How Does One Read Tarot?



I’m guessing that if you’ve found your way here, you’re already familiar with the dozens of books, decks, and websites that promise to teach you.  The fact that you may still be asking how this is done after skimming everything on offer is the reason, even though you are quite bright, is why I wrote this for you.  By being honest about the veils of history, and skipping the usual routines, this guide has been made to get you involved in some real magic – the power of your imagination.

Just as this particular guide fills a different purpose in teaching, the method I recommend is different from most books you will see, and it will hardly be popular.  The most popular subjects for fortune telling have ever been love, money and success, all questions for the future, but this method focuses on trying to work with what’s going on right now.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it unique, as it’s developed from working with other people also interested in cultivating a more expansive and hopeful historic perspective, and using the interactive artistry on offer to enhance their own lives.

The objective is to be simple enough to pick up intuitively after a while, to build trust in yourself, so that you do not have to rely forever on someone else’s interpretations.  Showing you how this is done is a mixture of tradition, symbolism takes some study, but ultimately, your own willingness to abandon any or all of these in favor of your own responses is the goal.  The evolution of the way the cards were used shows this.   The first purpose of the Tarot was as a kind of teaching game, that could introduce humanist virtues as it was played.  The mountain of language devoted to occult readings, cartomancy and fortune telling  we have now does not need to conflict with this at all, but they do not play a part in my method of reading, you will not need to climb that particular mountain.   In this way of reading, the only secret meaning that is truly necessary, is to find the context of the story.

One major difference in my method: the typical companion book to a tarot deck calls for a certain spread of cards. each position in the spread is assigned a fixed role, in a complicated arrangement developed by an occultist not too long ago.  There’s no reason to rely on such a convention, I certainly do not.  The Celtic Cross is the one you’ll almost always encounter, which is not traditional to the cards, nor is it Celtic for that matter, other than likely being invented by a French person.  This spread requires a question, and further, it insists on results like past and future and opposition, and other dynamics of fortune telling.  I blame this convention for discouraging many would-be readers from reaching that point of enjoyment, where their mind is able to freely engage the mystery.

In my method, we are working for insight, visualization, and creative stimulation.  Wherever that leads us.  So we don’t need to be told what every card is meant to answer.  We will instead look at the structures behind the cards, and then go back to free association, allowing the cards to form their own connections, without the regimental parade roles.  This changes considerably the way the cards are interpreted, expands their possible meanings, and by moving away from a set ritual, points instead towards self knowledge.

Three, the Number of Creation

I have found that storytelling use of the cards is actually improved by reading in shorter sequences.  By using free association and nonlinear thinking, the mind is spared the conflicts of getting a specific result (what will happen?), and having to add an analysis of time that isn’t, wasn’t, and may not be.   Instead, not only do you have the relationship of the cards to work out, but you have to use your insight to determine what their interaction might relate to in your own life.  So there’s much more mental exercise going on, and much less rolling the dice and looking up the score.  Leaving all interpretations of time, especially the future, out of the picture does take away from the key reason people resort to cartomancy.  But I trust that your interest in a less complicated way to read indicates you probably love the cards for their place in art, and the idea of one day being able to understand them on your own, without reference materials, is on your bucket list.  You can have your cards and read them intuitively too.

Gustave Dore, Les Saltimbanques
Gustave Doré, Les Saltimbanques

I recommend starting off with a spread of three cards.  A further recommendation for learning, is that when you place each of these three cards, you turn them always to their upright position.  Do this unless, or until, you are comfortable with their upright meanings, before studying their opposites.  Consider it giving them the benefit of doubt.

In my method of reading, the mystery you’re exploring is a visual response to the contents of your memory.   A link between whatever happens to be on your mind as you look at the card images will present itself, and by adding in the poetic meaning attached to the cards, the result is a perspective that might be so surprising, it can appear to arrive by third party.   There are arguments for saying that it is so, enjoy the marvel all the same.  Our own thinking, perhaps cluttered with sabotage, confusion or conflicting priorities, can be hitched to the abstract meanings in the tarot in a way that might make a better choice easier to see, or add to our understanding of situations, doubts and questions.  Because the tarot has a teaching purpose within its fundaments, clearer choices that might arrive are also ultimately linked to a self-grooming towards your own better nature, and that of others.  It’s a process that’s actually easy to miss when the focus is on telling fortunes.  The better you get at reading the cards, the more you will find yourself seeing a better viewpoint on life, not within their context, but within your own.  This development is not easy to explain, but I hope you will go deep enough into the cards to discover this fascinating pattern of progress that forms.

Just like practicing a song, once you know how to play it on an instrument naturally, and have memorized the words, the whole thing rolls together and is ready for ornament and improvisation.  Most guides have their origin in another person’s personalized, complicated system for making sense of the unknown (or selling the idea that they can).  My opinion, which may sound strange, is that the worst thing a magician can do is study too closely the methods of another magician.  It becomes something like an expectation to be able to build a guitar, before you allow yourself to start practicing a song.  With that situation, it is not a surprise most people just give up trying to flow on their own, and stick with listening to the records of others instead.

As much as any daydream,  reading can go any direction or nowhere at all, it’s entirely up to your own speed and acumen at spotting associations, and the conditions in your mind at that particular moment.  As your mind gets to work making sense of the messages you’ve dealt through the cards, just as it is biologically wired to do, it is highly unlikely that you will ever fail to receive something of interest.

Choosing a Deck

I recommend that you get a deck that you enjoy.   To make the most of this guide, you may wish to use an old fashioned one, so that the art history I refer to makes more sense, but it isn’t required.  Chances are, someone has already gifted you a novelty deck that relates to what they see in your personality, like kittens, garden gnomes or skeleton warriors.  Just know that the more modern a deck, the fewer memorable cues might be present.

Prepare Yourself

By preparing yourself, the story you create with the cards is more likely to respond in some way. The question or subject dwelling on your mind will frame the answers you associate as you read the cards, and might even lead you to your own best answer or a creative solution.  It probably makes little difference whether you have a burning question in mind, or are just looking to be guided.  You might have no question, and the cards answer one in the back of your head anyway.  You might have a question, and all you get is a little prod at your emotional state.  This is the fun of free association.

The goal is to gain insight by using the cards as a tool, and the appropriate attitude is of going about doing Good Work.  This is one fortune telling custom I must insist on – acknowledging all that is Good at the beginning, invoking this at the beginning of the exercise.  I recommend a meditation period of fifteen minutes before before reading, with the method of your choice.  A receptive, observant state can also be accomplished by sitting on a park bench watching trees blow in the breeze and trying not to think of much at all, taking a long candle bath, or walking slowly and breathing deliberately, honing in on the present moment.

Ask a Question

When it comes down to it, any question asked of the cards is really being asked of yourself, what some would call your ‘higher self’ which can be difficult to hear over the daily business of our minds.  Write it down, or let it float centrally in some still place in your mind, but try to narrow down to your question to one problem, or one subject, that you can’t see through clearly.  Ask the cards for transparency.  Avoid asking anything that just helps you with a yes or no, this kind of question deprives the mind of its free-association powers.  You’re limiting your imagination to two answers and tunnel vision is tricky to redirect.   If you have devoted the right concentration to your subject, you should find the card interpretations fold right in and speak to the images you’re floating on the surface of your mind.  And you are also, as I mentioned, just as likely to have good results asking no question at all.

Shuffle the Cards

Divide the deck in two, turn one of the piles around 180 degrees, shuffle, and repeat as many times as you like, mixing both the cards and their directions.  Cards should be shuffled with care to preserve their life. Some prefer their folk customs – they can not be touched by other people, or must to be stored in a special cloth, or stored near the pillow of the reader.   I don’t recommend approaching the cards with that attitude, the magic is in your imagination, not the paper cards, but these are rituals many people enjoy nonetheless and there is no conflict.

Deal the Cards

Lay three cards face down beside each other from the top of the shuffled deck.  Make a line, make a triangle, your choice.   Flip the cards over one by one and have a look, dwelling on each like taking a bite of a chocolate cake, trying to see each by itself.  Read the poetic interpretations for each card.  Take your time before flipping the next, and once all are exposed, now turn your mind to seeing the three as one, as associated.

The Magician, Sforza-Visconti deck

When dealing the cards, some will be upside down.  We say such a card is ‘reversed’.   The reverse is generally read as opposite its normal upright position.  In my method, only the trumps are reversed.  So when cards with suits are dealt upside down, flip them back upright automatically, but leave the trumps in the direction they fall.   I do this primarily because the lower cards are the biggest challenge and greatest number for memorizing to begin with, while the trumps have a way of being big characters, thus more amenable to carrying shadow meanings.

Try them Instinctually

See what associations arise in connection to your question, what the images suggest, look for the easy punchline.  Do any of the symbols remind you of your subject?  How do the colors match your feelings, are they warming or cooling what you’re bringing to the reading table?  Are they grand and philosophical, or personal, or technical in response to your question?  As instinct is a kind of thinking that includes feeling, let your feelings about the images on the cards mix with the interpretations I’ve made up, to create your own physical relationship to the images.  This will grow more natural the more you practice.

Study the Correspondences

After looking up each card about ten times, you’ll find you’ve come to know them in a way.  Use my guide to read suggested meanings, drawn from philosophy and folklore.  Enjoy the way the Tarot’s ranks when shuffled show a poetic, pictorial miniature of the larger world, with all its elements in different states of coming and going, refining or falling away.  Eventually, studying the correspondences might reveal the way myth and reality interact in us in our daily lives, and the advantages of developing the Tarot as a philosophic mirror to gather the light of the world.  All this can be learned by playing with the mental model and correspondences in the artful cards.

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