Using the Tarot to Help Navigate Family Challenges

This is a continuation of the series in which we use the tarot to help our stuffed friend, Teddy, navigate his life challenges.

Teddy was really nervous about going to visit his family this year, because this is the first time he'd be bringing Anatra home to meet them. He has a big family and, even without the potential drama of introducing his girlfriend, has always felt overwhelmed by the personalities of his relatives.

"It's just stressful," he said. "I'm the baby of the family, but I'm not a baby anymore. I keep telling myself each year that if I could get any emotional distance, I wouldn't feel like everyone was telling me what to do or judging me or acting like they know better."

"Are they really all acting that way?" I asked.

"Well, it could just be me," he replied, "if that's what you're hinting at. But I get it, I know it's my own insecurity talking. But I don't know how to get past that. It's so depressing."

I thought for a minute. "How about if we try and take the focus off of you? What if we try and make a bit of a game out of it?"


"So let's look at the court cards," I said. "In tarot, each suit has a page, a knight, a queen, and a king. Generally, they represent people or the qualities of types of people. Oddly, they correspond to the Myers Brigg categorizations, but in a more, or less, confusing way depending on how you think about it. What I think might be fun for you is to go into your family gathering seeing if you can match your family members to the court cards. That'll keep your brain from eating you alive, and it can also help you remember that just how each card can have a reversed meaning, each personality type can have ways in which they're wonderful, and ways in which they're not."

I explained to him how people often have trouble with the court cards, but that they're easier to pin down if you realize they're categorized fairly simply:

by maturity:

  • page - a young person, a teen.
  • ​knight - a young adult, maybe in their 20's.
  • ​queen - a mature feminine person
  • king - a mature masculine person

by what they do:

  • page - innocent, full of energy and trying to make big changes.
  • ​knight - on a quest, full of motion, searching or advancing.
  • ​queen - provides a nurturing space or environment.
  • king - master of their domain.

by their element:

  • cups - emotions and relationships.
  • ​wands - passions, creativity, desires.
  • ​swords - the mind and communication.
  • pentacles - the physical body and material things.

So, a young cousin who's always looking for "Mr. Right" could be the knight of cups. Your sister who just applied to art school is the page of pentacles. Roles don't always have to be assigned by gender -- your father who cooked everything and wants the whole dinner to go well might be the queen of pentacles, where your mother, who tells everyone where to sit and mediates the conversations could be the king of swords.

Anyway you cut it, it makes for a lot of fun, and probably beats wishing you could just choke on your turkey.



The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man is the twelfth card in the Major Arcana of the tarot, and it's a card that often gives people trouble. In the Rider Waite card it shows a man hanging upside down by his leg on a weird, crossed tree-like structure. He has a halo and looks pretty peaceful. But really?

Traditionally, the meaning of this card is surrender, and sacrifice to the greater good. These are both terms that try and put a positive spin on what's pretty much a bad situation. Even if you *need* the change in perspective, it's usually always uncomfortable, to say the least. Being upside down sucks big monkey ass, no matter how you look at it.

So the questions then are -- Why am I here? What do I need to learn? How can I make the most of this situation, and by the way, when the heck is it going to end?

The answers are, in that order, "No clue, No clue, No clue, and No clue." Surrender is a bitch. If you're in a situation of upheaval, where everything you know has changed, it's entirely possible that before you can make any progress or see any change you need to just accept that you are where you are. Perspective is tricky; unless you really and truly give up your old perspective, you won't see anything new. Most of us won't give up our old ideas and limiting thoughts until we have no choice--until everything breaks or we suffer some kind of breakdown or crisis, or really and truly just give up.

The lesson of this card though, is that it doesn't have to get to that point. Stuff happens, but you don't have to torment yourself on top of it or drive yourself crazy trying to hold on to the past. Relax into the discomfort, the chaos, the confusion, and just observe for a while.

You may discover something new.

How to be Strong

I've done martial arts for many years now, specifically Uechi Ryu karate, and sometimes it feels hard to take myself seriously, because I'm short and a lot of people are taller and stronger than me. Usually I only get to work with someone my own size when I go to the teen class and get one of the youngest kids to work with.

Sometimes, watching people do their kata (a specific pattern of movements which is a fundamental item of practice), you can see their muscles trembling and see the sheer power of their arms as they strike out.

Interestingly, though, what seems like great strength is not really good form and ultimately not even the most effective use of power. And if you consider strength to be using what you've got to the best of your ability, then you begin to see the potential in even a much smaller human.

The chinese pictogram for "strength" is not muscle -- it's tendon. Your muscle is the sheer bulk of fibers in the tools you use to hit--your arms of legs. Tendons are the fibers holding those muscles to your bones, the most crucial element in your power of locomotion. They move you, and deliver the brute strength to where it needs to go.

When you're standing ready to fight, the only thing that should be tense is your tendons. That way, they're ready to shoot your libs out in any direction or bring you back quickly to defense if they're moved out of place. If your arms are quivering and your muscles are trembling, you're working against yourself and tiring yourself out. They provide the force when you hit, but if you're tensing them when you're striking, you're just slowing yourself down.

It's useful to think of strength not just as brute muscle, but as the ability to know what you've got and get it where it needs to go. The point of a fingertip can be mighty painful in a rib or the groin no matter how big the arm behind it.

So don't underestimate yourself. You can do a lot with whatever you have and when it comes down to it, that's the real definition of strength.

Tarot for Teddy: Facing a Challenge

Teddy seemed a bit more depressed this time I saw him than usual. He'd been working hard at building a relationship with his live-in duck girlfriend, Anatra, at the same time as building their business. The last time I saw him he was stressed out but happy -- this time he just looked tired.

"I feel like I'm doing a crappy job of everything," he said. "I haven't finished any projects, and Anatra is stressed out too. I was always good at getting things done, and she was always happy when we were together before. I just don't know if this is working."

"It sounds like you're really doubting yourself and your ability to deal with the situation," I said. "Let's look at some cards then. We'll pick four. The top will be the challenge, the left the strength you bring to the situation​, and the right the weakness. The bottom one we'll use for advice."

I laid out the cards, and we got, in that order, the ​Two of Pentacles, the Seven of Swords, the Ace of Swords, and the Wheel of Fortune.​

I noted that it was pretty cool that we picked the Two of Pentacles to represent his challenge -- because it's all about balance, the physical process of balancing energy and tasks in your day to day life. I pointed out to him that while it's nice to see a confirmation of what we think the problem is, that he needed to understand that there's two things going on here -- the actual challenge of balancing things, and then all the drama and worry and self-doubt we add on top of it. 

I reminded him that balancing life and love is hard work, and in the thick of things its rare to find a point where everything is just perfect.  You may be close to it a lot of the time, but you rarely stay there. 

"Yeah," he said. "I think the challenge for me is realizing that I'm always going to be pulled back and forth and that I'll never get it "right." And I need to remind myself that that's ok."

"Yes you do," I said. "And that's what you need to bring to the situation. The Seven of Swords, to the left there, indicates thoughts that don't align with your highest good. You have the ability to identify these thoughts and ask yourself whether they're really true or not."

He snorted. "Like telling myself I should be able to do everything perfectly, or that Anatra should never be unhappy and if she is it's my fault, or that everything should be easier than it is, or that other people know how to do this better than me?"

"You're really good at 'shoulding' on yourself," I said, smiling. "And that leads right into your weakness. The Ace of Swords, upside down of course. Usually it's about mental focus, clarity, getting right to the heart of the matter. Which you do, but mostly just to stab yourself in the back."

"You know me so well," he said. "And what about the Wheel of Fortune? I don't know what that means."

"It's about the cycles of life, things happening in their own time..."

"Ah. ​I get it, Obi Wan Kenobi."

"Way to go, Grasshopper."​

Teddy smacked himself on the head. "Don't quit your day job."​

How to Motivate Yourself– Five Tips for Helping You Achieve Your Goals

One of the big challenges we all have is how to motivate ourselves to do the things we KNOW we need to do, the things we know will give us more energy if we just did them. How do you stoke the fire, light a flame under your ass, make yourself invest the energy to get something going and follow through?

Here are five ways to get a handle on this:

1. Motivation Starts With Intention

Motivation starts with intention. It’s hard to motivate yourself if you don’t know what you want, and even harder if you don’t remember what you want. Make yourself successful by keeping your focus on what your intention is. If you want to exercise daily, make sure you have several points in your day where you can remind yourself of this.

In “The Miracle Morning” Hal Elrod writes about setting an intention for how you want to wake up the next morning before you go to sleep. This is brilliant. So often we have unconscious scripts we just run about how our days will go–why not overwrite this with an intention for what you do want? If you want to exercise in the morning, don’t surprise morning-you. Plan ahead and think ahead. 

2. Make Motivation Easier

When kids are little, you need to make it easy to find their snacks or put away their toys; so easy, that they can’t possibly not do it. Don’t set yourself up for failure by making things difficult. If you want to work out in the morning, don’t make yourself dig your workout clothes out of the closet in the morning while the fan is on and you’re freezing. If you do this, you’re more likely to just skip your workout and go straight to the fleece onesie. Put your workout clothes right next to your bed, including your sneakers.

If you want to write in a gratitude journal at night, put your journal and a pen next to your bed. If you truly intend to write some morning pages in the morning, leave your notebook and a pen next to the coffee machine.

3. Reward Yourself

Treat yourself like a toddler. Reward yourself. Give yourself skittles. Put pretty stickers in your planner when you Do The Thing. I have gold stars I put in my planner whenever I exercise.  Brag to someone, like you just ate all your peas and want your damn ice cream now.

It’s usually in the initial stags of doing something, before it becomes a habit, that motivating yourself is difficult. If you can get yourself past this hump by whatever means, you’ll be well on the way to achieving intrinsic motivation. Regardless, you deserve a reward if you’re doing something difficult!

4. Be Kind to Yourself

You’re not trying to control yourself;  you’re working with yourself. Sometimes just your attitude can crush any motivation you had to begin with. If you’re telling yourself you should exercise because you’re weak and pathetic, you won’t get anywhere. Instead, remind yourself how you feel better after you exercise. Tell yourself that you only have to do a little and it won’t be too bad. You can amp up as you go along when you feel stronger, then you’re more likely to work out. If you allow yourself small successes instead of setting yourself up for punishment, things will go much better.

5. Tend to Your Basic Needs

Tend to your basic needs. Often we undermine ourselves because our basic needs aren’t being met. This results in a lack mentality that we almost don’t notice we’re having. If we’re so used to running on the hamster wheel and never getting ahead that this attitude can sabotage us in all aspects of our life. If you feel like you’re wanting in something, that feeling is going to come out as a maladaptive self-soothing behavior like skipping your workouts or emotional eating. Treat yourself right, and you may find your energy increases naturally.

Strength (Or Lust)

The card for this month is Strength, or Lust -- depending on whether you're using the Rider Waite Smith deck or Aleister Crowley's Thoth Deck.

The Rider Waite Smith version of Strength shows a virginal-looking maiden (seriously, the only other thing she could be wearing is a turtleneck) overcoming an already submissive-looking lion by holding on to its muzzle. A mountain in the background is supposed to be a phallic symbol, but jeez--it's triangular, people. Any study of ancient symbology is usually full of phallic symbols, and a lot of them may be laughable or take some imagination. But this? Nope.

The Thoth deck is about as different as you can get. Here, in a card full of fiery reds and oranges, you have the woman riding the lion, holding up a grail like chalice full of flaming red. She's even called "Daughter of the Flaming Sword." 

Granted, that name refers to her position on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, but its not hard to take a foray into the land of sexual metaphor here. This kind of strength isn't about control, but about the fire of passion, extended outward from the warmth of one's own personal power. This is the excitement we have for engaging with life after we've satisfied our basic needs for shelter and food. 

Either version of this card offers up to us useful nuggets of life-coachy goodness. Take the Rider-Waite. Often, we're really hard on ourselves in relation to aspects of ourselves we don't like. Maybe we think we're too fat, too outspoken, too thin, to timid, too this or too that. We think that if we could only get rid of that part of ourselves, or force it into submission, our lives will be great.

But this card is not about submission or control. That maiden isn't wrestling the lion -- she's able to work with it because she's kind and respectful of it. Don't try to stamp down parts of yourself thinking you'll come out on top. True strength is listening to and respecting the parts of you that don't make up who you want to be, and working with them. 

If you're partial to the Thoth card, then mount that lion! Ride forward into your life with your sacral chakra flaming, and use your instincts and your energy to act with passion to accomplish your goals. Go for it!

Personal Wisdom from Raising Chickens


"It was my favorite chicken!"

I've heard those words over and over after the various ways in which various chickens of ours have crossed the rainbow bridge into chicken Valhalla. It's always the favorite one. We've had rounds of chickens--largely a sequence of increasingly inbred miniature ones (this was not the plan) and currently a flock of six full-sized ones that look freaking huge in comparison.

Every now and then a hawk gets one, or a fisher cat, or one just drops dead for no apparent reason. We've had chicks, and enjoyed their adorable fluffiness--but inevitably, only about 2/3 of those born survive. There's nothing sadder than a dead little chick lying in the dirt.

And so I've had to explain to my kids that, as evidenced by chickendom, life is a sequence of Joy and Death. Joy, Death, Joy, Death. If you're lucky, you get more joy than death. Regardless, this is normal.

There was the wonderful spirit that was Dmitri, the bantam rooster, who would attack my ankle every time I turned my back to him--Missing In Action, and sweet Artie, who loved posing for the camera--dead in a fire. There was Isis, who gave birth to practically everybody and was taken by a hawk, and Peep who did his mom and made more chickens, then got gang-raped by ducks and perished from a non-related disease. Then there was No-Neck, who I had to put out of her misery with a pointy shovel less than five minutes after eating Kentucky Fried Chicken when a small hawk decided to partially eat her alive.

Life can be gruesome.

But we still love our chickens.

It's bizarre sometimes being so present to the cycle of life and death, to see it enacted so frequently. I can't tell you how many times my youngest has seen me march by him in the kitchen with a shovel. It makes me a little sad that he doesn't ask any more.

Anyways-- the only proper way to deal is to say, in life, what we say to them upon death: "May you be blessed on your journey."

May you be blessed on your journey.

Dealing with Misfortune; How to Survive and Thrive

Most of the time when people come in for coaching or for a tarot reading they’re looking for help. Things aren’t going the way that they want them to, or maybe they are, but whatever transition or transformation that they’re going through is causing them suffering and sleepless nights. Sometimes even low-level dissatisfaction, if it’s constant, can really eat away at us.

How do you deal when something bad happens or if you’re caught in some form of misery that you can’t seem to shake? Here’s some suggestions:

There’s a difference between pain and suffering.

Pain is a natural response to what’s happening to us. Suffering is what we heap onto the pain by our thoughts about what’s happening to us. We don’t often even realize we’re having these thoughts unless we stop to give them a voice. How many times have you caught yourself thinking something like “That figures,” or “I knew it was too good to be true.” And that doesn’t even come close to the agonizing torture of “I don’t deserve it,” “It must be because people hate me,” and “The universe is out to get me, I just know it is.”

Life is hard enough with the ordinary pain that comes along with it. Pain is a given; no one avoids it. You have a choice of how you respond to it though, and you can make your life more difficult if you heap the suffering on top of the pain.

Find someone to talk to.

A lot of us think that it’s wrong to burden others, or that other people have bigger problems and who are we to ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with finding a friend to talk to, or hiring a coach or a therapist. Sometimes the very act of reaching out breaks the stranglehold of energy that’s keeping things the way they are.

It’s often the case too that when we reach out we discover that we’re not alone in our pain, that others have experienced the same thing. This is often the case with things like miscarriage, depression, or job loss. People don’t talk about them, and instead suffer alone when they could be sharing their pain and helping themselves and others heal more easily.

Write in your journal.

Energy needs to flow. Sometimes we remain trapped in our difficulties, whether they are small or traumatic, because the energy remains stuck in our minds and bodies.  As humans, we need a way of processing our experiences. At the very least writing regularly in your journal will get your frustrations and worries out and onto the page instead of just festering in your head. You may even find that you discover solutions you weren’t aware of.

In addition to troubleshooting and venting, you’ll be able to see right in front of you any story that you tell yourself over and over again and how it’s keeping you miserable. Sometimes the problem isn’t the thing but the story we tell about the thing. Maybe you’ll even get tired of telling it. For example, maybe losing your job isn’t as bad as the effect of you telling yourself things like “I’ll never be able to hold down a job,” or “I don’t deserve to be successful.” 

Role play a little.

It’s hard to see how difficult situations can help us grow or be to our benefit at all, but the truth is that often they do have something to offer us. Pretend you’re the situation, or a facet of it, and talk about yourself and what you are (writing in a journal is easier for this). What is your nature? Why are you there? What do you have to offer?

You can also pretend you’re telling a story that happened to someone else. Keep going, and see where the story goes. Even if you’re still the main character of the story, this can help you view yourself as the hero, not a victim of fate.

Take turtle steps.

It’s hard to imagine getting someplace good when you’re in a rut. But you don’t need to know how to get to the end point–you just need to see right in front of you, and shove yourself forward a step at a time. You also don’t know just how much of a difference a little movement can make. Often, small changes — especially the first ones — can have a huge effect on your outlook or mood, and enable you to take bigger steps later.

Most importantly, know that you only need to be able to see the next step in front of you. If you’re driving in a car at night in the fog, you may only be able to see six feet in front of you but that’s all you need. Make sure, too, that you document what you’ve accomplished. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting nowhere and forget all the progress you’ve made. 

Tarot for Teddy: How to Have Compassion for Yourself and Others

This is a continuation of the series in which we use the tarot to help our stuffed friend, Teddy, navigate his life challenges.

With a monthly theme about how to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it's fitting that Teddy came to me without a particular question but just wondering how to deal better with life in general. "I'm too hard on myself, I know that," he said. "And it's non stop, no matter whether good things are happening or bad things. Is there a way I can just stop doing this, maybe?"

"It's a long process, but a great idea," I told him. Let's see if we can get any insight into this. We'll do the Lovingkindness Spread from Liz Dean's "The Ultimate Guide to Tarot Spreads." It's good for giving us an idea of how to be compassionate towards ourselves; and then as a result, towards other people.

There's six cards in the spread, arranged as such.

  • middle - You, or your situation,
  • bottom left - What you need less of
  • bottom right - What you need more of
  • top left - How to be more compassionate to yourself
  • top right - How to be more compassionate to others
  • top - The outcome, based on following the other cards.

You'll note that two of the cards in the picture are reversed; often I won't use reversals, because this can be complicated, but with a very clear, visual deck, like Maggie Stiefvater's "The Raven's Prophecy" deck, turning the cards upside down can sometimes give you really interesting meanings based on what you see upside down. So I decided to go with it. And it worked well for Teddy, who immediately laughed when I flipped the first card, the Page of Wands Reversed.

"Oh man, that's so me," he said. "That flame's gonna just go right up and burn up that match in an instant. I start things quickly, but I don't do them right and end up burning out."

"Ok," I said, "That's one issue, but that's just about what happens. It feels like the issue is the crap you give yourself about what's happening. So let's look at that. Look at the card at the bottom left. What do you need less of in your life?"

"It looks like a feather and a chicken foot. I don't get it."

"Well, the Page of Swords likes clarity and precision, and prefers when things are in black and white, kind of like that line against the background. Tell me if I'm wrong, but from what you've told me before you get frustrated when things aren't as clear as you want them to be. And I bet you get frustrated at being frustrated."

Teddy nodded. "That's very clearly correct. I have a lot of judgements about things, all the time. And tell me if I'm wrong, but I bet that card to the right means I need more of burying my judgments and preconceptions."

"Sounds good to me," I said, laughing. "But a traditional meaning for the eight of Coins is hard work. Don't forget, that what you're talking about is hard to do, and takes a lot of effort. If it were easy, you'd already be doing it."

"Yeah," he said. "And what about that Two of Swords? Does that mean I should tie myself up to keep myself in line?"

I laughed. "You're a hoot today, Ted." I said. "No, it means that you can be more compassionate to yourself by NOT doing that. This card is about choices, dualities, and resolution. It's easy to get tied up by going over possibilities in your head and being caught between ideas and thoughts. And when you're in that place, you're holding yourself hostage. Maybe instead of going back and forth so much in your mind, you could just give yourself permission to make a decision."

"And not worry about it so much being the perfect one, right?"

"Yup. And you need to be prepared to be kind to yourself about what you do. I'm guessing that you avoid doing a lot of things because you know you'll second guess yourself afterwards."

"You know me too well," Ted said. "But I also give myself crap for being indecisive."

I smiled. "Yeah, I knew that. Now what do you think about the card on the right? How to be more compassionate to others?"

Teddy frowned, and stared at the card. "Well, I know water represents feelings and swords the mind. So I would say if I were going to be literal that it kinda looks like instead of plunging the sword into somebody's feelings you just let it fall out."

"That's pretty cool, Ted," I said. "But what do you think that means?"

"I think it means I need to mind my own damn business," he said. "Anatra's always telling me she just wants me to listen and not try to fix things or give her advice."

I laughed. "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"And I like that top card," he said. "It's a nice warm light. It makes me think that I'll be able to find my way out of this mess."

"I think we'll leave it at that," I said. "But how about if you do two things for me before I talk to you next? Identify a handful of thoughts you need to bury, and also report back to me on a few ways you untied yourself and just DID something."

"I don't know if I can do that," Teddy said. "Maybe I can, maybe I can't."

"Oh, stop."

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune is usually a great card to come across in a spread or a draw. Obviously the wheel can turn for the good or the bad, but given that it's more likely people turn to the tarot when they're feeling stuck or troubled, people tend to interpret this card as a change of luck for the better.

In terms of personal empowerment though, what does this card mean? Often when we're stuck, or feeling like we've got the shitty end of the stick we get all "woe is me," grab the ice cream, and just settle in for the ride. Maybe we get all paranoid and figure we did something to deserve it, that someone (or the universe, if you're really narcissistic or totally nuts) is out to get us, or that we never deserved any good fortune to begin with. Most people aren't quite that dramatic, but if the rest of us were honest, we'd see at least a little bit of that in ourselves.

The Wheel card can remind us of a few things that can help.

First, the only thing constant about life is that it keeps changing. Life will change regardless of what you do and who you are. A run of bad luck isn't your fault, just as the same way a run of good luck isn't. Life is impersonal, no matter how strongly we feel that we live at the center of the universe. This can be both a comfort, and a reminder of humility. And consider the possibility that we can't tell what's good and what's bad luck? Maybe a stroke of bad luck keeps us home away from something worse? Maybe "good luck" gets us a promotion to work with a new boss we hate?

Second, the card tells us that we can help turn the wheel ourselves. There's no need to just stand there passively, watching things happen to us. This card can be a prompt to reach up out of our indecision and weakness and do something to better our situation. It can be a call to trust in the universe and open one's self to possibility. Maybe it's a time to take a risk, to aim for being more than we think we are. Sometimes it's hard to be optimistic, but if you're wallowing in doubt and negativity it's entirely likely you'll miss opportunities or not make the most of what you have. 

Finally, we're instructed to look around us to see who else might have their hands on the wheel. Who's clawing their way up one side and messing it up for us? Who's weighing it down like a hippo on a toy ball? Our lives are interrelated in many ways, and whether we intend it or not we play a role in each others lives. The wheel can tell us to take a look at how things are spinning and whether we need to free up the gears.

That's a lot to think about, isn't it!