In an August 2012 edition of the Why Shamanism Now podcast, titled “Real Life is Messy,” Christina Pratt said “we have bound the heart in fear; we are afraid to feel.” While I am leery of such broad statements applied so universally, the statement did resonate. In particular, it tangled itself up with my ideas about the 3 of Swords.
The classic image for this card is a stylized heart that takes up most of the image space and is pierced by three swords. Swords is the suit of the mind, the intellect, reason, points of views, and truth, and sometimes Truth (older traditions associate the suit with problems and challenges), so it is odd that a heart, a symbol for emotions, plays such a prominent role in this card.
The 3 of Swords is usually interpreted as heart break or ache, which I think is part of the meaning but not all. In an attempt to interpret the card in terms of its suit, we sometimes say that it means although the person may feel heart-broken, it is the fact that he or she is thinking about it too much and thereby making the emotional reaction more important than it is. It has been said that this intense focus on the emotion causes it to fill his or her perception and consciousness. This prescriptive approach leads to turning away from the emotion and the experience that caused it, to making it smaller, and perhaps even to repressing it. In some ways, this may be easier to deal with, if we truly are afraid to feel. By denigrating the experience as a mere trick of intellectual focus, we can use the intellect to make it disappear. Or so we think.
I appreciate the attempt to reconcile the image and the interpretation with the system of tarot. No one loves a system more than I do. But I think we can do better. Instead of interpreting the card as us making emotional pain needlessly bigger by misplaced focus, perhaps we should look at what is causing the pain or what the swords represent in a specific case. The swords piercing the heart aren’t making the heart bigger…they are damaging it; they are the cause of the pain...a realization, a revealing of a painful truth, for example.
Swords, in addition to the associations mentioned above, are also communication and words. We tell ourselves stories about our experiences, as a way to understand them. Let’s consider that the 3 of Swords could be the stories we’ve told ourselves that wound our heart. Perhaps we've told ourselves the story that feeling emotional pain is bad and to be avoided at all costs. When something is wounded, it cannot function at its best. If left untended, it could be permanently changed.
One question that the 3 of Swords raises is “how has the story I’ve told myself has bound my heart in fear and affected my ability to feel?” Seeking this answer can help us free and heal the heart. Examining a wound can be painful and perhaps is the reason for the popularity of the “your focus is making the pain bigger than necessary” interpretation. By turning our focus from the pain, we distract ourselves, convince ourselves that it is self-indulgent to examine our emotional pain. We may discover that we can heal better and faster if we explore how fear has bound our hearts and how that fear affects how we feel (or don’t feel). If we stay bound in fear, our heart becomes more and more damaged. If we can unbind our hearts from the fear of feeling, we may find that we can love more authentically and compassionately.
Cards from: Forthcoming Llewellyn's Classic Tarot (art by Eugene Smith) Tarot of the Hidden Realm (art by Julia Jeffrey) World Spirit Tarot (art by Lauren O'Leary, out of print) Tarot of the Sweet Twilight (art by Cristina Benintende) Anna.K Tarot (art by Anna K)