The inner life: Tarot and technology

The other day I read this tweet: I just assume people who don’t have a twitter account have no inner life. I laughed a lot and got to thinking.

Lately, I have been contemplating my inner life using tarot instead of twitter and, I like it. I did a tarot course back in January at Treadwell’s and ever since, instead of picking up my phone first thing when I wake up on a morning, I pick up the tarot.

I have written thousands of words about technology, in particular social media, and the advantages it gives us, the connection, the reassurance, and that it is popular because we all want to be experienced, that we all want to be seen and heard and to feel that we matter. But I am beginning to see that it has to begin with ourselves. We need to see and hear ourselves, we need to have a space to be able to express ourselves without interruption and feel received, which is hard to do online.

When I give a tarot reading, I am giving my full attention to someone for them to be seen and heard and to talk about what matters to them. In a normal day, how often do we do that for other people? How often does someone do that for us? And, does that ever happen on social media? That interesting broadcasting to no one in particular model which is so compelling and yet at times, so indifferent. We don’t know if someone has heard, or if anyone is listening as you cannot be a silent comforting presence on twitter.

I have had magical conversations online with people before I’ve even met them, but they are few and far between. Most social media isn’t like that and from a person to person point of view, to feel seen and heard online, social media works best in a: Here is my news until we meet next. It is not a complete replacement. We need the physical, the being experienced and we cannot be present for others unless we are present to ourselves which is difficult to do if we are permanently distracted by seeking consolation in our phones, for we take ourselves away from our lives, which is for better or worse, where we need to be in order for us to be able to define who we are.

Of course there are times when we need to escape – we used to do that with a book – or we need to physically be somewhere else and that is when technology helps. It can get us to connect where there is just a void and in the moments when you can’t get to be somewhere to say goodbye – perhaps forever – then technology can make a moment happen by compressing time and space and for that it is a blessing. Ironically, the only reason I am writing this blog is because I read a tweet and got inspired.

But for the inner life, to connect back to oneself where there’s only a void which needs filling; that Sehnsucht : (German) yearning or inconsolable longing which sometimes happens, or perhaps, as as someone else tweeted today, that Hiraeth: (Welsh) Homesickness for a home that you cannot return to; grief for the lost places of your past. Those feelings are hard to manage using technology, though knowing other people have them too can help. Personally, I hate the idea that someone else is feeling as miserable as I am, especially if I can’t help, and if, they have typed out a whole scary story which doesn’t end well. Staring at a tarot card which embodies that feeling until I see other things on the card as the feeling dims and hope returns is a more calming way for me to manage as I hate the vulnerability hangover which comes from oversharing online.

Growing up, the tarot was always a bit of a taboo, right up there with the oujia board. (Does anyone try to contact the dead with technology? I wonder! ) I grew up in the Church of England which frowned upon my dad’s spiritualist community, which in turn took a dim view of ‘occult’ practices like tarot. My dad was quite clear on not dabbling with things you didn’t know about, but that was after his automatic writing phase in the cupboard under the stairs where the gas meter was kept. I think now perhaps there was a bit of a leak which caused the visions.

But given that he was pretty eccentric and into the scary esoteric – like those days when the seances in the front room got out of hand – I got the impression that tarot was something way, way out, which begged the question: Who the hell did tarot?

After going on the course now I know: People like me, that’s who. Normal people who are curious and want a different way to think about things. Some of the lovely people I met were into Jungian Psychoanalysis and social work and saw the tarot as a way to communicate. The tarot, and cards and games are as old as time itself and we connect to others through them and then back to ourselves to make sense of the world.

The tarot has 78 cards, 22 of which are the major arcana embodying the archetypes of life, the events, feelings and situations we all experience whether we like it or not: birth and death, love and fear, loneliness and happiness, and so on. Archetypes bring an energy to our stories and to our design processes, and stories and design (as in games or cards or indeed technology) are the way in which we communicate and how we change the world in real life or online. The minor arcana represent the cycles our mind, body, spirit and emotions go through and the court cards represent aspects of our personality or other people. All of it only has meaning because we give it meaning.

So say I pull out DEATH XIII in any reading, most people, myself included, will be able to look at their lives and see that there will be somewhere in their lives where they is the need for an ending to happen, even if they don’t want one, it could be for the best in a situation, a friendship, a job, because with each ending as painful as it is, there is a relief, a release and the promise of the sun rising the next day.

I love the fact too that in the deck I have (the classic Rider-Waite) DEATH XIII looks just like the KNIGHT OF CUPS – the romance card, and I guess falling in love with a person, a project, an idea, is a beginning and the very opposite of letting go and feeling stuck and diminished. A beginning is an ending, and an ending is a beginning.

With technology there is no beginning nor end and we don’t look at twitter and question it’s meaning or relevance. We immediately assume if it is out there then it has meaning, and we make it relevant to our lives, even if it is to our detriment and impacts our inner life.

We set our intentions and our opinions by other people’s stories because we are conditioned to do so– normally we know people or the source of the information and we trust it, which is harder to do online. Lately there are lots of stories about fake news, fake reviews online and even this week the Pope had his say, warning us about robots. But none of this is new, we have long had fake news and spin and propaganda, in wartime it’s a good thing, in peacetime it’s manipulation. Technology just facilitates all of this with a wider reach.

Technology has no message. The medium is message. It is up to us to define the correct meaning for it and for our inner lives but that is a hard thing to do. Currently, my inner life is doing well using tarot not twitter and I am not feeling the sharing is caring vibe at the moment but should I change my mind I can easily and instantly on my phone and will try not to mind when no one answers.

Designing story (4): Women

When they write about you do they talk about your thighs? Or your girlfriend? They validate me through having a boyfriend, someone wants me – Abby Whelan, Scandal.

[ Part 4 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

Scandal is extraordinary, precisely because the women in it, like Abby Whelan above, articulate exactly how society views them in 2016 and depressingly enough, she is spot on. Women are still viewed by the way they look and the men with whom they are associated.

It is said that Jesus had a whole entourage of women who travelled with him. But if the women were there, we don’t know anything about them when we read the stories in the Bible. If they held his hand, uttered words of wisdom, or stood in the light receiving the same appreciative words of confirmation that God uttered over him, no one cared to write it down.

Prostitutes and saints

The one time they had to, was when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’s grave on Easter morning to find him resurrected. The men had fled, so she was the only one there to meet him. History has rewarded her by calling her a prostitute and even though historians have said that wasn’t the case at all, the label has stuck. All the men got sainthoods, btw.

It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent.

In his book, Christopher Vogler tries to demonstrate how the hero’s quest could apply equally well to women, like this:

The masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drive to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to an accord or cultivate beauty.

Cheers, thanks for that Chris!

Busy women

Campbell himself said that we only find women in fairytales because women have always been too busy to sit around telling stories. And, when Frank McConnell analysed how hero’s stories make us better in his book Storytelling and Mythmaking, it is men who do the self-actualisation, whilst women are playing prostitutes with hearts of gold, or enduring like Penelope, whilst Odysseus is off chasing glory.

It is the same with the archetypes discussed in the previous blog. We have women playing the shadow or the trickster purely as a plot devices to move the plot along; like the damsel in distress, the old crone jealous of the fair maiden, or the jilted lover. These are all tropes which the hero battles and conquers. The poor women are never the heroine, never the mentor, and they are never allowed to self-actualise. The rare cases in which they do, they become outcasts (don’t be taken in by the sexy pic above of the goddess trinity), shunned and lonely, or punished. Because they are not there to be anything but decoration and to soothe a man’s brow.

Women in the movies

Thankfully, things are changing. In previous blogs I have talked about Rey in Star Wars, and the women’s worlds of Spy and Suffragette. And, to this I want to add Ghostbusters (2016) .

I watched it last night for the first time, and thought it was brilliant. I have never watched the original Ghostbusters, because I never wanted to. The first time I was aware of it on TV, I was a teenager and as it started, I thought: Huh blokes and I went upstairs and read a book.

Last night was totally different. I loved every second, it made me laugh out loud, and as someone who has decided not to dye her grey hair anymore, the riff on hair dye was really funny, because that was happening to me a lot. And when Sigorney Weaver turned up at the end to high-five and utter the immortal line: Safety lights are for dudes… well my life felt complete.

A room of one’s own

There was no patronising female quest of creating a home or attracting a man to make a woman feel validated, it was just smart women being themselves and saving the world. They didn’t need recognition, just a nice space to carry on doing what they love. Virginia Woolf would be so proud.

I can’t wait to see more stories like this one. Lot’s more.

Part 5: Possession, the relations between minds

Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

– Maya Angelou

[ Part 3 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

I used to believe that my time was the most precious commodity that I had to give to someone else. Now, I know it is the energy that I bring with me.

Our energy is what stays with other people long after we have left and vice-versa. You never forget how people made you feel, and even if you never see them again, the very thought of them can enrich or deplete you.

Archetypes can do the same in any given story. They bring energy based on the story patterns we know from when us humans first started telling stories. They are ritualistic and encourage the reader to infuse the narrative with their own emotions. Archetypes can arouse fears and anxieties or yearnings and desires.

The field of archetypal literary criticism looks at how all narratives have intertextual elements. This means that we recognise story patterns and symbolic associations from other texts. For example, we know what a black pointy hat signifies. We know a night time setting is quite different from day time. We have learnt this from all the others stories we have read prior to the one we are reading now. Meaning does not exist independently.

They broke the mould when they made you

In design, archetypes are the first examples of their type, and may be reused to inspire a new design but they are never just copied. And, so it is the same in storytelling. We don’t want the same character but we want the new character to be moulded in a similar way as the original. The Greek word archetupos means first-moulded, which probably inspired the idiomatic, yet delightful, compliment: They broke the mould when they made you.

Archetypes are not just characters but can be settings such as caves, mazes, deserts, mountains, etc. Each one suggests certain ritual experiences such as the discovery of self (cave), spiritual quests (maze or mountain), or spiritual wastelands (desert). Each setting brings a certain energy which primes our expectations and how to respond. Archetypes can also be events: birth, death, first love, leaving home, those rites of passage which define our lives.

Common patterns and ways of living

It was Carl Jung who first suggested that as these common patterns and ways of living have emerged in many cultures, they are hardwired in our brains and they lead to us being predisposed to think a certain way about them, even unconsciously.

Jung worked on his theory of archetypes for many years often without pinning down exactly what he meant. Though finally, he compared the form of the archetype to the lattice of a crystal which dictates the crystal’s shape and matter, even though it has no material existence of its own, rather like the form follows function principle in design where something is pared down, is beautiful, and develops organically.

Today, it is common to refer to a specific number of archetypes like the 12 in the image above. Variations of this image are used in marketing, as marketers like to tap into stories already known in order to make their products seem familiar, which they then wrap up in beautiful aesthetics because research has shown that art rewards us. It lights up our reward centre in our brain.

Archetype + aesthetic = irresistible

A familiar archetype wrapped in lovely packaging – known as the art infusion effect – is irresistible. We want to consume shiny new things, and if they seem a little familiar and they resonate, what could be better?

I like the above diagram because it has echoes of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and we can put the four groups of archetypes alongside the five groups of needs (plus the extra transcendance needs Maslow later added to his pyramid) like so:

  • Physiological and Safety needs =  Provide structure to the world.
  • Social needs = Connect with others.
  • Esteem needs = Leave  a mark on the world.
  • Self-actualization and transcendence needs =  Yearn for paradise.

I first realised that our needs and motivations haven’t changed since the Iron Age when I visited a Crannog one summer. We may look like we are doing things differently, but we still need to feel warm and fed, loved and connected, esteemed and self-actualised, which then begs the question: How much have our stories changed through time when our needs haven’t?

Motifs, symbols and facets

Scriptwriter Christopher Vogel uses seven archetypes because he has based his on the hero’s journey or monomyth which was first identified by mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Inspired by Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp’s 31 story functions  and seven character functions, which are used in the study of semiotics, Vogel says that the  archetypes in a good story function like motifs or symbols, or as a facet of the main character’s personality. Propp himself said that they were like the masks we adopt in life to fit in, to protect ourselves, to not be vulnerable, until finally we become that version of who we think others want us to be, and we forget who we really are.

The seven archetypes are often used in psychotherapy. The theory is that if we know what archetypes we have adopted  and how they make up our thought patterns and beliefs in our mind, then we can work with them to stop limiting beliefs and engage in personal growth.

Seven archetypes for storytelling

  1. The hero is the one with whom the audience identifies, and includes growth, action, and sacrifice. The hero represents Freud’s ego and our search for identity and wholeness.
  2. The mentor stands for our highest aspirations or higher self, a teacher or a gift giver. The mentor is our conscience and a plot device which plants information. There are also dark mentors who mislead us.
  3. The shapeshifter is the one who brings doubt and suspense into a story. It may be a lover who is close and loving but turns out to betray us.
  4. The threshold guardian represents our barriers or neuroses, they test us and a successful hero learns that threshold guardians are useful allies.
  5. The trickster is the one who cuts us down to size, teaches us humility, and bring about healthy change and transformation. The trickster also provides comic relief, thus releasing tension and making us laugh at ourselves in order to create change.
  6. The shadow can represent suppressed emotions such as a hero damaged by doubt. The shadow may be external who challenges the hero and gives them a worthy opponent. They may even be a love interest – someone who is bad for us, who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, the shadow represents feelings such as anger, which is a healthy emotion until it is suppressed, turned inward, and can lead to depression.
  7. The herald brings words of challenges, to signal change to move the plot on whenever they are needed.

How do we feel when we meet these archetypes in the characters, in our familiar story-structures, in the spaces that writers create? Do we feel the energy they have to impart? Does it suppress or empower us? Delight or dismay us? We enter into that shared heart space and we come out the other end a little different to when we went in, carrying a new energy that we got to keep. Storytelling, the most powerful way to communicate ever.

 Part 4: Women