A meditation on the 10 of Wands
I’ve drawn the 10 of Wands a lot this summer. The Golden Dawn system calls the 10 of Wands “The Lord of Oppression,” and between work pressure and personal life turmoil I had plenty of cause to contemplate what this card meant for me. Oppression can mean many things, as A.E. Waite notes in his divinatory meanings for the card: “The chief meaning is oppression simply, but it is also fortune, gain, any kind of success, and then it is the oppression of these things.” This, to me, held a key: that it’s not necessarily what we’re carrying, but how we carry it.
Choice lays two major traps. On the one hand we can become paralyzed by choice like Esther in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar: unsure which fig to eat first, we stew in indecision while the figs blacken and rot on the tree, uneaten. On the other hand, we can say yes to every opportunity and become overwhelmed by our choices, buried under an embarrassment of riches.
When we put too much on our plate even the smallest obstacle can appear insurmountable. We don’t wash the dishes because there are too many piled in the sink; we avoid processing a lover’s hurtful comments because we’re sad enough already; we don’t put pen to paper on that unfinished poem or novel because we lost momentum and don’t know the next line. Frequently, once you grit your teeth and take the first step things don’t seem so bad after all. Once the work is over we sheepishly realize the monsters we feared weren’t so monstrous after all.
The Irish poet-priest John O’Donohue writes, “Sometimes a person has difficulty with work, not because the work is unsuited to him [sic], or he to it, but because his image of the work is blurred and defective. Frequently, such a person lacks a focus and has allowed the tender presence of his experience to become divided and split. His sense of work as expression and imagination has been replaced by an image of work as endurance and entrapment” (from Anam Cara, p. 154).
Sometimes, it’s true, we really have taken on too much. Often, however, the psychological gravity of what we’ve said yes to presses more heavily upon us than the actual weight of our obligations. This pressure can in turn lead us to foreclose on the possibilities for lightness and joy that our obligations might bring. The 10 of Wands puts the question to us: is our work oppressive, or merely the image of our work? Are we genuinely oppressed by our burdens, or have the looming abundances of our own fortune and choice crowded out more lithe and gentle perspectives on our experience? When the pack upon your back weighs too heavily upon you, perhaps it will take only a small shift of the shoulders for the load to feel lighter.
Charles Olbert is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Fordham University. He cultivates longstanding personal and academic interests in Western esoteric, hermetic, and mystic traditions and maintains a daily Zen meditation practice.