What Remains

by Charles Olbert


A psychological meditation on the 8 of Cups

The tarot contains a symbolic map of human experience, and we consult the cards to glean an external perspective on important matters in our lives. Notice that we don’t often pull cards when things are going well. Most often we seek input from the unknown in times of fear, pain, and loss. In my observation, much of spiritual and self-help discourse focuses in one way or another on these dark themes, and people come to rely upon spiritual practices and self-help routines and mantras either to protect against or heal from those fears, pains, and losses.

Unfortunately, in my view, these discourses often become trapped in the image of ‘growth.’ Therapy, tarot readings, astrology charts, shamanistic retreats, or even just good old-fashioned meditation and mindfulness practices are marketed as tools for ‘personal growth.’ What is it we hope for? To grow a protective layer like bark on a tree, to once more make fertile those fields rendered barren through past hurt, or perhaps to grow so radiant and strong that nothing will disturb our peace of mind? The archetypal psychologist James Hillman provocatively challenges this metaphor of growth:

“The very word ‘grow’ is a word appropriate to children. After a certain age you do not grow. You don’t grow teeth, you don’t grown muscles. If you start growing after that age, it’s cancer.”

    The 8 of Cups offers a different perspective: development through loss rather than development through growth. It’s placement in the arc of the Cups cards illustrates that at a certain point our accumulations and gains have to stop. The 8 of Cups (called the Lord of Abandoned Success in the Golden Dawn system) represents a turning point between the fantastical but ultimately empty pleasures shown in the 7 of Cups (Lord of Illusionary Success) and the genuine satisfaction and fullness of the 9 of Cups (Lord of Material Happiness). The 7 of Cups can represent the mistake of believing that we can have it all or that we’ve got it made, whereas the 8 of Cups reflects the more mature (and perhaps more depressing, at first) realization that no, actually we can’t have it all.

    The astrological Decan associated with the 8 of Cups—Saturn in Pisces—also helps decode this card’s message. Saturn and Pisces correspond respectively to the Major Arcana cards The World and The Moon. The Moon shows us the darkness and terrors lurking within our own shadows. The omnipotent 7 of Cups fantasy that we can have it all relies upon not acknowledging these parts of ourselves—the parts we hate or want desperately to hide or deny. Sooner or later, however, our unconscious fears and the monsters lurking in the deep rise back up no matter how hard we try to keep them submerged. The World, on the other hand, represents what A.E. Waite calls “the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit”—the message being, as I take it, that seeing the world (and ourselves) for what it really is in its full divinity requires a consciousness that transcends our normal perspective.

    Putting this all together, the 8 of Cups shows a figure walking away from his or her previous undertakings. Rather than seeing this as dejection, we should look at it as telling us that to achieve happiness (on the horizon as shown by the 9 of Cups coming next) we need to view ourselves not as a child but as a sculpture: we need to cut away the excess and brush away the extraneous debris in order to discover our true form. It shouldn’t escape our notice that the cups are in sets of 3 and 5. The 3 of Cups is Abundance, and the 5 is Loss in Pleasure. When we’re always trying to grow, to stretch toward that mythical place where we can live forever in extravagance and plenty, we are bound to fall into disappointment: the boom/bust cycles of the soul economy implied by the metaphor of growth.

We can’t outgrow our own shadows (in fact, they tend to elongate and distend apace with every inch of our growth), and we can’t be everyone to everybody at all times. We think we need this relationship, or this house, or this degree, or this dream to make us happy, but sooner or later this obsessional collecting has to stop; eventually, something must give way as we realize how much these fantasies prevent us from truly knowing ourselves. Plants grow for a while, yes; but to ensure their flourishing sometimes they must be pruned. Perhaps meeting our soul needs requires not growth, but, paradoxically, the losses we so fear.

The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described how the infant caught in its omnipotence fantasies must reach the ‘depressive position’ in order to achieve maturity. The depressive position involves recognizing that those we love exist on some level in irrevocable separateness from us, that we don’t have omnipotent control over our lives, and that no, not every story has a happy ending. Maturity requires loss and the ability to properly mourn those losses. Lest we feel this dejection is too much to bear, recall that The World (one of the Major Arcana closely tied to the 8 of Cups) stands at the end of the Fool’s Journey. Giving up on fantasy opens you up to something greater: reality. Leonard Cohen knew this:

“Sometimes when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, expecting victory after victory and you understand deeply that this is not paradise. Somehow, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this veil of tears, that it’s perfectible, that you can get it all straight. I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. I tried to put this into that song called A Thousand Kisses Deep. When you understand that, you abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real masterpiece.”

Let go. Cut back. You may discover that enough remains.