Some Highly Biased and Opinionated Thoughts on Tarot (Part 2)
How to Read
In the last installment I wrote about the history of Tarot and choosing a deck. In this installment, I’ll talk about learning to read Tarot.
1. Develop a relationship with the cards
There is an eternal question in Tarot- do you read the cards intuitively, i.e., by looking at the pictures and making up your own associations and meanings, or do you go by the book, accepting the meanings as established by tradition or the author of the deck? The answer, of course, is both.
We usually come to Tarot because we’re seeking answers for ourselves— Is quitting my job the right move? Will things work out between me and my partner? Can I buy this house I love even though it’s a financial stretch? What is blocking me from achieving my dream? In states that are highly emotionally charged for us, it can be easy to make the cards mean whatever we want them to mean and readings can end up very muddled as a result. Having a trusted, outside source to guide us, like one of the books I mentioned last time, is invaluable.
But more than that, the cards have their own energetic qualities that can be understood as kind of spirit or egregore. We come to the cards because, in addition to answers, we want to learn more about ourselves and to develop our intuition. To do that, we have to build a relationship, which means a), respecting the cards for what they already are and what have meant to millions of people across centuries and b), opening to what the cards will become when alchemized by our own unique being, which means bringing our own history, perception and idiosyncrasies to the table.
Practically, what this looks like can be starting off by simply observing the card, without the book. What do you notice? How does the image speak to you? Does it in any way illuminate the answer you are seeking? Does it reflect anything that is going on within you? Does it help you feel settled, or bring clarity? What do you think the card is saying to you?
Then, read the entry for the card in your tarot book. Is the meaning similar, or different? If it is wildly divergent, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are completely off base, only perhaps that you are picking up on nuances that are specific to you, and there is a synthesis of meaning to be found. Over time, the cards will get to know you, as you are learning them. If a particular card reminds you of your mother or your boyfriend, you will find that it often turns up in reference to them.
As you learn the language of the cards, they are also learning yours, and speaking to you. You will develop your own way of reading the cards over time, with meanings and insights that can only come from you.
2. Ask clear questions
I have never understood people who just lay out a bunch of cards with a no rhyme or reason and only a broad topic in mind and then struggle to derive any coherent meaning from it. I have always found it helpful to be very clear about what question I am asking and what exactly each card will represent before I lay it down. This is essentially what all the Tarot “spreads” you find in books or on apps are doing— giving you a clear roadmap so you can derive useful information and meaning from the cards.
So, for example, I don’t think it’s very helpful to ask, “Show me what’s going on with my relationship” and then laying down five cards at random. Put the cards to work. Assign one position to represent your inner blocks to deeper intimacy in the relationship, and another to represent your partner’s inner blocks. Assign a position to represent the action you should take in response, and another to represent the likely outcome, given the current circumstances. Of course this is just an example, you can change these based on what it is you are trying to gain insight on. The point is, know what the job of each card will be before you lay it out.
3. Less is more
I started out reading the Celtic Cross, the classic spread used with the Rider-Waite Smith. I spent hours pouring over the 10 cards of the spread, gleaning insights from each card yet struggling to put it all together into into a picture that would help me figure out what to do next. Ultimately, I think 10 cards is way too many data points for one reading. Over time, I found that almost all my questions were better served by a one to three card reading. One card can give you a tremendous amount of information about a situation. Sitting with it and letting it open itself up to you can reveal layers upon layers of meaning.
I use a three card spread most often, usually in one of three ways:
(1) past, (2) present, (3) future
(1) challenge, (2) choice, (3) outcome
(1) Person A, (2) Person B, (3) Relationship between them.
I sometimes use larger spreads like the Celtic Cross— for example, they are helpful when analyzing a complex situation and trying to discern where influence might be applied to change an outcome— but I would save them for after you feel proficient reading with 3 cards or less.
The other area where less is more is when it comes to how often you are reading a particular situation. Rachel Pollack recommends not doing a reading on any one particular situation more than once a month, and while I don’t exactly follow that, it’s a good rule of thumb, particularly for situations where we feel a lot of deep emotional entanglement and attachment to outcome. When you’re going through a painful situation and desperate to fix it, it’s easy to think if we do just one more reading, the situation will have changed, or we will suddenly gain a new insight. What usually is happening in that situation is that you are muddying the waters in order to see what you want to see, rather than allowing spirit to show you difficult but necessary truths.
4. Set the scene
Presumably if you’re drawn to Tarot, you have a relationship with a higher power. Spend some time connecting with that power and asking for insight before reading the cards. Pray, meditate, light a candle and some incense, however you do it, having a little ritual to create a sacred space and clear your mind is invaluable. That’s not to say it is always possible or necessary— I read on the fly all the time— but it is a good habit to practice, and I find the more time I spend establishing contact with a trusted guide, the more powerful the reading is.
As far as shuffling and splitting the deck, I won’t say much. Some people do it the same exact way each time; I usually get intuitive messages as to how to shuffle and split once I’ve connected to Spirit. My default is to shuffle twice, split into three piles, and choose one- usually the middle, if I’m honest. But I really don’t think there’s one right way to do it.
5. Strengthen your reading muscles
A great way to learn the cards is to draw a card in the morning, spend some time intuiting, reading, and journalling about it, and then coming back in the evening to reflect on how you saw it show up in the course of the day. Doing readings on small, low-stakes situations can help you develop your intuition from a more objective place. Eventually you will want to challenge yourself to read without the aid of a book, and to read quickly, going with the first insights and impressions that come to your mind.
The best way to stretch your Tarot muscles is to do readings for other people friends and ultimately strangers. Many cities have Tarot meetups for people who are learning or curious, and that’s where I stepped out and spread my wings. It can be scary. It was for me. But the first time I read for somebody I didn’t know from Adam, and they told me how spooky-scary accurate the reading was… well that is just a pretty cool feeling. I find that it’s often easier for me to read people I have less of a relationship with, because I don’t have to worry so much about my judgements or pre-conceptions and I have less attachment to how they will receive it. Even if you never intend to do readings for money, this is still a worthwhile endeavor and will make you better at reading for yourself.
Eventually you will want to branch out into other Tarot decks and will start collecting them. Despite my prejudice toward the older decks, there are many amazing new decks being created today, some that I find simply beautiful, and a rare few that I think can hold up against the classics. My current favorite is the Tarot of the Holy Light (pictured above), which also has an excellent phone app. The author has rooted it the pre-Golden Dawn continental Tarot traditions, and there’s also a lot of influence from early 17th century mystic Jakob Böhme.
Admittedly you may not share my snobbery for scholarly decks rooted in medieval and Renaissance esotericism. If at this point you know that the Shamanic Mermaid Mystery Cats of Atlantis deck is calling to you, then just ignore me. You will find different decks will give you new insights, and be particularly good for certain applications. Play and have fun!