Zen and the Art of Tarot I: Illusion and Attachment

Recently I discovered that I have an odd emotional malady — maybe you’ve got it too. Basically it’s this: whenever I think about something I’d like to have in my life (an evening out with friends, curtains on all my windows, a better job, more time in nature), I instinctively and subconsciously ask myself whether I deserve it. And if the answer is no, then I instinctively and subconsciously sabotage my own efforts to get it.


Do I really deserve a nicer job? After all, I already have a great job, one which is challenging and interesting, not too stressful, and places me in the top 30% of wage earners in the United States. It’s probably not my life’s work — I’d be happier writing or teaching. But what right do I have to complain? Do I deserve a better job? Especially when so many people would consider what I do to be beyond their wildest dreams.

Or going out into nature more. For my birthday last week I got to take a day and go hiking and camping, and it was extremely restful and fulfilling. I would love to be able to do more of that… but do I deserve it? I know people who barely ever get to leave the city. Am I so much better than they are? How can I justify such a luxury when they are suffering so much? At least I live next to a beautiful park — I can walk in it every evening if I like. This would be paradise for millions of people trapped in urban wastelands worldwide.

Head vs. Heart

Now, intellectually I know this “deserving” business is ridiculous. Me going out into nature does not prevent anyone else from doing the same. It’s not like there’s a limited amount of nature, and only the most deserving among us should get to enjoy it. And the same is true of great jobs: it’s simply not the case that there is a limited number of great jobs in the world, and we’re all in cutthroat competition to snap them up. Lots of people think that way, but it’s nonsense.

And at the most basic level, the question of “deserve” doesn’t enter into it. Did I “deserve” to be born? To be born human, rather than a hedgehog? To be born in a country with a high standard of living? Did I deserve to have this particular combination of interests, intelligence, personality, and luck that got me the grades that got me the degree that got me the credentials and friendships that got me this job? It’s not like some cosmic judge weighed me in the balance and said, “Congratulations, Jeff! In your next life, because you’re so awesome, you get to be a wealthy American, instead of a garden slug.” There’s no way I’m that awesome, believe me. (I’m me, and I know.)

I don’t “deserve” anything I have. Arguably some of my good fortune is due to hard work, so in that sense I “deserve” it, but I work hard because of my personality and my upbringing, and I got those by happenstance. Besides, who says working hard means you deserve something? American culture is saturated with ideas of the self-made man and heroic entrepreneur, with the delusion that you can “deserve” to be wealthy, but economists have calculated that at least 95% of anyone’s wealth comes from factors they can’t control — accidents of birth, upbringing, and personality. None of us “deserve” anything we have, good or bad.

Oh wow, I’m going way off onto a tangent here. My point is that intellectually I know that “deserving” has nothing to do with whether I should get the things I want. But instinctively, subconsciously, the feelings are there, and they are more powerful than my intellect. They constrain my life and sabotage my goals.

Feeling Worthy

Some examples. I got this great job (and the great job I had before this) shortly after quitting a job which was not great: I was working in the defense industry, and there was a lot of emotional and professional stress involved. I eventually couldn’t take it any more, and jumped ship. At that point, I viscerally felt like I deserved a better job — one which was emotionally and professionally low-stress, and which did not support the military industrial complex. And that’s what I ended up with.

Similarly, I am now in a fantastic relationship, and I got into it shortly after getting out of a relationship which was less than fantastic. My divorce went extremely well, as divorces go, but it was still a stressful time and ended a long period of emotional and spiritual struggle. When it was over, I viscerally felt like I deserved a great relationship. And that’s what I ended up with.

It was just a few days ago that these realizations jelled in my head. It’s possible that I could be wrong about the causal relationship here; maybe my feelings about whether I deserve something have little or nothing to do with whether I actually get it. But regardless, I want to get rid of this hang-up, this emotional malady. I don’t want to go along forever feeling bad about the good things and good people in my life.

But how?

Emotional baggage like this comes about because of hidden, subconscious, false beliefs. Somewhere in my head or my heart was a little twist of false logic. I needed to somehow dig it out and untie the knot.

I decided to go with meditation, and the Tarot. And Zen.

Past, Future, Self, and Tarot

Most people think of the Past as something that is real. They think: it happened; it was real; it’s true. The Future, on the other hand, is unreal; it’s viewed as nebulous, uncertain, and cloudy.

The Tarot is often thought to be a tool for casting light on the future. Maybe it won’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen — after all, we DO have free will. But it can give you the broad outlines, or tell you what the most important themes will be. It can show you the unreality that will become the reality.

Others think of the Tarot as a tool for casting light on the self. By using it, you can see subconscious currents, feelings, and thoughts, elements that often have deep effects even though we can’t see them. It can bring clarity to the present, and reveal options you did not know you had.

In other words, the Tarot is viewed as an Oracle.

The Meaning of Squash: A Parable

A young man came to the Master with a problem. “Master,” he said, “I owe a rich man a great deal of money. If I cannot pay it back, he will come and put me in prison. But Master, I do not have the money. What should I do?”
“An excellent question,” said the Master. “Stand here and look up into the clouds. What shape do you see?”
The young man looked. “I see no shape, Master.”
“Come, use your imagination,” said the Master.
“I see… a squash.”
“A squash! Excellent! There is your answer.”
“But Master, please! What does a squash have to do with paying back this debt?” said the young man.
The Master smiled and called his students to him. He explained to them the young man’s trouble. “He has looked up into the clouds and received a sign: a squash. What do you think this means?”
One student said, “Master, he is trapped like the seeds in the squash, with no escape. He is fated to go to prison.”
The young man wailed with misery. “Perhaps, perhaps!” he cried. “But I do not want to believe it!”
“You don’t like that answer?” said the Master. “Try another one then.”
A second student said, “Master, the squash grows quickly and low along the ground, hiding from the sun. He should flee and hide from his misfortune.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” said the young man. “But I do not want to leave my home!”
“Try another answer, then,” said the Master.
A third student said, “The carotene in squash is excellent for eyesight. He should seek out new sources of money to pay his debt.”
The young man wrung his hands. “Perhaps, perhaps,” he said. “But suppose I can’t find any?”
“Try another answer, then,” said the Master.
“The squash grows from a tiny seed to be one of the largest fruits,” said a fourth student. “He should take what money he has now and invest it, and use the dividends to pay off his debt a little at a time.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” said the young man. “But the debt is due right now! Who knows whether my creditor will be patient?”
“I have run out of students,” said the Master, a bit testily.
“But Master!” cried the young man. “Which of these answers is correct?”
“None of them,” said the Master.
“None of them?”
“They are nothing but illusions — pernicious lies,” said the Master. “The students will be punished.”
“But Master!” cried the young man. “If none of those answers is correct, what is the answer?”
“The squash, of course,” said the Master.
Zen Commentary: The Master was a fool. He did not see the cloud.

The students and the young man in this parable are indulging in what most people do when they use the Tarot — they take the symbols on the cards and try to assign meaning based on the issue at hand.

But when the Master says that the true answer is the squash itself, what he’s saying is that it’s up to the young man to find the best answer he can; it’s really only the process of teasing out answers and testing them against your feelings that can show you what your attachments are and lead you to your essential self. No one else can do that for you, although they can give examples and suggestions, as the students did.

The ‘Zen Commentary’ is a sort of self-parody I added in the style of Zen koans. I’ll have more to say about koans later.

But Zen teaches that the past, the future, and even what we usually think of as the ‘self’ are unimportant and, in a sense, illusory.

Maybe there seems to be a web of causality linking everything together; maybe you seem to have memories of real events. But the past is no more real than the future; and the ‘self’ we know is nothing more than a loose collection of memories and habits of thought and feeling, all associated with a constantly-changing body of atoms.

None of this is of any importance. What is important is the essential self — the self that is at one with all; the self that is eternal and unchanging; the self that has, in fact, already achieved infinite peace. Everything else is inconsequential…

EXCEPT insofar as it helps us to strip away illusion and attachment, and see the world as it is. Memory, thought, habit and pattern are useful and important if they help us find the inconsistencies and attachments that cloud our vision of the truth.

On Solipsism: A Dialogue

A student sought out a holy man and said, “I have heard it said, Master, that all the world is an illusion; that everything we see, feel, and touch comes from our own minds, that past and future are meaningless, that other people are projections of our subconscious, and the only thing we can be sure of is our own existence.”
“Ah, yes,” said the holy man. “Solipsism.”
“Master, is solipsism true?”
“No, it is not,” said the holy man.
“Ah! Then the world is real?”
“No, it is not,” said the holy man.
“But — but these things I can see, feel, and touch — they are not real?”
“No, they are not,” said the holy man.
“Past and future — are they also illusions?”
“Yes, they are illusions,” said the holy man.
“What about other people — do they exist?”
“No, they do not.”
“Master, do you exist? Are you real?”
“No,” said the holy man, smiling. “I am not.”
“But Master, you just said solipsism was not true!”
“It is not.”
“Then how is solipsism wrong?”
“The solipsist believes he exists,” said the holy man.
The student stood in silent thought for a while, and then said:
“Then Master, if the world does not exist, and past and future do not exist, and you and I do not exist, what does exist? What is real?”
“I will tell you,” said the holy man, “if you can tell me the difference between illusion and reality.”

Thus, Zen teaches, it can be helpful to think about the past or the future, as long as we realize that these things have no power over us, and are useful only insofar as they show us our attachments, and help us release them. It is a grave error to worry and agonize about the past or the future; it only takes us away from the present moment, and attaches us to things which do not exist.

Some Say He Is A Holy Man: A Zen Story

A serious young man found the conflicts of mid 20th Century America confusing. He went to many people seeking a way of resolving within himself the discords that troubled him, but he remained troubled.
One night in a coffee house, a self-ordained Zen Master said to him, “go to the dilapidated mansion you will find at this address which I have written down for you. Do not speak to those who live there; you must remain silent until the moon rises tomorrow night. Go to the large room on the right of the main hallway, sit in the lotus position on top of the rubble in the northeast corner, face the corner, and meditate.”
He did just as the Zen Master instructed. His meditation was frequently interrupted by worries. He worried whether or not the rest of the plumbing fixtures would fall from the second floor bathroom to join the pipes and other trash he was sitting on. He worried how would he know when the moon rose on the next night. He worried about what the people who walked through the room said about him.
His worrying and meditation were disturbed when, as if in a test of his faith, ordure fell from the second floor onto him. At that time two people walked into the room. The first asked the second who the man was sitting there was. The second replied “Some say he is a holy man. Others say he is a shithead.”
Hearing this, the man was enlightened.
by Camden Benares, The Count of Five Headmaster, Camp Meeker Cabal
(From the Principia Discordia)

The Tarot, then, cannot help us by showing us the future, because there is no future. Nor can it show us the past, because there is no past. It can’t even show us the self; there is no self — at least, not one that can be illuminated by a card.

What the Tarot can do is help us by showing us patterns or stories that we can impose on our memories of the past, or our anticipations of the future. Its pictures suggest new ways of interpreting these memories and anticipations. When it suggests something we haven’t thought of before, something hidden from us because of our attachments or ignorance, it opens up new possibilities and breaks attachments, taking us closer to the essential self. It wakens us a little from our illusions.

The Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s radiant and peaceful presence. The man asked, “What are you? Are you a god?”
“No,” said the Buddha.
“Are you an angel?”
“Are you a saint?”
“Then what are you?”
“I am awake.”
— traditional Buddhist story

So, with all this in mind, I sat down and drew cards, asking, roughly:

“Please give me guidance on how I should handle my feelings of being undeserving.”

I drew three cards. I hadn’t decided on a spread to use before hand, but as I drew I felt like three was the right number. Here’s what I got:

1. The Hermit
2. The Six of Wands
3. Strength

Hmmm… With two of the Major Arcana in the reading, this was going to be heavy stuff, important. Good! I set about trying to interpret them.

The Hermit. The first thing that came to mind was the time I spent alone after I separated from my ex-wife in late 2008. That period was certainly relevant to my issues with deserving things, since at that time I felt like I’d gone through a lot and ‘deserved’ to get into an awesome relationship to make up for it (in some sense). So, ok… though it was hard to see what particular advice this had for me. On to the next.

The Six of Wands. This card is all about victory after a struggle, accolades, undisputed success — although perhaps there are seeds of future difficulties, especially if success has come through an unhealthy focus on one element at the expense of others. Here the analogy with my love life breaks down, because there certainly wasn’t any struggle when it came to meeting Ali. We hit it off immediately and after more than a year, everything continues to fall into place. And again, I had no idea what it was saying about ‘deserving’ something, or what I was being advised to do about it.

Strength. Persuasion, inner strength? The power of truth?… Here I was at a loss. I simply had no idea how to apply this card.

I was stuck. The cards pretty much seemed irrelevant. However, Zen’s philosophy — particularly with regard to the koan — is very helpful for dealing with this kind of situation. I’ll discuss this, and how I got the solution to my problem from the cards, in the next posts.


* Because each employed person creates more jobs for other people. For example, the work I’m doing — speech-to-text software — allows people to work more productively, by and large, which means they can expand their customer bases, grow their businesses, and create more jobs. Plus, since I have a salary, I go out and spend money on things, and that employs other people, too. Return to text.

7 responses to “Zen and the Art of Tarot I: Illusion and Attachment”

  1. O, this post is vastly better than your first one! 🙂 Can’t wait to hear – oops, I mean read the next part! 😉


  2. I wonder–does the feeling of worthiness/deserving-ness cause one to get better stuff, or just to better appreciate what one gets? In other words, if you think you _deserve_ a better job, then the next job you find, you will look at through rose-colored glasses, and you will be better able to see the positive and will be better able to ignore the negative. Likewise, if you think you do not deserve a good job, you will notice the bad aspects much more than the positive ones. Crucially, we could be talking about the same job in both cases!

    Is there an opposite for rose-colored glasses? There needs to be! 🙂

    Feeling that you deserve better could also be linked to manifesting better things, which is the direction you are leaning in this post.

    I reckon that seeing the good and doing positive intention manifestation work together to create a virtuous cycle, where they both feed into it, creating more positive things in your life, and making you appreciate them better. Conversely, seeing the bad and doing negative intention manifestation work together to create a viscous cycle of doom and gloom, bringing a person so far down that they do not know how to get out, and do not believe that they even _deserve_ to get out.


  3. […] 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 […]


  4. “Can’t wait to hear – oops, I mean read the next part!”

    I share your feelings, friend! 😉

    “I reckon that seeing the good and doing positive intention manifestation work together to create a virtuous cycle, where they both feed into it, creating more positive things in your life, and making you appreciate them better. ”

    I think that is what they call the “Law of attraction”, right? 😉


  5. […] dare to want more, when so many people on Earth suffer from such want and dissatisfaction. Well, I answered the second question earlier this year: basically it comes down to the fact that none of us really deserve anything we have, good or bad, […]


  6. […] The stories do not have to make sense: in fact, the crazier they appear on the surface, the deeper the insights that may be attained. Christian doctrine contains some pretty nutty, apparently self-contradictory […]


  7. […] This post was written in early 2007. You may be interested in some of my later thoughts on financial independence in my series on Zen and the Tarot. […]


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