When I was a kid, I had to make a decision about which movie I could see for my birthday. The choice was between Dunston Checks In and Muppet Treasure Island. I saw maybe one movie a year as a kid so this was a big decision. I decided to flip a coin, assigning a movie to each side. When the coin chose Dunston Checks In and I felt disappointed, I was able to figure out that Muppet Treasure Island was what my heart really wanted. I disregarded the coin’s choice but it had helped me to realize what I actually wanted.
These days my decisions are often unfortunately a little more important than which movie to see. My mom still tells me to flip a coin when I can’t decide something so that I can figure out what my gut wants. But instead of a coin, I now use tarot cards.
Even if you’re happy with what you saw, you have to do the work to ruminate on the why.
Tarot, like astrology, runestones, reading tea leaves, etc., are tools to help us to consider parts of our consciousness that are otherwise difficult to confront. I have friends who tell me that the reason they don’t “get” tarot is because they find themselves just reading into the cards what they want to see. That’s exactly how you’re supposed to use them! But by reading into them and seeing what you want to see, you’re meant to contemplate why you want to see it. Tarot cards never give you an easy answer. Even if you’re happy with what you saw, you have to do the work to ruminate on the why.
Once that clicked for me, tarot became a very fulfilling hobby (and now a profession — more on that later). After all, it’s called “reading” tarot for a reason. Interpreting symbols and applying those interpretations to different situations is part of what I do as a literature grad student. Humanities degrees are supposed to train us to think critically about issues and consider multiple answers. Other than on my podcasts, I don’t get to apply my reading skills for anything outside of school very often. So when I realized that the connections I make between symbols and cards and queries uses the same skill set I’ve been training basically my whole life, I was pretty satisfied.
But what if you’re not entirely sure how to get started with tarot, or you’ve tried but come up against some blocks? You don’t need a degree, or even a fondness for symbols, or anything, really. Just a willingness to look openly and honestly, and a deck.
Here are my tips for tarot newbies…
You’re going to second guess yourself, but go with your gut
When I show people how to draw cards I describe it as “When you feel like you’ve shuffled enough” or “When you feel like you’ve reached the right card.” When someone is telling you to do this, even if you’re a little hesitant, you can usually commit to a card. When you’re trying it alone, it is extremely easy to second-third-fourth-etc. guess your choice. I do it myself. Do I really feel like I’ve reached the right card?? What is a feeling anyway? Who am I and why am I on this planet? It snowballs quickly. But eventually, after practice and trusting yourself more and more, you’re able to listen to that little voice that told you “now” before the other voices said “well hold on a minute.” The first, most quiet voice is your intuition, and it’s what’s steering the ship here. Listen to it.
Try really hard to avoid books and websites at first
I use BiddyTarot and a couple of books (like this one) when I’m studying cards. At first I thought I’d have to memorize all the card meanings and symbolism, which was daunting af. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work unless I committed myself to doing at a rate I didn’t have time for. So instead, I started to try to read the cards myself. The Waite-Smith deck, which is my favourite one (and is often called the Rider-Waite deck) was envisioned by Waite and brought to visual reality by Smith’s illustrations. The symbolism of each card is deep but not at all obfuscated, especially if you like to read symbols. Take a crack at the cards you draw by yourself. Study the cards and see what jumps out at you. Write down your observations, and then if you want, supplement them with guides. You’ll find that your observations are usually in line with the guides, or they’re even more intuitively applicable to your question because you’re the one who took the time to study the illustrations. If you’re feeling very lost, you can begin by studying the numerology and symbolism behind each suit. That way you always have a guidepost when you pull a card, and you can let your imagination and intuition help you further.
Oh by the way: If you’d rather not worry about the specific meanings for reverse cards, that’s fine. The first time I got a professional reading, my reader just flipped cards to their right way up. “You can do that?!” I asked, and she laughed and replied, “You can do whatever you want.” Best advice ever. If reverse meanings feel right for you, go for it. If not, there are no rules. Just right.
Can I buy my own tarot deck?
Don’t worry if you’ve heard that you must be gifted a tarot deck. The important part of the deck is that you have a relationship with it, and it doesn’t matter how that relationship starts. If you’re at a shop and a deck calls out to you, that deck is going to serve you just as well as one your friend gave you. Spend time with your deck shuffling it and looking at the cards. Once it knows you and you know it, it doesn’t matter how it got in your hands.
On a related note: some people are really protective of their decks and the energy that comes in contact with them, so you shouldn’t pick one up and start flipping through it without permission. Just like you shouldn’t touch anybody’s anything without permission.
Trust the cards and don’t keep re-drawing to get the answer you want. That’s an answer in itself
If you’re disappointed or worried about the answer you were given, it’s an opportunity to meditate on those feelings.
If you didn’t get the answer you were hoping for when you asked the deck a question, don’t keep asking anew. You can definitely draw a couple clarifying cards to help you understand your original answer, but if you keep asking the deck the same thing you are just going to go into an anxiety spiral, lose faith in the process, and probably end up disliking tarot. If you’re disappointed or worried about the answer you were given, it’s an opportunity to meditate on those feelings. Why do you feel that way? What would you have rather had? How can you deal with what you got so that you can get what you want? Did the card point out something you were willfully ignoring that you need to face? Did the card bring something to light that you had hoped wasn’t going to be an issue? Your reaction to the cards is where their power lies. Don’t waste a reaction even if it wasn’t what you were expecting.
This card makes me think X, but the guide says it’s Y. What do I do?
If you studied a card before reading a guide and it gave you a clear feeling or answer, it’s a valid one. It may not be “correct,” but it’s valid. So that means that even if the guide tells you you’re actually supposed to interpret this card to mean something else, explore why your intuition wanted you to find the first reading. The whole point to this exercise is to let ourselves feel secure enough to realize what we’re really thinking deep down rather than worrying about what we “should” be thinking. Like I said, you can supplement your gut feelings with the guides, but your gut feelings trump everything. Your feelings are always valid even if they’re not necessarily correct. The important thing is to be able to differentiate between these two categories. My feeling is valid -> Why am I feeling this way? -> How can understanding it help me in this situation? You don’t have to act on feelings (especially if they’re not true).
Spreads are complicated! How do I keep all the card position meanings straight on top of the meanings of the cards?
They are complicated, and you definitely don’t have to start off drawing big spreads (or ever draw big spreads). You can just draw one card for your day, week, month, year, whatever. You can draw a single card for a single question. You can draw three cards for past, present, and future, in general or for a specific query. Keep it simple and remember that the exercise is to help you clarify your feelings, not make them more complicated.
Get a professional reading
I visit my tarot reader Michelle every spring. Having someone else guide me through the spread and prompt me to think of my issue in different ways is always hugely helpful and I always leave feeling calmer and more confident, which in turn reinvigorates confidence in my own practice and dispels any impostor syndrome about my self-help strategy that’s accumulated since I last saw her. It probably doesn’t seem it, but I am a strangely skeptical person when it comes to magic. I went in to my first meeting with Michelle trying to read her as she was reading me. I eventually realized that even if she uses her observations about me to colour her reading (rather than just being a medium through which the spirits ethereal speak The One Truth or whatever), her observations can help me better interpret what I’m feeling. Even if I disagree with something the reader or the cards are saying, the fact that I disagree is noteworthy and should be explored.
From the first time Michelle met me she said that I should be reading tarot for others professionally, too. I laughed because I never thought I’d want to do that. Four years later, that’s exactly what I’m doing, though a little bit differently. I read your cards based on a question you send me, and in a spread I came up with myself because I felt it gave enough insight without being overwhelming. I photograph the cards I draw for you. Then I write up a document of my reading and send it back to you so you can keep going back to it. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience as my clients so far have found their readings very helpful, but every reading also helps me, too. I am able to apply the readings to facets of my own life, often thinking “I should follow my own damn advice” while writing them.
Do I have to do my readings during a full moon/on my birthday/when the date is a prime number?
Just like any type of exercise or practice, the important part is that you do them, not when. Sure, I believe the moon phases are magical and can influence us in ways that make us more intuitive. If I need to process some feelings or get guidance right the fuck now immediately, I’m not going to care what day of the month it is. I also don’t worry about only drawing cards at my altar, with candles, lit, or anything like that, though I do enjoy doing that when I have the time. Draw cards on your commute if you need to. You don’t need anything but a deck…
Can I use a tarot app instead of a deck?
…or an app that has a deck. Those work just as well, because, once more, they are tools of introspection. Their magic comes from how they give you the confidence to unlock and confront feelings you otherwise wouldn’t. If you personally don’t feel an app could possibly work as well as a deck, then that means for you it definitely wouldn’t. But if you don’t have strong feelings against electronic tarot, that means your intuition is fine with the digital age and will come along for the ride just the same. I’m partial to this one in particular.
Hopefully that answered some of the questions you had about getting started.
Do you use tarot cards to help you sort out feelings, or to help guide yourself with magic? Do you see them as a secular or spiritual tool, or both?