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Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien
Understanding how divination works
The time-honored ancient systems of divination were created by mystics to support self-knowledge and inspired decision-making. Nowadays they are coming out in a big way. According to an article about Tarot in The Trends Journal:
“The resurgence of the Tarot is not a fad, but part of a widespread new-millennium trend. Once available only in several traditional designs and found only in specialty mail-order catalogs and back-alley occult emporiums, Tarot has exploded into dozens of varieties and is now found prominently displayed at the checkout counters of the major bookstore chains.”
Astrology, Numerology, the I Ching, and Tarot are systems of divination that have been used by elite members of societies for thousands of years. But divination has never been as popular as it has become in our information age. As founder and CEO of one of the world’s most popular divination websites, Tarot.com, which had 10 million registered subscribers, I know this from personal experience.
Millions of satisfied customers are now using one of the various forms of divination—like real astrology (not just horoscopes), the Chinese I Ching or Tarot—to help make important personal and strategic decisions. And rather than using the older methods of cards or coins, they are often casting for insights and timeless advice using smart phones, computers and the Internet.
As tools for aligning oneself with one’s destiny, divination systems have an obvious appeal. The public’s growing interest creates a need to understand how they work, how they were designed, and how we can derive the most benefit from them.
As a businessman and intellectual, people have asked me “Do you really believe in this stuff?” Actually, to derive benefit from a divination experience, the only things you need believe in are your own common sense and your intuition (an art to be learned). Divination is an excellent way to stimulate your intuition in order to think outside the box about problems that logic can’t handle. If your beliefs prevent you from approaching divination with an open mind, it can’t work for you, because intuitive reception depends on being open. As for proof, either divination stimulates your intuition and creativity, or it doesn’t. Nobody is asking you to believe anything. Give it a sincere try. If it works for you, terrific, but you are not required to adopt any beliefs for it to do so. I have used these as tools my entire adult life for stimulating my intuition and helping me to be more creative in my decision-making, because they work for me. But no belief – only a bit of sincerity – is required for this benefit to be realized.
Beyond the fact that my experience has proven that they work for me, years of research and study fueled by a personal fascination have led me to a deeper understanding of underlying psychological principles that explain how divination systems work.
Finding the meaning in coincidence
The word coincidence describes an event in which two or more things come together in time. In common parlance, the term carries the connotation that although the event may seem and feel like it was arranged, in reality it was nothing more than an accident. People who use divination believe that nothing is purely accidental. We have learned from experience that coincidences are almost never meaningless. In fact, coincidences can serve as signs from above, if you know how to interpret them.
The human ability to notice and decipher the meaning of events in life is as old as society. Interpreting coincidental events and natural occurrences — the proverbial “signs and omens” of scriptures — is a well-documented historical fact, and it continues to this day in our remaining indigenous cultures. Our second type of divination is a divinely inspired invention that does not depend upon happenstance. A sacred ritual, it takes a more deliberate approach. A system of divination like Tarot or its more ancient cousin, the I Ching, involves the deliberate production of a coincidence, which can then be interpreted to further your understanding of what is going on.
Unlike the interpretation of signs and omens, the use of a divination system does not rely on psychic ability alone. Systems of divination have provided humanity with a more reliable way to decipher the will of the gods, because they include a body of knowledge to guide our interpretation. The inspired knowledge of astrological signs, I Ching hexagrams and Tarot archetypes was codified by ancient sages in order to satisfy our natural desire to make sense of human behavior and feeling patterns, and to help us develop better timing that is in sync with nature, and as a result make better decisions in the most important areas of our lives.
Through divination systems, we have been gifted with symbolic languages to interpret divine will. The symbols and archetypes that form the heart of all divination systems represent the dynamics of human life, including social and political interaction. Because it uses the language of archetypes, divination becomes more than a meditation technique. It can provide insights, timely advice and directions from the divine.
The question of how divination works has been taken up by a wide array of people, from philosophers to educators, psychologists to skeptics. Opinions have come from a broad spectrum of self-appointed experts — from new age gurus to religious fundamentalists. Some fundamentalists purport the “fallen angel” theory — that the devil possesses diviners in order to lead people away from God. Then there’s the order out of chaos theory promulgated by skeptics. We have such an urgent need to find order for ourselves in this chaotic world, that we are naively susceptible to inventing meaning in an oracle’s random patterns.
Despite the skepticism of the religious and scientific establishment, the perceived gap between the empirical and the mystical has been closing now for over a century. Major credit for bringing these two camps within hailing distance must go to the founder of depth psychology, Carl Jung, who has done more for the understanding of divination than any other scientist. As part of his psychology, Jung made it a point to study the world’s religions, mythologies, and divination systems, rather than simply shove them aside as irrational or irrelevant. His fascination with divination systems like the I Ching, Tarot and Astrology stemmed from his perception that each of them comprised a balanced and complete set of universal archetypes, and that they actually worked!
The way Jung saw archetypes was similar to Plato’s concept of Forms — the ideal forms that provide the templates for all of nature, including human beings. Jung took this concept, refined it, and applied it to his formulation of depth psychology. In essence, Jungian archetypes are the common landscape of attributes and psychological forces that human beings are shaped by.
Individuals manifest different qualities — or archetypes — in different proportions, but to some degree the energy or attitude of every archetype is contained within each of us. There is something reassuring in knowing that we all contain different combinations of the same stuff — the same instincts, desires, needs, impulses and fears. Viewed positively, this means we all share the same great potentials. Only the proportions of elements are distributed differently. We also have all the same problematic tendencies too — again in different proportions. Astrology, when properly understood, illustrates the universal nature of archetypes. Because of the tabloid “what’s your sign” treatment by popular media, most people don’t realize that according to real astrology, everyone has every one of the twelve signs somewhere in their chart — in different placements and proportions for different souls.
Archetypes represent qualities of consciousness or energy that inform human experiences, situations or roles. For instance, when we think of a Queen as an archetype, we are thinking not of an actual queen, but of feminine energy in a position of great influence. According to a Jungian understanding of archetypes, such queen energy is one element within every individual’s psyche, as is every other archetype. One of the Queen cards in Tarot, for instance, could be referring to a personal realm or social context — like a nurturing mother. Incidentally, it cannot be overemphasized that archetypes are metaphorical, not literal. One does not expect to become Queen of a monarchy because that card is drawn. Likewise, physical death is not the meaning of the Death card, as those who fear death could imagine.
For a divination system to be a useful tool for reflection, its set of archetypes needs to be balanced between light and shadow. Numerology, Astrology, Tarot, I Ching and Runes predate the age of marketing and they pass the test, instinctively reflecting a balanced range of human experience, including the darker tendencies of human experience. A collection of warm-fuzzy archetypes might make people feel good — and therefore sell better — but it will not serve as an accurate reflector of human conditions, or a good tool for decision-making.
The Synchronicity Principle
Like no scientist before or since, Carl Jung explored the territory connecting objective behavior with a person’s inner experience, including the spiritual dimension. He not only articulated the role of archetypes in the subconscious, dreams, and divination, he defined a second factor to explain how divination systems work, which he termed synchronicity. The function of synchronicity relies on timing, or discerning the relationship that two events have in time — which could include inner events, like ‘aha’ moments of insight, in sync with events that are happening outside of ones self. Because it explains how things are related in time, Synchronicity is central to explaining how a divination ritual can work.
What is the relationship between subjective experience and external event — such as the way the cards are picked or the coins land — at any given moment? In Jung’s essay entitled “Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle,” he contrasted the western mindset — influenced by early Greek philosophy with its focus on cause and effect — with the eastern perspective, which views details only as part of a whole.
This … involves a certain curious principle that I have termed ‘synchronicity,’ a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.
To Jung the eastern approach provided a more holistic viewpoint, reaching beyond the linear approach and tunnel vision of rational intellect by itself. Jung pointed to a power of discernment that can make sense of “the irrational functions of consciousness… sensation and intuition.”
Everyone has experienced amazing coincidences that turn out to carry profound meaning in their lives. This is synchronicity in action, one of three different kinds of synchronicity. The first type occurs when an individual has a thought at the same time that some related external event occurs within his or her field of perception. To the extent that our intuition is sharp, we can immediately sense the meaning. The second type occurs when an internal mental process corresponds to an event that happens concurrently, but at a distance. Finally, synchronicity also can occur when an internal thought relates to an external event that hasn’t happened yet, but where no causal relationship seems possible. These last two kinds of synchronicity cannot be known immediately, they can only be verified later. In Jung’s eyes, the occurrence of such meaningful coincidences points to an interconnected union of the material and conscious worlds. Events in our lives, especially emotionally charged ones, can also stimulate archetypes within us, which can then attract similar events that provide meaningful synchronicities.
With regard to divination systems, when you formulate a query for an oracle system, you are deliberately entering a state of receptivity for a response to the inquiry. Then, by picking cards, throwing coins, etc. you are injecting a seemingly random element into the equation, but a personal one that is activated by your energy — your choice of cards, tossing of coins, or rolling of the dice. Since nothing is completely random, to the extent that your personal intention is involved, the coincidental pattern that turns up is related to everything else that is happening at that moment. The archetype(s) that turn up are interpreted specifically in terms of what is in play for you personally at that moment.
The quality of a divination experience, therefore, reflects one’s intent as much as it dispenses practical wisdom. As a form of applied synchronicity, divination offers a system to produce meaningful insight experiences. It’s a spiritual practice for expanding awareness and personal transformation. As Jung put it, the I Ching interprets an “inner unconscious knowledge that corresponds to the state of consciousness at the moment.” What a gift … what an opportunity!
Jung was fascinated by the way the I Ching provided a systematic methodology for a deeper understanding of any human situation — not by analyzing its components, but by viewing individual elements in context, as part of a seamless cosmic whole. As he put it, “There is no need of any criteria which imposes conditions and restricts the wholeness of the natural process… In the I Ching, the coins fall just as happens to suit them.”
This is key to understanding Jung’s psychological worldview. The world is an interconnected web of the subjective and objective, with synchronicity providing a link between the two. Jung overlapped with the new quantum physics of the 20th century in his explanations of synchronicity and consciousness. He showed how quantum physics, which empirically demonstrates behaviors that can only be described as “paradoxical synchronicities,” contributes to understanding how divination systems work.
Science relies on reason, and logic is a good thing to be sure, but when we depend on logic alone to divine the workings of the universe — or even to manage a relationship — we fall short. Intuition is something other than reason, so it is no surprise that the role of intuition is grudgingly accepted in scientific circles. While logical analysis has played an obvious role in unraveling nature’s secrets, intuition has helped us make breakthrough discoveries far beyond the domain of rational processes. Fortunately, many prominent scientists and business leaders have recently rediscovered the ancient technologies for intuitive decision-making known as divination systems.
The Myth of Cause and Effect
When a person consults the I Ching, he or she generally tosses sticks or coins and records the way they land as a six-line pattern called a hexagram. Naturally, we ask, how can any sort of truth be divined from such seeming happenstance? Such moments are hardly random, however — an event in the external world triggers our inner knowledge, and the two realities merge within our working intellect.
Trust in synchronicity might seem to fly in the face of science — based on the ability to objectively measure and predict cause and effect — yet the synchronicity principle was validated by the basic discoveries of quantum physics. In the proof of their Uncertainty Principle in 1927, which still stands, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger demonstrated that, in the realm of sub-atomic particles, the act of perception influences what is being perceived, and objective measurement is impossible.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as scientific objectivity, only statistical probabilities. As Jung put it in his foreword to Wilhelm’s I Ching, “every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception.” So it happens that the answer to a long-unsolved quandary can just pop into our heads. So it happens that events oozing with connective portent can appear to have no causal relationship. But meaning arises and it is no accident. Exploring this mutual interplay between matter and mind is key to future pursuits of knowledge and understanding.
In terms of managing the practical affairs, looking for meaning in synchronistic events actually works better than striving to make predictions according to linear thinking or statistical probabilities. Wise ancient observers, who lacked our computational and record-keeping technologies, put their observations to work through the I Ching, Astrology, Tarot, Runes and Numerology. Using the magic of applied synchronicity within a rich set of traditional archetypes, they strove to understand and cooperate with the way events are destined to unfold, the way things go together in time.
Even though we can investigate and explore the realms of the mysterious — and even use mystical tools in our personal quest for wisdom — it is likely that they will never be “proven” in the scientific sense of the word. It helps to understand the interconnectedness of all things, the Synchronicity Principle and the power of archetypes, but the best proof is how well divination helps you make better decisions, have better relationships and less stress.
Andrew Newberg is the author of Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Andrew is a member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry, adjunct assistant Professor in the department of Religious Studies,and director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind. He is also one of the founders of a new interdisciplinary field called neurotheology, and is currently teaching a course called “Science and the Sacred: An introduction to Neurotheology.”