Learning Tarot

This wasn’t a direct question to the blog, but was sent to a mailing list I’m on. A member asked for tips on learning tarot.

Ideas (caveat: not every reader reads the same way, even when they use the same divination tools, and not all of these may be equally or at all useful for the way your own mind works, so ymmv):

1. If you know the basic meanings of the cards now, then put the books away for a while and start creating your own “book,” based on your own experience with your own readings. This will require that you do practice readings on yourself and on other people, so you can get feedback. Keep track of them; write them down. Leave space to go back later and make additional notes as things come to light down the road. This can be as simple as a record of the cards you lay for a given reading, or as complex as a place to brainstorm and/or meditate on individual cards, make associations with various symbols, keep track of what cards come up for certain querents or what elements come up for certain types of queries over time, etc.

2. Think of the cards as words/vocabulary, and the layout as your sentence structure. After a while, you may be able to read without a predetermined layout, just pulling cards as you go / as your querent talks, but when you’re just starting out, it can help to confine yourself to a predetermined sentence structure (ie, layout), and practicing extensively with one layout can help you get experience interpreting individual cards within that particular “sentence structure.” That can sometimes help you learn to extract the core meaning from a card that can then be transferred to/expanded upon within a particular context or setting. (Regular three-card readings, for instance, are, in my opinion, a lot more useful a lot more quickly for this than are single-card daily readings or extended layouts with 10 or 15 or more cards.)

3. If you already know some other system fairly well, there may be a way you can use it to help you make the leap you’re facing with Tarot (getting from learning the “little white book” meanings to actually getting fluent with getting at what a given card is saying in a given layout regarding a given situation). For instance, if you are passingly familiar with astrology, and you read with a deck that makes the cards’ astrological associations overt like the Thoth or the Quest, then you can think of the 3 of Swords as Saturn (blockage/restriction/limitation) in Libra (peace/harmony). Sometimes identifying these core elements can make it easier to figure out what the card is saying in a given “sentence” or “paragraph.” You can do the same kind of “breaking down” by focusing on the numerology of the cards, or on the qabalistic associations.

4. Alternately, depending on how your mind works, focusing on some small non-pictorial element may make it harder for you. Some people are a lot more visually-oriented or narratively-oriented than others. In that case, sometimes a change of deck can make a difference. Some decks may talk to us differently, or talk to different parts of us, or tell their stories in ways that are clearer to us, than others. I admire the concept behind the Quest deck, for instance, but I find the art so incredibly ugly as to be positively intuition-destroying, and I’d rather read with a set of bar coasters, or a handful of pine needles. I love that I own the Blake tarot, but I rarely read with it because it makes even a hangnail take on the weight of a big cosmic event. You may find some decks, like the Aquarian or Rider Waite, speak to you more clearly through the visual stories being told in the actual cards, where decks that focus more on illustrating or indicating symbols or principles or that are more abstract may not work as well for you.

5. It takes years to learn to read the Tarot truly “fluently.” The only way to do it is by doing it. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it’s taking time.

readers’ questions – learning divination

A client asked how I "got so good" at Tarot (which is awfully nice of her to say):

Twenty years of practice, is probably the best answer 🙂  I’m a word-and-story person (I have an advanced literature degree) so Tarot works for me – not really even because of the symbols – different decks have different symbols, but I can pick up any deck and read with it (heck, I can read with a set of bar coasters, or a deck of Uno cards, actually) because I can "read" or "see"  the story that the cards are telling.  It’s like seeing a whole different level "underneath" the cards, maybe is one way to put it, even though that’s not quite accurate.  It’s less the symbols and more the interaction of the cards with each other and the story that comes out.  After a while, all that "seeing" and "putting together" happens so fast that it translates as a "feeling," or a "flash," or a "knowing," but I’m not sure it’s not the same process I used or had or went through twenty years ago. It’s just now I’m much better at "reading" it fluently and then conveying it fluently (on good days anyway!) and so the picture assembles itself more quickly for me now.  Or something like that. 

I mean, some people say folks are either gifted for this kind of work or not, but I’m not sure about that.  I think there are people who are more gifted than others, just as there are people who are more gifted musicians or artists than others, but everybody can learn some basics of divination, and improve, just as anybody can learn scales (even if only by rote, because they’re tone deaf) or improve their drawing abilities with practice.  Some days I’m not sure it’s a gift at all, and I think it’s just a skill, like learning another language – some people have a knack for it and can do it easier, but anybody can do it.  Not everybody will be a great writer or orator, but anybody can understand and make themselves understood. But I’m speaking of myself only – there are people out there who are clairaudient and the like, and I’m not sure if I could teach myself how to do that at all. That kind of thing might be a gift you either have or don’t, I don’t know.  But divining with a tool like a Tarot deck? I think anybody can learn the basics.

Some people aren’t word-and-story people, though, and they might approach Tarot differently, perhaps relying more heavily on symbols or images (if they’re visual people) or on numerology (if they’re number people).  So I think a lot of learning to do effective divination is learning what divination style suits you best and picking the right tool for the job.  The Tarot is particularly rich because it does have all the associations with numerology, cabala,astrology, etc – if you learn all that stuff, you will find your "vocabulary" greatly enriched.  It’s a hell of a lot of info to sort out at first – which of a bajillion various possible meanings could these two cards next to each other have when you take all the influencing traditions into account?! – but you eventually internalize that stuff, I guess, if you use it, and it’s just "available" to you.  But maybe some people don’t read this way at all.  I can only speak for myself.

In my opinion, practicing on oneself is also not a very effective way to learn how to read (though it’s a good way to get to know a deck).  A deck of cards or a set of runes is a system unto itself, with a vocabulary, and maybe even a typical syntax.  You learn the rules of the system and then you will get more and more fluent and putting them together, and being able to "Translate" the messages into English for your querents.  ‘Cause memorizing a book of meanings so you can say what each card means is like memorizing the alphabet – you need to know it, but it’s only the very beginning.  And getting feedback from other people that can help you see how the cards or runes bear on their issues will help you learn the "rules" of syntax for your chosen divination system.  I’m not sure if that makes sense, and I’m also pretty sure it’s not the way some people would put it, but it’s been a fairly decent analogy for me over the years.  Again, though, that’s probably because I’m a "words and stories" person.  I can read with runes, but I find them more laconic than I like and it’s harder for me to read at a distance with them, and I can do charts, but I find that the math and numbers and "two-dimensional" way of representing charts turns the reading part of my brain off – the other parts have to work too hard and the part of me that can see stories and make them into English for people gets drowned out, if that makes any sense at all!

Anyway, practice practice practice is my best advice – and get other people to let you practice on them, too.  After a while you find yoru comfort zone with a deck – and experience will teach you that even though the book says "blah blah whatever," those two cards next to each other usually mean "long distance relationship," or when a certain card comes up first when you read for someone you don’t know, it can be a warning to *you,* the reader! rather than a message for the client.  Stuff like that.  You just get there with practice and study.  Maybe some people can read without practice and study, but I suspect those people could read without any tools at all (and probably because they are at least somewhat empathic, and probably also because they know human nature pretty well, and the cards being there is rather immaterial.  For me, it pays to learn the ins and outs of any new divination tool and system, and the best way for me has been to practice on people and get feedback.  And oddly, I have found that over the last few years I really can sometimes read with no tools at all – or with tools that have no really formal system (like a pack of kids’ go-fish cards or a stack of bar coasters) but I"m not sure I could have gotten to the edge of that possibility had I not spent the previous twenty years just plain doing divination and understanding what that "place where it makes sense" feels like and comes from, if that came out in English at all.  

Good luck!