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The Llewellyn Journal

Using the Tarot to Access Past Lives

This article was written by Mark McElroy
posted under Tarot

Do you believe you’ve lived before?

At a party I attended in 2006, I met a middle-aged man who claimed to have recovered memories of a past life. After dinner, he pushed back his plate of bread pudding and announced, “In a former life, I was a black woman. I clearly recall giving birth to a baby in the middle of a cotton field behind the railroad tracks.”

Earlier the same year, I met a woman known for her ability to help others glimpse their past lives. She darted around the room, peering into people’s eyes and announcing what she saw: You were a fish. Yes, definitely a fish. And you—you were a horse. And you? You were a dancer in Russia, but you starved to death before you could make your first performance.”

I’ve also met a young man who very quietly recounts his own past-life story: “I dream about this place constantly,” he says. “I lived in a muddy, rutted village. We were always cold. There was something wrong with my teeth; I was always in pain. There’s another man there—overweight and dirty and ragged. We work together, but at some point, he kills me in an argument over food.”

In 2005, ABC News covered the dramatic tale of James Leininger, a six year-old-boy believed by his family to be the reincarnation of James M. Huston, Jr., a World War II fighter pilot. A number of people, including Huston’s own sister, have been convinced by the vivid details Leininger seems to recall of his life and death.

Some people believe stories like these are proof of the reality of reincarnation. Others insist that “reclaimed memories” are nothing more than half-remembered dreams or vivid fantasies. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I do know this: if you’re interested in exploring the idea of past lives, your tarot deck is a powerful tool for doing so.

Reincarnation: A Secret Teaching of the Tarot?
Reincarnation has long been one of the esoteric tarot’s “hidden teachings.” Over the years, many writers have equated the Fool with themes of life, death, and rebirth. Kabbalistic systems often equate the Fool with Kether, the crown and “The Source of Life”—an assignment that suggest the Fool’s descent form the world of potential into the world of distilled physical forms.

Many readers equate the pack over the shoulder of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Fool as the repository of memories and wisdom collected during previous lives. The Fool’s number—when he’s given a number at all—is usually zero, a number who’s shape suggests the idea of endless cycles. And, of course, there are the Majors, which achieve the integration and enlightenment suggested by the World, and then begins the journey anew.

Reincarnation, then, would appear to be woven into the fabric of the modern esoteric tarot. That fact, combined with tarot’s unique ability to tap thoughts, memories, and stories long submerged in the subconscious, makes the deck a powerful tool for exploring past lives.

Gentle Words of Caution
If you plan to work with tarot as part of an effort to illuminate past lives, please keep the following cautions in mind:
Stepping Back
This process of reviewing a prior existence is simple but powerful. I recommend you perform this experiment only when you have a minimum of one hour to pursue it; otherwise, you may rush through the steps and neglect important insights.

Step One: Preparation
Prepare for this reading by grounding and centering yourself using whatever tradition you honor. Turn off cell phones, telephones, televisions, and other distractions. Do whatever must be done to avoid interruptions during this work. The experiment may be undertaken in any setting; however, you may find it useful to dim the lights, light candles, play meditative music, or burn incense. You should feel protected, empowered, and safe.

Step Two: Meditation on the Fool
From whatever deck you prefer, remove the Fool (or its equivalent). Once you are seated comfortably on the floor, take the card in both hands and focus on the illustration. Clear your mind. When distracting thoughts occur, acknowledge them, tell them, “I’ll deal with you later,” and return your attention to the card.

With time, your focus will soften or your eyes will grow heavy. When this occurs, allow your eyes to close—but maintain the image of the Fool card in your mind. Think of this image as a frame of film. When you feel ready, prompt your “inner projectionist” to play the card’s “movie” in reverse.

If you are working with the RWS Fool, the young man in the illustration will walk slowly backward. The clouds above him will retreat toward the distant horizon. The rose he carries will revert from blossom to bud. The white dog at his feet will cavort in reverse.

Keep your inner eye on the Fool as he shrinks from your field of view. When you can no longer see him, allow the image of the card to slowly fade to black.

Step Three: The Reading
Gently open your eyes. Replace the Fool in the deck and shuffle it. Beginning at the top, deal eight cards into an upright column: three cards above, two crossed cards in the center, and three cards below.

Step Four: Follow-Up
Knowing about a past life is one thing; knowing how to use this information to foster positive change and growth is another.

Once you have genuinely opened up yourself to the revelations of this reading, collect all the cards, shuffle them, and draw three new cards, placing them in a simple horizontal line.
  1. Card One: Honoring the Past. This card suggests something you can do today as a means of acknowledging the work you performed in the past. The Four of Swords might prompt you to offer a prayer for the person you were, or the Star card might lead you to make a libation—a small offering of wine or water, poured out over an altar of small stones—in recognition of a former self.
  2. Card Two: Putting Wisdom to Work. This card suggests a way you can put your past life experience to work today. If you discover, for example, that you worked as a successful craftsman in the past, drawing the Eight of Coins might encourage you to take up a handicraft you could use to enhance present-day income.
  3. Card Three: Looking Forward. Reconnecting with past lives can be exciting, but your present life has lessons of its own to teach! This card, which hints at your current life’s agenda, will suggest a matter in the present that requires your attention. (Drawing the Hierophant, for example, might motivate you to schedule more time for deliberate spiritual practice.) Pondering how this card extends or builds upon your past life experience will be both satisfying and enlightening.

Additional Tips for Past-Life ExplorersFrom Llewellyn's 2008 Tarot Reader. For more Llewellyn Tarot titles and decks, click here.

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