The Law of Diminuishing Returns

For a long time, Economics was one of the last things I could think of that could interest me. In part because it was a family thing (my father was majored in Economics, my mother, an accountant, and my older brother was already following on their footsteps by enrolling in the Economics course at the local university), but mostly because completely different from what really caught my attention: science. So it was with some surprise (and concern) that I found out, upon enrollment. that although I had signed for a Chemistry course, I would be minoring in Economics.

Those classes were quite the revelation to me. More than an endless discussion of numbers and abstract notions, I found a discipline with a surprisingly awful number of ideas and concepts that were deeply anchored in constant day to day observations.

One of the ideas that grabbed my attention almost from the start was the Law of Diminuishing Returns, which says that when every other variant stays the same, the increase in one unit of a production factor will, at some point, result in a lesser output for each additional input unit.

Now my economics teacher, bless his heart, decided to illustrate this concept by resorting to orange juice. However, I’m much more of a chocolate cake man myself, so I figured I’d use chocolate cake instead. Because, you know… everything is better with a nice chocolate cake.

Imagine, if you will, that you have a slice of a great, wonderful chocolate cake in front of you and you get to eat it. This will bring you some satisfaction. In fact, it might bring you enough satisfaction that you decide to order a second slice of that sumptuous chocolate cake. Now this second slice might leave you so satisfied that you resolve to stop eating chocolate cake. Or, it might still leave you wanting for more. And so you order a third slice of that palatable chocolate cake. And so it goes until you decide no more. Because, inevitably, there comes a point where you’re satisfied with what you’ve ate; or perhaps you’re starting to feel its sweetness to much and it’s conflicting with that idea of satisfaction that you initially had. Or maybe, you just stuffed yourself too much with it, you feel like you ate too much and your belly just wants to burst.

So, while your overall level of satisfaction grew with each additional slice of chocolate cake, thus bringing you a step closer to that feeling of having eaten all that you could, which would be your maximum level of satisfaction, the increase in satisfaction was always less than the one you experienced with the previous slice. So, for example, you’d go from 0% to 50 % satisfaction with one slice, and maybe to 80% with two slices and 91% with three slices and so on.

Now I’ve always found this idea fascinating because it tells me, in a simple way, that the more we crave something, the easier it is to indulge it in, but also, by continuously indulging in it, we become increasingly unsatisfied with what we get from it.

And well… you know where this is going next, right?

Yes! It’s love!!! How could it not be? The number one question in tarot.

In particular, this is about that wonderful card that is the 5 of cups. The Waite Smith 5 of cups, with its 3 tumbled 2 standing cups, which is so often seen as “it was not meant to be” or the focus on loss, instead of valuing what there still exists” or the need to move further down the road and other ideas about disappointment, loss and heartbreak.

What I find most interesting in the card is applying the concept of satisfaction to the ideas brought by the suit of cups in the tarot. If you relate to the above story about chocolate cake, it’s easy to understand how we might want to go for those 5 cups. It’s love. The more the better, or so the story goes. And specially when coming out of a period of loneliness or bad relationships, when the desire for love is at its peak, it’s very easy to take that big first cup of love, and the second one and even the third one.

But there will come a point where we start to think twice about what is being offered. We see that in the 4 of cups, with the guy seated down looking at those 3 cups at his feet and a fourth cup already hovering by, tempting him. One cup, which might be about how self love is such a wonderful thing. Two is even better, since we have someone to share this with. Three, is also pleasant: the intimacy with others is different, but there’s still laughter and good times all around.

What to make of the 5 of Cups, then?

To the Waite Smith deck, 5 cups is overkill. You will go beyond your satisfaction limit and become nauseated / fed up / just not satisfied at all. We look at the five and we see that two cups are enough, since they still stand. Referencing back to the 2 of Cups, we can have a glimpse of what those two cups can bring to us, in terms of satisfaction. And here they are again, in the card of the 5 cups, telling us that they have practically the same value as 5, the difference being the additional three empty cups. Which raises the question, “why go for 5 when 2 can be equally as good?”

Sure, overall satisfaction is higher. Until it collapses. And love is intoxicating: it’s easy to get carried away and overindulge ourselves. But that feeling of having had too much chocolate cake, the nauseas, the bloatedness, and overall discomfort of having taken too much for ourselves quickly brings us back to reality and the awareness of it all.

Love can take us much higher than chocolate cake, but it can also send us crashing down into reality quite violently. That these 2 standing cups were able to fill us up as if they were 5 is a wonderful thing. And that is the lesson: more cups does not equal more satisfaction. Especially if one knows how to use what little one has.

The rise of expectations brings out monsters

One of the worst things one can bring to a tarot reading is expectations. There are obviously problems that need to be thought of and looked at, something that the sitter is, for whatever reason, unable to do in a satisfying manner.

This clarity, as given by a tarot reading might come in various ways. It might come from taking a different view on the issue at hand: a view prompt by the cards that fall on the table. But it might also come from the discussion that arises from that reading. Or simply, as it happens, every once in a while, from the simple fact of having to explain in an understandable way to someone who is not up to date, why that particular situation is a problem.

But whatever the result of the reading, whatever is seen and said and heard over some cards, the most important thing is always how open is the sitter to what is being said.

And here, all sorts of things might get in the way. Some of the most common include an attachment to a particular resolution, regardless of how feasible that outcome is. Or a stubbornness to a particular point of view, the sitter being uncapable of changing (or even shifting) its opinions and stances.

Another thing that can come in the way, when it comes to card reading is knowledge of tarot cards. I believe there is no reader in this world who has never heard something like “That’s the _______ (insert favourite “negative” card)! That’s a bad thing, right?”

Now, the good card reader knows that there is no such thing as a “good card” or a “bad card”. Cards are nothing more than printed pieces of paper, and as such, have no inherent moral value. Even so, some cards do get associated with events that are easily seen as “good” and “bad”. This means that when a sitter comes to a reading and is faced by cards like The Devil, Death, the Hanged Man, or others, and if you’re careful, you can hear the whistling done by the flattening out of that big, wonderful balloon called expectations.

All of this came to mind quite recently, when I was doing a reading for a client. The question was a simple one, ‘Are things going to get better?’ But one that betrayed a great deal of anxiety.

The answer was also a simple one, ‘Yes, things are going to get better.’ However, the mere mention of the cards that fell on the table was enough to once again raise the anxiety levels.

‘I thought you said things were going to get better…’ (and again, that heavy sound of expectations being crushed), the sitter uttered at the moment after hearing speak of the Devil and the Tower.

But the thing is, when you have the Tower following the Devil, things can only get better, since not only is the Devil’s reign coming to an end, but the whole Devil’s workshop is coming down, which is one of the best things one could hope for, since it implies that there’s no going back to that dark painful place. Adding to this interpretation is, of course, the fact that the Tower follows the Devil in what is the established order of the trumps.

In fact, if there was any card with a negative weight in that spread, it was the Fool, indicating that there was a moment to be had between the Devil’s chains being broken and the exit from the Tower. A moment during which the Devil, now shrunk to a more appropriate size (and how cool is that that one gets to not only bring down the Devil, but to render him powerless), would still be after the sitter, as seen by the small beast desperately trying to cling to the Fool. A moment when the Fool would need still need to find its way out of that shop of horrors. A moment when a direction would still need to be defined.

But again, once that was done, well… the best thing that the Fool can do is walk, and walk he does. Away from the Devil and ready to bring it all down down down.

Tarot cards: The Carolus Zoya deck

Generous with Hints

Indecision is a bitch.

If only it were possible to take a peak at what lies ahead of us…

If only I could find a way to bring down that oh-so tasty pie that stubbornly keeps on floating in the sky, no matter what I do…

If only I knew which job to pick. Which man. Woman. Car. City. Travel. Dog. Cat. Rabbit. Mouse. Restaurant. Chocolate cake. Fruit salad. Chips. Rice. Yellow. Blue. Red. White. Sweater. Shirt. Umbrella. Taxi. Bus. Walk. Left. Right. In. Out. Does it even matter, anymore?

When it comes to decision making, we can never get too much information. Or too much knowledge. If only there was a way to know / understand / perceive / figure out / … If only there was a way to eliminate risk, a way to know with absolute certainty how it would all play out. Then it would just be a matter of following the steps and that would be it.

Oh wait! There is! It’s all in the cards. Stars. Tea leaves. Coffee grounds. Chicken entrails. The way the wind blows. The way the crow caws. Randomly opened books. The odd number that keeps popping up everywhere. The side of a coin. Or three.

But is it really? There’s a wonderful line in what is na otherwise passable movie that goes like “the gods are generous with hints, but cheap on specifics.” (the movie is Hercules, with the wonderful Ian McShane, the only good reason to even see it. Besides the ocasional enlightened quote, that is).

Which is why so many open readings work so well for so many people. Or why a deepful, personal, insightful, on-the-spot reading about whatever, still leaves room for the unknown and the surprise to happen and do its thing.

And at the end of the day, no matter how much one tries, knowing and understanding the true consequences of one’s actions throughout time is just something that is beyond our capacity as humans. Because, if a butterfly can cause a hurricane by simply flapping its wings, what chance does any of us have?

Well, we don’t have foresight. But we do have knowledge. Which is not the same thing. One looks to the future, the other to the past. One is received, the other learned. One comes from a point of higher clarity, the other arises from doubt. From expressing doubt, playing with doubt, exploring events as they unfold and learning from that. It takes time to grow and coalesce from speculation. It takes patience and dedication. It takes effort, and work.

Tarot readers are in the business of answering questions, so they welcome doubts with open arms. Well, other people’s doubts, at least. To a good tarot reader, a question is an opportunity to explore a situation, think about it, and speak about it. Not in any random, personal way, but through the lens provided by a set of images that chanced upon a table and a question.

Perspective rises from what is seen, providing a different way to see that particular situation. It takes the request for clarity presented by the sitter and expands their vision tunnel by pointing out at stuff the sitter was unable to perceive by hirself.

It is not the whole picture. Not by a long shot. Because even if the cards were to portray the full reality of it, the reader would still be required to grasp every single detail, every single dot and line and colour and then translate it to the sitter in a way that the sitter will understand. And so so much gets lost in translation.

But enough is kept to keep things moving. To keep the ball rolling. And to bring an extra layer of understanding to what the sitter already possesses.

If the sitter is open to that, of course. Then again, if it isn’t and the whole point of the reading is self-validation, well then… there’s no need to do a reading when a mirror works just fine!

However, when the sitter is willing to step out of hir own skin and look at stuff as if it was nothing to do with hir, there’s a whole new level of understanding to be had. Even if not with all of the specifics.

Cover picture: Judgement card from Leonora Carrington’s tarot deck. Published by Fulgur Press, 2021

The Fallen Upside-Down Hermit

There’s something intriguing in the jumping cards method.

I mean, as a reader, I take whatever cards end up building the spread and run with it. Shuffling to me is nothing more than a way to randomly order them so that they can then be placed on the table and read. And, to be honest, what really matters to me is not how the cards end up on the table, but rather how they interact with each other to provide a particular answer.

And yet, one only needs to go to Youtube and randomly select a few videos to see how most of those who post readings there favor the jumping cards method. The idea being that those are the cards that were handpicked by Spirit, and thus, the ones which will actually bring forth the messages that need to be heard.

Now I don’t really buy into any of that. Whether or not Spirit is present while I shuffle the cards is irrelevant to me. As a card reader, I put my trust in that the appropriate cards will come out regardless of the way that I sort them out. This is to say that if Spirit is indeed present during that process, it can play along with whichever way I choose to shuffle; and that if Spirit is not present at all, it doesn’t really matter if I go one direction or another.

Still, I do pick up the cards that fall during the shuffling and take a look at them. Sometimes, they end up in the pack again, and I resume what I was doing. Other times, I just roll with it and leave them at the table. But regardless of what I end up doing, that particular card always ends up influencing the reading.

I’m pondering on this as earlier today, while shuffling some cards, the Strength card decided to pop out and say ‘I’m here’. I took a good look at it and said, ‘alright, let’s see where this takes us.’ And landing on the table were first the Wheel and then the Hermit, which ended up upside down.

Now, I don’t really care for reversals. Especially when dealing with a Marseille deck. As I see it, either we, as readers, are capable of understanding the subtleties that arise for the particular combination of cards and the context that originated the spread, or we’re not. In the first case, reversals are not necessary. In the second case, our time would be better spent in sitting with the cards and studying them some more.

So I picked it up and started to look at it, thinking, ‘well, the Lantern’s on the floor now, but so is his head. The head goes after the light, it seems, and if the light changes position, so does the head.’ Which sounded quite like the thing to say about another tarot card, the Hanged Man.

But the I look at the other cards and see how the lion has changed position: from facing right to facing left; from bottom to top; from being assaulted by some smothering human to branding a sword all by itself. ‘Well’, I say, ‘that’s certainly in keeping the spirit of this Hermit card.’ And then proceed to place it upright, next to the wheel, shinning its light on the previous cards, raising its lantern to better see that lion with Sword, valiantly looking down on La Force.

As for the rest, well, a toast always falls with the buttery side down.

Even when it doesn’t.

Synchronicity does play a part in all of this, whether directed by an outside force or not. And this is to be expected, as our whole business literally depends on random cards landing on the table, ready to be interpreted. And sometimes, a push in the right direction does comes in hand, making it easier for the reader to do its job. But regardless of the reader taking the hint or not, that idea is still there, waiting to be looked at and seen and reasoned with. And it is the reader’s job to make sure it is properly seen and vocalized.

Seeing Into The Emptiness

For the Marseille reader, backgrounds are a bore. Everything’s white / whitish. In some cards, like the Moon or the Tower, have a nice background, with buildings, hills, lakes and whatever else graces the cards. Others, have some elements, usually hills, plants, water, things like that. But in all of them, when you look at the beyond the central figure, you face the white. In some, like La Force or L’ermit, white is all there is, and you either focus on the figure in front of you, or you’re faced with the emptiness around it.

Now I like the white space in the Marseille cards. In an age where every image is saturated with color and detail, it’s wonderful to rest your eyes in something that matters  instead of having to fight your way through a ton of meaningless embellishments. After all, less is more and even though your sight is as keen as a lion’s, all that cutting down will soon dull your sight’s sharpness.

When dealing with the whole 78 cards of the Marseille deck, this white space is important, specially when reading the pips: do the objects have enough room to breath or are they crammed together? Can you devise a path between the coins / cups / spades or clubs or are they placed in a random order? All cues matter here and as with any other language, silence (or emptyness) is there to let you know when one thing ends and another starts.

If you’re just using the majors, chances are that all this emptiness won’t bother you. If you’re like me, you will take a cue from the remaining cards and assume that, unless otherwise noted, all the scenes before you are played outside. But like anything else in the cards, assumptions can be misleading and you should be careful, else you find yourself in the woods, with no light to guide you back.

It all starts with a question

Yesterday, I had a message in my facebook wall. A woman had met what she thought was a promising man and wanted to know how she should handle this. She was concerned because she had made some choices there weren’t that good and she didn’t want to tread that path again.

She was even more concerned, because as a seasoned tarot reader, she’s not used to not be able to read for herself, lucky her. After all, staring at yourself takes a lot, as you need to be detached from everything that connects you to the subject of your reading in order to fully understand what the cards are trying to say to you.

Time to bring out the swords

You can take this from a fully-pledged Thothite: ‘nothing beats the Marseille when what you want is instant clarity.’ There! I’ve said it. It’s really all in the whiteness: the lesser elements you have before you to consider, the better. Your eyes can cut to the chase and reveal the bones beneath in a snap.

My client gave me two concerns, so two spreads were in order: one about her future with this new acquaintance and a second one relating to her lack of vision. This meant that two spreads were in order.

What lies ahead for this woman and her new acquaintance?

The central line was clear enough: the meeting was pleasant and the two were in sync. There’s a good possibility that things might develop into something more, specially with this guy being represented by the gallant King of Cups. And yet… That Empress doesn’t seem too impressed! She’s looking away from the King of Cups and, even worse, her shield is facing our new guy. She’s leaning forward, trying to reach something, so an additional sight card was drawn: the Hermit.

My first reading of this additional card was a classic one: there’s something else at play here. Is she actually ready to let go of the loneliness or is she waiting for someone that has become absent? Questions, questions!!! And this card becomes even more important once you realize that the whole spread is directing your gaze to the Hermit. Surely this is the gist of the matter! But more on this latter.

Given the situation, what she should do was simple: she should open up to the new guy just enough to figure out how comfortable she was with him. If you look at Queen of Batons you will notice that the shield that the Empress has is gone. And more than that, the scepter the Empress held changed hands and is now leaning towards the King of Cups. You will also notice how the eyes are shut and the baton rests on her shoulder: there’s no need to remain alert anymore: things are good as they are. But she’s also facing that Hermit, so nothing’s really resolved. It’s more of a compromise than anything else: “be opened to what comes in, but don’t let go of your stuff.

This idea is also corroborated with the Judgement card in the don’t position: “don’t blast your way in.” Again, things should be taken softly and without too many waves. Roll along quietly instead of making any sudden calls.

Why can’t she read the cards about this matter?

These are interesting cards. The three-card spread would suggest good things, but as  La Force, below, indicated, it’s all about letting go. The 2 of Swords then, can be seen as this bubble she built around herself. There’s still enough room there for her to grow and develop, but what about what comes from the outside? Well, no matter how many flowers there are, it’s still not enough. Look at how the outside flowers are small when compared to what grows inside this bubble. The fear then, is that this situation might break this bubble. The central flower dulls and wanes as all those coins come into play. They might be good, but they sure feel like they’re too much to handle. And with that Judgement blasting in at full force, you can be sure that her bubble will pop!

The Hermit and Danger of Words

When she got back to me after the reading, her thoughts were on this bubble as related by the 2 of Swords. According to her, ‘I don’t really know what that “prison” is, however. I don’t consciously feel it so it’s hard to say.’

‘Well, it’s all in the cards’, I think… and I go back to that first spread and again my eyes stop at the Hermit.

Now, as tarot readers, we’re “educated” into seeing the usual concepts of loneliness and abandonment in the Hermit. “it’s the hermit, the one that leaves everything to pursue its goal of enlightenment”. All fair and good. But that really doesn’t play in here. There’s something else… Something important in the card, that only the Hermit can point to. And, as usual, something so clear and blunt it’s staring in your face, but you’re just too close to see it.

But all there is pictured there is this monk holding a lantern! There’s nothing else except that damned monk and its little light. And it hits me with the full might of a lion’s paw: ‘it’s the monk! That’s the thing about this card.’

The card is called “The Hermit”, but in the end, “Hermit” is just a word. And words have no business in cards, other than to facilitate the transmission of knowledge to the client. I should be hit 30 times for getting stuck in a word. ‘Loose the words, keep the pictures’, should be the motto of every card reader.

So, if you forget about the card’s name, everything becomes clear: like the hermit, a monk will withdraw from society to pursue its goals; but unlike hermits, monks live in monasteries. It’s normal for them to walk down shadowy corridors holding their light up to see the path ahead. And, unlike the free life of hermits, life in a monastery is all about routines: there are fixed times to pray, chores to do, etc etc.

Now routine is something that agrees with the story at hand: as we settle in our routines, we tend to see them as comfortable / safe / predictable. And when something comes to disrupt this routine, we might look at it wondering if all this commotion is actually worth the trouble of leaving the security of our little bubble for the uncertainty that waits outside. The more stable out life is, the less we’re inclined to change it to accommodate all the novelties that might come our way.

Thus, in this reading, the Hermit stands for the contentment that arises from routine. What this woman has is enough for her, or so she thinks. In this light, the QB in the “do” and the Judgement in the “don’t” make perfect sense. She should let down her shield (see how the shield in the Empress rhymes with the space delineated by the two swords in the following question) and allow him to come closer, but not change her routine over this. The fact that the new guy is represented got the KC as him is a good thing: he’s experienced (as opposed to Jack and Knight) and he knows what he wants. So you can allow yourself to relax a little and see what happens, while going about your stuff.

Her “prison” then it’s the routine she settled into: the way she’s comfortable with how things are. As the 2 of Swords indicates, this barrier she erected for herself works for her: the flower inside grows and blossoms. It defines her space and how content she is with it, as well as how ready she is to come outside.
Loose the Words, Keep the Pictures
In the end, it all really boils down to this little mantra. ‘Loose the Words, keep the pictures’. Words might feel safer, but it’s all an illusion. In reality, they have a way of sticking to you and soil things out. Pictures, on the other hand, will always point you out in the right direction. They are there for everyone to see. As tarot readers, we are asked to “see”, not “read”. Even that name, “tarot readers”, is misleading. Maybe we should be called “tarot seers” and just to keep looking at the pretty pictures wonder what might be hiding in there.
When it comes to interpret pictures, everything can be useful; even a white background. Specially a white background. By forcing you to look at what really matters and loose all that doesn’t, that empty space is your best protection against all the noise that might creep in.

Tarot deck: Der Lombardische Tarot