I recently came across a fascinating passage in The Tao of Thoth that perfectly captures my quarrel with the widely-held belief that intuitive tarot reading unsupported by study is the optimum way to practice the art. (The author’s martial-arts context here is that of looking for openings to exploit in an adversary’s defense while at the same time preparing to fend off the opponent’s anticipated moves to close those openings through counter-attack. This finely-honed anticipation becomes the key to winning instead of losing a match.)
“The artfulness sometimes appears as intuition, and there may be some intuition involved, but the art is essentially simple awareness practice” (which might also be characterized as the patient cultivation of “focused attention”).
In tarot terms, rather than opening ourselves uncritically to whatever comes through the subconscious “channel” and treating it as gospel, we may be better served by fortifying our grasp of the cards’ essence via an inspired blend of knowledge-based interpretation and free-association from the images. This brings me to a second quote, in which I’ve taken liberties with the text and inserted tarot language in place of the martial arts terminology.
“The more you practice conceptualizing (e.g.mentally visualizing) your connection with the cards, the less you ever (need to) conceptualize their meaning (on-the-fly) when immediate responsiveness is needed in a face-to-face reading situation. (You will) automatically adjust to the most efficient modality relevant to the situation and (your) further attention can be placed on what requires (ad-hoc) immediacy.”
As Aleister Crowley observed in a different setting, “The student must live with the cards and they with him.” In other words, the greater the extent to which you can internalize the images and core meaning of the cards, both individually and in combination, and unerringly summon them at will to the mind’s eye (and spoken word), the less you will have to think about it in the middle of a session. I’m not talking about memorization here, but fostering an ingrained familiarity with the cards and the act of reading them in a fluid manner. In my case it lets me focus more on the imaginative storytelling and less on the mental gymnastics involved in ordering my thoughts for presentation.
I’ve been working with the Thoth and Waite-Smith decks so long now that this effortless integration is second nature. On the other hand, the Tarot de Marseille presents a worthy challenge and an opportunity for plenty of intellectual fun. I’m not as anal as many modern writers about parsing every little detail of the images into meaning; I “de-focus” a bit and look at the dark-and-light patterns formed by the combination of suit emblems and decorative ornamentation: some suits (notably the Batons and Swords) are “open” in appearance and thrust from the inside out; while the rest (Cups and Coins) are largely “closed” and draw inward from the perimeter. This is not at all foreign to the nature of the four suits, and provides a “quick-and-dirty” allusion to the crux of each one before getting down to the business of deciphering the suit-and-number correlations. I once created a “visual tabulation” of these ideas that I’m adding here for illustration:
I also observed in an earlier essay that “As a storyteller I want the images to ‘sing’ to me with their shapes and colors in ways that are initially non-verbal, although I have to provide lyrics in order to make their message communicable.” However, it’s not the cacophony of modern jazz but rather the slinky funk of “jazz-rock fusion” that I’m after: an inspiring blend of improvisation and rhythm. The point here is that the musical structure is still recognizable even when the artist takes chances with the melody, a fitting parallel to the way I read the tarot cards.