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How I Use the Tarot

He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn't play for the money he wins
He doesn't play for respect

He deals the cards to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden law of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance

-- Sting, from "Shape of My Heart"


There are many, many different ways to use tarot cards. In the popular imagination, they are primarily associated with fortune-telling, a rather vague term that is not actually very well suited to what goes on in a "reading" with an experienced tarot reader. The tarot imagery, however, is open-ended. It invites a variety of approaches. My use of tarot cards falls into three very broad categories: study, meditation, and divination.


On a very basic level, I enjoy studying the cards. I enjoy reading what others have done with them, what interpretations they place on them, and what significance they attach to them. I enjoy learning the story of the history of the cards and the various speculative theories regarding their origins. Beyond the books, though, I study the cards themselves. This is perhaps a form of art appreciation, but with an interesting twist, because the images on tarot cards have a certain symbolic or mythic quality to them. They have been described as archetypal. So studying the cards themselves leads to interesting insights on the nature of the human psyche. What do these images suggest to me? What did they suggest to the artist? Do they transcend culture? The major arcana cards, viewed sequentially, seem to suggest a story to many people who study them. Were the cards invented to depict such a story, or is it our mind, thirsting for order in chaos, that weaves a tale into which the images fit? If the latter, is this not what we do to make sense of the events of life as well?

It is also fascinating to see how different artists have reinterpretated the tarot themes. It is a bit like seeing a hundred different depictions of the nativity. But with the tarot, there are so many different conceptions that link the cards with each other and with various mystical and philosophical systems, that the possibilities are truly vast. It is a fascinating mental exercise in understanding how the general and the particular interact, and how human creativity makes variations on a theme without entirely losing the common thread.

All this amounts to a lively exercise that draws on the analytical, esthetic, psychological, and imaginative faculties of the mind. One of the reasons I find this valuable is that I tend to compartmentalize these different faculties, to the detriment of several of them. Studying tarot engages all of them in a mutually constructive way. That's valuable practice.


To the extent that the tarot images depict subjects of psychological or spiritual importance, they can be used effectively as a focus for meditation. It is important in this context to distinguish between what might be called the "eastern" meaning of meditation, clearing the mind of thoughts and feelings as preparation to receiving enlightenment, and the "western" meaning, which is a sort of directed daydream. This latter is also called visualization. The idea is to focus on a particular image or scene until one becomes quite absorbed and feels a sense of immediacy and participation with the image. This process tends to weaken one's conscious, matter-of-fact connection with the physical environment, without entirely dissolving it. The imagination (or perhaps the subconscious mind) is then less inhibited, and offers up ideas that, under more ordinary circumstances, might be "censored" by the mind before we even become aware of them.

What does the "subconscious imagination" have to offer? Well, sometimes, it has good suggestions and valuable insights! But even when it seems to miss the mark, I benefit simply from the process of getting acquainted with it and appreciating its special qualities. This is an avenue to self-knowledge that parallels and complements direct analytical introspection.

The meditative experience also seems to be restorative. Even when the content of the meditation is uncomfortable, I tend to come away refreshed and centered, analogous to the way the body feels after stretching exercises or massage.


What is divination? The image that comes to mind is perhaps that of a shaman casting sticks on the ground and taking their arrangement as an omen of things to come. There is a seduction in the possibility of being able to see into the future in some way that is less ambiguous than our usual style of speculating and extrapolating. I think that is a false seduction; I don't believe the future is ever revealed to us in that way--certainly not by drawing pieces of cardboard from a deck! Nevertheless, I think divination does something valuable, even if it is not quite the same thing some people have hoped it can do.

When you study a "random" pattern--one you did not create and could not have anticipated--and try to read its meaning, you are forced to let go of some of your preconceptions and predilections. Preconceptions and linear thinking are excellent tools for testing and pruning ideas, but they are not very good for obtaining brand new ideas. To get new ideas, you need to practice a nonjudgmental openness, and let the unexpected come in. One way to do this is to arrange to have new ideas "delivered" to you randomly by, for example, a shuffled deck of cards. If one develops a clear understanding of the message of each tarot card in advance, then pulling one from a shuffled deck amounts to an invitation to consider that message in the context of the question you are exploring. Will that message always be the best possible message for you? No, of course not. You go back to "rational" thinking to evaluate the message and decide whether to act on it. But even if it is not the best possible message, it is likely to be valuable, if for no other reason than the fact that it is something new to consider.

The Nobel laureate chemist Linus Pauling was once asked how he came up with so many great ideas. His reply was that he came up with an enormous number of ideas--poor, mediocre, interesting, good, and great. With so many ideas to choose from, some were bound to be great. Tarot divination is a very good generator of ideas, some of which are bound to pan out into an important insight.

On a more mystical level, "divination" implies etymologically that one is reading the Mind of God. By surrendering your preconceptions and leaving the question in the hands of chance, you can find yourself drawn into a state of mind that appreciates your own insignificance and incompleteness. After some experience using the cards for divination, I find I tend to look past my own immediate focus and catch a sense of the larger ebb and flow of life. The cards bring forth images of gain and loss, power and impotence, joy and sorrow, round and round, over and over again. Instead of being swept up and down by each ripple, you can come to feel still and calm in the midst of the motion.

The Real Tarot

In practice, these three uses often blend together and fuse. I like that. The bottom line is that the cards are a fascinating and rewarding way to take a little time out of the day and focus on deeper matters. For me, it is not about "fortune telling", superstition, or being anti-rational. It is about deliberating using my esthetic, intellectual, and contemplative faculties to view the patterns of life holistically, intuitively, and spiritually. The goal is improved self-knowledge and a deeper perspective.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters