Tarot as a sense-making tool
Updated: Apr 27
How we make sense of the world involves several modes; logic, reasoning, observation & correlation, intuition, instinct (our inherited biological wisdom garnered over many generations), and receptivity (what one might call ‘psychic-openness’). The more of these modes we use, the richer our capacity to make sense of both the inner and the outer experience. Most life challenges remain so, simply because we have an incomplete understanding of what is happening or what we are experiencing, and as a result potential solutions evade us; if we could just see the situation in a new light, we might take an altogether as yet unimagined path of action; with insight always comes new possibility.
My journey with tarot started over 30 years ago and over the years my relationship and approach to the system has changed a great deal. My very first exposure to tarot happened when I was about 8 years old, when my mother went with her friend to see a tarot reader they’d heard about. It was all very hush hush back then, almost clandestine, and of course richly mysterious. I felt a deep reverberation within me over this vicariously ‘shared’ experience, even though my mother told me very little about the reading itself, and I think wisely so. And so like many of us, my first impression of tarot was that it had everything to do with foretelling the future.
Years later when I was 19 years old I found myself at the London mind-body-spirit festival sitting at one of the many tarot tables having my ‘fortune’ told, but there was more to the experience than that; I also experienced in that short half hour slot, someone paying attention to me with a degree of sincerity I’d not had before, and it felt good. Did he foretell my future very well? No I don’t think he did, but he did catalyse me and help me to make some clear decisions.
Over the years I’ve visited many tarot readers as part of my study of the system and the reality is that most of the readers did not accurately foretell my future in a way that mattered greatly. But most of the readings were able to help me see my current situations with greater clarity, in a way that just talking with friends did not achieve. All in all the most important information I gained from readers was not about the future but about aspects of me and my life that I could not easily see or recognize, and the insights gained through this process have proved over time to be invaluable.
A brief story of Tarot
No one knows for sure when or where tarot was originally conceived. The oldest officially known tarot cards date back to the mid-15th century and were used then as playing cards. If the tarot was ever designed for something other than gaming, then it is probable that the system evolved over time. What leads me to think this is the division between the major and minor arcana cards* which were probably created at different times and for different purposes.
* Tarot is divided up into two parts. The major arcana (secrets or mysteries) with 22 cards, and the minor arcana with 56 cards
In the early 20th century, academic and mystic A.E.Waite with the help of Pamela Coleman Smith published one of the first versions of tarot where all the minor arcana cards were pictograms*, which were later followed by the Crowley-Harris deck created in the 1940s but only published in 1969, and the Morgan-Greer deck (a re-working of the Waite-Smith deck) in the 1970s. Since then there have been many versions published most drawing from the early work of A.E Waite, but in my view not often equal to those earlier works. The intriguing aspect of tarot evolution is the contribution of intelligent academic occultists such as A.E. Waite and Aleister Crowley who presumably spent a lot of time in research, study and meditation creating their decks; they have imbued the ‘modern deck’ with esoteric meaning that is plain to see. Researcher and author Michael Tsarion explains tarot as a ‘book’ of ancient wisdom encoded into images by past initiates whose desire was to record and pass on ancient knowledge and understanding at a time when many ideas were seen as heresy and punishable by death during the Christian Era. As such the system represents the sum of generations of gathered human wisdom from the western traditions (including astrology and numerology) encoded into the system and the imagery.
*The only other deck I have come across before the Rider-Waite deck with full pictograms for the minor arcana is the fifteenth century Sola Busca Tarot now in Brera Museum
The tarot process
In principle, the 78 cards of the tarot system represent the totality of life. In this sense the tarot acts like a mirror. Cards are shuffled with a question in mind, then laid out and interpreted. Intention is a key part of the process; you won’t get much use out of a reading if your question isn’t meaningful to you. The cards themselves hold no power (although initially we may perceive this to be so), but rather act as mediators or intermediaries between the conscious part of self and the unconscious. In essence when we approach tarot-reading we are engaged in an attempt to draw information out of the unconscious and establish it in the conscious mind. In a tarot consultation the querent seeks missing information and through the relationship with the reader a bridge to the unconscious is made and if all goes well, the relevant ‘gnosis’ or inner-knowing is catalysed. Most often this information pertains to the querent themselves and to specifics of the ‘now-moment’, but occasionally information about the future is also revealed and proves to ‘come true’. The tarot process of self-inquiry can be done on one’s own although it is harder to achieve good results; consultation through another person has its advantages because we as the querent can remain more distanced from the process and are less likely to muddy the reading with projections.
What makes a good reader?
A good tarot reader needs to have a personal experiential relationship with the tarot imagery they are using, a firm understanding of numerology, and have developed their intuition and feminine receptive side. They also need to have good synthesis skills and be able to ground information from the unconscious into something useful and accurate. In addition it really helps if the reader is well established on their own path of individuation; they need to be keen observers of the human condition and hold wisdom.
Every reader will ‘colour’ readings with their own unique personality, this is only natural because information from ‘above and beyond’ is channeled through an ego identity. Good readers will have learned how to step out of the way as much as possible to let the information through as cleanly as possible. If a reader identifies too much with their role and capacity it can limit the reading and worse distort the information making it virtually useless.
How to approach tarot in an empowered way:
Don’t fixate too much on knowing the future since it is of little relevance because as Eckhart Tolle so clearly explains in his book, the power is in the now. Understanding your now-moment is by far more important than knowing your probable future.
Approach a reading with a sincere desire to know something about yourself or your life as it is unfolding now. Insight and awareness changes the way you act in the world and the clarity that comes from personal gnosis causes instant inner change
If a reader is overly determined to limit you by telling you exactly what will happen in your future, remind yourself that you are a participant in all your manifestations, that all experiences have something to teach you, and ignore whatever doesn’t resonate as true for you. Sometimes seeing a tarot reader can catalyse truth simply because the reader gets it all wrong.
Take responsibility for your choice to consult the tarot; come to the reading knowing that you are at the center of your universe and that the reader is acting on your behalf to help you understand something.
Choose your readers with care; use a balanced blend of logic and feeling. Friends can sometimes make for a good reading experience especially when trust is an issue, but friends are not always able to be completely neutral and lack of neutrality can bias the reading. Professional tarot readers are more likely to stay neutral, and if you choose wisely, can be very worthwhile experiences even if you yourself are a student of the tarot.