The Tarot definitely has a sense of humour, albeit sometimes a dark one. Take the Ten of Swords, for instance – the card I recently drew when I was feeling overwhelmed.

When I began studying and working with the Tarot, I quickly learned that its potency does not lie so much in divination as revelation. More than anything, the images on the cards are a powerful tool for self-understanding. Whilst there are specific meanings associated with each card, when used therapeutically it is our response to the image that is key. The depictions on the cards act in much the same way as reflective inquiry – the coaching skill that involves summarising what the client has said in order to hold up a mirror to their thought patterns. Our reaction to what we see on the card is revelatory because it is like gazing into a pool, on the surface of which we see our behaviours, emotions and circumstances reflected back at us.

When I shuffled my Tarot pack for an insight, out popped the Ten of Swords – and I couldn’t help but laugh. The comedic melodrama, the sheer visual hyperbole of the image is instantly apparent: a person lies dead on the ground, pierced through with an excessive number of swords.

At the cerebral level, I’d known for weeks that I was overly tired, without permitting the knowing to settle in my bones. I verbalised the weariness as ‘constant low-level overwhelm,’ but a glance at my dripping kitchen tap, crusted with limpets of limescale, provides a neat analogy: the water constantly dribbles down it, imperceptibly calcifying. It is weeks, months, before we can see (or feel) the cumulative deposit.

Succinctly, I have been in that state familiar to all of us: staggering through the to-do list with a sandbag on my shoulders. Aside from the ebb and flow of my work and home life, I have been in an eager but ultimately exhausting state of becoming, of reaching for goals. I am magpie-like in my learning, studying palm reading, photography, wellness coaching, colour therapy, Druidry and, imminently, a certificate in Tarot Therapy. To describe it in Tarot terms, I am awash with wands and swords energy – wands being the suit of fire, energy, and doing, and swords being the implement of the intellect, the mind, thinking.

Inspired and excited as I am by all this new knowledge, I am overly preoccupied with swishing my sword and waving my wand: casting plans left, right and off-centre. Meanwhile, I am overlooking the importance of ‘being while becoming’ – of grounding the learning in the material, the practical, the manifesting (the suit of pentacles) and honouring how I am feeling (the energy of the heart and water, as expressed by the suit of cups). Working with the Tarot helped make me aware of this imbalance; wands and swords cards keep on cropping up for me in readings, reflecting my relentlessly energised and intellectualised state.

In a reading, turning over the Ten of Swords may well suggest that everything’s gone, well, a bit wrong. Yet there is also an implication of the darkness before the dawn: in the distance, the sky is clearing and, in contrast to certain other cards in the tarot, the waters are calm. Despite the card’s apparent violence, it speaks more to our reaction to a problem, than the problem itself. After all, it doesn’t take ten swords to kill someone, does it? Those swords are a graphic illustration of a surfeit of thinking. That certainly rings true for me. I needed to acknowledge my exhaustion and overwhelm, without allowing my mind to unnecessarily embellish the situation by piling in with its what-ifs and yes-buts. Notice, too, how one sword pierces the person’s ear? For me, that signals the final blow – the refusal to listen to your own inner wisdom or to sound advice.

At other times, the Ten of Swords is not a nudge reminding us to stop overthinking or, possibly, overreacting; rather, it is an unceremonious shove towards a stark truth. At such times, the card is emphatically stating ‘the thing is over, finished.’ Like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, it is an ex-thing. There can surely be no more definitive illustration of this than a bleeding person pierced by ten swords. Not much chance of resuscitation there, then. Let it go, and look to the sunrise…

Our response to each tarot card illuminates what’s really going on for us. The images elegantly sidestep the rationalising, analytical mind, speaking straight to the creative part of the brain that is more receptive to fresh insight. If I look at the Ten of Swords and feel a flicker of a laugh, I know not to take myself too seriously right now, no matter how overwhelmed I may feel. If, however, its appearance makes me flinch, pulls me up sharply like a puppet master, or simply leaves me sad, then I know its message is categorical. Right now, I am still attuned to the lighter energy of the card, remembering to keep myself grounded and go gently with myself and those around me. If not tempered by earth and water, all that wand and sword energy becomes fire eating air, and air feeding fire – which calls to mind a snake swallowing its own tail.

I’m curious: what does the Ten of Swords say to you?