The Tarot Clinician: Bridging the Gap Between Magic and Meaning

Why do people seek out a tarot reader? Arguably, a minority are those who are merely curious about something they may have heard from friends and who have the time and money to spend on indulging themselves; or they might happen upon a street reader and impulsively decide to “take the plunge.” Among them are critics who are skeptical and only want to “test” the reader. Others have a sincere interest in finding answers to questions that have resisted more conventional solutions, frequently pursuing a better understanding of human nature, either theirs or that of partners, friends or associates. Still others like the anonymity and sense of safety divination offers; they can ask “Is my husband cheating on me?” or “Does ‘X’ like me?” without having to confront the person of interest directly and risk an ugly (or at least demoralizing) scene.

In my own practice I prefer to serve the second demographic, the vast majority of whom just want to know “What’s going on in my life?” While reading the Anthony Louis compendium of tarot lore, Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Tarot (which I highly recommend to those already versed in esoteric correspondences), I came across these words of Eric Samuel Timm that I think summarize the defining motivation behind many of these quests for hidden causes: “We are often unaware of the gradual decline and the erosion in our lives but not unaware of the gnawing feelings it brings.”

As a reader I tend to perform more as an ad-hoc clinician than a mystical visionary. My goal is to provide practical insights of an “applied wisdom” kind rather than hypothetical suppositions. The things I say are intended to spark contemplation of available options before acting, not to prompt a “leap of faith” straight to the conclusion. My favorite spread — the Celtic Cross — admirably supports this objective. The “mystic” in me thrives on the use of storytelling tropes like metaphor and analogy to offer fresh perspectives on the often trite (and marginally applicable) textbook meanings of the cards. At their best, these inspired connections tie into shared experiences of cultural, social, literary or historical consequence to the question or topic.

Above all, I endeavor to offer substantiation for any intuitive glimpses I may obtain via free-association from the images on the cards. While the occasional epiphany may result from random extemporizing, any such assumptions that aren’t firmly embedded in the “warp-and-woof” of the narrative may cause more confusion than they resolve. Shooting from the hip in an “informed guesswork” fashion just isn’t my style.

There is undoubtedly healing in the cards, to the extent that they can bring seekers face-to-face with their own typically vague self-defeating assumptions, attitudes and behaviors as long as they have a mind sufficiently open to the idea. The cards also exhibit the ability to pinpoint possibilities (and often probabilities) regarding future circumstances or events, always with the understanding that the querent has a say in how things are going to turn out. In other words, with foreknowledge they can respond in a way that either reinforces a positive outcome or mitigates a less favorable one. The aphorism that best conveys this concept is “Forewarned is forearmed.”

There is also “magic” in the act of reading the cards, although it should be recognized that the magic is in the client-reader interaction and not in the bits of illustrated cardboard, which are only an aid to tapping and directing that magic. In essence, a tarot reading is an evocative, often impressionistic, psychically revelatory phenomenon in which the psyche guiding the process is that of the person shuffling and cutting the deck. Most professional readers of my acquaintance don’t formally brand themselves as “psychics” (psychism has its own traditions and techniques). My suspicion, though, is that they come perilously close to it when they shuffle the cards for someone on the far side of the world for the purpose of “getting inside” that person’s head.

There are those who assert that the answer to any question is basically “floating around in the aether” (my words; theirs are more ecstatic). All we as readers have to do is open ourselves to it and it will be revealed in terms that speak to the querent’s need. The common justification is “It’s all energy, after all.” I suppose I’m too much of a traditional “method reader” to place much store in that idea as an operational imperative, although I do believe relevant knowledge can be channeled inwardly from a “higher source” (collective unconscious, astral plane, akashic record, divine wisdom, Plato’s “soul of eternity,” etc) and brought to bear through the personal subconscious of the shuffler.

My main objection to shuffling on behalf of someone else is that the flow of information may be colored (we might even say “tainted”) by the diviner’s subjective bias in the sense that we aren’t simply reading the cards but potentially wrapping the interpretation in our own prejudices and past experiences (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the seeker’s own superior — albeit subliminal — grasp of his or her private reality). Whenever possible, I have my sitters undertake the shuffle-and-cut for the reading. To paraphrase a song by New York bluesman Popa Chubby, “the healing is in the hands” that steer the cards toward intimations of recovery.

You will often hear me say that, at least in my own work, divination is a subliminal process rooted in the unconscious (or, if you like, “Higher Self”) that relies heavily on imagination, inspiration and ingenuity to tease practical messages from evocative symbolism that is typically shrouded in rather obscure “magical” imagery. In the best cases, these messages dovetail seamlessly with what is being asked, resulting in insights that can be brought to bear on life’s problems and opportunities. At worst, there can be a major gap in perceived alignment between what the symbols seem to be saying and the context of the question or topic being examined. Those who “sit” (aka “sitters”) for readings — especially the more skeptical ones — are seldom shy about responding negatively to forced attempts to make something that is highly unlikely fit their situation. It may be customary to say “the cards are never wrong,” but even at the best of times they can certainly be tightfisted in dispensing their wisdom if we as diviners aren’t up to the challenge of correctly translating it into pertinent and understandable commentary.

The art of interpretation, unless we are completely deaf to the persuasions of intuition or “free-association” and only read analytically or “by the book,” begins as a mystical one in which there is an unspoken communion between the seeker and the interfacing medium of expression (usually cards), resulting in the “subconscious induction” of a coherent account of future events and/or circumstances in the final arrangement of pictures on the reader’s table. However, until the human species develops reliable mind-to-mind communication at the cognitive rather than purely psychic level, whatever suggestions we as readers harvest from our side of that interface are useless to the inquirer unless they are competently verbalized. The hardest task for the reader can be to guarantee an adequate grasp of the message by the person across the table.

As a student of esotericism for almost fifty years and a professional writer for over thirty, I have amassed both a wealth of arcane knowledge and the vocabulary with which to effectively convey it, at least to those who have achieved a similar degree of erudition. However, most of the time that dialogue is a pursuit reserved for “armchair philosophers” and has little or no place in the act of reading for the average sitter. This is principally true of so-called “occult correspondences” (astrology, number theory, mythology, etc.); while it may be illuminating for informed readers to infuse their presentations with this type of awareness, trying to use the relevant language with the uninitiated is only going to confuse and frustrate them.

On the other hand, if our pronouncements are stripped of all traces of oracular mystery, we may fail to deliver the kind of semi-mystical experience that is expected of the “fortune-teller.” The extent to which we are able to successfully hitch our more abstract assumptions to the cause of crystal-clear communication will dictate how meaningful our observations are for the client. As I see it, this is a function of the storyteller’s art: to be able to impart a natural and graceful narrative flow to knowledge that can be inherently abstruse, while at the same time delivering valuable and easily-digestible information.

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store