Mimi Bouakham shuffles and scatters a deck of pastel oracle cards on the table in front of her, drawing three and displaying them in an upside-down “A” formation.
“Card one is your fated life; the call, the ego, the obvious life,” she says. The 19-year-old UK sophomore plucks one of the three cards: “Lifting the Veil: Questioning everything. Anything unaligned must go,” it reads.
“During your life, your destiny was just to be curious and to question everything,” Bouakham says. “Maybe you have been noticing that there’s stuff going on in your life that you’ve been questioning, like ‘is what’s considered the norm actually the norm?’ Maybe it’s like that for you, maybe it’s going to become like that for you.”
She picks the second card and lays it out. It reads, “To Wait: It’s not yet time. Things are being woven.”
“This card is the call of the soul, so your destiny life,” says Boukham, touching the artwork on the card, which depicts a young girl sitting at the opening of a galaxy, about to fall in. “Your fated life will always connect with your destiny life, so even though you want to question everything, it’s best to also question them with patience… Those answers will come to you as you grow. The answers are already there… they’re preparing to show themselves to you.”
She picks the third and final card. “The change of action you’re being called to make,” Bouakham says as she reveals the “Star Brothers” card, decorated with the image of a celestial-looking man with two birds on either side of him, peering downwards.
“You’re more protected than you can imagine. They’re waiting for you to trust yourself and to trust the people around you… to trust that those answers are going to come to you soon.”
Bouakham was born into a Buddhist family and said she had grown up surrounded by spirituality all her life, looking towards her religion mostly for protection and guidance. She only began her journey through tarot and oracle reading, however, in 2019, when the medium started gaining more popularity through different social media platforms.
She said that her start with tarot began shortly after a breakup with a guy that she had been dating at the time.
“TikTok was already super popular, and that’s when all those tarot videos started popping up,” Bouakham said. “I didn’t really enjoy them as much because the tarot readings were kind of for entertainment purposes and a general audience… Like yeah, these TikToks seem a little accurate to me, but I want to understand myself deeper, I want to understand what’s going on with me deeper, and I didn’t want someone else to tap into my energy like that.”
As a Buddhist, Bouakham was already well-accustomed to spiritual practices, such as providing offerings to her ancestors and praying for protection. She keeps a collection of Buddhist statues in her dorm, which function as “protection items” and help her feel safe.
“One belief that is so important to me is as simple as ‘choice.’ Buddhism is less of a ‘you praise God’ religion and is more of a teaching where you search for your life path on this Earth,” Bouakham said. “Buddha is not meant to save you, but is meant to guide you, as humans themselves have the power to live to their highest selves.”
These core understandings about Buddhism are what motivate and inspire Bouakham with her oracle readings.
“When I do my oracle readings, depending on the deck I use, I tend to ask for advice from the highest self, my ancestors, or probably the universe, the Earth or Sun, and I am sure to always apply the values of Buddhism into what I say in my readings,” Bouakham said.
Kae Brandenburg, Bouakham’s roommate and another student who practices spirituality on campus, finds motivation for their tarot readings, birth chart readings and interest in crystals outside of religion. From Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Brandenburg did not grow up in a very religious household, and instead turns towards tarot to help them pass through moments where they feel stuck, or don’t know how to proceed in a situation.
“I did a lot of [tarot readings] during school because sometimes I’d be like, ‘You know what? I’m a little anxious right now,’ and it would just comfort me in that way, and I got to know my decks,” said Brandenburg, 19. “Each deck has a personality that they like showing, so if I’m feeling sad, I’m not going to go to the deck that has more of a romantic side; I look for one that has more of an uplifting kind of vibe to it.”
Like Bouakham, Brandenburg also accepts and incorporates spirituality — which in this context is defined as spiritual practices which do not rely on religious affiliation as the primary method of enhancing one’s spiritual identity — in different aspects of their life. For example, Brandenburg always wears a fluorite crystal around their neck, which they said helps with “keeping focus and keeping negative energy away,” and will often carry around other crystals in their pockets for other benefits.
Brandenburg and Bouakham both said that there isn’t exactly a community on campus for people who practice spirituality the way they do, but that most of the people they meet at UK usually share the same interests that they do.
“You kind of gravitate towards people who like the same things as you do,” Brandenburg said. “A lot of my friends are into it, so we have our own little club. It’s not official, but we just hang out.”
Bouakham also said that she has found more of a community of tarot and oracle readers online, where people advertise their reading services on social media platforms such as Twitter.
“I don’t do services in real life because I started tarot for the sake of myself and my own wellbeing, and I want to be able to learn more about me,” Bouakham said. “Sure, I can do tarot readings for my friends for fun because I genuinely want to, but charging someone to tap into their energy… is also really draining.”
Other students turn to forms of spiritual expression, like astrological birth chart readings and crystals. One student, Alana Blackman from Wilmington, North Carolina, has been involved in all things astrology — from astral charts to horoscopes — for about a year and a half.
“For me, [astrology] is a little better than religion just because it’s more based on stars and personality… it’s a better way for me to get a grasp of my inner self,” said Blackman. “I like it because of how it relates to the stars and a little bit of astronomy at the same time, so it’s not just based on nothing.”
Blackman also agreed that although there isn’t much of a community on campus, they would like to find one at some point.
“I think it would be really cool to have a bunch of people get into it because it’s cool to see how other people relate and have their own views on things, different perspectives,” they said.
Blackman uses astrological birth charts as a means of getting to know individuals and better understanding their personalities based on the alignments of the planets and stars, as well as how much their relationship can grow with that individual.
“It’s kind of cool to see how we connect on an astrological level, besides just face to face,” Blackman said, “and I guess it kind of helps with further communication within the relationship because you can understand what more else there is to a person instead of just face value.”
Lorena Powell-Apéstegui, a self-described empath, comes from a superstitious background and practices reiki, a form of energy healing. Powell-Apéstegui recalled her mother’s initial involvement with reiki and how she encouraged her and her sibling to participate in reiki practices alongside her as her origins with the form.
“We discovered that I was very good at [reiki, manifestation and energy healing],” she said. “Like, whenever my mom had a headache or something like that, I would take my hands and not even touch but just make energetic contact, and she would feel better and I would have to take a nap, because I would exhaust myself through [that process].”
Powell-Apéstegui’s experience with spirituality is different in how she says she is able to manipulate energy through reiki rather than just read it, mainly for healing reasons. At the same time, she also tries to prioritize her physical and mental health during the process.
“It was the sort of thing when people in my life were going through something hard, or if my friends were depressed, I would get physically ill,” she said about being an empath. “I would absorb that from them, so a lot of my journey with my own spirituality was learning how to protect myself and how to still be an energetic being but not put myself at risk.”
Each person who involves themselves with spiritual activities of any kind does so for their own reasons, but some share the common goal of wanting to do it to better themselves in different aspects, whether it’s skill-based or regarding their own mental health. Powell-Apéstegui said her biggest challenge for a long time was trying to accept her spiritual side as a significant part of her life, as well as being able to talk to others about it without feeling judged.
“Spirituality has always been kind of a point of contention for me because I know that it’s true and it’s real because I’m living it, but it doesn’t make sense,” said Powell-Apéstegui, a biosystems engineering major and music performance minor, who used to struggle with the fact that spirituality is a part of who she is despite her constant desire for things to always be logical.
Brandenburg agreed, crediting their non-religiousness as one of the reasons it was easier for them to accept tarot into their life.
“A lot of people were raised Christian, and they think that tarot is a bunch of voodoo and that you’re going to let a bunch of demons inside of you, but it’s really just a tool to help you get to know yourself better,” they said.
For Bouakham, her primary struggles include how difficult it is to practice Buddhism and spirituality in her hometown in Elizabethtown, where there were no Buddhist temples until her family helped build one when she was in elementary school.
Spirituality has become a large part of these four individuals’ lives and has significantly participated in the shaping of their identities and is partly responsible for the people they are today; Powell-Apéstegui, for example, continues to work with mentors that help her with reiki, manifestation and meditation to help her process trauma and keep herself — and others — safe. Meditation and energy healing also has helped her with her anxiety, as well as getting through everything that happened in 2020 regarding COVID-19.
The process of energy healing, Powell-Apéstegui said, is very draining. She said it requires asking for healing energy from a higher source — whether that was the universe, Mother Earth or God (in Powell-Apéstegui’s case, she said she obtains all her energy from the Earth) — and then sending the energy to the person in need of the healing, using her own body as the vehicle.
“When I was little, I would visualize the energy as little construction workers, and that they were going to fix [the issue],” she said.
She also repeats a mantra in her head to help guide her through this process: “If you are not me or mine, you are not welcome here. I cannot help you. I send you forward with love and light.”
“It’s really meditative for me,” she said.
These spiritual practices — tarot, astrology, reiki and more — can often serve as a medium that allows the practitioner to better understand others, and that is the direction that these four sometimes like to go in. Brandenburg often does readings multiple times a day, not just for their friends and family but also sometimes for people they’ve met that same day.
“Some people just really need a little bit of guidance, and I do believe tarot cards pick the person,” said Brandenburg. “So if I can be there and tell them that it’s hard right now but it looks like it’s going to be worth it in two months or so, that’s great, and sometimes it doesn’t look great, but I’m not going to leave this person with a bad message.”