No, I’m not talking about yoga or the Kama Sutra. Not long ago I came across the notion of adjusting the meanings of spread positions according to the cards that land in them, creating a cut-to-fit spontaneity in the reading. The idea is that the positional layout wouldn’t change but the significance of each position would be more elastic, offering a symphony of challenges and opportunities rather than a single steady note. I dubbed them “stretchable” positions that would mold themselves around the nature of their resident cards, making for a kind of blended pastiche of meaning. It’s something I already do in a certain way with parts of the Celtic Cross spread.

For example, let’s consider the different Swords cards landing in the “Recent Past” position of the Celtic Cross. In practice, I consider the Recent Past to be almost indistinguishable from the next card in the sequence, which I call the “Present.” Its impact may still weigh heavily on the querent’s mind, understandably coloring their current behavior and perhaps tainting their future outlook as well, even though there is recognition of the need for closure. It often reminds me of picking at a scab; it just keeps on bleeding. There is a kind of seamless segue between the three cards at the summit of the cross: Recent Past, Present and Near Future, and it can be difficult to discern where one leaves off and the next one begins. One possible consequence is an inability to let something go in the fervent hope (or festering fear) that it might rekindle.

If the 10 of Swords falls in the Recent Past, I would read the situation as over-and-done. I call this the “scorched earth” card; there is nothing left worth salvaging, so move on. The 9 of Swords is a psychological black hole threatening to suck you back in and keep you there. If the 7 of Swords appears, there may be someone who is trying to worm their way back into your confidence, whispering in your ear, so to speak, even though you’ve cut them loose. It might also mean being blindsided by someone or something previously thought to be out of the picture, so you should watch your back. The 3 of Swords indicates a burning hole that won’t be salved (or at least a debilitating anxiety attack), while the 5 of Swords could mean that you’re arguing with yourself over whether to keep on trying. The 8 of Swords suggests that you’re still wrestling blindly with your inability to comprehend something said or done, and the 2 of Swords shows doubt over whether you made the right choice. The rest are less ominous: the Ace of Swords shines the light of reason on the path ahead, the 6 of Swords is underway along that path, and the 4 of Swords is willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

In each case the significance of the card modulates the thrust of the position, either squeezing it down to its essence or leaving it more open-ended. Clearly, though, more than just the card itself must be taken into consideration; the retooling of the position as a result of their mingling can clarify the card’s place in the story, giving it traction and direction, while deriving from it a sense of purpose that differs according to the interpretive import of the card. As I’ve said, it’s something I’ve done intuitively over the years, but now I’m going to apply it more assiduously. My impression is that this paradigm could be applied to the “Past” position in any spread that includes a timeline since it suggests a number of things: second-guessing yourself; unfinished business that won’t go away; lingering fondness for something you know is done, even though it’s holding you back; a nagging fixation on a slight of some kind; a case of emotional indigestion as you try to process an upsetting development; in short, any kind of self-limiting attitude or behavior that interferes with future growth.

I realize, of course, that the common way to extend the reach of a spread position is to simply populate it with one or more additional cards. Such piling-on is optimistically dubbed “clarifying” but it’s all too likely to yield anything but; the normal position meaning can be knocked out of shape so badly that it is barely recognizable, especially if the conjoined cards are radically at odds with one another. This practice feeds an insidious craving for instant relief when stuck in a reading but often winds up introducing potentially confusing layers of meaning. Rather than clarifying things, this amplification can muddy the waters even more and create the urge to pull yet another card (or two, or three) for elaboration. It can quickly become a downward spiral into total bewilderment.

There are occasional instances in the tarot literature where this kind of side trip has been advocated with reasonable justification. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Arthur Edward Waite proposes that, upon drawing a court card as the outcome card in the Celtic Cross spread and assuming it to represent another person, one way to examine the circumstances of that person in relation to the matter is to perform another complete reading using that card as the Significator. Paul Fenton-Smith, in his book Tarot Masterclass, advises pulling two extra cards to place on either side of any “Two” card in the spread to show what the implied decision may be about. A third approach (and one I find most appealing) is to insert more cards into the structure of the spread itself, for example fashioning a three-card series from the outcome position to show possibilities farther into the future. This pre-loads an expanded range of interpretation into a spread position without losing its original thrust due to the appearance of cards that can’t be easily reconciled to its purpose; there is a greater chance that those cards will be entrained in the larger outlook rather than derailing the narrative.

Along those lines, I’ve begun building additional cards — I think of them as “wild cards” — into my spreads. I pull these cards as part of the random draw, setting them to the side and face-down until I decide which card in the layout needs a more detailed explanation; once I’ve targeted them, I turn them over for reading in combination with the problem card. Another technique that speaks directly to the occasion of the unreadable outcome card is to apply a follow-up mini-spread with the outcome card as the Significator to show where the unresolved situation may end up down the road. A third way is to create spreads with multiple outcome positions — also left face down until the end — suggestive of the Frank Stockton short story “The Lady or the Tiger” — that lets you decide (using certain rules) which one holds the answer. The advantage of all of these methods is that the cards are selected as part of the standard deal and aren’t pulled as an afterthought.

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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