The Elemental Array and Psychotherapy: How to Move an Ace and Change Your Life by Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.
There are times in everyone’s life when they get stuck and simply cannot find a way to unblock themselves and move forward. As a psychotherapist, I have found that while inner conflict is sometimes the explanation, often this stuckness simply means that one’s usual ways of dealing with life are not adequate in the current situation. Something else is called for, but what?
Recently I have been experimenting with Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone’s Tarot Psychology techniques and have found that one of them, “The Elemental Array,” is extremely useful for getting a quick read on what my client needs to do to move forward, as well as a great enhancement when used with any tarot reading. The Elemental Array” is a technique in which the client or querent is asked to arrange the four Aces in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in order of preference and then their array is analyzed according to certain criteria. In my psychotherapy sessions, I use a simplified version of “The Array.” For those readers interested in a fuller understanding of its possibilities, audio cds are available from The Tarot School. In general, I suggest my clients do “The Elemental Array” when they get into the same difficulties over and over again despite focusing on the issue in therapy, or I am perplexed as to why they find some situation a problem.
For example, my client Ms. L struck me as an intelligent and capable person, yet she was always comparing herself negatively to her colleagues. She described them as much more confident, assertive, and willing to try new things. She felt as if they were go-getters and she was a go-slower. Because she was so afraid to make mistakes, she tended to procrastinate unless there was someone she respected to whom she could turn for guidance. Each time Ms. L was given a new project that she found challenging, she would become paralyzed until she slowly worked through her insecurities about it in her therapy sessions. I wondered if there was some way that I could speed up the process or if there was something that I was missing.
How to Introduce the Elemental Array
I introduced Ms. L to “The Elemental Array” by saying that there was a Tarot Psychology technique invented by Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone of The Tarot School that I thought would be helpful to her. I asked her if she would be willing to try it as an experiment. When she agreed, I took the four Aces out of the extra-large Rider-Waite-Smith deck that I keep for this purpose. I asked her to look at them one-at-a-time and put them down in front of her in order of her preferences with the most preferred one first, then the next and so on until the one she liked least was last. I told her to go by her gut reaction, not anything based on what she thought the cards might mean. After she had her array down, I suggested that she could move the cards until the spaces, or lack of them, between the cards reflected her feelings about them. For example, if the last card in her array was greatly disliked, she should show this by placing it at the appropriate distance from the other cards.
The Structure of the Elemental Array
When Ms. L finished her array, her aces were in the following order: (1) Ace of Pentacles, (2) Ace of Cups, (3) Ace of Swords, and (4) Ace of Wands. The first two aces were placed close together, then there was a large gap followed by the last two aces which were also placed close together.
Position 1: The first position in the array reflects the person’s strengths and natural talents, a way of approaching life that comes easily and one with which the person is comfortable. It is a gift we are born with and can develop further, not one that we have to struggle to acquire. Whatever is in the first position is also very visible to others.
Position 2: The second position also reflects what is natural to the person, but it is usually less strong and may be less readily apparent to others.
Position 3: The third position represents a place of vulnerability, a weakness that is seen as challenging and sometimes the source of a life-long struggle.
Position 4: The fourth and last position represents a way of being in the world that is either unenergized because of disinterest in it or is actively disliked. Often, it represents something that we try and get others to do for us. Once in a great while, it may represent something that we do so easily that it is effortless. Either way, the result is that little time and energy is spent on whatever is in last place.
The Meaning of the Four Aces
“The Elemental Array” takes its name from the fact that each of the four aces in the tarot deck represents a different element and takes on meanings commonly associated with that element. In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the Ace of Wands represents the element of fire, the Ace of Cups represents the element of water, the Ace of Swords represents the element of air, and the Ace of Pentacles represents the element of earth. In addition to the standard qualities associated with each element in tarot, each tarot enthusiast is likely to have his or her own way of reading the energies associated with these Aces. When I am interpreting “The Elemental Array” for a particular client, I allow myself to go with whichever meanings occur to me at that moment, trusting that these are the ones that will be relevant for that person based on their needs of the moment
A Sample Analysis of an Elemental Array
In reading an array in psychotherapy, I generally keep what I say fairly simple so as not to overload the client with too much tarot information. After each statement, I wait to see how my client feels about what I am saying and whether or not she recognizes herself in my description. I also answer any questions that the client has about what I have said. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of what I told Ms. L about the Aces in her array and their relationship to her work problems:
“Putting the Ace of Pentacles first suggests to me that you are most comfortable with familiar practical tasks that have tangible results. This is what comes naturally to you. The Ace of Cups in the second position suggests that you also approach the world through your feelings. You are probably more sensitive than many people at work would suspect.” My client agreed with both of these statements, so I continued.
“You may notice that both of these Aces are holding their suit symbols of the Pentacle and the Cup in receptive open hands, while the last two Aces are holding their symbols of the Sword and the Wand in raised fists. The fact that they have weapons in their upright fists suggests that they are willing to fight for what they want instead of waiting for it to come to them. It also suggests that they can protect themselves. Having two weaponless receptive Aces in the first two positions with the two more assertive Aces in the last two positions may help explain why you see certain of your colleagues as fearless go-getters who are passing you by.
The Ace of Pentacles and the Ace of Cups represent slower moving energies than the Ace of Swords and the Ace of Wands. It is not necessarily true that your faster moving and more confident colleagues are more competent than you, but they probably would have a different array than you and, therefore, a different preferred way of approaching work. It is likely that they have the faster moving and more aggressive Ace of Wands or Ace of Swords earlier in their array.”
My client looked noticeably relieved as I explained this. She had not really been aware until now that she had assumed that speed and assertiveness automatically equaled competence. Ms. L began to feel better about herself and more confident as she realized that they were not necessarily the same thing. She began to give me examples of times when she had been surprised to find that she knew more than some of these faster moving confident colleagues.
I continued with my explanation. “The Ace of Swords which you have in third position, what I like to call the ‘I-haven’t-given-up-on-it, but-its-really-hard-for-me-and-challenging’ position, often relates to mental energies, the ability to think quickly and use words as a weapon, abstract reasoning, decisiveness, judgment, and clarity. Since I know that you are quick-witted and can be sarcastic, perhaps the Ace of Swords in the challenge position relates to a difficulty in sometimes seeing the big picture? Ms. L excitedly agreed with this and said that is what leads to her becoming indecisive about what to do next. It also might be part of the reason that she often feels like she has to rely on others to explain things to her. Finally, Ms. L’s work difficulties were beginning to make sense to her.
I went on: “The Ace of Wands which you have last in the least energized position relates to the fiery energy of inspiration, entrepreneurship, competition, and bravery. People who have the Ace of Wands earlier in their array are usually self-starters who can confidently put themselves and their ideas forward. There is nothing wrong with having it in last position (after all, something has to be last) as long as you are content to allow others to lead the way and give you direction. However, if you want to be the leader yourself, you will need to cultivate more of the Ace of Wands’ fiery energy.”
Ms. L said that, even if she did not want to be a leader, she still felt that she needed more Wands energy at work because she wanted to feel more confident and stop procrastinating. I picked up the Ace of Wands from her array and handed it to her. “Look at it carefully,” I said, “and invite its energy into your life.” “Are you willing to learn from it how to be active, energetic and fearless?” I became quiet and waited to see what Ms. L would do or say next. I was purposely being dramatic. I wanted to heighten the emotional intensity of the moment and force my client to make a choice. When Ms. L nodded her head and said that she was ready to do this, I suggested to her that in the coming days she would begin to notice opportunities to bring Wand energy into her life in a safe and comfortable way.
I also gave her homework to do. I asked her to buy a tarot deck and once a day sort through the suit of wands looking at the pictures. Her goal was to familiarize herself with the ways in which wand’s energy is expressed and to become comfortable with the types of situations depicted in the cards.
Consciously Changing One’s Array
As you can see from the above example, in addition to using “The Elemental Array” to get a quick picture of how a person is currently approaching life and his or her strengths and weaknesses, one can use the elemental energies for self-transformation. This is especially true in the second half of one’s life. When we are young, most of us go through life unconsciously using whatever natural talents we have (the Aces in position one and two.) We may even be arrogantly sure that we know the right way to be and those others who act differently than we do or who have different priorities are simply wrong, ignorant, or misguided. Inevitably though, we come to the limits of our preferred talents and need some other tool to be successful. It is only then, after repeated failures and the experience of being unpleasantly limited, that most people are willing to consciously try and develop additional ways of being. At this time, one of the Aces that previously has been relegated to third or last place can be focused on and the energies associated with it can be consciously developed and brought it one’s life.
In the beginning, it can be very awkward and slow to try and work with the new approach to the world represented by the chosen Ace. It presents similar problems to learning a new skill or acquiring a new habit, like learning to juggle or brush your teeth twice a day. It requires persistence and patience. Eventually it does become easier and more natural.
There are a number of ways to bring the energy of a particular suit into one’s life: (1) one can consciously choose to rearrange one’s array so that the new element is in the first or second position, (2) one can meditate on the Ace and invite its energy into one’s life, (3) one can take the ten cards associated with that suit and the four court cards and lay them out and look at them, trying to get a sense of what that energy involves, and (4) one can choose one of the court cards of that suit to be one’s mentor and ask it for advice and guidance.
For example, for the last few years I have been working on improving my relationship to pentacles in order to learn how to neaten and organize my space. I wanted to feel more grounded and in control of physical reality. My original “Elemental Array” was (1) Ace of Swords, (2) Ace of Wands, (3) Ace of Cups, and (4) Ace of Pentacles. There was a small space separating each ace from the next one. The first thing I did was make the decision to study the knowledge contained in the Ace of Pentacles. I welcomed pentacle energy into my life and I changed my array so that the Ace of Pentacles was first and I put the Ace of Swords last. I then chose the Queen of Pentacles to be my mentor. I began to look for people who I felt embodied her energy and practiced her skills and I asked them for advice. Then I decided to go right to the source.
I used the hypnotic skills that I have learned as a therapist and went into a light trance. I then visualized the Queen of Pentacles as she appears in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. I pictured myself as a small child (the way I feel when it comes to neatening and organizing physical reality) and I climbed onto her lap. I looked at the pentacle that she is holding and I asked her to help me by giving me some tips that I would be able to do and not find overwhelming. She held me on her lap and told me and told me to do two things. She said that I should align all edges and that would make everything around me look neater and that I should finish my unfinished projects that I have hanging around. A lot of my mess, she said, was due to these two things. I was amazed and delighted. Both of these things were things that I could imagine doing. I thanked her, climbed off her lap, and came out of trance. Since then I have been going around aligning edges.
Many people have experienced positive changes in their life after working with tarot cards. Depending on one’s frame of reference, these changes can be attributed to magic, Divine intervention, the powers of the psyche, or all three working together. Those of us who work to help others evolve call ourselves a name that reflects our theoretical base: magician, shaman, psychotherapist, healer, priestess, and so on. Our name reflects our view of ourselves more than it identifies how the change takes place. Different people in different places using different methods will produce very similar changes. This has led me to believe that similar mechanisms underlie all forms of personal growth, psychological healing and spiritual evolution and that they exist on the same continuum with no hard and fast barriers between them. As a result, I believe that many of the distinctions that are commonly made between psychotherapy and other methods of physical, emotional and spiritual evolution are unnecessary and even harmful. We would never insist that a carpenter use only one or two kinds of tools in his work, why limit a therapist, healer or priest then?
It is in this spirit that I suggest that now is the time to break down the barrier between psychotherapy and tarot. Many of the best tarot professionals are already using tarot as a tool for personal growth (and have been doing so since the beginnings of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the turn of the nineteenth century at least), while some psychotherapists, like myself, have quietly begun to experiment with using tarot in their sessions. One of my goals in writing this was to show how easily tarot and psychotherapy can be integrated and to encourage others to do so. I would like to see a rich dialogue begin between interested members of both communities so that tarot and psychotherapy experts could share their knowledge.
Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.,CGP, CPTR has been a practicing psychotherapist for thirty years. Dr. Greenberg is a teaching member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy; former faculty member of The Masterson Institute for the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Disorders; and psychology consultant to The Tarot School and is in the National Registry for Certified Group Psychotherapists. Dr. Greenberg has been studying tarot for the past ten years and holds two degrees in tarot from The Tarot School.
Article © 2005 Elinor Greenberg
Page © 2005 Diane Wilkes