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Free Association

The World is Your Oracle
by Nancy Vedder-Shults

Nancy's forthcoming book, The World is Your Oracle, compiles hundreds of divination methods, from ancient oracles to modern-day techniques. The excerpts published here will describe a few of the ways to access the deeper layers of our minds and broaden our sense of perception.

A good oracle puts us in touch with ourselves. It lets us discover our motivations, feelings and thoughts about the question we're exploring. And it connects us with the atmosphere or environment surrounding that question — making us aware of the water we swim in, but usually don't notice.

To receive inner guidance, all we need is to open ourselves to what our body/mind tells us, what our emotions display, and what our unconscious knows. In this way, we can begin to hear with our inner ears and see with our inner eyes. Using these mystical senses — what we might call the sense organs of the unconscious — we perceive holistically, noticing relationships and patterns rather than isolating, classifying and judging what we observe. Once we have gathered this wisdom, we can then use the rational mind to interpret what we have learned.

We live in an interconnected world, a web of life. Each segment of that web reflects the whole just like fractal designs or holography. That's why the patterns we discover through divination give us information. They mimic the relationships of the whole at a particular moment in time.

What does "free association" bring to mind? Freud, perhaps. Since his day, free association has become a method for clarifying any experience, situation, statement or symbol. When it comes to divination, many of the oracles we receive are images, symbols, or words that we can interpret in a number of ways. Sometimes the meaning of these divinations may initially appear enigmatic, like the messages of the historic Oracle at Delphi. When the oracular information isn't immediately clear, we need to allow the symbols, words, or experiences to "speak" to us as we mull them over in our minds. Free association furnishes a useful tool for interpreting a divination. It also serves as an oracular technique in its own right, as the Repeated Cues and Balloon Diagram methods demonstrate.

Interpreting Divinations with Free Association
As a means for interpreting a divination, free association is versatile enough to apply to any object, image, statement, experience, person, dream, symbol, or other oracular outcome you've received. Let's assume that you've uncovered an image in your divination that you can't figure out. You can pose a number of questions to freely associate with it, each approaching the meaning of this image from a different angle:

  • What associations do you have with the image?
  • How does this image relate to you?
  • What links does it have to your oracular question?
  • What does the image mean to you?
  • What feelings does it evoke in you?
  • What is the image trying to tell you?

Sometimes the easiest way to understand a divination is to simply ask one of these questions over and over again until you hit upon an answer that resonates with you. If you are a visual diviner, you can unfocus your mind and allow thoughts and images to arise as you ask yourself these questions until one finally nudges you into understanding. If you're auditory, the answer may come in words, music, or sounds. And if you're kinesthetic, it may arrive as a feeling. Sometimes you will experience this resonance as an "Aha," sometimes as a quiet "Yes," and sometimes as a feeling that the answer "clicks." In any case, you will know when you've understood your oracular image. Just trust your intuition, and the meaning will become clear.

Divination Methods
Clarity of mind is extremely important for this type of divination. Before you begin, use one of your favorite breathing exercises to ground and center, feeling yourself supported by the earth and aligned with your spiritual source. When you've finished the oracle, thank the universal energies of earth and sky for holding you in their embrace and your inner wisdom for revealing to you the meaning of your divination.

Repeated Cues
I learned this powerful form of brainstorming a few years back from Ingrid Dilley and Marcia Pollock in a class on the chakras in Madison. My Buddhist friends use a similar process called "Inquiry"; they tell me it originated within Diamond Way Buddhism.

As an oracular technique, "Repeated Cues" is straightforward.

  1. You decide on a divinatory question.
  2. You arrange for a friend to help you, and provide note-taking materials.
  3. Your friend gives you a cue, you respond with whatever comes immediately to mind, and your friend writes down your response while prompting you again. Using Cue (a) for five minutes, your friend elicits replies from you and records them. Then you move on to Cue (b), and then to Cue (c), for five minutes each. The cues are:
    • Cue (a) — I'm afraid …
    • Cue (b) — I would like …
    • Cue (c) — I choose …
  4. Important:
    • Ask and answer as fast as possible. Your friend can speed up your response time by repeating the cue when you hesitate or balk.
    • Allow yourself to stray from your divinatory question if that's what your mind wants to do. Often when you appear to be wandering from the subject, your mental path actually brings you closer to your issue.
    • To work alone, log your replies with either a pencil and paper or a recording device, while cuing and responding in turn.
    • Give yourself the full five minutes for each of the cues, even if you feel your divinatory query has already been answered. Your responses may give you a deeper or broader picture of both your situation and any possible solutions.
    • If you get stuck while using "Repeated Cues", and feel you've only discovered what you already knew, you may have been answering too slowly, not wanting or not being able to let go of conscious control. When this happens, try moving your oracular question to the back burner of your mind. I tried this recently, and within an hour I realized what had blocked me and, as a consequence, what I needed to do about it. It's amazing what your unconscious will tell you, given enough time.

Balloon Diagrams
For those of you who prefer visual rather than auditory divinations, you can adapt the balloon diagram as a form of free association. Normally people use this type of drawing as a preliminary outline for an essay or other project. To employ it as a divination method:

  1. Decide on a divinatory question.
  2. Find a pen or pencil and a piece of paper that's at least 8 1/2 x 11 inches.
  3. Begin by placing a shortened form of your query inside an oval in the center of the sheet.
  4. Write down a major association with the issue, draw a circle or oval around it, and connect it to the central question.
  5. Keep free-associating until an initial set of major associations has bubbled up from your unconscious, and then free-associate with each of these in turn, adding smaller ovals or circles connected to these major associations. The result is a map of sorts.

In the example, my original question was: " What do I need to be happy right now?" This appears in the center as "Nancy's Needs for Happiness." I then listed my major needs in the surrounding ovals: significant work, health, love, sex, peace/meditation and play. Then I freely associated with each of these needs in turn, creating the balloon diagram you see on this page.

I learned a number of things from doing this map. I realized that my commitment to writing The World is Your Oracle had reduced the time available for singing, teaching, workshops and storytelling. This could lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness unless I reframed my understanding of my work in some way.

I also discovered that any work I viewed as creative had a component of play. This was good news to a recovering Puritan, raised to think of work as serious business, and play as unnecessary, frivolous, and sometimes even sinful. This divination told me that to be happy I needed to recognize my writing as the creative and playful endeavor it actually is.

Graphics Credits

  • balloon diagram © Nancy Vedder-Shults. All rights reserved.
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