A lot of people like to stress that there are no inherently "bad" cards in the tarot deck. Each card represents potential positive and negative forces or trends in your life. While this is technically true on a very deep level, it offers little comfort to the client whose query "Is this the man for me?" or "Will I get a job soon?" is met by The Tower or Death or the Three of Swords.
I'm sorry, but there are some cards in the deck that tend to be, if not exactly bad, at least difficult. I confess that I will probably never jump for joy when the Five of Pentacles pops up in a reading, and I'm never exactly relieved to see the Nine of Swords, either.
But are these "bad" cards? Among modern pagans, new agers, and other freaky folk like us, there tends to be a strong aversion to labeling things "bad" or "evil". We tend to use words like "negative" as in "negative energy."
But life is not perfect, and as the cards reflect that, there will be some cards that, even if they're not inherently bad in themselves, tend to illustrate some pretty crummy things in life: breakups, illness, betrayal, the loss of a job or other catastrophes, major and minor. The tarot has to have these cards in order to paint a frank and realistic picture of life.
I'm always surprised when people are afraid of a reading. I think it's these cards they're afraid of, and afraid that there will be nothing they can do to halt the path laid out in front of them.
But there's nearly always something we can do, and before action must come understanding. Working closely with the cards, either on your own or with someone else, can help us take stock of a situation, note potential pitfalls, and-- most importantly-- acknowledge and take responsibility for the part we play in our own destinies. The cards are great at showing us what's going on in life. They're even better at showing us our unconscious attitudes, our behavior, our blind spots. Rarely is disaster inevitable. But in order to gain the most from a reading, as well as from life experience in general, we must look things in the eye. There is very little use in trying to explain away the nastier side of life when it pops up, in the form of a difficult card or a difficult situation. There's a lot of good we can do for ourselves when we face up to the bad!
“Hello. I’d like a tarot reading,” says my latest client. Since she is a completely fictional client, let’s call her Mystery Lady. “But then,” she adds with a nervous giggle. “You probably already knew that!” I laugh and joke back: “Oh, I’m good, but I ain’t that good.”
When she arrives for her appointment, I invite her to sit down, ask if she’d like some tea or coffee, gently shoo the cats in the next room, and sit down to start the session.
“Is there anything in particular you’d like to discuss today?” I ask. Mystery Lady tells me that there is, but that she would rather have the reading first. She settles down to watch me work, eyes wide, mouth pressed in a thin line, hands folded on her knee. She edges herself close to the box of tissues I keep for clients who need them.
I lay the cards out, one by one, and explain to Mystery Lady the meanings of each placement and how they connect in a thematic web. This first one is the basic situation. The second one is the root, the underlying cause of the present predicament. And so on. As I lay out the cards and talk about each one, a theme develops, and I build on the theme, expanding it until all the cards are in harmony. I continue until they give me a complete picture painted with the emotional colors of my client’s life at that moment. I can see that she has romantic woes.
I can also see that I’m being tested. Mystery Lady occasionally makes a sound like a doctor examining an X-ray that doesn’t quite make sense. Sometimes, it appears that I’ve hit on something, and so I take that direction further until I hit a dead end and retreat to another card.
I outline the meanings of the cards as they come up, skimming along the surface of the symbols and letting my intuition pluck the relevant ones off the surface of the cards. I observe how the Magician’s wand seems to be pointing at another card. I hold the card up. “Does this seem significant to you?” I ask Mystery Lady. “This card normally represents family situations, happy ones. See how all the figures in the card are dancing, the abundance they’re enjoying? But it’s reversed. Let me ask you: does the figure in this card, this person who seems to have all the answers and is so skilled and so slick, do you feel that he’s disrupting your family life?”
Finally, Mystery Lady drops her poker face and tells me about the smooth-talking boyfriend she thinks might be up to no good. She tells me how her children are reacting to this new potential stepfather, her sister’s disapproval (Ah, so that was the Queen of Swords…it wasn’t her mother after all, I think) and all the rest of it. The themes I’ve uncovered snap into focus, and suddenly I have a story. Now, we’re getting somewhere! My client still has twenty minutes left of her session, and after much poking and prodding, we’ve got some material we can work with together.
“So….”I say. The Lady leans forward and takes a tissue, and I keep an eye on her and an eye on the cards as I proceed. “You’re worried that he might not be sincere. Well, let’s take a look at this card, here…” and we solve the puzzle together. At the end of the session, my client blows her nose, dabs a few tears away, and smiles at me.
“You’re good,” she says. “You’re really good.”
“Thank you,” I say, and push the box of tissues towards her. “Would you like some water? Or I could put the kettle on….”
“No, no, it’s fine. I just wonder how you knew all that.”
“Well, I didn’t. But you did. It’s painful, but you know that this guy is no good for you, and you were just looking for outward confirmation so you could trust yourself. But the cards show us the emotional undercurrents of what’s going on, and the real value of this reading has been more than confirming your understanding of things. We’ve really gotten to the root of the issue and been given a roadmap to solve it. The problem isn’t just this guy. The problem is this:”
I point to the reversed High Priestess, upon which the whole of the spread rests. “You consistently discount your impressions and intuition. It’s a major arcana card, so that gives me the hint that it’s not just about this guy. It’s about your life in general. And see this card here?” I hold up Judgment. “That’s your advice card. Trust your judgment.” We spend the rest of the session discussing strategies for her to learn to trust herself, and I end up loaning her a decidedly non-mystical self-help book from my library and advising her to do the exercises at the end of each chapter.
Mystery Lady’s problem has been uncovered, and we’re taking steps to solve it. The spread has revealed layers of meaning, but it was her revelation of the specifics that made it make sense in a way she could use.
I understand the instinct to withhold information from a tarot reader or astrologer. After all, you’re paying good money for their services, and it’s natural to want to test them and see if they’re any good. And also, you’re paying for their time, their insight—not the same rehashing of the issue that you’re familiar with. You want a fresh perspective on things. And these are personal matters, things you might not want to discuss with a stranger.
But you’d never go to a doctor and say, “What’s wrong with me?” without listing some symptoms, right? Or take your car into a mechanic without telling the people who work for that it’s been making a noise and shuddering when you shift gears. Or stare at your therapist until she tells you what’s wrong.
The source of the problem, my intuition tells me, is a misunderstanding of what tarot readers, and professionals in related fields, have to offer. We—or at least, I—don’t have the kind of psychic powers that allow us to answer the phone before it rings, or pick winning lottery numbers (I wish!). Rather, whatever medium we work in shows us themes.
It may be helpful to think of it like literature. Most of us took a high school English course where we read a short story and then discussed its meaning. When Mr. Boyd asked you, “What’s going on in this story?” he didn’t mean, “What is the main character’s name and what are they doing?” He meant, “What is the deeper significance of this story? What themes does it wrestle with? What are the consequences of the characters’ choices? How do the larger events in the story-- the background stuff like wars and family turmoil and adversity—tie in with the inner lives of the characters? “Not what the story is about, but what it means.
A tarot spread is the inverse of a short story. It reveals the meaning behind the events and the motivations of the characters, but it rarely does more than hint at the events and the identities of the people involved. Imagine an English exam that looked like this:
"This story is about tradition divorced from meaning. It’s about when society clings to custom for its own sake, no matter what the cost."
"This story deals with the meaning of heritage, the conflict between idealized, fictive tradition and the value of the lived experiences of our ancestors and ourselves."
"This story illustrates the fading of a way of life and the growing isolation of those who cling to the past."
On your test, you have to guess, Jeopardy-style, that the exam is referring to The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Everyday Use by Alice Walker, and A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner. But the catch is, you’ve never read, or even heard of any of these stories before!
So, why see a tarot reader at all?
Why read short stories?
The value of seeing a reader, whether they throw bones, pull meanings out of runes, or chart your life through the stars, is that they uncover theme. In most cases, these are themes you’re already half-aware of. I always know when I’ve hit those moments with a client, because they start to laugh and nod. If they’ve brought a friend to sit in on the session, the friend laughs and nudges them, saying, “See?!”
The Mystery Lady in my fictional spread above already knew that the boyfriend she was concerned about was not good for her. But hearing that confirmed from a neutral outside source helped her make the decision to move on. Even more than that, seeing the theme of her relationship, and the deeper patterns and emotions that drive the choices she makes laid out in the colorful images on a deck of cards, let her intuition speak to her.
It is so easy to ignore those little voices that tell you "This is a bad idea!" or "Yes, you’re scared, but go for it!" Seeing their message laid out makes them impossible to ignore, takes the half-hidden things you know and pushes them to the forefront of what you believe—and can then act on.
Tarot—like the short story—is an art of interpretation from one language to another. A short story takes the minutiae of daily life and shapes it to reveal a coherent meaning. A tarot spread reverses the process, bringing hidden meanings to the forefront. Your intuition, your gut, already knows these things. But the act of laying it out in a language your subconscious mind understands and talking it out, you bring this knowledge to your conscious mind, where you can use the information.
We know that conformity can get out of control, and at a terrible price; but "The Lottery" has an emotional resonance to it that shocks us, makes us experience it vicariously, and shakes us up inside so the message really sinks in. Likewise, we know deep down that we need to make a career change, or that it’s not the right time for us to be in a relationship right now, or that we need to let go and let our kids make their own mistakes. But bringing those messages out, talking them over and translating them into the specifics of our lives-- that makes them apparent to us in a way that is impossible to ignore.
Just as the short story grabs our emotions by turning an abstract idea into a guided sensual experience for the reader, so does a tarot reading guide the querent through the thematic narrative of their daily lived experience, uncovering the meaning behind them in such a way as to bring them to the forefront of their conscious minds.
So, don’t be afraid to spill your guts to your reader! Tell them as much as you’re comfortable revealing before starting the reading. Even a one-word category—“I want a relationship reading,” or “I’d like to read about my career,” can be a huge help to the reader, who is navigating your life with a compass but no map. If something jumps out at you in the cards, tell us. If something we say is way off base or spot-on, tell us. The more material you give us to work with, the more you get out of your session.
After all, do you want to spend an hour and a significant chunk of cash just to test our abilities, or do you want to figure out your story?