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Harnessing the Power of Symbols

You may not even realize it, but your life is shaped by symbols that are passed to you or inherited from your culture, your race, your peer and social groups, and your family. Newspapers, magazines, TV, and movies have a similar impact. Discovering how these symbols affect your life is essential to understanding how the tarot works. These symbols or archetypes — ideas or ways of thinking inherited from all these sources and present in your subconscious — are the models that you pattern your life after.

Archetypes are embedded in your subconscious — the part of your mind that is free from conscious awareness. Here's an example: The picture symbol of an evergreen tree decorated with lights and other ornaments is an archetype for Christmas. Without consciously thinking about it, you are prompted to think of snow and Christmas presents when you see a picture like this. (And depending on your past experiences, you may feel anything from excitement and hope to depression and anxiety.) Archetypes send shorthand messages to your subconscious and conscious minds, which elicit varying responses.

Personal and impersonal (universal) archetypes

There are both personal and impersonal (universal) archetypes or concepts. Personal archetypes are based on your particular experiences whereas impersonal or universal archetypes are based on the experiences of humanity as a whole.

The concept of a horse demonstrates the difference between personal and impersonal archetypes. If you say the word horse to one person, it evokes particular associations — images, thoughts, and feelings. One person may associate a horse with fun and freedom, while another (who has been thrown from ahorse) associates it with fear and pain. These are personal archetypes. The impersonal, universal archetype — a symbol's mythical and/or culturally based meaning — exists in the collective unconscious. The universal archetypes associated with horse include honor, a rise in status, and spiritual or magical, mystical journeys to other worlds. When interpreting tarot cards, both personal and impersonal archetypes should be considered for a balanced perspective. One of the goals of tarot interpretation is bringing these perspectives together.

Although archetypes of both types are powerful, they're not set in stone. Before the invention of the car, the universal archetype of a horse signified honor and status. Luxury cars now signify some of the same things horses once did. Personal archetypes obviously can change as you gain more experiences. If you're fearful of horses, being nuzzled by a foal while feeding her carrots can turn that fearful association around.

Life is a set of pictures. When we change our worn-out associations with these pictures, we change ourselves and, inadvertently, the world around us!

Personal and universal archetypes project ideas that can help you learn about how you should behave and what's important in life. For example, say that a young man keeps seeing the archetype of marriage on the screen of his life because one friend after another gets married. Soon he starts thinking things like, "All my friends are getting married. I'd better start dating more people so I can get married too." Or, conversely, "All my friends are getting married, but my parents got divorced. I'm not going to get married because I know it just leads to pain down the road."

Archetypal patterns take root through duplication. If a symbol keeps bombarding you, it has a good chance of influencing your life. For instance, tattoos have come into fashion. You notice a coffee table book at a large bookstore featuring tattoo art from all over the world. The latest edition of your favorite music and fashion magazine features tattooed performers and models. Without realizing it, you find yourself admiring tattooed bodies at your health club. Your best friend gets a tattoo, and another is talking about designing her own. Because the image keeps coming at you — or duplicating itself — you may soon begin daydreaming about the kind of tattoo you'd like and where you'd put it.

Collective unconscious

Your subconscious mind is always receptive and suggestible. These traits make the subconscious mind very similar to what we call the collective unconscious, or the "mass mind." The collective unconscious is a collection of memories of all human experiences from the beginning of time. You and everyone else on the planet can tap into the collective unconscious, which is also receptive and suggestible. The subconscious is like a stream, and the collective unconscious is like a river: One flows into the other, and sometimes you don't know which is which. The subconscious and the collective unconscious wield influence over your life that you may not yet be aware of.

Here's an example of how the collective unconscious might affect you. Movies, TV, newspapers, and books often suggest that dark haired, swarthy men wearing sunglasses and shiny suits are mobsters. Unless consciously challenged, this collection of thoughts becomes part of your personal subconscious. When your college roommate's father shows up for graduation looking like this archetype, you automatically starting thinking "mobster," whether it's true or not.

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