Tarot for total beginners: Learn card meanings by doing your own readings

Hello, faithful readers! This is the third in a series of posts about how to get started using tarot to read and write for yourself and others. I kicked it off with how I got started using tarot cards. Then, I shared how to pick a deck that will work for you. Now, I’ll go into how you can use them to do simple readings and learn card meanings. I’ll finish up with some specific ways to use tarot to plan and write, particularly fiction. If you don’t already get these posts in your inbox, sign up here to follow along (plus get a free copy of Suck It Up and Revise, my writing guide allllll about revision). 

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How to use your tarot deck

Once you have a deck of tarot cards, the next step is to do some readings. There are dozens of online resources to show you “basic” readings, which in actuality range from truly easy to quite complex. I have never done a spread—another word for a reading—with more than three or four cards. Most of my spreads are either one or three cards.

When I was first learning about my own deck, I picked one card each day (or whenever I had a free moment) and simply looked at it. I didn’t ask any questions or try to get a specific meaning from it. I noted the symbols that jumped out at me and the “vibe” the card gave me: positive, negative, neutral? Ominous, hopeful? Something in between?

For a while, I also journaled about each card, just to see what kinds of reflections I came up with. Because I picked randomly, there was no order to what I wrote about—Major and Minor Arcana were mixed together.

This is a fun way to familiarize yourself with your own deck. It focuses on what I think is the most important aspect of tarot reading: your intuition. It’s not overwhelming; if you look at a card a day, you’ll have seen the whole deck in just over two months.

After looking and journaling about the cards (or maybe in between) I read the interpretation of the card given in the booklet that came with my deck. Sometimes I looked up card meanings online—even though most are for the Rider-Waite deck, the illustrations are similar in basic content across decks.

Don’t worry about memorizing

My approach feels like a novice’s approach. I didn’t memorize the meaning of each card, and I still haven’t. I didn’t buy a tarot reference book. Two years later, I still rely on the little booklet that came with my deck and my own observations.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am doing it wrong—this feels too easy. When I sit for readings, the tarot reader never reaches for her miniature booklet of meanings.

But my goal as a tarot card reader is to read for myself. I do it because I enjoy it; if I forced myself to memorize the meanings and interpretations of each of the tarot cards, tarot reading would lose some of its charm. I do wish I knew more about the suits, but that’s part of the beauty of tarot; you can always explore something new.

Just because a tool engages your intuition doesn’t mean it is any less valuable or important than one that requires months or years of study.

Some simple spreads to start with

A spread is a configuration of cards in a particular pattern. There are two basic spreads, plus two variations, that I use constantly. I acquired all of these from seeing readings done. There is no limit to the arrangement of cards that you pick, and if you don’t like these two, don’t use them! But they are a very easy place to start.

The first spread comes from the very first reading I had. Think of a question (more on this below). Shuffle the cards, then spread them out in a horizontal line (the way a magician does). Without thinking about it too much, pick a random card and flip it over.

The second is a variation of the first: after you ask a question, instead of spreading out the cards, simply pick the top card and flip it over.

The other spread I use most often is called Past-Present-Future. You will find this spread on online readers. Shuffle the cards and ask your question. Then, cut the deck into three piles. There are a few variations here: you can leave the cards cut in three piles and choose the top card from each. Or, you can restack the cut piles and pick the top three cards.

Either way, lay out the cards in a horizontal line. The left card is the past, the center card the present, and the right card the future.

A variation on this spread is Present-Path-Future. In this spread, the left card represents the present, the right card the future, and the center card is the path between them.

Branching out into new spreads

Even on these simple spreads, you can see that there is plenty of room for variation. You can pick the card or cards in a different order, or lay them out in a different order. You can ask your question before or after you shuffle. You can close your eyes when you choose a card.

You can also expand or change these spreads. Maybe you want to try doing a four-card spread: Past, Present, Path, and Future. Maybe instead of drawing one card to answer a question, you draw two. Or maybe you draw cards until you reach a Major Arcana.

Use your intuition and look around for new readings. You can read books on tarot, have a tarot reading done for you in a shop, or search online for different spreads. I’ve found new spreads by following fellow amateur readers on social media. It’s fun to see how other folks use the cards to answer questions and explore their own intuition.

Create your own rituals

Even though it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, I start with these basic spreads because as I mentioned before, doing is the easiest way to learn for me. Though tarot is an intuitive or spiritual tool—or perhaps because it is—I don’t believe there’s a way to truly do it wrong. So, even though the guidelines that follow are about minute details, like how to shuffle your deck, the way you choose to do your own readings will be the right way for you. Don’t do anything that feels silly or unnecessary, and add in anything you like.

Shuffling the deck. If you like, you can develop a small ritual that you do before each reading. As M.J. Abadie points out in her excellent book Tarot for Teens, rituals center us, and it almost doesn’t matter what that ritual is, as long as you do the same thing each time.

Here are some sample rituals: shuffle three, nine, or some set number of times. Shuffle with the cards facing in one direction, then the other. Always shuffle with the cards facing the same direction. Instead of shuffling, turn the deck over in your hands and think of making it your own tool. Handle the deck carefully.

Asking a question. This is another spot that can hang you up. Do what feels right: ask your question out loud or in silence. Write it down, if you like. Ask your question before you pick up your deck, while you are shuffling or handling the deck, or after you shuffle. Or, ask at all three points.

Try different things and see what feels good to you. If you feel bored or are having trouble finding meaning in your readings, change up your ritual or adopt a totally new one. Try doing your tarot readings in a new place or at a different time of day. Try playing music or doing your readings in silence. Try journaling before or after.

This is your practice; make it unique and special to you!

Asking the “right” question

It is very tempting to ask “What will happen to me/my project/my family/my career/my passion?” or “Should I do X?”

Tarot cards are a tool, and I try to treat them as an extension of my intuition or my subconscious. I try not to think of them as a crystal ball. It can be difficult and frustrating to try to glean a black and white answer from an image of celestial beings, animals, and medieval characters. It might be more useful to you to ask an open-ended question.

Typical questions that I ask include:

  • What should I know going into this project?
  • What should I know about this project/trip/job/event?
  • What should I concentrate on in my work/family/life right now?
  • What should I focus on in my work/family/life today?
  • What do I need to pay attention to right now?
  • What do I need to know about my work/family/life?

That being said, ask what you like! I did one of my most exciting readings just before I started on my tarot-exploration novel. I had been mulling over two new book ideas, a nonfiction sequel to a manuscript I’d written years prior about my (ongoing) spiritual journey, and a novel about a psychic that would rely on the Major Arcana to structure the plot. I asked the cards which project I should focus on and drew one card: Illusion. The answer seemed obvious to me: write the fiction project! I started on that novel and never looked back (it became Wait, currently out on submission).

I don’t think the answer would have been as clear if my subconscious had been fuzzy on the better choice. Deep down, I think I already knew what I wanted to do—embark on a crazy tarot-related adventure, try something new, and take a break from “heavy” writing. The novel turned out to be just as heavy and dark as anything else I’ve written—but I couldn’t know that at the time. The tarot cards confirmed what I was feeling deep down.

To sum up:

  • Familiarize yourself with your deck by looking at a card each day. Try journaling about the cards.
  • Don’t worry about memorizing every card’s meaning. It’s perfectly fine to use a book or simply do readings using an online tarot reader.
  • Rely on your intuition when asking questions, shuffling or creating a pre-reading ritual, and drawing cards for spreads.
  • Start with simple spreads and tweak them until they become useful to you.
  • Try asking open-ended questions.
  • You can do all of these things with an online card reader! Instead of shuffling, close your eyes, or light a candle. Create your own rituals for whatever you need or want to do.

Cheers and hope you are enjoying this series. Pop back in next week (or sign up below) to follow along.

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