This post is an excerpt of a divination lesson from The Portal.
This month, we’re learning the nuts and bolts of enhancing decision making with tarot and pendulums, but I want to press pause on the how-to content today and talk about a mindset shift that will improve your divination skills exponentially. (All of this applies equally to next month’s dreamwork.)
Are you familiar with the term stochastic? It refers to something that varies in a random manner, and in Drawing Down the Moon, a book about magic in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, author Radcliffe Edmonds talks about the difference between stochastic and practical arts.
With a stochastic art, like astrology or tarot, you proceed “systematically to obtain successful results,” (there’s a rhyme or reason to how you use the tool), but the “general validity [of the method] is not determined by its individual successes or failures.”
Contrast this to a productive art, like building a house, “where the art is successful if a solid house is produced.” (261)
Too often, we treat divination as a productive art–did I get it “right”? In fact, I think we treat most things in life as productive–did I get it right???–when they might be more accurately described as stochastic.
This can block our intuition like no tomorrow, but learning to release the need to “get it right” helps us sink into a deeper conversation with the cards, with our inner wisdom, with the cosmos–a conversation that can yield immensely useful guidance.
If we can’t point to a finished house when we’re done with a tarot reading, what are we looking for?
Edmonds goes on to quote Richard Gordon, writing about ancient Greek astrologers and the people who sought their services. People went to astrologers, then as now, when faced with uncertainty, and they were looking for a way to manage this uncertainty.
Gordon writes, “To my mind, it did not matter that many–most, all even–such prognoses were ‘objectively’ disconfirmed. The point lay in the production of usable stories.”
Back to Edmonds: “Such ‘usable stories’ enabled people to act among the uncertainties of the world, to navigate among the necessary choices, and to handle the vagaries of fortune, retaining a sense of agency without surrendering to a sense that everything was predetermined by fate.” (262)
Ah ha. I want to call your attention to two things here, the first being…
…the creation of usable stories. When we think about divination as a form of storytelling, it becomes less about finding one “right answer” (which doesn’t exist), and more about exploring whether or not the stories it’s yielding are actually useful.
Exploring a story’s usefulness helps us learn SO MUCH about ourselves and the world and how well those two elements are interacting, and knowing that helps us get better at all the life stuff.
I once knew someone who would speak very highly about their creative projects, which was rad! They believed their book ideas, their paintings, their performances were awesome and worthy of recognition. Love it.
But then I’d be baffled when, time and time again, they would say with complete certainty that publishers would never be interested or galleries would never want their art or people wouldn’t care about their performances, basically because they didn’t know a good thing when it was smacking them in the face.
You know what?
The more I heard this person’s stories (and watched myself getting riled up in response), the more I recognized myself in this pattern, so let me speak from the I: In my own inner system, I had parts who believed (and desperately needed to believe) that I was special, a genius, a snowflake like none other, and the world simply wasn’t seeing it. This was a story I was telling myself.
Was it useful?
Well, I imagine when I was young this story helped manage some of the otherwise paralyzing anxiety I experienced. If the anxiety became intolerable, lacking adults who could help me navigate those feelings, I would cue up the storyline of my secret amazingness and be able to keep functioning, so yeah, I’d say that was pretty useful.
I’ve since dubbed this the Harry Potter fantasy, one of the most enduring tropes of all time: the protagonist has a shit life, but they discover they’re secretly special and are destined for something waaaay better. (Oh, and they have much cooler parents, too.)
Well, at some point, my Harry Potter fantasy started to get in the way–big time. Instead of learning how to face what was triggering my anxiety, my life had to get smaller and smaller and more bubble-wrapped in fantasy insulation.
When it came to creative projects, this meant never finishing them or, if I did, releasing them with barely a whisper, all the while simmering with resentment that the world wasn’t beating down my door to tell me how amazing I was!
Both never finishing or keeping projects damn-near hidden was a strategy to protect me from reality-testing the Harry Potter fantasy. If I gave something my all and the world wasn’t immediately blown away, this could mean I wasn’t secretly special. Much better to play it small, so at least I could say, “Well, but I wasn’t really trying.”
Or I could resort to blaming it on the world, which simply couldn’t recognize the lightning bolt of brilliance etched on my forehead.
While this story may have been useful at one time–lifesaving, even–it had long since expired and become a trap of self-sabotage and identity preservation at the expense of growth and healthy change.
Throughout Enchantment Lab, you’ll learn how to use things like tarot cards, dreamwork, and Internal Family Systems…
…all of which can help you spot the stories you’re telling yourself, compassionately assess whether they’re still useful, and revise them if they’re not.
(Enchantment Lab is a special six-month series happening in The Portal, starting August 1.)
And to be sure: We all tell stories, all the time. Speaking of fantasies, I think there’s a fantasy, particularly in Western culture, that we can reach some “pure” state of rationality (through science, usually), but that’s simply not how the human mind works. We will always have biases, we will always have stories, so learning how to assess their usefulness is vital.
Otherwise, we’re left trying to navigate the road of life with a map of, oh, I don’t know–Candy Land. Cute, but not super helpful in 99.9999% of scenarios.
I mentioned there were two things I wanted to call your attention to about the creation of usable stories, so let’s go back to the Gordon quote where he describes these stories as helping people “[retain] a sense of agency without surrendering to a sense that everything [is] predetermined by fate.”
Predetermined by fate.
When something exists in the unconscious, it can wield immense power over our ego and our life in ways that seem wholly attributable to the outer world at first glance. Sometimes this attribution is illusory: we are projecting our own unconscious material onto the world and mistakenly thinking it exists “out there.” (Curious? I have a free course on spotting projections through the lens of ancient alchemy.)
But something even weirder happens, too. Contents of the psyche, particularly unconscious material, demonstrate an ability to actually affect the outer world. If we have an unconscious belief that we’re undeserving of recognition, this belief can act as a sort of invisibility spell, influencing other people’s ability to see us, despite our best efforts at being visible.
Divination (and other practices you’ll be learning in Lab) help us retain our sense of agency, which we do by increasing our level of consciousness.
As Jung said (and I often repeat), “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate.” We can use tarot, dreamwork, spells, sigils, and other magical tools to expand the zone of our conscious awareness, which means we are that much less susceptible to the vagaries of “fate” acting through our own unconscious.
So, as you’re moving through the lessons, practicing your tarot readings, interpreting your dreams, etc., keep in mind this metric of usefulness when it comes to the stories that emerge from your magical experiments.
Does a story help you approach life with more curiosity, more willingness to experiment? Does it inspire tangible action steps?
If a story leaves you feeling victimized by the whims of fate and less connected to a sense of agency, question this story.
Write it down in your journal. Is this story familiar to you from past personal experience? Is it a story your family tells? Your friends? The media you consume?
Ask the spirit guides of Enchantment Lab for help in understanding this story’s effects in your life. (You can find those spirit guide instructions, and all past lessons, in the Portal Archives. Just make sure you’re signed into your account so you have full access.)
If you’re unsure where to start, you might ask these guides to help you spot examples of this story in action over the next three days.
How does it show up? How do you feel when the story is activated? What does it seem like you have to do or that you can’t do in this headspace? Jot these things down in your journal.
When we get to the dreamwork lessons in September, you can also look for this story in your dreams. I’ll remind you of this then, with pointers on how to use your dreams to revise limiting stories.
See you soon!
P.S. For a handy list of 15 common cognitive distortions that can help you spot less-than-useful stories, here’s the full article or a quick-link to the downloadable list (PDF). When you’re practicing your divination, do you notice one or more of these biases cropping up? Get extra curious when they do.