Three of Swords- Heartache and Pain as Teacher

Four versions of the three of swords from four decks. Left to right: RIder-Waite, Herbal Tarot, Wanderer’s Tarot, and Wild Unknown. Rider-Waite is a red heart with three swords in it on a background gray rainy scene. Herbal tarot is also a red heart with three swords with a bright sun shining behind it and a pleurisy plant with red blossoms. The Wanderer’s tarot shows a tangled thorny bush hovering over a bucket on which a knife floats pointing upwards on water. Two knives stuck in the ground flank the bucket. The Wild Unknown pictures three swords tangled in red string, each blade appears to be dripping blood.

Today I wanna talk about something that I hate, that I think we all kind of hate a little bit (or a lotta bit)- I wanna talk about heartbreak.

The Three of Swords has been coming up a lot for me in personal readings lately. Every time I see it, I get frustrated, because I know it is something big that I don’t want to think about, I don’t want to know, I don’t want to feel or deal with.

But it keeps coming up.

So I decided to remove it from each of my decks that I read with and place them on my altar. Maybe it seems like a cop-out to remove them from my decks so they can’t haunt me any more, but I promise that isn’t my sole intention. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a piece of it, but I have another reason.

When I put something on my altar, it means that I acknowledge it as something important in this moment. When I place something on my altar, it is like an invitation for that lesson, for those feelings, for that presence to come into my life fully.

I’ve been feeling it.

This week has been hard for me. Painful. All kinds of triggers sending me into dark places, cold places where I’m immobilized by grief and fear, hot places where the speed of my thoughts and anxieties create unbearable friction in my stomach. Obsessive thoughts and insecurities have been keeping me awake, have kept me from living in my body and had me perching out in my mind. I have tried to find some clarity in it, and have found some, but it has been a struggle.

Today I sat with the Three of Swords from each of my decks. Each of them taught me something unique about the card as a whole, and have helped me to work out what lesson it is I’m needing to learn right now.

Close up of Rider-Waite card.

The traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck is simple in its image- a rainy scene featuring a heart pierced with three swords. The sensations that came up in my body were of the dull, nagging pain of heartache.

Close up of Herbal Tarot card.

The Herbal Tarot, a bit more ornate and featuring the companion herb of Pleurisy Root, had a feature that stood out to me. Behind the heart (also pierced with three swords), was a radiant, glowing light. I still felt those sensations of heartache, however there was an added depth. The glowing light signifies the ways that the heart lights up when it is in pain, not unlike the ways it lights up when it is in pleasure. Pain triggers the illumination of shadows. When we experience heartbreak, all of our deepest fears, insecurities, regrets, and sorrows come bubbling to the surface. The light of our pain forces us to witness these things as they come flooding into our awareness.

Close up of Wild Unknown card.

The Wild Unknown deck is, for me, the most visceral image out of all of my decks. The many tangled strands beautifully illustrate how messy this pain is. I had a realization as I sat with this card, how much I hate the messiness of heartache as a Virgo. I like things to be neat and tidy. I like to imagine that all of our pains and traumas are packaged in neat little boxes somewhere waiting to be opened- but they are not. Instead they are a tangled ball of strings, and they are noisy, and each one of them demands our attention. We want to see to each one, and sit down with them and quiet them, but that is not work we can just do on the spot. That is work that takes time and care, it takes dedication to staying grounded and dedication to the process of ownership of our life story.

Close up of Wanderer’s Tarot card.

The Wanderer’s Tarot image of the Three of Knives felt the most grounded and obviously growth-oriented to me. Two knives in the ground root pain into the earth, and provide us with some stability, something to hold onto and channel our energy into. The knife in the middle sits atop a bucket of water miraculously pointing up, not submerged. I imagine the bucket represents the heart and the emotions, like a chalice. The knife points straight for the sky, lending to a feeling of rootedness, and yet also upward expansion. The upward-pointing knife is aimed at a thorny shrub, as if the channelling of energy is directly contributing to its outward growth. The shrub is thorny still, and not a neat and tidy kind of growth, but it is growth, it is expansion.

When we allow our pain to teach us, when we allow that tangled web of our story to surface, and we sit with it, and allow it space, we are able to integrate it. It ceases to hold such power over us when we look at it in its truth. This is easier said than done, of course- and it is still messy work.

Allowing this pain to surface and to teach us allows us to see ourselves in our wholeness with loving acceptance. It teaches us about boundaries- like the thorns in the growth of the Wanderer’s image. It shines light on the limiting beliefs we hold about ourselves, and allows them to dissolve into nothingness as their falsity is exposed. It shows us the places in our lives we have needed love and did not get it, or the places we were punished for things people should not be punished for.

In these things, pain shows us that another way is possible, and that it’s attainable and worth working for. At the same time, it shows us that the world is not a perfect place, that life is not easy, and that pain is plentiful.

The swords are truth. Sometimes they cut through confusion and grant us clarity. Sometimes they are bound in a tangle of suffering, slowly cutting into us in our most vulnerable places. Sometimes they pierce through the romantic visions of peace and harmony our hearts so desire, deflating us as we are snapped into reality.

The pain doesn’t go away, but as we find our courage and our strength to face it, it does get easier to handle. And maybe in some perverted way, we even start to like the pain for teaching us, and for showing us that we are truly alive.

Or maybe that’s just me…

The same cards as above fanned out in the center bottom of the image. Left image shows a tincture of mugwort and two lit candles. The Rider-Waite deck sits in upper middle frame, upper left shows a small wooden box and the cardboard box that holds the Rider-Waite deck.