Tarot and the 3 Phases of Existence

I’m continually amazed at just how much the Tarot can reveal about the various aspects of our being and our soul. It’s fascinating to see how it can expose the superficial veneer that we sometimes try to pass off as our true selves or uncover those buried, almost forgotten parts of our deepest thoughts and emotions.

It’s also incredible how the Tarot shows the characteristics, experiences, and paths that we all share as human beings. The Major Arcana has for some time now been associated with the archetypes that all humans share through the collective unconsciousness. I also believe, though, that the four suits of the Tarot portray the day-to-day life experiences that everyone encounters at some time or another during their lives.

I’ve discovered yet another aspect about ourselves that the Tarot reflects – the three basic phases of our existence.

It Started With A Riddle…

I recently encountered a well-known riddle in an article I was reading, and it immediately made me think of the Tarot. It occurred to me that the Tarot rather clearly illustrates the riddle itself, and embodies the riddle’s answer overall.

Here’s the riddle:

I walk on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the evening, and on three legs at night. What am I?

The answer: A human.

  • Walking on four legs represents man in his infancy – he uses his arms and legs to crawl around and get from one place to another.
  • Walking on two legs represents man in his middle years – he walks straight and with confidence, taking on life’s challenges and achieving his goals.
  • Walking on three legs represents man in his old age – he now uses a cane to walk because his body is tired and spent from years of doing weary, physically demanding work.

I quickly realized that the Tarot reflects the riddle’s answer through combinations of cards from both the major and minor arcana. The challenge before me now was to figure out just which cards I would use to depict the answer.

The Three Phases of Human Existence

The riddle infers three basic phases of existence: Infancy, Adulthood, and Old Age. As I thought about how the Tarot reflects these phases, I realized that it would be a good idea to change “Infancy” to “Childhood” as there are only two or three cards with infants in them. I also remembered just how well the Tarot tells the truth – it shows both potential sides of human existence, that is, the light and the dark.

NOTE: Although I show particular cards for each phase, I don’t necessarily refer to any of them specifically. I basically just tell the story I think they convey. That story will always appear below the image of the cards.

Phase 1 – Childhood

The Tarot does portray childhood, although in a very general way. I found it slightly odd at first, but then I realized that childhood represents our initial formative years – we are just beginning to evolve and learn about life. As such, these are the cards I thought best reflected this phase.

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* All card images in this article are from the original Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, Copyright © U.S. Games Systems.

We come to our journey in this plane of existence with all the naivety and innocence of the Fool. How can we do otherwise? We begin enveloped within the safe, loving and warm environment of our mothers’ wombs, and it is they who will finally introduce us into this world. We initially enter the world blissfully and we’re happy to be in our new homes. Here’s where we first encounter the ways and realities of the Universe, however, as some are born into harsh environments with adverse situations and difficult relationships while others are born into pleasant environments with nurturing situations and loving relationships. In either case, we begin to recognize in our teens that there are cycles in life, that there are many more lessons to learn as we grow older, and that life is just really beginning at this point. (The figures in the four corners of the Wheel of Fortune card are all studying books, which underscores the whole notion of continual learning.)

Phase 2 – Adulthood

This seems to be the phase in which the Tarot really does a good job of revealing what we go through during this time in our lives, which, in my opinion, transpires between our mid-twenties to early-fifties. It clearly illustrates the energetic, materialistic, intellectual and emotional aspects of our lives, and reminds us that life is a continuing set of exercises on balance and moderation. What is really clear is that this happens to all of us regardless of our age, gender, societal position, philosophy or belief system. Here are 20 cards that I believe depict the four aspects of this phase of our lives.

The Energetic Side of Life

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Entering our adulthood can be a scary or exciting time of our lives, depending upon how our experiences have gone thus far. The central issue seems to be growth, and we immediately begin to ask questions such as “What do I do now?”, “Where do I go from here?” We also seem to be concerned with where and how we will now focus our energies. The Universe is good about providing us with opportunities for growth and learning, if we will only see them. As we enter adulthood, we literally have the world in our hands and it is up to us to decide how we will move forward; we eventually learn to be mindful for opportunities that may appear at any time so that we may continually evolve and gain more experience. We eventually learn that to live life is to take risks, albeit in a hopefully considered manner. There will be times when the risks we take will be challenging, stressful and will fail, but there are also times when the risks we take will be trouble-free and successful. And, as we get older, we’ll learn how to follow our passions with greater enthusiasm and focus our energies more effectively.

The Materialistic Side of Life

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We all enter adulthood wondering how we’re going to make our way in life. How are we going to grow and sustain ourselves both physically and fiscally? How, where and when will we start a family? How will we ensure our future security in old age? The Tarot reveals that the Universe will present us with opportunities to make our way through the material realm of our lives, and our level of success is in direct proportion to our ability to see those opportunities and act on them. Of course, we’ll soon learn that we’ll constantly have to weigh the pros and cons of each situation carefully so that we can maintain a balance between our health and our wealth. Sometimes we will choose unwisely and find ourselves in difficult situations where we may even need to seek the help of others, and other times we’ll make decisions that lead us to more prosperous situations where we can even lend a hand to those in need. As we mature, we eventually learn to work methodically, channel our experiences to our advantage, and move forward patiently.

The Intellectual Side of Life

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How naïve we are as we emerge from our teens. We think we know it all, but then discover that the unabashed truth is that we do not. We enter adulthood with the realization that there is so much more to learn, that what we thought was important truly is not, and that we need to learn how to communicate more clearly and effectively. In short, we need a fresh perspective on life. The Tarot shows us that the Universe will provide us with that new perspective, and will help us adjust it as we work our way through adulthood. We’ll learn that we must maintain a calm mind to make sound decisions. There will be times when we need to make decisions based on pure facts, regardless of what we see around us, and other times when we must broaden our view and see things in context. There will be times when situations put our minds under great stress, even to the point of affecting our emotional state, but there will be other times when our minds our clear and focused and we can conquer whatever fears and doubts we may have. Our experiences and maturity eventually bring us to a point where we can assess situations and think more quickly, thus building our self-confidence and giving us a more clear perspective of our self-image.

The Emotional Side of Life

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Moving from our childhood to adulthood from an emotional aspect is probably one of the hardest things we have to do. Most of us emerge from an environment where we feel we’re the center of our universe and have the notion that “it’s all about me” to one where we begin to realize that each of us is just a single, tiny planet in a large sector of the universe and that it’s actually about more than just me. It’s also during this transition that we realize just how much our egos can become a nuisance. The Tarot, however, shows us that the Universe will provide us with opportunities to develop and refine our emotions as we mature. We’ll definitely learn about relationships and, hopefully, find someone with whom we can share our lives. We will know sadness and sometimes great sorrow, but we will also know happiness and sometimes great joy. We will learn much about emotions as we go through adulthood, and those lessons will enable us to weather the emotional storms we encounter with a greater sense of calm and patience.

Phase 3 – Old Age

We have experienced much by the time we reach this age of our lives. We’ve gotten a handle on our passions and learned how to focus our energies on those things that are important to us, been through the challenges and successes of everyday life, learned how to reason and think more clearly, and managed to control our egos and find joy in the smallest of things.

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Although we’ve been through many cycles during our lives up until now, the Tarot shows us that, even at this stage, we still have yet more to learn. We’ve reached the stage where our lives are abundant with the experiences that come with engaging life as fully as we can, and we’ve become comfortably grounded and centered by those experiences. We’ve also gained the confidence that comes through learning from our failures and being humble about our successes. We are willful, yet compassionate; disciplined, yet flexible; and we have (hopefully) managed to bring some amount of balance to the female and male aspects of our character. Now we are at a crossroads in our lives. On the one hand we are reflective, looking back on our lives, reviewing what we’ve done and contemplating the lessons we’ve learned. On the other hand, we’re now more concerned with our place in the Universe and the universal scheme of things. Who are we now? Where do our passions lie and what is our true place in the world? What do we think and what, finally, is our philosophy of life? How do we feel and how do we really define our spirituality?

Finding Balance in Our Lives

The Universe seems to be based on the idea of opposites and balance. (Although I could devote an entire article on this statement alone, let’s consent to this premise for the sake of this conversation.) We see many opposites in the universe – up, down; white, black; good, bad; in, out; night, day; past, future; right, wrong; light, dark; the list could go on and on. Balance seems to be a state to which we should aspire in order to live a good life. Too much food or too little food will make you ill; too much light or too little light will make it difficult for you to see things around you; too much exercise or too little exercise can have an adverse effect on your body; this list can go on and on, too. The Tarot clearly depicts how the notions of opposites and balance affect our lives, both on a mundane, day-to-day level and on a higher, more spiritual level.

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We spend most of our lives expending our energies to work hard in order to build a comfortable, relaxing life for ourselves. Having too much to do can severely deplete our energy and spending too much time doing nothing can make us quite lethargic. The Tarot reminds us to strike a balance between our work and personal time so that we may lead a more fulfilling and reasonably active life.

Life provides us with a constant set of exercises involving managing our minds and our hearts. We can often get overly stressed in certain situations (which in many instances is self-imposed) and we can allow ourselves to be overly optimistic in others (the result of attempting to deny or suppress doubt and fear). Again, the Tarot reminds us to strike a balance, in this case between our minds and our hearts. When our minds are calm we can feel tranquil and at peace, and when our hearts are relaxed we are more confident and at ease.

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By the time we reach old age, we’ve lived long enough to see both sides of the human condition – the dark side manifested as evil and the bright side manifested as love. We’ve also experienced the darkness and brightness in ourselves as we’ve worked through the various cycles of our lives. The Tarot reminds us that these two sides do, indeed, exist in everyone and that one of our greatest lessons on this plane of existence is to learn how to bring them into balance.

We’ve also experienced times of sacrifice (sometimes great, sometimes small) when it seemed that the Universe itself was against us and there was no end to our dilemma in sight. But the Tarot shows us clearly that sacrifices can lead to enlightenment and further self-awareness, and that, above all, there is always hope. The important lesson here is that we must constantly work on replenishing our hope by keeping ourselves in balance and placing our trust and faith in the Universe and the Creator.

Coming to an End to Start Yet Again

As I said earlier, the Tarot is very good about telling the truth. It’s also very good at telling complete stories, and the story we’ve seen thus far is no different.

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This is the simplest message of all and provides a fitting end to our story. The Tarot clearly shows us that Old Age must come to an end at some point in time, and we must make the great transition to the next plane of existence. We will be called at the appropriate time (such is the way of the Universe) and we will exit from our life as we’ve known it. We’ve learned all that we needed to learn, experienced all that we needed to experience, and have become whole unto ourselves. Finally, and most importantly, we’re ready to begin a new journey.

Parting Thoughts

It’s funny how a simple riddle evoked such an introspective reaction in me, motivating me to discover how the Tarot reveals and depicts these phases of human existence. I’m constantly amazed at the depths of wisdom and knowledge I can glean from the Tarot, which some see as merely a stack of 78 cardboard cards with artwork on them. They are far more than that to me. They are a tool for divination, a device for self-discovery, and an instrument for gaining spiritual wisdom and guidance.

I hope this helped you to see the Tarot from a new or fresh perspective, enabled you to discover more about your own life and life’s path, and inspired you to work with the Tarot on a more personal level.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Tarosophist International Magazine.

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4 Responses to Tarot and the 3 Phases of Existence

  1. Think that the Tarot has its origins in ancient Atlantis?

  2. Wendy says:

    Nice blog and great post. Thanks for the insight. 🙂

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