Chasing the Black Swan

Father of Cups. The Wild Unknown Tarot


These last few days, I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s wonderful book Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, in which the author argues how impredictable events, as measured by common scientific methods can make a deeper mark in the course of human society and how our own reality-tunnels can make us blind to the occurrence of these type of events, exactly because we cannot predict them.

For those of you who don’t know, the expression “Black Swan” designates an impossibility that is latter proven to be wrong. The story goes that up until the 16th century, a black swan was considered an impossibility since, until then, there was no historical record of such an animal. This all changed, however, when such beings were encountered in Australia at the end of the 17th century. According to Taleb, a Black Swan is an event

  • Highly improbable
  • Highly consequential
  • That can be rationalized in retrospective;

For practical examples, think about the impact of such things as Facebook, the French Revolution; the iPhone; the 9/11 and others. We can find such events in the course of history; in finances; in science and art; and in our own private lives. Random events that take on a bigger scale than what we initially thought they could take. The random beating of a butterfly’s wings powerful enough to cause a tornado on the other side of the world. Chaos and Order. A closer examination might reveal that these events are more common than what we first deem possible. That they can occur at any instance. A decision, which we trivially make but that has the power to profoundly change our lives. A decision like a certain kind of job. Or turning left when we should have turned right. Or selecting a companion. Following an interest. Any type of decision has, in theory, the potential to become a Black Swan.

As tarotists, we keep hearing about narratives. About stories. A succession of events perfectly lined up in a reading. We do a spread and we’re looking for causes and effects and build these “perfect” little stories about our lives and the lives of others. We acknowledge change in our readings. However, we focus mainly on trackable changes. So, how about those random events that just pop out of nowhere? How do we incorporate them into our readings and how can we accurately measure its significance? Are we really alert to the possibility of the occurrence of a Black Swan in our readings and can we really accurately measure its significance in our lives?

Those were the questions that kept popping up when I was going through the book. Looking back, I can only remember a single reading when I was confronted with a Black Swan event. It was a reading I made a few months after I started reading Tarot, for a friend of mine at the end of 2002. I was trying to see how the following year would be like for him and this card popped up, the Empress. Without any bases whatsoever, I read that card as “family” and told him he was going to get married. At the time, my understanding of the cards was rather limited and I took it at face value. Which is to say that I didn’t even consider how events had been unfolding until that time. Had I done that, I would think probably think it would be difficult for someone who didn’t had a significant relationship for about 10 years to not only he would start a new relationship, but that it would evolve into something that would last. Of course he didn’t believe me. Nothing in his recent history would support it. But the fact was he did find a companion and they remained together ever since.

Looking back, I get the feeling that as my expertise of the cards increased, so did my dependence on the structure of a narrative. And as such, my ability to spot these Black Swan events diminished. Now, one can argue that a tarot reading contains a part that comes from inspiration, that isn’t subject to these types of constrains. And they would be right. As tarotists we have developed techniques to allow our unconscious to speak up. And to weight out any rational analysis with insight and imagination. However, it seems that even so, the reading process tends to become so formalized, so rigid in our own ways, that we often loose sight of the randomness of life when searching for patterns.

With this in mind, I went to the tarot. My question, “How can we be alert to a Black Swan event in a reading and how can we evaluate it correctly”. I then picked up the RW deck and laid out three cards.


I found it amusing that the first card was the Magician. It seems to say, with all the letters, to recognize its existence and its power in driving forth our lives. The Magician is the experimentalist. The creator. The one who is open to new things, new possibilities and isn’t afraid to try out new things. The next card, The Sun, with a naked child with open arms, seems to say that we should simply embrace it and have a positive (even care-free) attitude with the Black Swans. To not make a big deal out of it and treat it as any other event that presents itself. And then, we have the King of Wands. The Wand we found raised in the Magician’s Hand is now bigger and touches the ground. We can even see little sprouts coming out of it. As we’re dealing with wands, we’re dealing with the force of creation. The very force of life. In the King of Wands, we’re actually seeing the consequences of the Black Swan taking place. The event had importance and its consequences are lasting. But it’s a King that helds the wand. A man of power. Someone who knows how to deal with it and is open to new areas of experience. In a way, these cards are confirming the importance of the Black Swan events in our lives.

However, remembering the question, “how can we be alert of a Black Swan in our readings and how can we evaluate it correctly”, we go back to the wands in the first and third card. We should now see the wands not only as Life’s force but also as a projection of our wills. It is significant that the remaining weapons (cups, swords and disks are resting on a table in the first card). Only our willingness to see these types of events can be of use here. The change of the human figure, from a young man to child to adult is also very significant. We need to see the Black Swans not with the formalization of the adult, but with the eyes of a child, for whom every single event is possible. We should embrace every single possibility and go with the flow, rules or no rules. It is significant that The Sun is the only card that has movement. The previously standing magician is now riding a horse with its hands in the air!!! All Rules be damned!!! You want to spot a Black Swan, just go with the flow and don’t bother that it doesn’t make sense!!! Remember, the logic will come latter. And latter it comes, as the child grows up to be an adult and the horse is transformed into a throne. The event took roots and we can now fully analyze it. We can apply our rules, our structure, our own way of thinking. No longer do we need the freedom of thought. We’ve already changed the reading, so now it’s a matter of seeing where it goes. The child grows up to be an adult again and looks back at what happened, with its rules and structure (notice how the King of Wands is looking at the previous cards). The reading should go both ways then, from beginning to end and then from end to beginning, and it’s the reverse reading that should make sense. It’s the reverse reading, as done by the King, not the Magician, that should tell the story.

It has recently been pointed out by Paulinnhhoo. that when writing these posts it seems that the Universe does put into our path the specific image to conclude a certain post. Well, this also happened here. I wanted a tarot card with a representation of a Black Swan, and I found it as the Father of Cups in the wonderful The Wild Unknown Tarot deck, which opened this post. I did, however, also found another card with Black Swans, and what’s even better, with Black and White Swans in the same card. It’s the Page of Swords from the Shadowscapes Tarot, by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, and what I find wonderful in this card is the transformation from Black Swan to White Swan and vice-versa. A transformation catalyzed by the Page of Swords, thereby stressing out how our way of reading the cards can indeed make a difference in the way we perceive these events.


Flowing into tarot

Image from the Osho Tarot
Image from the Osho Tarot

When I was learning how to read the cards, I had a very hard time. No matter how much I struggled, everything felt very complicated, and I would get stuck on the meanings of the cards. I wanted to read so badly, that nothing flowed and I would grasp for something that would open the card for me. In the end, of course, I couldn’t read a thing. I ended up hating up card reading and all I wanted was to be done with it. To be done with having to face my inability to tell what I saw in the cards and provide an answer.

This went on until the day someone read the cards to me. All it said, was that I should just be myself and believe in myself and let everything flow. But it felt pretty much like a beating.

And here’s the interesting thing: when you’re honest with yourself and just do what you set out to do, the cards will just open like a book and everything seems so clear…Even if you don’t have that much knowledge of the cards. The cards will speak your own language and no matter your level of expertise, you will see what you need to see. But try to fool them, try to fool yourself into something you’re not and you will be blocked out. There is no access point.

Now this might seem like hocus pocus, or some new age thingie, but it’s just plain logic. To be honest with ourselves means to know exactly where we stand, where the facts are and what they are. There is no mistaking anything. There is no running around trying to figure out what is good and what is invented and how that is woven into your reading. Just simple plain facts laid out in front of you.

This came to full light when I made my first reading. As part of my tarot course, I had to read the cards to a complete stranger. Now this would function as a true reading with only one difference: my instructors would be there, in case anything was needed. My client wanted to know about her love life and how it would progress. And this is where it got strange. According to the cards, I had this soap opera story, about her and her two  relationships. She was seeing two guys at the same time, even though she was only interested in one of them. And, according to the cards, she was willing to get pregnant to get him to marry her… Now, you look at this, specially with your lack of experience and you go “This simply can not be!!! I must be seeing something wrong!!!” But there it was on the cards. And then my instructors started manifesting themselves and this might just be true and maybe it really was true and I just had to go on and say what I saw. And, well, it turned out to be true, as she ended up admitting as much.

This turned out to be a really enlightening reading for me. For the first time, I just believed in myself and let it flow. And there it was… the opening I searched for with the cards. And all it took was some cool thinking, some honesty, and, above all, a capacity to relax. To take the situation for what it was and to let it flow.

Today, I still get asked what can one do when a block occurs. Maybe it’s in tarot reading. Maybe it’s with something about our lives. And I still reach out to that first reading and give out some pointers. The same pointers I’m putting here. You’ve probably heard some of them, if not all, before. And here they are again. And the reason to it is that they actually work. From my experience, they are the most effective way to deal with a block. And with tarot readings. For what is a tarot reading if not a representation of our lives, laid out before us so that we can consciously acknowledge what’s going on with our lives.

  1. Be honest about yourself and your work. It’s not a matter of being able to do much or to do little. But rather of knowing where we stand and what can we do about it. By having this established, we can then proceed to work on expanding our limits. Of pushing forth and learn some more. But in the end, this is about us. This is not about our neighbors or the person next door who doesn’t have to work so hard and is at a higher level than us.
  2. Take the pressure off. So, you have a reading. You have someone who is expecting an answer. The sooner your querent will relax, the sooner you can relax and get down to business. This means getting him/her comfortable, putting him/her at ease. Offering some tea or something to eat are just some of the ways in which to do this. A preliminary talk explaining what will happen and inviting him/her to participate can also do wonders. Maybe even tell a little joke to lighten up the mood.
  3. In a reading you have as many entry points as you have cards in the spread. People often start their readings at the present. Or maybe at the first card drawn. But in reality, you can start your reading at any position. In a 3-card reading, you have three entry points. In the Celtic Cross (a 10-card reading), you have 10 entry points. And so on. So, instead of trying to figure out the first card, try to find the card that most calls to you and figure it out first. And then proceed to the other cards. Chances are, if you look at your reading from a different perspective, a different point of view, the block you thought was there, isn’t there after all.
  4. Simplify. Card reading is supposed to be fun. It is also supposed to be direct and frontal. So, if you’re grasping for meanings, chances are you will get esoteric. You will grasp at anything that might cast a glimpse of light on your cards. But, in front of you is a drawing and on the other side of the table is someone who simply does not care about esoteric or complicated thoughts. They want the story chewed, digested and ready to be absorbed. So, simplify. Go back to basics. Try to figure out what does that card mean. Why is it there? Why this card and not another one? Chances are, the answers is the drawing. Which leads us to…
  5. First thing seen, is all that matters. If you need to, just close your eyes, open it and the first thing you see is the one thing that matters. Forget everything else and concentrate on that detail you’ve seen immediately after you’ve opened your eyes. That’s where your answers lie.