In a local “commerce-and-culture” magazine, I came across an interview with a professional “Certified Life Coach” and began pondering how I would respond to the interviewer’s questions if they are ever presented to me as a tarot reader. Here is my version of a hypothetical dialogue that aligns more closely with the practice of divination.
What is a tarot reader?
A tarot reader is an intuitive — and at best an inspired, imaginative and ingenious — story-teller who creates narrative vignettes from randomly drawn cards that ideally: a) foretell future circumstances and events with precision, or b) accurately describe the psychological dimensions of a subject’s situation. At one time it merely identified a type of fortune-teller, a “cartomancer” who deciphered the signs and symbols ascribed to the cards as a form of divining, or predicting, the future. Playing cards were used initially, and tarot and oracle decks came into vogue later. In these post-Jungian times they are often used to promote self-awareness and facilitate coping with life’s “curve-balls,” in addition to serving as a tool for divination. The modern reader has become more than just an objective “seer,” and is now often treated as a personal advisor. While usually not certified (and, more importantly, not insured) as such, an unwary reader (and as a result, the reader/client relationship) can sometimes stray into the territory of the licensed therapist or counselor, which can raise questions of legal liability. This has led some jurisdictions to require readers to offer their services “for entertainment only.”
How is it different from being a psychic?
A psychic generally draws intelligence directly from a “channel” of subtle knowledge through purely mental means. The layman’s view is that it is a form of mind-reading, but some practitioners consider the true source to be Divine; others point to Jung’s Collective Unconscious; Plato named it the “Soul of Eternity,” which can be accessed through the intuition; mystics assume that a spiritual plane lies just outside our physical domain that holds the record of all things past, present and future. In all cases, it seems to rely (optimistically, it might be said) on a form of cognitive physics that we don’t yet have the ability to precisely measure or quantify, despite numerous past experiments to that end.
A tarot reader, on the other hand, uses the cards to open an inferential window between the subconscious and conscious realms, either those of the diviner or of the person seeking the reading, through the acts of shuffling and cutting the deck. This tactile manipulation can be considered a form of “subconscious induction” that arranges the cards in a sensible order for the reading. Those who read intuitively insist that the process is not that literal or intellectual, and that one of the more exalted forms of communication must be responsible; my opinion is that these diviners operate more as “psychics with props” than card-readers. The key difference is that there is an intervening step which fortuitously singles out the correct cards to form the narrative, and translating the traditional definitions and visual images of those cards into meaningful insights about the subject of the reading constitutes the tarot reader’s art. It can be analytical as much as it is intuitive.
Are there professional credentials and, if so, what are the qualifications?
Although there are professional membership organizations that offer training courses and certificates of completion, and there may be related college curricula buried under the department heading of “Psychology” at some progressive schools, to my knowledge there are no widely recognized professional credentials and academic standards of excellence for tarot readers. The professional tarot community is skeptical of those that do exist, thinking them not worth the paper they’re printed on. At present, despite the historical database of traditional wisdom about the cards to be found in numerous textbooks, tarot reading is an anecdotal rather than an empirical discipline (one might call it a “pseudo-science”) for which little hard data has been compiled to demonstrate its effectiveness. Tarot readers are almost universally self-taught from books or privately mentored, although recurring symposia presented across the United States and around the world are starting to introduce some needed cohesion for those who can afford to attend. Internet forums are another crucible in which consensus is forged, while books, magazines, newsletters and blogs also spread the emerging “gospel.” However, given the stylistic diversity among practitioners of the art, “caveat emptor” is something to keep in mind when lining up a reading.
What do you offer your clients?
I believe that each of us possesses foreknowledge of what our future holds. Some of it is pure “body-memory;” we take the same route to work every day and don’t remember a single moment of the journey there and back because we’re on “auto-pilot” and respond unthinkingly to all the right cues: stop-lights, sign-posts, traffic patterns, etc. Barring any unforeseen occurrences, our safe arrival becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” But at a deeper level, compelling premonitions can arise from a variety of sources that should be given their due. Our past encounters with similar situations are obviously major drivers of these auguries, but they don’t tell the whole story. While the conscious mind goes about its daily business of managing our objective reality, the subconscious gets right to work on “what-iffing” potential developments almost as soon as they show up on the radar screen, and its attitude is not always one of nervous apprehension. Preloading a conditional response to any conceivable eventuality is a big part of it; call it dusting off and previewing one’s “fight-or-flight” options. So a reading that taps into this subliminal legwork can put the subject in touch with something that they may already suspect about upcoming events, but that hasn’t yet surfaced consciously. In more mundane terms, it helps them put words to their hunches and turn them into “educated guesses,” thus getting a leg up on future challenges. The chief advantage of this recognition is a “forewarned is forearmed” state of alertness that places them in a good position to deal with any eventual consequences, anticipated or otherwise. Consider it an intuitive “Early Warning System.”
A question frequently asked by what we might call “journeyman” tarot readers is “How can I break into professional practice on a full-time basis?” In my case, I backed into it part-time through the patronage of a metaphysical shop owner who, when she learned that I was a local diviner, invited me to work out of her shop for both on-call readings and occasional psychic fairs. Prior to that point, I had been a “semi-professional” reader for many years, taking a little money now and then but mainly working for free to hone my skills. This was well before the days of online reading, so the key factors in getting subjects (I couldn’t really call them “clients” at that point) were “location” and “exposure.” Until I connected with the shop, I had neither for a couple of decades, although I did try to gain recognition in my area from time-to-time through small group activities.
But I find it hard to call what I do a “practice” because repeat clients have been so rare. Most my querents leave a session never to be seen or heard from again, and I’m pretty sure that, with over 45 years of private and public readings under my belt, it’s not an indictment of my abilities. Getting routine tarot readings is not at the top of most people’s list of frequent expenditures, so I don’t really expect return visits with any regularity. (Not to mention that I relocated and now have an entirely different set of circumstances.) That makes being a “full-time” tarot reader an unlikely occupation unless one can afford a storefront venue in a high-traffic area and is willing to sit there waiting for walk-in clients or advance reservations. Working for an established shopkeeper in an on-call capacity is often a better option because their customer relations are typically more robust and they will handle appointments and other logistics (and of course take a cut of the profits for their trouble). I would add that reading for one of the “psychic hotline” phone services is not the answer since, according to my sources, it’s more like indentured servitude than freelance entrepreneurship.
Reading online as a professional is a different proposition. Gaining recognition is usually a matter of having a website through which inquiries can be received and readings initiated. However, one of the main challenges in making a go of it is that there are so many $5-a-pop online readers out there drastically undercutting any legitimate attempt to make a reasonable living; in most cases their strategy is volume over substance, and I strongly suspect that their offerings are computer-generated via an app rather than personally crafted. Although conventional wisdom suggests that we should not under-price ourselves if we want to be taken seriously, in practice the idly curious aren’t really looking for a comprehensive experience and therefore will (at least at first) opt for “cheap.” We may ultimately benefit from any residual interest they acquire through casual participation, but expecting them to follow the “bread-crumb-trail” to our doorstep may be too much to ask. The trick is to initially price ourselves for nominal affordability, not necessarily according to the true value of our service in time and effort, at least until we get a “buzz” going and can bump up our rates. After offering readings on my old blog for the past three years, I can honestly say I would starve if it were my only source of income. This is not what budding professionals want to hear, but unless they enjoy a “perfect storm” of location, exposure, “brand recognition” and pricing, the road to paid full-time reading as a career is a daunting one.
I sometimes wonder how many people actually make a living wage in the field of divination, much less a handsome income. A good many diviners ply it as a craft, honing their skills in hope of someday turning it into a lucrative career, far fewer have reached the point of relative solvency with no “safety net” in the form of supplemental income; and fewer still do it solely for the pleasure of the experience with no thought to compensation. (Noted tarot author Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example, has said he has never charged for a reading.) There are notable exceptions, of course, mostly respected authors, teachers, lecturers, artists, publishers and the occasional shop owner (although those are rapidly disappearing or diversifying in the face of crushing online competition). But I would venture to say that these heavy-hitters, at least at this point in their lives, are typically not in the habit of performing readings, unless they are doing it strictly for the love of it. Which brings me to the main theme of this post: those of us who call ourselves professional diviners (even if that distinction yields only a paltry cash payoff) would be tickled to land squarely in the middle bucket, paying the bills and being able to afford the rare luxury with our proceeds from readings, occasional teaching and the infrequent presentation. Unfortunately, my view of the landscape at this juncture in the annals of postmodern New Age decline is that most of us live unremarkable “double lives,” doing the daily grind and filling up our evenings, week-ends and holidays with our less remunerative pastime. I chose the term “craft” for this pursuit over the more dilettantish “hobby” since no-one who is serious about it admits to being a mere dabbler (even if it looks that way from the outside).
At the other end of the spectrum are those for whom such interests are a true calling. These driven souls (among whom I number myself) don’t really care whether they make any money at it, they feel an irresistible urge to explore the metaphysical universe in unconventional ways for the simple satisfaction of what I call “turning over rocks to see what crawls out from underneath.” I sometimes style myself “the Mad Scientist of the Tarot,” an appellation that is borne out by some of the more exotic spreads I’ve created over the years. Some who ply these waters even pay for the privilege of having a public outlet for their thoughts via online hosting services or self-publishing venues. Pardon my too-liberal use of quotation marks (it’s a literary failing of mine), but there can be a tendency toward “big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome” for those self-anointed “experts” who don’t (or refuse to) recognize that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants” in their rush to fill what they perceive to be a void in generally-accepted knowledge of all things occult. There is an overpowering temptation to offer something radically new, even if it means fabricating such innovations from whole cloth; there are books on the market whose authors have been justifiably accused of “making stuff up” to fit their personal vision.
There is a marked trend in the field of tarot reading to wrap the harsher truths of a dispassionate Universe in the “warm-and-fuzzy” glow of affirmation, the stock-in-trade of the cheerleading life-coach. (See my previous post on the “Pangloss Syndrome.”) The “fluffy bunny” school of tarot interpretation holds that there are no bad cards, and that anything can be turned to one’s advantage with enough faith in the good will of the Divine Architect. (Forgive me here, but I get the wickedly vivid image of a fast-food purveyor of “fried-rabbit-on-a-stick” trying to sweeten the deal for skeptical customers: “Hey, you want some fluff with that bunny?”) I side more with James Ricklef, who said “There are no bad cards, only necessary ones,” and Rachel Pollack, who is quoted as saying “The good cards are the ones that tell the truth.” In The Way of Tarot, Jodorowsky also mentions the supposed Buddhist tenet that “the truth is what is useful,” but online I can only trace the idea to William James.
Bad things still do happen to good people, and the cards have no reservation about pointing that out if read with complete honesty. Empowerment comes from acquainting the querent’s mind with the possibility of less-than-desirable results, hopefully sparking personal initiative in proactively managing their affairs to cope; there seems to be little value in blandly asserting that “all is (or will) be right with the world” when it patently isn’t and may not be in the foreseeable future. As I always insist, my sitters know (even if only unconsciously) the hard facts of their personal reality and its most plausible extension into the future far better than I can hope to achieve from my own subconscious vantage point. My job is to get out of the way and let the cards speak, keeping my own “spin” out of the mix.
It’s a sad commentary on the present state of affairs that some professional readers find themselves a viable career in serving up such thinly substantiated fluff. But I’m not a total curmudgeon since I do understand that there are many credible thinkers out there who both accept the undeniable value of tradition and at the same time demonstrate a willingness to constantly put it to the “giggle test” to ensure that it doesn’t become too comfortably entrenched in less critical minds. The online signature I sometimes use on the internet forums acknowledges both sides of the picture: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet), coupled with “There’s a sucker born every minute” (David Gannon disparaging the gullible customers of his entrepreneurial nemesis, P. T. Barnum).