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Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.

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Quick Lessons on Parenthood

Parenting is exhausting work.

Parenting is exhausting work.

1. Expensive doesn’t mean best

We have to feed our kid on formula (for medical reasons, before the breastfeeding evangelists jump all over us), and finding the right formula was a nightmare. Everyone kept saying we should buy Enfamil, considered to the best (and very expensive because of it), but it actually made our kid very gassy and his poop very runny. When we ran out of the Enfamil that our hospital gave us in the middle of the night, I ran out to Safeway to buy some formula. I bought the Safeway brand of formula instead because I am a cheap, cheap jerk, and lo and behold, a lot of our kid’s digestive problems disappeared!

Marketers target parents relentlessly (mothers, in fact, were one of the very first targets when modern advertising came about after World War II), and it works. Despite my Scrooge-like heart, I still felt awfully guilty buying what is considered to be a cheaper (in quality) knock-off brand. Luckily, when we brought this up with our pediatrician, she just rolled her eyes and assured us that, like everything else in America, pretty much the quality of the formula is all the same except for slight variances. Find the best one for you, and if you’re lucky enough to have a baby who loves the cheap stuff, count yourself lucky.

2. Swaddling is very important for getting a good night’s sleep

Apparently, kids have no motor control whatsoever, and so they will flail about without really wanting to. The first month or so, our kid would wake up constantly for no real reason, screaming and then falling asleep soon after. Unfortunately, the frazzled parents were not  falling asleep as quickly as the kid, and our sleep (and sanity) suffered. Eventually, my wife started swaddling him very tightly (but not too tightly) to prevent himself from jerking around involuntarily and waking up. This small trick can do wonders; one time, the kid kept screaming at me as I tried to put him to bed. I swaddled him tightly like my wife showed me and as soon as I tucked the last corner in, he promptly fell asleep for several hours. It was magical.

3a. You will become very annoyed and angry and that is okay if you deal with it constructively

There are times when my kid is a holy terror. He will scream at me and I will take it incredibly personally. I know this kid has no idea what he’s doing; screaming at me is his way of getting my attention. Still, as a parent, you can’t help but think that your kid is criticizing you, that his screaming is his way of telling you, This is all your fault!

“I’m doing my best!” I will sometimes plead with him, but he is unmoved.

Before having a kid, I wondered how any parent could do something as horrible as shake their child. Now, I understand that if you don’t tell someone that this is a Very Bad Thing, they will most likely naturally shake their child. Sometimes, your child can just be such a jerk. You sacrifice so much sleep, so much time, doing things like wiping up poop and rocking him to sleep, and he is still screaming at you because it’s all your fault.

This is really normal stuff. It horrifies people who aren’t parents, and I would venture a lot of parents try to suppress it, but babies can be incredibly, rage-inducingly frustrating. Our pediatrician explained to us that we could expect anywhere from two to eight hours a day of crying. Bring your cell phone to a workday. Set an alarm that goes off every hour or so with a recorded sound of a crying baby. It gets annoying enough when all you have to do is turn off your phone’s alarm. It’s worse when sometimes, you will run through trying to feed a baby, burping him, changing his diaper, holding and cuddling him, singing to him, and then take him for a walk and he is still crying. Apparently, sometimes babies cry just because they are bored. The entire time, you’re fretting because you’re afraid he might be sick. It’s awful, stressful, and you haven’t slept for more than four hours straight in three weeks.

My wife and I are super lucky that she has great maternity leave benefits and that we are financially able to let me stay at home and help. We don’t know how people do this alone. We also used to feel incredibly guilty when we would desire so viscerally to punch our baby in the face (“I don’t know how I can love someone so much it hurts and yet be so incredibly angry at the exact same time,” my wife observed once). It relieved us to know that this is a natural response (exacerbated by sleep deprivation and general exhaustion). Now when I want to punch my baby in the face, I pass him off to my wife, and vice versa. When she goes back to work and my son hits one of those crazy crying spells where nothing seems to solve the problem, I will lay him in his crib and listen to some music before returning back and trying again. Or maybe drive him over to his grandma’s house.

3b. You can’t do this alone very well

When the baby was born, we lived with my parents for three weeks. We were reluctant to go. Being the first grandson, my mother absolutely adored him. Her presence in helping to change his diapers or feed him or bathe him or just take him away from us when he was screaming his lungs out (nothing he does can be less than adorable to her) helped us keep our sanity.

Still today, my mother will call every now and then with the sole, express purpose of seeing if she could take our son for the day and give us a break. Parents, family, and friends are indispensable when raising children. Finding a community that will act as a safety net is vital. When you have a kid, there’s a tendency to turn inward, to surround yourself with the tight cluster that is your new nuclear family. In my opinion, the nuclear family is the worst idea ever. Build on your extended family; build an extended network of people you can rely on (and in turn, you can provide services to them; it works out well). We asked my best friend Quinton to be our son’s godfather. We’re Mormon; we don’t have a godfather tradition, but we decided to start one anyway because we felt it important to connect our son to as many people as possible. That way, if the worst happens, he will never be alone, and we never will be either.

4. Caffeine is my friend

I’m not at an addict, I swear. But sometimes, I just need a strongly brewed jar of yerba mate to drink before I can go into the day. I’m happier and pleasant. My child’s screaming turns into sweet, sweet music and I will laugh giddily as he spits all over my shirt. Raising a newborn is exhausting work. I have never felt more tired in my entire life, not even on my mission. You don’t realize it, but after about a week, you are constantly operating beneath your normal baseline. Sometimes, using a pick-me-up, whether it’s dark chocolate or going for a quick run, is necessary to keep yourself from ripping out your hair.

5. Baby clothes are the dumbest concept in the world

I don’t really believe in pants, but that’s beside point. Baby clothes are dumb; who are they trying to impress? Whenever it’s my turn to take care of the baby, the minute he urinates all over the clothes on his back (and he does this a lot), I’ll strip him naked, slap a diaper on him, and swaddle him. Just as good as clothes, but way less complicated. I did not realize how often I would be undressing my son to change his diapers, but there it is. When you put him in baby clothes, changing his diaper is an ordeal. When he’s swaddled, it takes me less than a minute. My son has outfits that have buttons and clasps and all kinds of complicated mechanisms to make him look “cute.” But it’s not like I’m going to let him borrow my car and take girls out on dates anyway, so for now, he will look like a pupating glow worm.

If it worked for Jesus, it’ll work for my son.

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The best missionary lesson ever

Tonight, I experienced the most remarkable missionary message in the history of missionary messages.

We had just finished having dinner with the missionaries. The wife and I made a commitment at the beginning of our marriage to help the missionaries whenever we can, and so we had gone out with them several times teaching and had gotten to know especially a young couple who lived two blocks from us. As we sat back after eating, they asked if they could share a message. “Of course!” we say, obligingly.

I settled into my seat, waiting for the general “Who do you know that we can share the gospel with?” message that missionaries often give at dinner appointments.

Elder Graham pulled out a talk and began to read a short excerpt about how hope is the motivator of faith and action and how hope, not technical skill, is more important in missionary work.

He then turned to us and said simply, “I know you as a family have hope in missionary work. We greatly appreciate all of the wonderful work you do with us, and the help you offer us. We want to sincerely thank you for your willingness to help in building the Lord’s kingdom.”

That was it. No commitment. No gentle reminders to do our duty. Just pure thanks. You could see it in their weary faces; they were grateful that we would go out with them for even just a couple hours a week, no skin off of our noses. The appreciation just shined from their expressions.

I was deeply touched. I glanced over at my wife, who admitted as much in the past that duty, not a desire to grow the Church, motivated her missionary work. I could tell that she was visibly touched as well (and somewhat taken aback).

They got up and left. We said our goodbyes. And as we cleared the dishes that night, my heart was full. Sometimes, Mormonism feels like a non-stop checklist of tasks, obligations, duties and commitments. However, two missionaries that night expressed sincere gratitude for our feeble offering — real gratitude. It felt good.

Conventionally speaking, for all intents and purposes, their lesson was a failure. There was no commitment at the end. It was mercifully short — less than two minutes. They didn’t even really teach a coherent gospel principle they could check off on a teaching record. But I hadn’t felt the Spirit so strong in the room after a missionary lesson in a long time.

And you can bet your socks that the next time the missionaries ask us to go out with them to teach, we will say yes in a heartbeat, even if it means clearing our schedule to do so.

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Buddhism and women

Again, excerpts from Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, this time about women. I found these excerpts to be especially intriguing, and wonder how they match-up to our female and feminist readers, who I assume are of mostly Western cultural descent.

Soma and Mara

Once the nun Soma, having returned from her alms round and after her meal, entered the woods for a noonday rest. Plunging into the depths of the woods, she sat down under a tree.

Then the tempter Mara, desirous of arousing fear, wavering, and dread in Soma, and wishing to cause her to interrupt her concentrated meditation, went up to her and said, “The goal is hard to reach, hard even for sages; it cannot be won by a woman with whatever wisdom she may have.”

Then Soma thought, “Who is this, a human or a non-human, who is saying this? Surely it is the evil Mara who wants to interrupt my concentrated meditation.” Knowing that it was Mara, she said to him, “What does one’s gender matter to one whose mind is well-composed, in whom insight is functioning, and who comprehends the Dharma?”

Then the evil Mara thought, “The nun Soma knows me.” Being sad and sorrowful, he vanished there and then.

adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by C. A. F. Rhys-Davids

And this one, which is more esoteric, but just as interesting (and a beautiful poem):

Songs of the Nuns

Free woman,
be free
as the moon is freed
from the eclipse of the sun.

With a free mind,
in no debt,
enjoy what has been given to you.

Get rid of tendency
to judge yourself
above, below, or
equal to others.
A nun who has self-possession
and integrity
will find the peace that nourishes
and never causes surfeit.

Be filled with all good things
like the moon on the fifteenth day.
Completely, perfectly full
of wisdom
tear open
the massive dark.

I, a nun, trained and self-composed,
established mindfulness
and entered peace like an arrow.
The elements of body and mind grew still,
happiness came.

Everywhere clinging to pleasure is destroyed,
the great dark is torn apart,
and Death, you too are destroyed.

from the Therigatha, translated by Susan Murcott

Lastly, there is this story, which involves gender identity, but one that puzzles me as well (comments about this one would be much appreciated!):

Sariputra and the Goddess

Thereupon, a certain goddess who lived in that house, having heard this teaching of the Dharma of the great heroic bhodisattvas, and being delighted, pleased, and overjoyed, manifested herself in a material body and showered the great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas, and the great disciples with heavenly flowers. When the flowers fell on the bodies of the bodhisattvas, they fell off on the floor, but when they fell on the bodies of the great disciples, they stuck to them and did not fall. The great disciples shook the flowers and even tried to use their magical powers, but still the flowers would not shake off. Then the goddess said to the venerable Sariputra, “Reverend Sariputra, why do you shake these flowers?”

Sariputra replied, “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off.”

The goddess said, “Do not say that, reverend Sariputra. Why? These flowers are proper indeed! Why? Such flowers have neither constructual thought nor discrimination. But the elder Sariputra has both constructual thought and discrimination.

“Reverend Sariputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet the elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.

“Reverend Sariputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.

“For example, evil spirits have power over fearful men but cannot disturb the fearless. Likewise, those intimidated by fear of the world are in the power of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, which do not disturb those who are free from fear of the passions inherent in the constructive world. Thus, these flowers stick to the bodies of those who have not eliminated their instincts for the passions and do not stick to the bodies of those who have eliminated their instincts. Therefore, the flowers do not stick to the bodies of the bodhisattvas, who have abandoned all instincts.”

Sariputra asked: Goddess, what prevents you from transforming out of your female state?

The goddess replied: Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, I have not found it. Reverend Sariputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, “What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”

Sariputra: No! Such a woman would not really exist, so what would there be to transform?

Goddess: Just so, reverend Sariputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, “What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?” Thereupon the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Sariputra, said to Sariputra, transformed into a goddess, “Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming ourself out of your female state?”

And Sariputra, transformed into the goddess, replied, “I no longer appear in the form of a male! My body has changed into the body of a woman! I do not know what to transform!”

The goddess continued, “If the elder could again change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male of female.’ ”

Then, the goddess released her magical power and each returned to his ordinary form. She then asid to him, “Reverend Sariputra, what have you done with your female form?”

Sariputra: I neither made it nor did I change it.

Goddess: Just so, all things are neither made nor changed, and that they are not made and not changed, that is the teaching of the Buddha.

from The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman

To me, it appears the basic idea is that gender itself is a mental construct that is ultimately false. This will be problematic within a Mormon context, but does this ideal of extreme “gender colorblindness” have merit, or is it itself a dead-end road to travel?

Actually, the Buddha would chide me for framing the question in that way, but what can I do? I, myself, am a product of Western constructual thinking.

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Not Mixing Up Buddhism

I found this story in Teachings of the Buddha, and I do not get it. If you get it, or have an interpretation thereof, please write in the comments:

Not mixing Up Buddhism

Once a monk on pilgrimage met a woman living in a hut. The monk asked, “Do you have any disciples?”

The woman said, “Yes.”

The monk said, “Where are they?”

She said, “The mountains, rivers, and earth, the plants and trees, are all my disciples.”

The monk said, “Are you a nun?”

She said, “What do you see me as?”

He said, “A layperson.”

The woman in the hut said, “You can’t be a monk!”

The monk said, “You shouldn’t mix up Buddhism.”

She said, “I’m not mixing up Buddhism this way?”

The monk said, “Aren’t you mixing up Buddhism this way?”

She said, “You’re a man, I’m a woman — where has there ever been any mixup?”

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Literalistic imagery

Most people know the story of Prometheus. He took pity on mankind and so he stole fire from the gods and used it to teach man, especially in technology and the sciences. For this, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock where his liver was picked apart by birds everyday. Because Prometheus was immortal, he suffered immense pain, but could never die. And thusly he suffered until a Greek hero named Heracles rescued him.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus plays a proto-type trickster figure, representing both the good and bad of humanity. He became a symbol of technology and progress, willing to defy the very gods in order to improve the lives and lots of common humans everywhere. There are symbols and imagery within this myth, rich and glorious, which convey important lessons and warnings to future generations.

There’s much in the Prometheus story for the modern-day reader to swallow in order for it to be true. For one thing, Prometheus was a titan, and we’re pretty sure titans don’t exist. Also, supposedly, the gods lived on Olympus, but we’ve had people hike up the mountain and have not found any pantheons yet. There’s not a lot of scientific evidence for it, even though we know many people back then believed this story to be factual. We try not to fault our ancestors too much for believing such an outlandish story, but if someone said they truly believe the Prometheus story to be absolutely factual, we would laugh. Still, despite the fact that this myth is not true, we can still derive much from it. The fact that this story is fiction does not take away from its timelessness or lessons taught.

So how come when somebody tells us that Noah’s global flood is probably not factual, that the Abraham sacrificing Issac story makes no sense within the Abrahamic narrative and could just be made up, or that Job might not have been a real person or Jonah probably didn’t actually spend three days in the belly of a whale, we as members of the Church become defensive about it? Like Prometheus, a lack of factual evidence certainly doesn’t detract from the morals of the story – such a parameter for usefulness would have rendered Aesop’s famous fables completely void.

When my wife tells me that she doesn’t believe the Garden of Eden is a factual situation but is instead an allegorical representation of every human’s experience being cut off from God’s presence, why does it bother me? I know that the fact that it might have never happened doesn’t take away from the spiritual significance of the story; it certainly doesn’t bother my wife. In fact, I’ve had spiritual experiences which tell me that such an interpretation is not only fine, but commendable. So why does it nag at the corners of my prideful, foolish heart?

"Guys, you should totally think about maybe wearing some clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."

"Guys, you should totally think about wearing clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."

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