It was an odd situation. I found myself talking to this man, the teacher of my teachers, and all I knew about him was that he had created a wonderful way of reading Tarot cards. John McClimans had passed the Gestalt Tarot technique to the High Priest and High Priestess of the Temple of the Pagan Way, and they had passed it to me. But nothing was in writing; we were back to the oral tradition of the ancient Celts, it seemed, and I was frustrated.
“I love Gestalt Tarot,” I said. “But I’m afraid your techniques will be distorted or lost over time. You should really write a book about it.”
He smiled at me. His look implied that this idea ranked somewhere with making a giant Jell-O sculpture of Bullwinkle the Moose in his list of priorities. “Why don’t you write it?” he suggested.
John passed on a few years later, a much-loved and respected elder in the California Pagan community. His suggestion stayed with me, and though I still believed he was the best one to write about Gestalt Tarot, it looked unlikely that he would get to it now. So I took him at his word, and working with my partner Azrael Arynn K, we created Heart of Tarot as a tribute to John and a gift to Tarot enthusiasts everywhere.
They Mean What You Think
The concept isn’t difficult, and I’m sure others have been using variations on the theme for years. Here’s the core: Tarot cards mean what you think or feel they do. The meaning of each card is different for each individual, according to their unique perspective on the world and what they are experiencing in life at the moment.
Forget memorized lists of meanings. In your subconscious, you know what that card means to your situation right now, and with a little help from a skilled reader, you can bring its message to conscious understanding.
Gestalt Tarot works in much the same way that the Rorschach inkblot test does, except that the querent interprets the meaning, not a psychologist who may scarcely be acquainted with the individual looking at the inkblots. There is another psychological test called the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, where a person looks at a picture of people interacting and makes up a story about it. The story reveals more about the story-teller than about the picture.
To gain self-understanding, the rich symbolism of the Tarot works even better than such pictures. Here we have kings and queens, warriors and angels, merchants and adventurers, in a variety of evocative landscapes. When we look at these figures, at a deep level we see ourselves and the people in our lives, acting out the stories we are living day by day. And it doesn’t take a doctorate in clinical psychology to help people find those stories.
One marvelous thing about Gestalt Tarot is that it works with any deck. Any image can evoke ideas and feelings if we look at it long enough, and if we have someone asking us provocative questions about it: “What’s the first thing you notice in this card?” “What do you suppose that person might be thinking at this moment?” “How does that other figure feel about him?” “What is he going to do next?” Of course, on one level we don’t know what a two-dimensional figure on cardboard is feeling. But when we look from a place of starlight vision, when we step into the world of myth and fantasy and our own deep minds, then we all become story-tellers, and we do know. Knowing their story, we understand ours.
I am a great believer in empowerment. I believe that we give a precious gift when we empower others to know their truth and act upon it. Such empowered people are taking responsibility for their lives and their actions in the world; they are acting as the goddesses and gods I know them to be. Gestalt tarot contributes to this process because it places the power squarely in the hands of the querent. The reader tells the querent, “You have the answers you need, already inside you. We can use the Tarot to help you find them.”
What a difference from the reader who states or implies, “Through the Tarot, I have access to mystical knowledge about you, and I will tell you what’s going on in your life.” The Gestalt approach is empowering and fosters independence and self-reliance; the other sets the reader up as the authority and promotes dependence.
John McClimans gave us quite a gift. As with other good souls, his influence ripples through this world after he has physically left us. I hope he has read Heart of Tarot from the Summerland, and likes what we have done with his ideas.