Life Beyond Intuition: Tarot Reading Without the Mystique

There is no subject more mystical (and in my opinion, more overstated) in the art of “guided” divination (as distinct from purely psychic prescience) than that of intuition. It’s often touted as the “gold standard” by which to read the signs in the tarot cards, but I think that advice is misleading, especially for those new to the art of reading.

I believe what we call “intuition” is mainly an outgrowth of visual free-association from an image that already carries some inherent meaning, whether it’s a scenic vignette (think RWS) or an accumulation of traditional lore (like the TdM). Having thoroughly internalized that understanding from the constant practice that builds upon our personal experience, we summon the awareness without really thinking about it and may occasionally enjoy an epiphany that bridges to something beyond what we’ve already accepted about a given card.

Intuitive vision doesn’t really spring forth fully-formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, it’s more about forging an inspired link between the “known” and the “unknown.” Add in the context of the reading to direct the sudden insight toward the goal, and we come up with an interpretation that may seem unprecedented but is in fact a natural, if sometimes fanciful, extension of the theme of the card. In other words, it may be a “stretch” but not a complete decoupling of the theoretical from the proven.

The subject makes me think of an old Ronald Reagan caveat: “Trust but verify.” This is all but impossible for neophytes who have no experience and are told to “just wing it” and go with whatever “feels right.” More seasoned diviners always have a touchstone upon which to fall back in the event that intuition doesn’t “jell” around a particular element of a reading. In my opinion, intuitive impressions should not be the first factor to consider when approaching a problematic card in a reading, but the last; if what we think we know about the card doesn’t fit the situation, we can cast our imagination farther afield in search of inspiration. In my own practice I don’t get all spiritual about the role of intuition; if it happens, great; if it doesn’t, I stick with the tried-and-true. With Lenormand I hardly use it at all, except perhaps when synthesizing card combinations. While some liken intuition to a far-seeing “omniscient eye” that unerringly delivers the goods, I see it more as just another tool.

Here is a more rigorously-reasoned examination of the topic from a blog post of two years ago:

I’m not a huge fan of purely intuitive tarot reading. There, I said it. It will probably be dismissed as mean-spirited literalism toward what is chiefly an elastic, visionary pursuit, but there is something too fatuously “squishy” about unmitigated intuition for my taste. I think the idea is fed to beginners as “The Way” because there is a mystique about tarot that encourages just going with your feelings, regardless of the depth of meaning underlying the symbolism in the cards. It is also a lot easier than having to study anyone else’s ideas and methods, no matter how highly esteemed they are in the field. It promotes the “learn tarot in three days” brand of hucksterism that is driving us toward the “Idiocracy” model of proficiency: “I got my PhD from Walmart!” Some forum participants have even gone so far as to state that book-learning is an impediment to creative interpretation. Although they insist they are reading the cards, the sensibilities they project are those of pure psychism.

I think I like Plato’s definition of intuition best: “a fundamental capacity of human reason to comprehend the true nature of reality.” He describes intuition as “a pre-existing knowledge residing in the soul of eternity,” and “a phenomenon by which one becomes conscious of pre-existing knowledge.” He argues that these truths are accessed using a knowledge already present in a dormant form and accessible to our intuitive capacity. This sounds a lot like Jung’s Collective Unconscious to me, and I call the process by which it is teased out “subconscious induction.” It seems to me, though, that most proponents of intuition as the supreme tool for divination don’t wield it with such philosophical or psychological precision. In the words of one of my learned friends, it’s more of a “free-for-all.”

I’m not very mystical about this stuff. I really think it’s a form of mental physics (or mentation) that we haven’t found a way to measure and quantify yet. Our waking consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg, and digging down into the subsurface layers is how we obtain the insights we seek, whether we call our source the Collective Unconscious, the Astral Plane, the Formative World, Spirit, the Divine, the Akasha or whatever. I’m less concerned about method than about results. But the more mystical things get, the less faith I have in them. It becomes like trying to push a string.

I’m not saying I don’t use intuition at all. I just don’t trust it, all by itself, to give me anything more than subjective guesswork on a regular basis. I believe I have more reliable knowledge-based tools. But rather than just swallowing intuitive impressions whole and letting them rule my reading style in their raw form, I usually try to turn them into metaphors or analogies that will make sense to my sitters. I see it as “building a bridge” that creates common ground for understanding. This is why I’ve been applying the other “I-words” in lieu of “intuition,” especially inspiration backed up with imagination and ingenuity.

Although I don’t linger there long, everything I do is cued up by the images on the cards (even if it’s only to recognize which one I’m looking at). With RWS-style decks, what I call their “narrative vignettes” submit easily to free-association, which can produce inspired insights. With the Thoth and other semi-scenic decks, it’s the color scheme and mood that bring out the non-verbal flair. I find that softening the mental focus in this way can open a window into “other states of consciousness,” and the only faculty I need to tap into it is sensitivity to its symbolic language. This is more about cultivating altered perception in an orderly way than an open-ended harvesting of intuitive notions.

I’m not so sure “openness to suggestion” qualifies as anything more than good form when trying to align ourselves with unseen forces. I think this capability is woven into the fabric of reality (yes, I know, Plato’s “soul of eternity” as the source of intuitive precognition is a rather “squishy” concept as well) and pulling the thread that unravels the mystery is what we’re all after. My methods give me bits of information I can immediately decipher, rather than vague feelings that first have to be converted into ideas in order to communicate them. Ultimately, unless we only read for ourselves and can bypass that step, our impressions have to be fashioned into words that can be understood by others, so it really comes down to a matter of rational appraisal in the end.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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