A Tarot Spread for Virtues and Vices

I’ve written extensively on this blog about the oft-misused term “shadow work,” and about how I, personally, understand the term. For me, shadow work is about cultivating virtue in ourselves: It’s about looking within to understand the ways we think, feel, and act—not in order to justify our bad behavior with a petulant “Well, that’s just the way I am,” but so that we can choose to be better. Shadow work requires recognizing our failings honestly and compassionately, so that we can break our harmful behavioral cycles, heal old wounds, and strive toward personal betterment.

It’s an ongoing, neverending process. Simply by nature of being human, we all have shit to deal with, and we all fail in various ways. Nobody is all perfect all of the time; you spend a couple of years working on one issue, only to discover that a new one (or, better yet, an old one you thought you’d put to bed) has surfaced while your attention was directed elsewhere. So then you deal with that one, and the next one, and the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat. The work of being a person—let alone a good person—never ends.

This may sound relentless and exhausting, but there’s a beautiful humility here, as well. Goodness, on this picture, is not a final state that we ever actually achieve. Rather, it’s an ideal that we perpetually strive toward, a state of consciousness where we are always trying to improve ourselves, to be better than we are while still conceding that we will never be perfect. By releasing ourselves from the expectation that we have to be flawless, we make room for a fulfilling life where we can have flaws and make mistakes, so long as we take ownership of them, learn from them and change our behavior, and attempt to right our wrongs. To borrow a line from John Steinbeck, “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Part of that process is recognizing that our negative characteristics are often not inherently bad. They’re usually just qualities that are displaced, things that could be virtues in the right circumstances but that are coming out in the wrong way, that we have too much or too little of and that we’re expressing in inappropriate ways. I get this idea (surprise, surprise) from Aristotle, whose view of virtue was precisely this: That virtue is the middle path, a balanced and moderate expression of a characteristic that becomes a vice when we have an excess or deficiency of it. Courage is a virtue, but too much courage is foolhardiness and too little is cowardice. Self-confidence is a good thing, but too little of it can turn us into doormats and too much of it can make us vain. And so on.

In this spirit, I’ve devised a Tarot spread to help focus aretaic shadow work. This spread is designed to pinpoint one particular flaw that you’ve been struggling with, one aspect of your character that has been wreaking havoc in your life and resulting in poisonous behavioral patterns. The goal here is to identify the core nature of the character trait at work, whether you have too much of it or too little of it, and what it would look like if it were brought into balance. Then, finally, this spread gives you a glimpse of the virtue that you can cultivate by rehabilitating this character trait in a healthy way. The spread is as follows:

  1. The problem. This card highlights the problem or behavioral pattern you’ve been struggling with.
  2. The core trait. This card shows the basic nature of the character trait at work; neither positive nor negative, this is just a basic human trait that all of us have, but that is expressing itself in unhealthy ways.
  3. The excess. This is what that trait looks like when you allow it to overextend itself—when you have too much of an otherwise healthy drive. Learning to recognize the excess can help you to address the problems that result from it, by reining it in and bringing yourself back to a healthier mean.
  4. The deficiency. As a counterpart to the previous card, this is what the core trait looks like when you don’t have enough of it, which can also cause problems. Once again, learning to recognize the deficiency gives you the tools to stoke yourself up in order to solve the problems caused by that lack.
  5. The virtue. This card shows the golden mean, the virtuous expression of this trait toward which you can strive. This is the ideal to hold yourself to, and though you may never fully reach it (you’ll always have moments of excess and deficiency, and those moments will always cause problems, big or small), you can at least have a target to aim at. Bringing yourself closer to the virtuous ideal, even if you never perfectly realize it, is ultimately what this work is all about.

Of course, just doing this Tarot reading doesn’t magically fix your negative personality traits, nor the problems that result from them. Once you’ve recognized the basic characteristic at work (and the virtue that it could be if fully realized), you have to do the hard work of actually trying to live up to your ideals. But this spread, at least, gives a road map for that work. This introspective work is a lot easier, and a lot more rewarding, if you have some sense of where you’re actually trying to go.

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