On the morning of the second anniversary of my father’s death, wearing the earrings you see above (Visconti Tarot Death card) that my daughter got me for my birthday in January to celebrate my personal Death year, I prepared to do my talk. The conference room at the Barbican Thistle Hotel had been transformed as if by magic. Usually, we have white table cloths for the conference but this year they had turned black and Scorpio was rising at the time my talk began. Did Archangel Azrael orchestrate for all of these influences to be just so?
Transformation Junkie Master Class Talk – UK Tarot Conference 15 October, 2016
“Do you know how to die well?” …is the question I believe Death might ask of us if present in this room today (and who’s to say he isn’t?). I also believe this question is implied in Pamela Coleman Smith’s Death card imagery… Death rides in on his white horse to gather some souls ripe for the harvest. The King is mowed down first… We don’t really know what happened there but we can perhaps imagine the King putting up a bit of fight, unwilling to part with his temporal power. Next we have the priest, having spent much of his life holding others to a standard of unattainable perfection, pleading for more time as he’s about to meet his maker and face his own judgment. By the priest’s side, the young maiden turns her head away, completely unable to face death… She has so much yet to live for… She has yet to meet the one, get married, have kids, you know all the good stuff in life. The only one who seems nonplussed, greeting death with an open stance and flowers in her hands is the child… So how come the child does not object at all to Death’s presence? It’s simple – She has no regrets.
To die well is to die without regrets… and to die without regrets means living life to the full.
Many spiritual Paths and philosophers emphasise the importance of being mindful of our mortality and preparing for our earth life ending. In one Buddhist tradition, for instance, you are encouraged to meditate on your own death three times a day. When a teacher of that tradition asks their student. ‘Will you die today?,’ what do you think the expected answer might be? It is ‘Maybe.’ The truth is that none of us know how long we have. The reason why wise men and women through the ages have urged us to contemplate our own mortality is not create a morbid mindset but to help us live more fully.
We know the truth of this because it resonates to our very bones (even if it is an uncomfortable truth)… and this is why nurse Bronnie Ware’s article ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’ became so popular a while back. Bronnie Ware worked as a palliative care nurse, caring for the terminally ill during the final stage of their lives… She found that as people approached their last couple of weeks, the same five regrets were voiced over and over again… As a Tarotist and transformation junkie, I thought how brilliant this material would be for creating a series of Tarot spreads, which is what I did and in bit we will be using one of them for avoiding the Top Five Regrets of the Dying…
But before we dive in, I want to share my discovery of how incredibly powerful the Tarot can be…
It was the start of the summer holidays in Stockholm City. I was 15 and a school friend in the year below decided to pop around. I had been busy cutting out a cardboard copy of the Smith Waite Majors from a magazine when she arrived… so without much thought and no knowledge whatsoever of the Tarot, I asked her if she wanted to ‘play’ with the Tarot cards. I pretended to be a reader and lay out five cards in a row before her. The only two cards I still remember from that reading were the Emperor and The Devil next to each other. Something weird happened there… My mind became ‘hyper focused’ and I simply started saying what I saw…
I told her that I saw an older man around her and that he was not a good man. It looked as if he might be downright abusive. My friend burst into tears. ‘Yes, that’s my mum’s boyfriend – He is a priest in the Swedish church and he has been sexually abusing me.’ To say that I was shocked by what happened during this ‘pretend reading’ is an understatement… My friend hadn’t told a soul up until that point but thanks to the Tarot, she found the courage to tell her mum and the abuse came to an end.
While the impact was immediate for my friend, the full impact of doing the reading needed another 12 years to reach me.
It happened shortly after giving birth to my second child and coincided with a healing crisis. My marriage was failing and I had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis which affected my lymph nodes and caused a lot of pain. Mentally, I was already fragile due to a life-long battle with depression and anxiety. The combination of severe physical pain from the illness and sleep deprivation that comes from caring for two babies lead to an inevitable breakdown. With virtually no support network in the form of friends and family, I ended up dragging myself to the psychiatric ER and told them the plain truth: I simply couldn’t cope any more. That was the turning point for me. I started attending group therapy sessions, did body work and dream work, learned energy healing and read pretty much every self-help book I could get my hands on…
The healing work I did both consciously and in dreamtime made me want to work more with symbols and archetypes for healing, so it’s no coincidence that the Tarot found me again when I needed it the most for the next stage of my healing journey. I was ready to begin in earnest, which – as it turned out – would come to mean an awful lot of Shadow work. (And no, I’m not done yet, in case you were wondering!)
Shadow, in the Jungian sense, is an aspect of the self the conscious mind refuses to integrate as part of the ego-personality and instead shoves into our unconscious mind. What we sweep under the rug mentally and emotionally comes out in all sorts of weird ways, such as psychosomatic illness, mental health issues, embarrassing dreams and projections… But shadow isn’t just something we generate on a personal level; When repressed collective values reach a tipping point in a large enough group of people they can generate a cultural expression. Women’s sexuality in Victorian times is a good example of this. The taboo dictated that women ‘lie back and think of England’ – Women who expressed an enjoyment of sex could expect to be punished, shamed and sometimes even institutionalised.
While women’s sexuality may not be as repressed any more in modern times, I believe we put so much energy into repressing any aspects to do with our mortality, both as individuals and as a society, that it is making us ill.
Think about it… Could this be true in Tarot circles too? Are we perhaps too quick to reassure everyone that the Death card isn’t about actual physical death— It’s about change and transformation… (I have certainly been guilt of this myself!) Only last weekend, I was doing a holistic healing course. One of my course mates asked me what I do for a living. When I told her I was a Tarot reader, she immediately asked if I contact the spirits of the dead too. Making a mental note to not roll my eyes I said, ‘No, that doesn’t really interest me, since I like to use the Tarot cards proactively in the now,’ She said, ‘Well, I prefer the Angel Cards – the Tarot crosses over to the dark side, doesn’t it?’ I said, ‘No, that’s bollocks; the Tarot covers all of life’s lessons. Any spookiness associated with the Tarot is only because of how it’s portrayed in media.’ She instantly got the reference and said, ‘Oh, I know the Death card isn’t about Death – it’s about change,’ looking very proud of herself for remembering what she probably read in some New Age magazine. I looked at her and said ‘And sometimes it is about death. Should we fear death?’ She had a bit of a light bulb moment… ‘No, you’re right, she said.’
Because I’m a blogger, I had to share this story on the blog the next day. And I got the most perfect response to my article in a FB comment. A Tarot colleague shared his own story of doing a reading for an elderly, wheelchair-bound lady. He spoke of how the Death card had shown up and how he did his normal ‘It’s not about death; It’s about transformation’ talk… but somehow it didn’t seem to resonate, so he got another deck out, thinking this might provide a better answer. Guess which card showed up? You got it! DEATH. Again, he tried pussyfooting around it but gave up and reached for yet a third deck. Surely, this time, he would find respite. Nope. Guess which card insisted on appearing? Yeah…. DEATH! Before he even had a chance to speak again, the lovely old lady said, ‘You know what, I believe the cards want us to talk about death.’ After that, a lovely healing conversation developed. She was able to open up and share about the death of her husband, and also how much she couldn’t wait to be reunited with him. Apparently (as I can well imagine!) this had been a very humbling experience for my Tarot colleague.
So how about allowing the Tarot Death card to be about actual death when the need arises? And how about using the Tarot cards to live life to the full? Let’s do that now as we work our way through the ‘No Regrets’ Tarot Spread.
Grab your cards. I’m going to outline the Top Five Regrets of the Dying as described by Bronnie Ware. As we go through each of the regrets, I want you to pick a card that represents the regret and one that represents the wish or ideal state of being. Do this with the cards face up and write them down as we go…
I have chosen the term designator rather than significator because you don’t have to use these cards for the ‘No Regrets’ spread or in any other readings… You can use them in your daily meditations or simply be mindful of them when they show up in readings.
The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” ~ Steve Jobs
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
―Brian Dyson, former vice chairman and COO of Coca-Cola
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“A faithful friend is a strong defense;
And he that hath found him hath found a treasure.”
― Louisa May Alcott
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Choose the regret you feel you need to address most urgently or the one you feel most comfortable sharing and pair up. You will be reading for each other, so the Seeker needs to share with the reader their motivation behind choosing the two designator cards for positions 1/A and 6/B
The ‘No Regrets’ Tarot Spread
- The regret (chosen designator for the regret)
- The main challenge in overcoming this regret
- What you are already aware of concerning this regret
- A factor that you may not yet be aware of
- The best way forward (action advice for the next step to take to resolve this)
- The wish (chosen designator for the ideal state of being)
If you choose not to use the Tarot cards to work through the Top Five Regrets of the Dying, I hope you will still consider that the Death card is sometimes about facing issues around your mortality and that you can take the question ‘Do you know how to die well?’ in the loving spirit it is offered.
Finally, I would like to share the poem I wrote for the Death year back in January…
Ode to XIII
Old Mr Bones, what’s the agenda for today?
Will you guide us, will you show the way?
They call you ‘grim’ but they’re just dim
You’re the reason we are born and live –
You never cease to instruct or give
Grim Reaper to one, Santa Muerte to another
You wear a mask to blend in
To some a foe, to others a loving mother
We wear you under our skin
Those who were taken before us
Never truly go away
We walk on their bones and thus
They are in our lives to stay
Your blade severed their heads
and now they live in ours
They visit us when we lie in our beds
During the ungodly hours
When the soul leaves this realm
Guiding us, you’ll be at the helm,
Across that uncompromising river
Are you a taker or are you a giver?
Your blade may be sharp
But after the cut is made
We hear the Angel’s harp…
You loved, so you slayed.
PS. I really can’t say how much I enjoyed this experience. My favourite part was watching everyone work through the spread, deep in thought and/or dialogue. Big love and respect for everyone who was there on the day!
PPS. The Tarot spread in the picture at the top is my own Frideborg Tarot deck.