Breathing in the Heart: a reflection on the 3 of Swords

The 3 of Swords: sorrow, pain, heartbreak. Right? Do you flinch when you pull this card, wondering what you’re going to lose?


It has never made much sense to me that a card that symbolizes anguish would be related to the Empress and the other minor arcana 3s that show such growth and expansion. If we relate the Empress to fertility, then the 3s show that energy developing and manifesting. Things are being built and established in the 3s. Except....what about the swords?

And if we look at the Empress as a card that teaches us about our self worth, our inherent right to receive love as we are, then the minor 3s show us engaged in the process of establishing connections and broadening our definitions around what it is that really feeds and nurtures us. So then, what about the swords?

The 3s show something growing, and show us being filled. With community, with opportunity, with aligned work. But the swords seem to show something leaving, bleeding out, the swords piercing and depriving the heart of all joy and vitality.

What are we being asked to grow into, in the 3 of swords? What are we being asked to receive? With what are we being filled?

It is a fairly common to see this card interpreted as an invitation to engage with our pain. That seems incredibly valid to me, particularly as no card in the Tarot is going to illuminate what you’re experiencing without also offering a way to deepen or transform the experience. But what does engaging with pain look like, and isn’t it all just some variation on the theme of trying to rid yourself of it?

With the 3 of swords, the idea of actively trying to remove them, however gently, doesn’t resonate for me. If the 3s are bringing something in, receiving and welcoming, growing and expanding, then the removal of swords seems antithetical. I imagine them leaving behind a vacuum, a space that the heart then collapses around.

To make a minor digression (that will make sense in a minute), often clients will talk to me about they should probably diet and how difficult it is to cut out all the foods they love. And I always talk about how, in my experience, it is much more useful to focus on bringing IN other things, healthy foods and healthy habits and whatever, that eventually crowd out the other, less healthy stuff. This way you don’t experience the panic of deprivation and the inevitable backlash that ensues. You just fill yourself with what is good for you til there’s less and less room for what isn’t.

And that’s what I think about the 3 of swords. In our urgency to get “healed” we often want to remove the source of pain as quickly as possible. But those swords are serving a purpose, and often I imagine them as defense mechanisms we have developed to keep our very vulnerable hearts intact. Without our mental armoring it can be very easy to imagine that we would absolutely be crushed by the sheer enormity of the world.

But when we’ve grown beyond the need for such mechanisms, and we are ready to become more vulnerable and open to the world, what do we do with the swords? How do we invite them to leave without forcing them out?

I often wonder about practical exercises designed around the invitations of the cards, and for the 3 of swords, a breathing meditation seemed most appropriate to me. The suit of swords is ruled by air, and I know that when I am in pain, I feel that my chest becomes constricted around my heart and lungs and each breath feels as if it’s at 50% capacity. So I imagine what it would be like to fill my heart with each inhale, allowing it to slowly expand until the swords that have been living there for so long begin to retreat, to be lifted out by breath. Removed not from above, but from below, so that there is no collapse around the space they leave behind; breath and warmth and light is moving into that emptiness immediately.

I’m designing a guided meditation around this that will be sent out in a private link to members of my email list on Monday! If you’d like to sign up, do so here.