Beyond the Booklet: Reading Tarot Intuitively

Originally published in A Lighter View’s February 2023 issue.

You heard about tarot and wanted to learn more so you picked up a deck or two. You’ve downloaded apps and eBooks and have memorized all the meanings of the cards by heart. You feel pretty confident about drawing a card or three and knowing the general gist of the message. Still, something feels a little off about your readings. You wonder how the tarot readers you see on YouTube are able to convey such rich, detailed messages and advice from just the basic definitions of the cards, while you feel like your readings are AI-generated. The secret is that professional tarot readers usually aren’t relying on the card definitions to construct their readings – instead they read intuitively.

As a beginner, it’s totally normal and perfectly fine to rely on the deck booklets and tarot apps to remind you what meanings the cards are generally associated with. However, it’s also really common to come up on a wall with this method eventually as the booklets and definitions begin to limit our perspective on what the cards may be trying to convey. This is where it can be helpful to learn to read intuitively. Reading tarot intuitively is a skill that can take some time to develop, but usually comes more naturally to creative types. That’s because this method of interpretation relies on using your imagination, not a dictionary, to construct the narrative that accompanies the cards. Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Connect with the cards, not the booklet. The booklets are there to help you learn about the imagery and symbolism of the cards – but they are not the cards themselves. It’s kind of like confusing a photograph of a mountain for the mountain itself. It’s easy to begin to think that the booklets and the definitions are the cards, but that’s not correct. The next time you pull out your deck to do a reading, try just looking at the cards. You may feel called to arrange them a certain way besides the way they came out. You might notice repeating symbols or details that jump out at you that wouldn’t have even been mentioned in the booklet. Notice what feelings or ideas come to you when you look at certain cards. How does it feel to look at The Devil, especially compared to Temperance? How do the colors, landscapes, and figures make you feel?
  1. Give the cards a story. It’s helpful to treat spreads like a storyboard. What are the events taking place from start to finish? Who are the main characters? What are their motivations? What is the primary conflict of the story? What is needed to overcome the conflict? Sometimes you might even see the same character across multiple cards, tied together by some consistent color or symbol. You might even spontaneously imagine an entire backstory to the cards that has little to do with the traditional meanings. Let your imagination take the wheel here and you might be blown away by how relatable your reading becomes. This is often where readings really start to come alive.
  1. Experiment with spreads or no spreads. Spreads, such as the Celtic Cross, can be helpful because they give a predefined purpose to each card. It gives structure to the overall narrative and arrangement of the cards. Sometimes this can just cause confusion instead. If you find yourself confused, try reading without a spread. Let yourself arrange the cards in whatever way feels right to you and allow the narrative to emerge organically. Just don’t forget to have a well-constructed question going into the reading, or you may find yourself just as lost and confused as before. How we apply language is important for cultivating specificity within a reading: too much, and the reading becomes formulaic and lifeless; too little, and the reading becomes too general to be meaningful.
  1. Let your inner critic take a backseat. When reading intuitively, doubting yourself is the surest way to throw off your game. That’s because acting on intuition is ultimately faith-based – you can’t be sure that your interpretation is going to resonate with your client or friend until you just go out and say it. Don’t hold back what you’re picking up from the cards – it may be that it takes a while for your message to make sense, due to external circumstances. The same goes even if you are reading for yourself. Also, it’s okay to just plain be wrong sometimes. Even professional readers are wrong sometimes – we’re not omniscient. If something isn’t landing, it can help to make your message more general and see how the querent responds. Perhaps, for example, you see the Knight of Cups appear and you think it could be about a lover or long-term relationship only to discover that the person you are reading for has no interest in romance. You can walk things back to something more general like “acting from the heart.” Reading intuitively isn’t an exact science.

Try putting these tips into practice and see how your readings evolve over time. Eventually, you may find yourself not even bothering to flip through the booklets of new decks you buy – not that there’s anything wrong with doing that. Booklets often contain valuable information about the deck they belong to and it doesn’t make you a worse reader to refer to them. Tarot ultimately is a medium for channeling messages and advice, and booklets can serve as that medium as well. What’s important is understanding that channeling is an intuitive act, which can be difficult to grasp when you are first starting out. Using these tips will help broaden the perspective with which you approach your readings, so that your approach is not exclusively logic-dominated. No matter what techniques you use to do a reading (booklet or no booklet, spreads or no spreads, etc.) your experience will benefit from finding ways to allow your intuition to participate.

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