaction of most Westerners when presented with this philosophy is often abhorrence. After all, if you don’t think the world really exists, or is important, aren’t you being nihilist? Aren’t you shutting yourself off to all emotion, like Mr. Spock? Aren’t you detaching yourself from everything and becoming a supercilious prick?

A Sack of Past: a Parable

Once, while walking through the forest, I encountered a man groaning under a terribly heavy sack. The weight of the sack caused the man to stumble around, first this way and then that, so that he could hardly control where he placed his feet. Every few steps the man would take a rock out of his sack, smack himself in the head with it, and then put it back in the sack.

I watched the poor man with interest and compassion for a while, until, staggering and weaving, he stubbed his toe on a rock. He cried out mournfully, picked up the rock, smacked himself in the head with it, and put the rock in his sack.

At that point, the sack said “Ouch!”

“Sir,” I said, “excuse me for asking, but what the hell are you doing?”

The man glared at me. “I am cursed,” he said. “I cannot walk properly. And I have terribly bad luck. So wherever I go, I bump into things and stub my toes. Leave me in my misery.”

“But why do you strike yourself with rocks?”

“I have stubbed my toes on them. I deserve to be punished.”

“But why do you carry them with you in your sack?”

“Fool! Should I forget the wrongs I have done?”

“Is your sack filled with rocks, then?”

“No, no, I have other things. The things I love, the things I hate, the things I own, my accomplishments and my mistakes… As well as my hopes and worries about the future. I must carry them with me, otherwise I might forget them. Besides, without these things, who would I be?”

“But why did your sack say ‘ouch’?”

“Oh, that is my poor mother, bless her soul. Clearly I cannot go through life without her.”

“But surely the weight of your sack is the reason why you are having trouble walking.”

“No, ’tis fate, ’tis fate! I can never do anything right. I am cursed with bad luck. Leave me in my misery.”

(Inspired by this post on guilt, shame, and Buddhist practice)

As the parable illustrates, releasing attachments to transient things does not mean that you don’t care about people, or that you become a compassionless alien. Instead, by releasing your burdens, it gives you the strength and agility to better navigate life’s path, and allows you to give other people more compassion and assistance.

How then do you release these attachments?

Learning Enlightenment

According to the Zen masters, trying to teach enlightenment is nearly useless. It is not something that can be learned. Instead, it is best attained by diligent meditation and self-examination, alone, just as the Buddha did.

According to Zen theory, then, these feelings of unworthiness were created by attachments — unconscious attachments to transient, unreal things. Once I identified the attachments, I could release them and be free of the unhealthy feeling of not deserving.

I knew that the Tarot cards I’d drawn were trying to give me a message, but I couldn’t puzzle them out. I decided to use Zen’s preferred solution: meditation. However, instead of Zen’s zazen meditation, I used the visualization technique I’m more familiar with.

I went to visit the Hermit, to ask him directly what his meaning was.

The Hermit(s)

I started the meditation in the Forest of Branching Paths, an area which I think represents our normal human lives: a wood that is dark in places and light in others, with paths that fork and merge and branch again, with no pattern or end in mind. All sorts of spirits wander these paths — other people, beasts, ghosts, and even devils, angels, and gods (though these high-energy beings usually are cloaked or hidden in some way). The forest used to be a rather spooky and nerve-wracking place for me, but some time ago I found the way out, and since then I usually travel the paths pretty confidently.

Something told me the Hermit would be in these woods, and I could sense the direction I should travel — north and a little west. (In my personal meditation landscape, ‘north’ is towards Water and ‘west’ is towards Air. Don’t ask me why.) The path dipped down steeply and wound along the side of a slope of a valley of oaks. I got the impression that it was late in the year — November, perhaps — though it wasn’t cold. The smell of fallen leaves was rich and wonderful.

Before long I rounded a bend and spotted the Hermit’s tower, an old stone one overlooking the oak valley. The sun was on its way down, and its light glinted off the windows at the top. The path took me directly to the foot of the tower, and I knocked on the old wooden door, wondering what sort of fellow this Hermit would be.

Turns out he was extremely friendly. Well, half-friendly: he was two people, one of them friendly, the other not.

One of him greeted me at the door warmly, invited me in, and offered me crackers, wine, and other simple food, apologizing for the paucity of his table. The other one of him didn’t acknowledge my presence at all — for him, I simply wasn’t there. During my visit I occasionally spotted him reading in the library, or kneeling by the window in prayer or meditation; but for him, neither me nor the ‘other’ Hermit seemed to exist at all.

“I have to apologize for my rudeness,” said the Hermit. “Generally I’m just one person, but I split into two so I could welcome you properly. After all, if I am the Hermit, I can’t very well just talk to whoever comes to visit, can I?” And he laughed happily. “This way I can give you a proper welcome, and also continue my solitary contemplation.”

“I appreciate it,” I said. We sat and talked in an open circular room near the top of the tower, with the sun poised in a timeless sunset.

Morality in Solitude

“You were asking,” said the Hermit, “about why you’re having this emotional hangup about deserving things. I think I can give you part of the answer. Think about this: what does it mean to ‘deserve’ something?”

“Well, nothing, really,” I said. “None of us really ‘deserve’ anything we have, good or bad. Everything is pretty much by chance.”

“That’s your mind talking,” said the Hermit. “Your mind is fine. But we’re working on your heart. What do you feel like it means to deserve something?”

“It means,” I said, and paused. I tried to concentrate on what it felt like to deserve things. A feeling of worthiness, earning something, having a just claim…

“Yes,” he said, not waiting for me to try and verbalize the feelings. “And this is a moral issue, isn’t it? It’s a question of having a moral claim to something. It’s a question of right and wrong. You deserve something if you have acted morally in such a way that you are justified in having it. Deserving something is a kind of moral state.”

“I think I see,” I said.

“Now answer me this: what kind of moral codes should a Hermit follow?”

He looked at me with crystal-clear eyes while I turned the question over in my mind. Surely hermits should follow the same moral codes as everyone else, right? No lying… well, there would be no one for them to lie to, so that was, in fact, irrelevant. No stealing… well, that one was also irrelevant. No violence…

“Morality is irrelevant for a hermit,” I said at last. “No wonder Sartre said that hell is other people.”

“Almost irrelevant,” he said, smiling. “You always have your body and your self here with you, so you must be careful not to lie to yourself, steal things your body needs, or do violence to your body. At least, that is my feeling. But setting that aside: yes, morality is, by and large, concerned with our relationships with other people. So if you are a hermit off by yourself, most of morality is just irrelevant.

“Deserving something,” he went on, “is a kind of moral state, we have agreed, yes? So if you feel you deserve something, what you’re really saying is that you stand in some kind of moral relationship with other people. Set aside right now the question of what exactly that relationship is. All that matters right now is understanding that if you deserve something, you’re in some kind of relationship with other people. It’s not something inherent to yourself; it’s something about your relationship with others.”

“Ok… I think I see,” I said. “So if I feel like I don’t deserve something… then I must feel like I’m not in the right relationship with others.”

“Exactly,” he said, smiling. “This is the lesson of the Hermit card for you today. Deserving things is about relationships with others. If you feel like you don’t deserve something, you are like a hermit: feeling cut off from, or in an improper relationship with, other people. To put it another way: deserving something means you’ve entered into some relation with others, and you, Jeff, don’t feel like you’ve hit that relationship.”

I was amazed: it was an extremely apt reading, and not at all what my conscious mind had come up with. Obvious, perhaps, in retrospect, but that’s the nature of our hardest life lessons, isn’t it? And it shows, I think, that even if you think you know the meaning of a card in a reading, there are certainly deeper meanings that you haven’t teased out.

I stood and thanked him profusely, and he showed me out. We shook hands and I promised to visit again sometime. If I’d known hermits could be so hospitable I would have visited before…

As I walked back through the oak woods, following my nose to meet with the next card (the Six of Wands), I reflected that here was another example of wisdom through release of attachment to wrong ideas. I thought that deserving was something inherent to my self, while in fact it is an aspect of my relationship to others.

I hoped that meditation could shed as much light on the next two cards — cards which my conscious mind had not been able to figure out at all. In the next post I’ll describe those meditations, and compare the Tarot with Zen koans.



  1. I thought it was well writen I I’m curious to hear more.


  1. […] personal issue, as I explained in depth in the previous posts, is a persistent feeling of unworthiness — of feeling like I do not deserve the good things […]

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