Tarot Reading One: The Single Card

Many books recommend drawing a card a day to help you become acquainted with your deck. It is also possible to draw one card to answer a question--the simplest "spread" of all. Working with a single card gives you an opportunity to go deeper into its meaning than you might if it was just one of a larger spread. Here are some ways to approach a single card.

Study: go to the books you have, or to online sources like Joan Bunning's tarot course, and study the interpretations given for the card. How do they differ? How are they alike? What parts of the image on the card bring the interpretation to mind? Even if you are already well acquainted with the "book meaning" of a card, a review like this can bring out interesting aspects of the card that you might be neglecting.

Also under the category of study, think about how the card fits into the "system" of the tarot. If it is a minor arcanum, consider how it combines the qualities of its suit and its rank. If it is a major, consider it in sequence--what card precedes it? What card follows it? Is there a story there?

Making connections: Look for examples of the idea of the card as you go through the day. Be creative. Look for superficial things (does the scale at the supermarket remind you of Justice?) as well as more profound ones (5 of cups: do you know someone who is suffering a loss? Do you remember the last time you suffered a loss? Bring it fully to mind). Try making a sketch based on the card, or writing a couple lines of verse or prose on the subject. What colors does the card evoke? What music?

Meditation: This, for me, is the best way to plumb the depths of a card and fix it in my mind. I usually precede meditation with some amount of study and making connections, if practical. I like to fill my conscious mind with ideas about the card before I begin.

The actual meditation has to be done in a very relaxed environment. (I tend to work at night, when others have gone to bed and the house is very quiet.) Do whatever relaxation ritual works for you. I do deep breathing combined with a bit of visualization on filling my body with light. The idea is just to lose your conscious concerns, and become very centered, focused, and peaceful. Then I examine the card very carefully, noting every detail. It is important to be very intense about this, and to take your time. You want to be able to close your eyes and see an exact image of the card in your mind. When you reach that point, you can put the card down, assume a relaxed posture, close your eyes, and enter the scene depicted on the card. Sometimes I imagine myself as someone new coming on the scene, other times I choose to identify with one of the figures on the card. Let the imaginary experience unfold however it comes. Don't be impatient. Sometimes you need to simply absorb the surroundings for awhile before the story starts into motion.

Meditation is almost guaranteed to bring you into personal relationship with the card, and impress its qualities on your mind. It takes some effort, and is not for everyday work, so it will take a long time to get acquainted with every card you have in this way. It is, however, an excellent way of working with a card that is giving you trouble, one that you can't decide how to interpret.

Some people question this approach to drawing the meaning out of a card, because they feel it is too subjective. I suppose it is possible to have a meditation that takes you way out into left field, but in my experience that is not what happens. If I take the trouble to study the card before beginning, so that I have those ideas available to my mind, and if I do a good job of clearing myself of the extraneous thoughts and preoccupations, then the meditation always delivers something that reinforces the "book meaning" of the card and gives it depth, without changing its basic character.

Having done a meditation on a card, I find the insights I get remain available permanently, so that when the card later comes up in a reading, I feel that I have an intimate understanding of it, and don't need to grope around in my mind to figure out what it means.

Now I'll talk about using a single card as a "spread" for divination purposes.

When I prepare to read, I like to use the same breathing exercise that I use to prepare for card meditation. It's similar to the practice of "grounding and centering" that many people use to prepare for meditative, religious, or magical work. It is important that the environment be quiet and free from distractions. I also have a nice spread cloth that I like to use. I sometimes uses candles or incense, but not always. I don't think the particulars matter too much, but I do like to do something a bit ritualistic in order to give a sense of importance to the event, which I do think is helpful.

I shuffle the deck, four times with the cards face up, three times with them face down, and then set the stack on the table in front of me face down. At this point, I formulate my question. My practice with all divination work is to ask open, psychological questions, rather than specific questions about events. This is even more important when using a single card, because you have to give the card latitude if you want an answer with any depth or subtlety. I often use a question like, "What do I need to be aware of about . . . " or "What is at work in . . . " or "Where is . . . leading to?"

After getting the question clear in mind, I solemnly cut the deck and turn the card, placing it in the center of my spread cloth and setting the deck aside. At this point, I draw on whatever meaning I have established for the card and start to use it to formulate an answer to the question. But I also look at the artwork on the card and see if there are things there that remind me of specific things associated with the question, and blend in those insights as well. Sometimes, the implication is pretty clear by this point. If it is not, I relax my mind and allow myself some free association.

When I first started, there were a few times when I thought the cards were "wrong" and started drawing other cards, hoping to get a clearer answer. I never do this now; I don't think it is helpful. Respect the cards you draw. If they don't seem to fit, that's a challenge for you to go deeper in trying to understand and make connections. (I do, sometimes, follow on with a second question, but that is different process, and I do it only after I'm clear on how the cards answered the original question.) In extremely difficult questions, I can always break through the problem by doing a meditation on the card that is giving me trouble.

Here are a few guidelines on how I interpret the different sorts of cards in a single-card spread--

aces indicate a new beginning, and urge me to expect the unexpected

number cards indicate situations that I need to acknowledge and deal with

court cards indicate aspects of my personality that bear on the problem

major arcana indicate opportunities for personal growth or perhaps a mental habit that I need to make use of; they are active forces for change, rather than the static situations represented by the minors

Secondarily, I interpret the major arcana and aces as suggesting that the situation has a real profundity to it, that it is perhaps an important crossroads for me. Number cards and court cards are less intense; they suggest that I just need to be more aware of some factor, but that life will flow on through this situation anyway.

I return the card to the deck, give a final shuffle with the cards upside down, and return them to their box. I often follow up on the reading by looking at different book interpretations of the card, and thinking about the interpretation I arrived at in the reading. The reading can last anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, depending on how challenging it is to relate the card to the question. The period of study or reflection following the reading is ideally an hour or so, although if the question is of no great importance in my life, this "wind-down" may be shortened quite a bit.

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Copyright © 1998 Tom Tadfor Little