The Pragmatic Tarot Reading

I like to say that I “just read the cards,” I don’t try to discover or guess in advance what the sitter’s motives, objectives or ambitions are because I really don’t need to know. My practice of not wanting to hear the specific question at the start of a reading serves this approach quite well because the cards are free to “speak their piece” without my conscious or subconscious steering, and the sitter’s privacy is thereby assured. I will then adapt my initial perspective to what I absorb during the ensuing dialogue, arriving at a conclusion that both the seeker and I can buy into. However, I wanted to take some time to examine exactly what “just reading the cards” entails.

At the highest level, the individual meaning of each card as I first learned and then experienced and internalized it through years of practice is where I start, followed by a synthesis of those meanings in combination. But I like to take a “gestalt view” of the whole spread before getting into the card-by-card analysis as a way to orient myself to the narrative. This gives me a general outline of the story and lets me see where the main focus and any potential “crises” or “turning points” lie in the situation. My observations will then revolve around this dominant feature, which is often more to-the-point than the “outcome” or end-of-the-matter card. I usually revisit this preliminary overview in a broad way during the summary wrap-up of the reading.

A subsidiary technique is to let my imagination run with the visual suggestions presented by the images (also known as “free-association”) to see if any instructive metaphors or analogies come to mind. This is especially useful when cards of a more abstract nature appear because it allows querents to link them directly to their experience of the world in terms of well-established paradigms, often cultural, social, literary or historical. However, it is almost always secondary to the foundation of traditional lore on which I base my commentary, unless the sitter is having trouble relating to that viewpoint. My goal is to always make sure that I “connect the dots” in a meaningful way, and I will use any tool in my interpretive toolbox to make that happen.

What I don’t do is “trust my intuition” to the exclusion of the more formal knowledge base that I’ve acquired over the last four-plus decades. I will rely on inspiration, imagination and ingenuity in the same way any competent storyteller does. I also don’t defer to “guides” or any other reputedly superior spiritual entities, while still assuming that wisdom is channeled through the subconscious from a more exalted source. This is a purely impersonal occurrence (think of it as “catching a wave”) that we can initiate by adopting the “right” attitude of cautious openness toward it (cautious because we may be treading in the Lower Astral here). I just don’t feel the need to put a human or angelic face on it.

I will typically step the sitter through the sequence, ideally blending the positional meanings into a seamless whole by the end of the reading to create a compelling descriptive “word painting.” Judicious as well as creative use of language and vocabulary is vital in getting this across as persuasively and efficiently as possible. Although it isn’t my preferred method, any “hitches” in the flow (where I might otherwise gape open-mouthed into the void) can be redeemed by simply talking through the blockage, thinking out loud with the sitter’s help. My face-to-face readings are never a one-way conversation because I want sitters to validate what they’re hearing as we go along. The more effective I am at getting them to take ownership of the reading and chime in with their own insights, the happier I am. It’s the best way to achieve useful results.

The accusation of “cold reading” (i.e. drawing hints from the sitter’s appearance, mannerisms and statements rather than solely from the cards), is a popular ploy of debunkers but, to be honest, I scarcely look at the querent before we begin, and almost never when in the middle of the reading, during which I’m focused exclusively on the spread. If I pick up anything subliminally it is entirely by accident, and I always treat any such vague impressions as unfounded unless mirrored in the cards. If we can’t extract all of the information we need directly from them, we shouldn’t be presenting ourselves to the public as cartomancers.

It goes without saying that I’m generally at odds with those who believe tarot reading thrives only on perfectly spontaneous insights and shrivels under the withering gaze of rational deduction. There is a common belief that thinking gets in the way of “feeling” the message in the cards, and that intuitive free-association from the imagery on a card trumps knowledge-based interpretation every time. But when you think about it (paradox of course intended), unless we are purely sensual creatures without a thought in our heads, the only meaningful way we have to interact with our environment — both physical and spiritual — is through the intervention of our mental faculties, however we choose to embroider them with metaphysical hyperbole. We must consciously equate the sublime supposition to the sober reality in order to fully comprehend their relationship and not just experience it as a transcendent vision that may not be relevant to the purpose of the reading. I’ve frequently written on the subject (sometimes disparagingly as a dismissal of New Age posturing), but this essay is an attempt to consolidate my thinking into a comprehensive conceptual argument.

To set the record straight one more time (I can’t promise it will be the last time), I believe the subconscious process by which the cards receive their narrative imprint is largely mystical and non-rational (at least until the distant day it succumbs to rigorous scientific validation) but the techniques of interpreting them must necessarily be almost clinically hard-headed in order to avoid giving the seeker an unduly optimistic impression of the potential shown in the spread. Empowerment is all well and good, but when advice crosses the line into an enabling affirmation of unwise behavior it fails in that objective. Life is not “all good” and it never will be as long as “bad things” still happen to “good people,” and I have no intention of sugar-coating it.

Several things have pushed me toward the more cerebral side of the spectrum. I had a long career in a technological industry, in which I became a professional technical and legal writer as well as an engineering manager. I was at one time a member of American Mensa. I’ve been immersed in esoteric subjects, including Qabalah and ceremonial magic, for decades beginning in 1971. As a teenager in the ’60s I was a diehard fan of science fiction and fantasy novels, which gave me a lifelong fascination with the unique and unusual. I was a psychological astrologer before I became a tarot reader. I love word-smithing in all its forms, especially poetry, and fancy myself a storyteller with an expansive vocabulary and an ample store of anecdotal metaphors and analogies. Last but not least, I’m a pragmatic, literal-minded male and not the “flower-child retread” I might have become if fate hadn’t stepped in to steer me away from my artistic pursuits back in 1967. These characteristics and qualities made it almost inevitable that my approach to reading the cards would be more firmly grounded in linguistic structure than elastically ad-hoc in presentation; the imaginative fluidity is still there in full measure as befits a raconteur’s deftness but it springs from a deep foundation of learning and experience.

Until the human species develops telepathy, translating and communicating the meaning conveyed in a combination of tarot cards will be a largely verbal affair aided by the pictures. We must process the visual component into compelling words before our clients can make sense of it. This means that the more intelligibly precise and concise the narrative is at first blush, the more likely I am to get the “Aha!” reaction I’m looking for without having to spend time “zeroing in” a mismatched chain of approximate intuitive assumptions. I’ve been chided for overthinking the whole thing but it’s all in the service of giving a paying client the best experience I can muster. That means carefully weighing my words for both content and tone, and then giving a thoroughly rational and thoughtful interpretation. Tarot reading should be a serious and dignified endeavor, not a tossed-off hodgepodge of hazy impressionistic guesses based on what the artwork seems to imply. Aspiring to that level of credibility requires a lifetime of study and pertinent experience that together create the phenomenon of effortless “instant recall” when one sets out to attach meaning to the shifting enigma of the cards. I’m not holding out for a breathless “Oh, wow!” response to my cleverness; a quite nod of acceptance and concurrence from my sitters is all I need as a show of appreciation for my efforts.



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Parsifal the Scribe

Parsifal the Scribe

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