I’ve gone card by card through the major arcana to prompt exercises, strategies, and tips for longterm tarot learning. This series is geared towards beginner through intermediate readers. It’s not meant to be followed in order as a course. Skip around, pick and choose the exercises that appeal most to you, and above all, don’t get overwhelmed or try to tackle everything in one go. For many of us, tarot is a lifelong pursuit and a practice that deepens over time.
For millennia, humans have observed the night sky, assigning patterns and stories to star clusters. We probe the cosmos and navigate geographic terrain through astronomy. Some navigate psychological, spiritual, or social terrain through astrology. The Star asks the seeker to orient themself within a broader landscape, and speaks of pathfinding.
Spreads are the constellations of tarot craft. Finding and creating spreads that fit your style can bring your readings to the next level. Spreads aren’t necessary, but they do lend structure to a reading and help articulate questions. Posing a focussed, clear, and relevant question is half the battle. A well-ordered spread, grown around a well-ordered question, begets well-ordered insights.
As beginners, most of us encounter the same few spreads repeated in guidebooks and plastered over the web—the ubiquitous Celtic Cross and friends. The classics are a fine place to start, but they don’t do it for everyone, and they don’t cut it for every question.
Like constellations, the most potent tarot spreads are those with memorable structures and stories we can connect to emotionally or intellectually. For an embarrassingly long time, I thought I had to master the Celtic Cross before moving on to other spreads. Trouble was, it didn’t mean anything to me personally, so it never clicked. Because I wasn’t engaged with it, I could never remember how it went in practice. There’s nothing wrong with the Celtic Cross, but it’s not for me.
My reading skills developed leaps and bounds when I gave up on the spreads in my books and started writing my own. Don’t waste time holding yourself back like I did. If you haven’t yet, find spreads that catch you symbolically, make you laugh, or make you think. Find spreads that navigate the questions gnawing at the back of your mind right now. If you can’t find what you’re looking for elsewhere, write it for yourself. (Stay tuned for a follow-up post on spread crafting.)
Keep a collection of your favorite spreads in your tarot journal. Check tarot blogs and books for original spreads, and browse the #tarotspread and #divination tags on social media for indie gems. Tumblr and Instagram have some great ones. (P.S. I’ve got nifty spreads here on the blog and in the ebooks that are friendly to all levels, and I send out an original spread just for subscribers every season in my tarot newsletter.)
Enjoying tarot spreads doesn’t mean you have to use them every session. Readings with spreads have a different character than readings off the cuff, and different questions are best explored in different ways. Spreads can make a tarot session feel more ritualistic or studious, and pair well with journaling.
I like spreads for complex, multi-part questions, broad questions that require nuanced answers, and general readings that assess multiple aspects of the querent’s life. I prefer single-card draws and unstructured sessions for narrower topics, and situations where an answer is likely to prompt further questions.
If you’re new to working with spreads, don’t force yourself to use them constantly. Find some fun spreads online and try a different one each week until you get a feel for what structures and patterns work best for you.
If you want to understand the Moon in the Tarot, go outside on a clear night and look at the thing. I dare you to stare at a full moon for a full minute and not feel something. You don’t have to be intoxicated or poetic, you’re gonna feel something.
Next dare is to put that feeling into tidy words that follow syntax, and make sense, and all the other nice wordsy things as words oughtta do.
The moon itself tugs at us in primal ways that defy rationality and transcend verbal thought. It follows that the tarot Moon cuts right to our indefinable, ineffable, subconscious, liminal, and dreamlike experiences. The Moon challenges us to put away our words, and to seek a nonverbal, emotional, and sensory experience with every tarot archetype.
Easier said than done though, right?
We filter most of our thoughts and experiences through speech. Language is so deeply ingrained, I doubt it can be turned off completely, but it can be quieted. I don’t know where neuroscience stands on this, but speaking as an artist, it’s good to periodically dial down the mind’s verbal channel. Activities that still the inner word-stream are creative rocket fuel.
Creativity’s chief tasks in this world include bringing forth what isn’t yet, and building architecture of language and symbol for what isn’t yet understood. Good luck getting that done while stuck in a framework of what already is and is understood. Language, for all its riches, catalogs chiefly what we already know.
If we want tarot exercises to take us outside that catalog, we need some frame of reference for how it feels to dial the word-stream down. Luckily, there are plenty of nonverbal senses and activities to draw on. Moon-gazing itself counts (do do that if you haven’t yet), but what else is there?
Look to activities that are kinesthetic, creative, immersive, transcendent, and abstract. Tasks that require a lot of concentration and muscle memory, like athletics, dance, and playing an instrument can get you out of your words. Listening to instrumental or trance music can do it. Sitting meditations, and physical meditation like walking in nature or even physical labor can get you there, too. I’d often get a meditative kick from cutting wood and painting base-coats back in my theatre tech days.
Drawing and painting help me think nonverbally, as can looking at artwork, though it depends on the subject. It’s easy to paint a still life and think visually, but it’s difficult to look at a symbolic still life like a vanitas painting without thinking verbally, “table, candle, grapes, skull,” and decoding those symbols through internal chit-chat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s hard to look at an abstract painting like a Jackson Pollock or Yves Klein without A) feeling something, and B) scrounging for words to pin those feelings down in any way that makes sense. Critics and art historians have the unenviable job of putting words to un-wordsy things, and for all their efforts, end up sounding like dirtbags at least half the time. (Except for Abbi Jacobsen, who nails it in her podcast A Piece of Work, with no bs or pretension.)
I’m rambling. Alright. We have a vague notion of non-verbal thought now. Still with me? Time to spin vague notions into practical tarot exercises.
Art often transcends verbal language, but most tarot decks lean on symbolism, one of the most inherently verbal channels of visual art. Get around this by abstracting the symbolic pictures in your favorite tarot deck.
Choose a card you’d like to feel more intuitively, and grab your sketchbook or paints. Gaze at the card and soften your focus, as if doing a Magic Eye puzzle, until some visual kernel jumps out at you. This could be a color story (even a single color), a shape, or an underlying geometric pattern. Make an abstract sketch or painting based around that visual kernel. No discernible symbols or recognizable forms.
Begin this process with the card in front of you as a reference. Once you’ve got the bones of your sketch laid down, put that card away and keep working. Let one line, shape, or color prompt another. See what forms emerge on paper and what moods they evoke.
In theory, meditation might sound like an obvious strategy to work without words, but I’m meh on it. Meditation isn’t so much designed to erase thoughts, as it is to bring awareness and cultivate non-attachment to them. Unless meditation is your jam and you’ve been at it a while, on the short-term, it’s not likely to shut your inner words up. It could even make them louder.
If meditation is your jam, set a 5 minute timer to gaze at a daily card’s picture, and release and quiet any words that come up around it. If nothing else, this will help you memorize the cards, and on the long run it could get you beyond words and spark a visceral connection to your deck.
The Moon is super dreamy, and dreamscapes bend, distort, and transcend language in ways that are tough to mimic or even remember in waking life. There’s no sure-fire way to design a dream, but we can influence our dreamscapes by stuffing our heads with targeted content right before bedtime.
Meditate on a card for 10-20 minutes right before bed. Gaze at it, then picture yourself in the card’s landscape as you fall asleep. Dream on it and see what you get.
This exercise might feel frustrating in practice. We’re wired with the temptation to pull things into clarity and narrative sense, but our Moon goals are for fuzzier, nonsensical, subliminal experience. If you wake with a loose sensation or fragment of some forgotten truth or place, and that scrap vibes with your target card, you’ve done something right. If you can’t package your experience into words, you’re in the zone.
Yes, poetry is exactly words-based, and most folks hate it to boot. If those other exercises worked for you, you can skip this bit. Trouble is, this nonverbal stuff will be really fucking hard for some people. Incurably loquacious? Not a problem.
The heart and soul of this words-less kick lies in the disruption of linear, rational, and order-seeking thought structures. I love to do that through sensation and abstraction, but for some, the non-verbal pre-req will be a deal breaker. We need a cheat to go all non-linear, subconscious, dreamy, and abstract with words. That way lies poetry.
The keys to subverting language through language are chaos and nonsense.
Before touching your cards, generate a handful of words mad-libs style on a scrap of paper. Pick 3 nouns, 3 verbs, and 2 adjectives by stream of consciousness, or grab the nearest book, close your eyes, flip to random pages, and point until you have a list of 7-10 words. Draw a card at random. List at least 5 pet keywords and phrases for that card. Cut out all the words on your list and shuffle them around randomly. Set a 15 minute timer and write a poem of those words and phrases in their shuffled order. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It doesn’t have to make sense. See where it takes you.
Your finished poem might make you laugh, but there’s a fair shot it’ll make you see your card in a fresh light, too.
(We did a group exercise similar to this in a high school English class, minus the tarot. I forget the details and the objective, but the results were funny and surprisingly meaty, so it stuck with me. I would credit the author of that exercise, but I don’t know who wrote it. It was a long time ago. The specific rules and aims were different, but I was inspired by that game here. That, and I read somewhere that David Bowie wrote some of his best lyrics by cutting up his drafts and rearranging them at random. Chaos is creative sugar. Props to Mrs. Q of HHS, and the ghost of David Bowie.)
For the love of your retinas, don’t seek to understand the tarot Sun by gazing at the real thing.
The Sun stands as much for rhythm, routine, and constancy as for verve and cheer. That constancy is the metric by which we thrust inappropriate optimism in the face of all calamity. Everything’s on fucking fire because the world is run by fascists, sex criminals, and a cabal of nefarious tycoons? Ah well, the sun still rises. The beat goes on.
That reassurance may not be comforting int the face of disaster, but it feels better than it should in the day to day. Critters like routine.
Working tarot into your routine with a daily draw is one of the best ways to learn tarot, and keep developing over the long haul. This can be as simple as starting or ending your day with a single card draw, but let’s try something that digs further into the Sun’s symbolism.
Different times of day have different qualities. Dawn smacks of hope, optimism, and fresh starts. Noon brings a harsh, glaring light. It’s the dog days of summer, the deep burn, and the state of full illumination, for better or worse. The setting sun oozes soft, golden light that casts long shadows. This is magic hour: the most beautiful time of day, with a tinge of melancholy. At dusk, we reflect, digest the day, and feel those here-comes-the-night vibes.
Use these rhythms to examine how a single card can look in different lights. Pull a card when you first wake up. Interpret it as something to look forward to, or a piece of advice for the day. At noon, check back on your daily card. See how it relates to the harsh reality of what’s going on so far. Before bed, review all the ways that card’s symbolism popped up throughout the day. Reflect on the card before falling asleep, and see if it colors your dreams.
Try this exercise once a day for a week. How do your daily cards hold up? How do your interpretations shift throughout the day? Do any patterns and motifs repeat from day to day? Journal your results.
This is a good way to catalog nuances in the cards’ meanings. It’s also a good way to stretch your predictive reading muscles on a micro scale. Not everyone reads tarot predictively, and prediction gets tricky, but that is an avenue you can explore if it piques your interest.
Judgement marks contact and exchange between the Fool and divinity, the seeker and the sought. In the context of tarot studies, this is the moment we meet archetypes as dynamic, living systems—beings we can converse with and streams we can swim in. It’s when the cards come to life.
Knowing this kind of experience is possible is a step towards getting there. The exact nature of the experience, and the pathway to it, however, will vary from person to person. It’s something that has to be felt and known directly. It’s the kind of experience that, depending how it hits you, can be very difficult to put into words.
I can’t teach you how to get there. It’s not the kind of thing that always happens on command, and the gateways look different to different folks. I can offer some suggestions that may help get you closer, though.
Different personalities and different passions call for different approaches. Passion is an excellent place to start, because we’re seeking a visceral, transformative experience. Choose an approach that begins with something you already know and love, that already moves you.
Writers and illustrators of lyric and fiction:
Stay awake, eyes open before a blank page. Chose a favorite card, and imagine it personified by a character. Invite this character to sit down beside you or hover over your shoulder. Speak to them. Invite them to tell you their story. Listen to what they have to say. Write.
Get into your favorite meditating position, with your favorite background music. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Start with whatever protective and grounding techniques you usually use for visualizations. When you’re ready, picture a door before you. Open it and walk through, into the landscape of one of your cards. Look around. Have a little explore. What do you see, hear, smell, and feel there? Who do you meet there?
Every card has its figure. Greet this figure and listen. They may have something to say to you, something to show you, or an object to give you. What is it? Thank the figure and take one last look around you. Turn around. There’s a door behind you, leading back where you came from. Open it and walk through. Close the door behind you. Open your eyes and re-ground.
Reflect on what you saw, heard, and sensed. How did it vary from what you expected, and the card as you knew it before? Make notes in your journal.
Approach a favorite card as if you’re getting into character. Imagine a backstory for them. Step into character. How do they move? How do they feel? What do they have to say through you?
Connect your cards to your senses of wonder in a meaningful space. Think of a place that inspires your awe. This could be a spot in nature, a museum gallery, a sacred religious site, a temple, mosque, or cathedral, a planetarium or observatory, a library, a theatre, in the presence of someone you love, or something else. The key is easy access to amazement and a sense of being part of something more than yourself. Go there. Feel some awe.
Now call up a card. What’s the first tarot card or archetype that springs to mind in this space? What does this card evoke in the context of this space? How does it feel? Try to hold both the presence of the card’s archetype and the feeling of wonder in this space at the same time. Don’t worry if it feels silly, or if it’s hard to focus on both notions. Slowly and steadily, you’re stitching together your knowledge of tarot and your drive for wonder, and that’s what counts.
You can try these exercises with a favorite card you already feel connected to, but they may work even better with unexpected cards. Sometimes an archetype taps you on the shoulder that you don’t consciously desire or see coming.
The stalker-card phenomenon comes into play here. Stalker-cards are cards that pop up in your readings over and over during a limited time period, no matter what you’re asking or how well you shuffle between readings. Sometimes their imagery crops up in daily conversation, happenings, or omens. Jung would call this a kind of synchronicity. These cards usually have significance to a phase you’re going through. They can pose opportunities to connect deeply with their archetypes. Try these exercises with stalker cards, if you dare.
Don’t feel bad if these exercises don’t spark a potent experience. Try not to measure what you get against some desired “profound enough” state. A mystic or ecstatic connection to tarot will not appeal to or happen for everyone, and even if it does, it might not come on command. If you get there, great. If not, also great. You can still get fresh insights and ideas by coupling tarot imagery with activities that inspire passion and awe, and by taking the cards off printed paper and into active imagination. Tarot is a creative tool, so imagined experience counts, even if it feels like you’re making things up.
The World puts it all together. This card stands for integration, unity, and balance between the inner and outer landscapes. The seeker knows who they are, see things as they are, and understands and occupies their place in the world.
In the context of learning tarot, the World represents the ability to recognize the cards’ stories in the world around you, whether you’ve got a deck in hand or not. For many readers, this happens organically. The more time you spend with tarot, the more people, stories, and events will remind you of certain cards.
Practice this deliberately by putting your cards away and choosing an event from real life to reflect on. It could be something that you did or that happened to you, something funny an acquaintance said, a new person that you met, or a news story. Pick anything sticky to remember at the end of the day. Briefly describe the person or happening in your tarot journal. What card or cards are you reminded of? If you were reading tarot for someone else, and the cards had to describe a similar situation, how might they fall?
This exercise requires a baseline familiarity with the cards. Beginners may find this too difficult. Give it a shot on the off chance you know more than you realize. You can grow quickly by stretching yourself this way. If you still come up blank, not to worry. Adapt the exercise. First describe a memory or event in your journal, then flip through your cards until you see one that speaks to what you’ve written. Write a couple lines on the card you choose and how it connects to your entry.
As always, thanks for reading and be well!