Category Archives: Practical Tarot

Is Tarot Necessarily Spiritual?

Photo on 8-3-16 at 1.35 PMOkay. First, I need to put on my religious studies scholar hat.


“Spirituality” is not objectively a thing that we can locate and measure.

It’s constructed, both culturally and by individuals. Over time, we ascribe meaning to objects and practices, and eventually those things take on greater symbolism. They become spiritual. For some people.

As a community, we tend to talk about certain things as though they’re inherently spiritual. Meditation, crystals, drinking tea, tarot cards…you can probably make your own list based on the various “spiritual” hashtags from Instagram or Tumblr.

Like the more we meditate, the more spiritual we inherently are. Or the more tea we drink, the more enlightened we become.

But here’s the thing: those things are tools. They’re not in and of themselves spiritual. Thanks to some selective history and, frankly, marketing, we associate them with “spiritual” people. We forget that “religion” and “spirituality” (again, even the perceived difference between those terms says more about our cultural locations than it does about objective things called “religion” or “spirituality”) have looked different across millennia—continue to look different wherever we are in the world. Just doing and having particular things doesn’t automatically make us more anything.

I have at least a dozen Bibles in my house right now. In my hands, they’re just books. For Christians, they may be symbols of something else, but my owning and handling them has zero impact on anything in my life. The power isn’t literally in the book, or I’d surely be glowing by now.

Drinking tea might relax you and make you feel super witchy and receptive to the voices of the gods, and that’s fantastic and valid. But it’s not inherently in the tea. The thousands of other people drinking that tea from the same manufacturer aren’t having the same experiences you are. Your experience has more to do with you.

Someone else (hint: it’s me) is a lot happier with coffee or vodka.

And that’s cool.

Something becomes spiritual when you assign spiritual value to it. If it’s meaningless to you, it will continue to be meaningless no matter how much of it you drink, buy, or practice.

Tarot cards are not inherently spiritual. They became spiritual in time, thanks to the efforts of particular people. They used to just be a weird card game for rich Italians.  If they are spiritual to you, then that says more about you than the cards themselves. And you’re probably awesome, so that’s great news.


Okay, taking my religious studies hat off.

Tarot is a part of my spiritual practice, but not really because it’s a divination tool. I see my tarot reading as an acquired skill, developed with long hours of practice over the course of years. Part history, part religious studies, part literary studies, part storytelling, tarot makes sense to me the way interpreting any kind of text makes sense to me. We take a set of symbols and we build meaning, based on our cultural backgrounds, our personal experiences, and our impulses (which are often just sublimated pieces of our experiences, not external messages from nowhere). If the gods are involved, it’s because, on some level, I’ve involved them.

Instead, tarot is spiritual for me because it’s given me this huge body of symbols—a language, if you will—to make sense of other things. Tarot is a map to my world. I think of people and events in terms of cards. I understand abstractions like “spiritual growth” or “initiation” or “shadow work” in terms of tarot symbols. It’s a way of creating meaning for me. It gives me context. I can say, “Oh, this was totally a Seven of Swords moment,” or “Holy shit I need to stop dating Knights what the fuck is wrong with me.” Instead of feeling like I’m alone in the world, feeling something no one has ever felt before, I can find reassurance in the cards. Yes, other people have been here, too. This is the next step on the Fool’s Journey.

It may not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me. It becomes spiritual.

So is tarot necessarily spiritual? That depends on what world you’re occupying, I suppose. For me, the Bible is just a book and a tarot deck is just a stack of printed cardboard. But I can see the power that they hold for people, in different circumstances, and I can respect that. It’s the thing the symbol represents that matters, which depends on context. The American flag itself isn’t holy, but perhaps liberty and justice are. When people get upset at the misuse of flags, it’s not because they believe that the flag is literally the country. The Book of Shadows I keep isn’t my practice of witchcraft. You could set it on fire and I’d just make another one.  I wouldn’t stop being a witch just because you took it from me. My tarot deck isn’t the source of my divinatory powers. If I lost it, I’d just buy another one.   The tea you’re drinking isn’t what’s making you magical. You’re magical all on your own. Your tarot practice is spiritual because you are spiritual.

Tarot School Correspondence Course Review

IMG_3634I signed up for the Tarot School Correspondence Course in May of 2012. I’d been flirting with the idea for several months. I picked up my first pack of tarot cards back when I was thirteen (I’m in my thirties now) and had taught myself to use them by reading books and practicing on friends. I was well-read, but not particularly experienced, and definitely not confident.

My professional life is in academia and teaching, so I’m a big fan of organized learning. I need a lot of structure, whether I’m creating it for myself or working though someone else’s. I was interested in applying some of the same formalities to my own studies of tarot: set reading materials, homework, practice activities, and feedback from an expert I respected and trusted.

There are a lot of tarot courses available online and through correspondence (nevermind the countless books that provide all kinds of curriculae, to the point of being overwhelming). I don’t remember exactly how I found Tarot School; I think it was while researching tarot certification programs. The Amberstones have a couple of published books, a number of shorter audio courses available online, in-person workshops in New York City, and, of course, they’re responsible for the Readers Studio. Their reputation precedes them, so I felt pretty comfortable committing to this course (and chose it over others because of the promised one-on-one attention).

Just to be sure, I purchased one of the audio courses (as a bonus, it was on sale already in recognition of World Tarot Day, and I even had a coupon from signing up for the Tarot Tips newsletter). Over the course of a couple of weeks, I listened to these recordings, taking detailed notes and repeatedly having my mind blown just by listening to the ensuing discussions (the audio courses are recordings of live classes, so you get the added benefit of other students’ questions and commentary, with the Amberstones’ unfiltered responses). I was hooked. I knew that the full Correspondence Course would be worthwhile.

The Cost

The Correspondence Course isn’t cheap; there’s no two-ways about it. You have the option of paying for just the materials and working without outside guidance, which is only a fraction of the price of the full course (and significantly less appealing, in my mind, for reasons I’ll get to). You can also pay a little bit more than the full cost and submit your work via e-mail, which can save time, paper, and the hassle of dealing with the postal system.

I reasoned that it wasn’t any more expensive than one of my university classes (I was in graduate school at the time), and would likely be a good investment if I could turn my work into a professional tarot business. I was also allowed to pay in monthly installments, so the overall cost was bearable. There are courses offered for half the cost elsewhere (even some that offer “certification”), but I haven’t seen one that offers nearly the information, experience, or feedback offered at Tarot School.

But the real benefit of this course is the one-on-one time with Wald Amberstone, and that’s what I feel like I’m paying for. In my household, we joke that it’s a little like calling Yoda and talking about the Force (“EVERYBODY SHUT AND STOP BOTHERING ME UP IT’S TIME TO CALL WALD AND ABSORB WISDOM”). Wald’s experience in tarot is practically unparalleled, and his work has led him to be informed in a number of related subjects. My thinking tends to be abstract and often wanders into other occult subjects, and he has never failed to challenge me. Not once has he spouted self-help platitudes at me, for which I couldn’t be more grateful. He’s totally unpretentious, and always willing to say “I don’t know” if that’s what the question calls for. Our conversations last anywhere from forty minutes to a bit over an hour, and I look forward to them immensely. He doesn’t critique my work, per se, but rather draws connections and observes patterns that escape me on my own. If I had questions in my writing, he answers them. Mostly, he energizes my work, not just in tarot, but also as an occultist in the Western tradition. My conversations with Wald have even impacted my thinking as a Gardnerian witch, which I think is saying something.

The Time

On Tarot School’s website, we’re told to allow about three years to finish the whole course and earn the degree. I’ve never had conversations with other Correspondence Course students, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of this figure, but I’m moving at a much slower rate than that. Between my assorted jobs, writing professionally, running a Wiccan coven, and periodically entertaining the fantasy of a social life, it takes me about five months to finish a correspondence course lesson.

To be fair, I’m also a bit of a freak when it comes to these assignments. The minimum number of pages for each activity (and there might be 20-40 activities that require a writing component in each lesson) is one, with a max of five. The completed lessons I turn in are generally about 50 to 75 pages of original writing. Even if you stick to the minimum, you will have written the equivalent of a ginormous book by the time you’ve finished this course. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of time, and I don’t doubt that many people simply aren’t inclined to put in that much effort. Even if you only do the bare minimum, you’re still producing something enormous and profound. You have to be self-motivated.

You can do it all at your own pace, though. If you’re disciplined and patient with yourself, it’s doable. Wald is a phone call away (and always enthused and encouraging…I even butt-dialed him once), and there are outside resources listed throughout the course that can be helpful. If you’re a correspondence course junkie, I’d recommend toning it down and just focusing on this one, just for the sake of time. There’s a lot to be had here, particularly if you give it your full attention.

The Result

Since beginning work on the Tarot School Correspondence Course, I’ve become a professional reader. I have a website, a blog, and a practice out of a local storefront. I don’t make my living at tarot, but I have made enough money to cover the cost of the course several times over.

I have a handle on some of the most commonly avoided tarot-related subjects: Qabalah, astrology, and alchemy. You can choose to ignore those things down the road if they’re not your thing, but they’re no longer intimidating or irrelevant to my tarot practice. I’m excited about them now.

I have my own gigantic body of original writing (whether it’s journaling or more formal essays about particular cards or concepts) upon which to draw when I get stuck or just need to be inspired. I also have a strong enough foundation in a variety of tarot-related subjects, so it’s easier to recognize good sources when I’m looking to expand into some other tarot realm.

I’ve got a mentor I trust.

I’ve developed the confidence to reach out to other tarot communities (through Tarot School, locally, and through other online sources), making new friends, learning tons of things it had never even occurred to me to know.

And I’m barely halfway through the course, three years later. So ask me again in another three years!

Can you say too much during a reading?

“Should I ask you my question or just keep it to myself?”

First-time clients often wonder whether they should be direct and say exactly what’s on their mind or wait and see if it comes up on its own. It’s not uncommon for folks to think that speaking too much will “taint” the reading by swaying the reader. Sometimes we worry about “bias” in readings, brought on by knowing too much.*

IMG_6154The issue, once again, is how you think tarot works and what you think it can do:

If tarot is a magical device that communicates messages from an external source (like a god, a spirit, an angel, or a guide of some kind), then it can make sense to hold your question and commentary and expect relevant insight to come forth. If the response comes from an outside, mystical force, then the tarot reader becomes a vehicle for communication rather than the source itself. Theoretically she wouldn’t need much (if any) information in order to tell you exactly what you needed to hear, depending on how powerful those external forces were.

If tarot is a spooky, mysterious device with powers inherent in the cards themselves (or unspecified powers controlling the cards), then you also wouldn’t want to give information away, because the results (if they were accurate) would simply be less titillating, much in the way that a Ouija board is less scary if you know your asshole friend Rachel is always moving the damn planchette. It stops being impressive if you can chock things up to a wily reader asking leading questions or sourcing information beforehand.

If tarot is a therapeutic tool rooted in contemporary understandings of psychology (whether well-informed or not), then one of two things might be feasible: (1) Keep silent or vague and attribute accurate, meaningful responses to a collective unconscious, the universality of a human experience, or empathy or (2) be forthright with information under the pretense that a reading functions like a counseling session and the more direct we both are, the better.

The thing is, tarot is all of these things (and more) depending on who you’re talking to. The cards have been used for gambling games, New Age counseling, party tricks, talking to spirits, and scaring the shit out of kids at sleepovers since there have been tarot cards readily available to the public (and some things, quite a bit longer).

It’s hubris (and just historically inaccurate) to insist that the cards are one thing to the exclusion of others.

So when you’re going for a reading (or performing them), what is it that you want to achieve? Do you want to be spooked? Do you want a pragmatic answer to an ongoing question? Do you want evidence that the spirit world is real?

What you want will determine what sort of reader you need to seek out and how (or if) you should ask your question.

I don’t give much credence to angel guides or any inherent power in the cards themselves, for example. My cards are special (because I love them) and imbued with whatever witchiness I might choose to put I them (which I don’t, so none), but ultimately they’re just cardboard. I don’t believe that they store energy beyond the psychological associations I ascribe to them (“I hate that guy who touched my cards, and now I think of him every time I shuffle them.”) and I don’t use them to talk to any mystical beings. So I may not be the best choice for someone who wants to receive a message from their spirit guides. It’s cool if that’s what you want, but I don’t have the fluency to support you in the way that you probably need. Fortunately, there are a million other readers who would be excellent choices (and I’m always happy to point you to a more appropriate reader!).

I know enough about people, reading body language, and making assumptions based on visual cues that I’m pretty confident that I could mystify someone at a carnival. I also know a couple of basic card tricks, so pulling off the spooky sleepover or Halloween party would be relatively easy. Some other readers find this sort of thing offensive. Again, it’s a matter of desired outcome and choosing the right person for the job (again, there are choices better than me). This is almost never the sort of reading you should expect if you visit a shop that offers tarot readings or if you book something with a reader online. Most of the folks who describe themselves as “professional” readers (“professional” as a descriptor of decorum, not only in the sense that they earn money reading) won’t give you the magic-trick-spooky-scare-yourself type of experience.

My own approach to tarot is varied, and it tends toward something of a combination of the things above, more or less depending on the setting. I don’t consider my cards to be a magical tool, though I am both a witch and a magician. That’s a personal choice. I believe in gods and spirit communication, but I have other preferred devices for that sort of thing. If something has ever come through the cards, it’s never been in a client setting. I don’t subscribe to a collective unconscious or a universal human experience, so I tend to avoid that sort of language. I do, however, experience patterns in human demographics and am comfortable asserting that people tend to have similar problems, similar ways to deal with them, and similar sources for comfort. Put simple, people aren’t snowflakes. There’s definitely psychology at work, though I don’t have any formal training as a counselor. When I have intuitive responses to cards, these are rooted in empathy (a basic human quality and not a magical power), subconscious impressions (which is still empathy), and educated guesswork (i.e. a keen sense of observation). It’s not particularly mystical, but it is very effective. Ultimately, my goal is pragmatism. I look for concrete tasks in a reading and work to end sessions with tangible advice based on the spread and the cards.

And at any given point, some of the above may be in conflict, more or less true, and always in flux (because I’m human).

My experience has been that tarot is accurate and useful regardless of how much the client speaks or how direct the question because people have a knack for bringing up the things they want to think and talk about. It’s just what we do naturally. If you are mentally set on your love life and that’s all you care about in the moment, then it doesn’t matter if I draw a bunch of pentacles and The Hierophant next to The Hermit (or whatever). We’ll end up talking about your love life, or you’ll make the connections in your head on your own. If we end up talking about something else entirely, it’s likely because your love life isn’t as central as you think it is (I’ve been in enough therapy to know that when we’re worried and focused on one thing, that thing can often be a mask for something else more pressing). In this setting (which is mostly where I operate), a good reading depends on a reader being able to engage conversationally and communicate clearly. The client has to be comfortable and there needs to be some trust in place. Having some life experience helps, too.

The thing to remember is that it’s not a dichotomy between spilling your whole life story and sitting masked in stony silence. Either is fine, but there’s plenty of middle ground. I’ve had some clients who will ask very general, vague questions (“There’s some stuff going on with my kids and I’m not sure how I feel,” or “Where do I go next?”). I’ve had others give me topical information (“I want to talk about career stuff,” or “It’s about my love life.”). Sometimes, clients sit back and see what comes up in the first card or two and then interject with information that narrows things down and guides the conversation.

Whatever you choose is okay, but it pays to seek out the most appropriate reader for the job.

*This is related to the dilemma of whether or not you can read for yourself or read for close friends. I’ve already addressed the former, and will write about the latter another time, as it deserves its own post.

The Celtic Cross is Kind of Terrible

photoWhen I got my first tarot deck, The Unicorn Tarot, it came with a little white book (LWB) that listed vague keywords for each card, the usual bullshit history about the totally ancient art of divination with tarot, and instructions on performing a reading with the ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread.

I tell you what, I poured over that tiny fucking book, pulling it out every two seconds and trying to make sense of lines like, “The spiritual unicorn reminds us of our spiritual selves!” and “He has awakened to his higher self, as we all must learn to do, given time.” (Hint: I couldn’t make sense of these sentences as a teenager because they don’t actually mean anything in real life.) I diligently (not to mention ultra-spiritually) laid out cards in that ten-card pattern, only to be immediately overwhelmed by New Age buzzwords and really terrible unicorn pictures.

Being a no0b, I did what most people who buy tarot decks do: I assumed the problem was with me and I put my cards away, because, clearly, I just wasn’t cut out to work with tarot.

The problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t even really my heinous teenaged taste in art. The problem was that the Celtic Cross is a poor place to start for anyone, and doesn’t even make much sense further down the road.

Near as anyone can tell, the Celtic Cross comes out of the assorted Golden Dawn materials and was propagated (if not totally invented) by A.E. Waite in the early 20th century. Waite was super into the Holy Grail/Celtic religion thing and was, like many of his colleagues, invested in demonstrating how there was a great deal of commonality in the various schools of occult thought, intersecting with ancient religions, etc., etc. Nobody at the time was really above making weak claims as to the antiquity of assorted pieces of occult wisdom, and the Celtic Cross just sort of gently leached into the magical water supply as the tarot’s popularity grew.

Whatever the Celtic Cross is, it is most surely neither ancient nor Celtic.

But even if it were, it would still be a crappy spread for beginners (and maybe anyone). I say this because it’s just a hell of a lot of information. Ten positions, plus ten individual card interpretations, plus whatever connections you make as a reader is just a lot of opportunity for overload. Especially when any one card provides so much detail that it could, essentially, answer any question. Whether you’re an intuitive reader or you rely on an esoteric system, there’s a ton to say about any single card. A beginner, especially one relying on a LWB, does not need ten of them. In fact, most of the professionals I know don’t need ten of them.

I very rarely use spreads that involve more than five or six cards. My favorite spreads involve three or less. I think it’s a mistake to assume that “more complicated question” automatically equates to “more cards.” Just consider how much has been written about any one card (including the minors). Consider the level of detail in each image (at least, the ones that come out of the Golden Dawn tradition, which is most of them). Consider the possible permutations for interpretation available in the combination of any two or three cards.

Less is more. Less often ensures a greater level of clarity. Less is fewer opportunities for confusion or conflict. Less is further safeguard against just reading whatever you want into a spread.

Don’t believe me? Try answering a complicated question with a single card. Pull out every detail and every bit of tradition attached to that card. I think most people would be surprised.

Coming back to the Rider-Waite

Working as a reader in a Pagan store that sells tarot cards and hanging out on the tarot Interwebs, I hear a lot of commentary about the various decks on the market. How to choose a good deck, whether or not you should even be buying your own deck, and all kinds of stuff about “connecting” to decks. But recently what’s interested me most is the language that surrounds the Rider-Waite deck and its closest variants (like my own cherished Universal Waite). It sounds like this:

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great beginners’ deck.”

“That’s fine until you connect with something more personal.”

“You’re still using the Rider-Waite?”

“I’ve got the Rider-Waite, but now I’m looking for something more advanced.”

I hear comments lIMG_6142ike the above almost every day, and there are a few assumptions at work here that I want to address.

First, there is the assumption that the Rider-Waite is a deck exclusively for beginners. I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between stating that a deck is ideal for new tarot users (and therefore a “great beginners’ deck”) and stating that the deck is somehow remedial (“…until you find something more personal/better/more detailed/whatever”). The Rider-Waite represents a keystone in tarot history to which the majority of tarot decks available today owe their structure and symbolism. Replacing Pamela Coleman Smith’s figure in The Magician with a cat holding a wand does not make this any less true. And because the Rider-Waite is a keystone deck, it absolutely is an ideal choice for beginners. What better way to learn than to go back to the source?

The mistake happens when we then assume that, because the Rider-Waite is both a good and popular choice for beginners, it is only a beginners’ deck and, eventually, we will all find something we “connect” with on a more intimate level.

When tarot readers talk about “connecting” to decks, they often mean locating those that incorporate figures or images that are more personally reflective. The images evoke particular emotions in them or make more sense to them in conveying traditional interpretations (or coming up with new ones altogether). Perhaps the art style is more appealing, or the images include figures that are more relatable (for example, a deck designed for gay men, or cat lovers, or Lord of the Rings fans, or Wiccans). Overwhelmingly, the basics of the Rider-Waite tradition will be preserved, however (illustrated minor arcana, the same set and order of trump cards, four suits with consistent elemental/magical associations, and comparable basic images, i.e. a Fool hovering above a cliff, a 3 of Swords that incorporates heart imagery, mounted Knights, etc.).

I get it. I too have decks that have greater personal appeal than my Universal Waite. As a Pagan, for example, I love the Robin Wood Tarot. Its Rider-Waite-meets-Wicca flavor satisfies my impulse to incorporate my witchcraft into my tarot practice and, frankly, it’s just better art than what I see in my Waite deck.

I could list others. There are plenty of decks that have more visual appeal for me than the Rider-Waite, and I can and do read with these. But underneath it all is the Waite deck, to which I always return. Not because I’m a beginner or because I haven’t properly connected to something more visceral, but because my love for history and tradition pulls me back around.

The second assumption underlying much of the above is that the Rider-Waite is simple, not advanced, or otherwise basic. People who use it are somehow unchallenged, inexperienced, or just haven’t progressed to something with real meat to it.

I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been reading cards for a few years and have described themselves as “masters” or “experts” of the Waite deck, and all I can do is gently smile and try to keep my mouth shut. What they really mean is that they’re comfortable doing readings with this deck. This does not mean that they appreciate (let alone understand) the intricate occult histories and esoteric systems present (alchemy and Qabalah anyone?).

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through studying the Rider-Waite, it’s that I’m never going to master it. There’s too much here, and I’ve only got so much time to devote to any one or two magical systems.

So in studying tarot—of any sort—it’s worthwhile to consider that maybe it isn’t so much progressing from the Rider-Waite but progressing toward it. For me, my use of the Universal Waite has been all about coming back around. With a growing background in the Golden Dawn and other influential magical systems, my appreciation for the tarot is a great deal deeper. Now, many Rider-Waite copies—while more beautiful—feel superficial to me. They often seem to be missing out on a big picture because the artist or writer was unversed in esoIMG_6143teric tradition. I think this is the reason why my favorite decks (aside from my Waite deck) are outside of the Waite system. The traditionalist in me demands that I study primary sources and not reproductions.

It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of great reasons to not use the Rider-Waite (offhand I think about Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, the glaring absence of POC figures, and just not giving a shit about the Golden Dawn), but because it is a “beginner” deck isn’t one of them.

Buying Your Own Deck: Tarot, Spirituality, and Money

If everyone had to wait to be gifted a tarot deck in order to start reading effectively, most of us would be screwed. I would have been screwed, for sure.

I purchased my first tarot deck—Liz Hilton’s The Unicorn Tarot—for about $20 at a New Age bookstore back when I was fourteen or so. I had never heard that one shouldn’t buy one’s own tarot, and I would have disregarded such advice anyway. Who on earth would have bought one for me? I certainly wasn’t going to tell my parents I wanted a deck and none of my teenaged friends had any more cash than I did. I would have been waiting an awfully long time.

The old tale that a tarot deck won’t “work” unless it’s received as a gift is but one more in a long history of superstitions surrounded gifts and gift giving in magical communities. I’ve met Wiccans who insist that athames must be gifted and never purchased. I’ve met crystal healers who claim that the most powerful stones are those received from friends. And there are always neophyte tarot readers asking if it’s okay for them to buy their own decks.

I’m not a folklorist or historian, so I can’t tell you exactly where these kinds of beliefs originated, but I can provide some insight based on patterns I’ve observed and studied in other kinds of religious/spiritual/magical* communities:

The relationship between magic, religion, and money is pretty complicated. In the United States especially we tend to be very suspicious of religion as it intersects with the marketplace. Even though there’s plenty of money tied up in spirituality, it tends to collectively make us at least a little uncomfortable (though often we don’t talk about it). We don’t like it when preachers have mansions. We don’t like “mass-produced” religion. We don’t think we should have to pay for “real” spiritual and religious goods. We don’t like it when people charge for religious teaching. We don’t like it when we think churches, temples, or covens are interested in money (more times than I can count I’ve listened to ex-Christians bemoan the practice of tithing). Real spiritual people—whether we mean Christian ministers, Wiccan high priestesses, Buddhist meditation teachers, or tarot readers—aren’t supposed to be concerned with earthly matters like money and physical goods. Every professional tarot reader at some point will hear someone complain about how if we were really compassionate, spiritual people, we wouldn’t charge for readings.

These kinds of assumptions are obviously problematic because, in fact, there is a huge industry surrounding spirituality (and while tarot is not inseparable from spirituality, I’m including it here because for many of us it is spiritual). We spend money on classes, services, products, memberships, tithes, and clergy salaries, depending on whatever our particular tradition happens to be. And we like it. But most of us would be horrified to be accused of “buying religion” and more than a little pissed to be called shallow. And that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting. I think strong arguments can (and have) been made that this phobia surrounding money and religion is partially rooted—at least in the United States—in our early Protestant heritage.

Money is a kind of contagion. It taints religion, taints relationships, taints the way we interact in the world. At least, that’s the underlying assumption at work in the assertion that a tarot deck won’t “work” if it’s purchased. I want to resist these impulses because I reject that idea that industry, the marketplace, and the payment for services of any kind is inherently evil or destructive. Individually, I think it’s at least worth checking ourselves given the potential for hypocrisy here.

Aside from money, there are also assumptions about the mechanics of tarot reading operating here. If a deck won’t “work” under certain circumstances, the implication is that the power lies in the object alone rather than in the efforts of the reader. I also reject this idea, though that’s an entry for next time. For now, suffice it to say that, while I certainly believe an object can hold power all on its own, it is the reader who has the most impact over a deck’s effectiveness.

So go buy that tarot deck you want. It’s not going to break it.

*Please note that I use the terms “religious” and “spiritual” and “magical” more or less interchangeably. I tend to not make a distinction, except at the preference of whomever I may be describing.

Is certification worth it?

IMG_3634I love pretending that there are tangible, truly objective ways to measure nebulous things like experience, intelligence, or aptitude. Formal schooling is all about this sort of thing, and my whole life has been instance after instance of trying to measure up to imposed standards, jumping through hoops, and earning letters after my name. My degrees make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and they (theoretically) convey that accomplishment to other people in meaningful ways:

“Oh, wow, she went to college, like, four times. She can totally work a cash register. Let’s start her at $7.25 an hour.”

But as much as I love school (not even kidding) and as much as I believe in formal education and having agreed upon standards, I also know that no system is perfect. I have seen firsthand how SAT scores, grades, and degrees are not always reliable measures for competence, long-term performance, intelligence, and a lot of other things that we often take for granted. Working in academia quickly taught me that having a Ph.D. in the humanities is often only a reliable indicator of two things: your capacity for withstanding bullshit and how much money you have laying around. Bright students can flunk out, the incompetent can win praise, and countless others will never have the chance one way or the other simply because they have been arbitrarily denied access.

Formal education might be one of the better indicators of experience, ability, and potential that we have, but obviously it is a problematic system.

Tarot certification is much the same, on a smaller scale.

The first problem, of course, is that there is no universal standard for what makes a competent tarot reader, worthy of the client’s time and money. A university must earn accreditation through an external board of reviewers according to standards that are applied to all other universities of its type (and fork over a shit ton of money in the process). A tarot reader can only be measured according to the standards established by what is usually a private business (often owned by only one or two people) interested primarily in generating a profit (which is not a criticism—money is awesome—but let’s be honest).

There have been organizations in the past (such as the now defunct American Board for Tarot Certification) that have attempted to establish more objective standards for readers, awarding titles like “apprentice” and “master” and even “grandmaster,” but these often only guarantee that the so-titled has passed a series of online quizzes and essays, perhaps published in some capacity, or performed a certain number of readings (with testimonies provided by clients who could just as easily be conspiring friends). While these might be likely indicators of ability (like college), they are only surely indicators of free time (and, hopefully, professional commitment to tarot), expendable income (because there are fees all along the way), and perhaps writing and networking abilities. It does not guarantee the ability to give a great reading.

But I don’t want to sound like I’m totally nay-saying certification. I’m not.

Like formal schooling in other disciplines, determining whether or not they’ve undergone any kind of certification (or even just attended workshops or classes) is still a useful way for potential clients to gauge a reader’s experience. It doesn’t mean that they’re definitely going to be a better reader than someone who taught themselves and just works out of their tent at summer festivals, but it at least tells you that they’re committed enough to tarot to further their studies in a (usually) more rigorous ways.

It’s not a guarantee, but if this was a racetrack and you were placing bets, you’d be better off choosing the person with some kind formalized training. As a client, you still might lose in the end, but the odds are better.

As a reader, my own work with certification has been enormously beneficial. Studying with the Tarot School doesn’t make me a “certified” anything per se, but I do get to talk about fancy “degree” levels. Will it mean anything to a client that I’m working on a degree through Tarot School? Probably not. It usually doesn’t mean anything to other readers beyond HOLY SHIT THAT’S A LOT OF MONEY (correct, but thus far cheaper and with greater profit margins than my entire graduate career). But I’m a completely different sort of reader because of it, and my experience with and knowledge of tarot has developed to such an extent that I can hardly believe I ever thought myself competent beforehand.

Tarot School is quite a bit more academic than a lot of other available programs (not to mention longer), and absolutely will not appeal to everyone (nevermind the cost). There are a lot of others to choose from. The Tarosophy Tarot Association has about a dozen classes (including its own degree program) that I’d love to take, including a “Tarot Certificate” course. Biddy Tarot is another popular site (and, I believe, a sole proprietorship) that offers a kind of certification, though I can’t personally speak to the quality of the material (I know I’ve got some followers who can, though).

If you’re considering certification, my advice would be to go for it as long as it’s affordable. It’s certainly possible to be successful without it, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a better reader. But you probably will be. It demonstrates seriousness to potential clients, helps you to meet others, hopefully challenges you to consider things in a different light, and will almost surely make you more confident.

How to read for yourself

photo-1For the most part, I avoid doing readings for myself. I might pull a single card to consider at the beginning of each day, use particular images in ritual or meditation, or throw something down for the hell of it, but it’s pretty rare that I do a serious spread for myself. There are a lot of reasons for this. Mainly, it’s because I’m really good at lying to myself and seeing what I want to see. I’m equally good at having anxiety attacks when I think I might see something that I don’t want to see AND WHAT IF THAT’S REALLY WHAT’S GOING ON OH GOD.

I know that a lot of other readers—at all levels—are the same way, so I wanted to share some techniques for doing more useful, accurate readings when you are your own querent. I’ve found the following to be enormously helpful in those rare moments when I just have to pull for myself:

Draw fewer cards.

The fewer cards the better. This is its own blog post, but I’m adamant that any one card can thoroughly answer any question. It is beyond me why people think they need the Celtic cross spread for everything. There’s already a gazillion things (that you’ve never noticed) going on in any one card—you don’t need ten. Ten just gives you more opportunity to lie to yourself or get confused. When I do readings at events or for people I don’t know, I often do larger spreads because I find that that’s what people except (and they have their place). No one wants to accept that I could have given them essentially the same answer with only one or two cards (try it some time—you certainly can). There are particular kinds of strategies that help to make large spreads more meaningful than small ones, but most of us are not nearly self-aware enough to employ them on ourselves. When we don’t have an outside, objective(ish) ear for our inner monologues (like another tarot reader), it’s easy to read too much into a stack of cards.

Don’t ask for answers that you don’t want.

This is actually my policy at all times, whether or not tarot is involved. If you don’t really want to know, don’t ask. Don’t ask me how my day was if you aren’t prepared for me to start sobbing inconsolably (etcetera).  Sometimes, you will be sorrier for knowing. I suppose it depends on your personality, but my experience has been that there is information out there in the world (especially about other people) that I just don’t want. I don’t want to know if my high school bully is still better than me at everything. I don’t want to know if my first boyfriend really was cheating on me back in college. I don’t want to know whether or not my current partner really thinks I’m the prettiest girl in the room. I also don’t want to know when and how I’m going to die, whether or not I’ll ever objectively serve any kind of real purpose in life, or how many people in my social circle secretly hate me.

I don’t want answers to any of the above because the answers might upset me and knowing wouldn’t really serve me in any useful way, anyway (except for maybe the death question, because I might just say “fuck it all” and buy a speedboat). You might be different. Maybe it’s really critical to you that you know if your wife actually thinks that you’re the sexiest man alive. But if you ask, be willing to accept that the answer is no.

Don’t do multiple readings concerning the same question.

This is usually related to the point above. Often, if we’re doing multiple readings in close proximity regarding the same issue, we’re just fueling some kind of anxiety and looking for the answers that we want to hear. Don’t just draw cards until the 9 of Cups shows up (come on we’ve all been there). At best, it’ll be confusing. At worst, you’ll give yourself a panic attack while concocting worse-case scenarios and unrealistic fantasies (and not actually do anything tangible about the situation).

In a yes/no scenario, go with your very first impulse.

There’s a fair chance that you already know the answer to whatever yes/no question you’re asking. I’ve found that often what people are really looking for is confirmation. In situations where I just want a quick answer, it helps me to not overanalyze or argue with myself based on obscure bits of card imagery (“Well this COULD be a yes if I squint really hard and consult this book on Qabalah…”). Whether you believe the tarot works via psychic powers or subconscious information triggered through image recognition, your lizard brain impulse is most likely to be the correct one.