A Beginner’s Guide To Tarot Reading

In Tarot for Change, writer Jessica Dore provides tools and interpretations to guide you down your card-reading path.

"Tarot For Change" by Jessica Dore offers tarot card interpretations and a beginner's guide to readi...
Penguin Life

In this guide adapted from her new book, Tarot for Change: Using the Cards for Self-Care, Acceptance, and Growth, Jessica Dore explains how to start a tarot practice.

I’ve always felt that tarot is an intuitive practice first and foremost, best learned creatively, instinctually, and taking into account the particulars of your own circumstances. When I got my first deck, I spent about two years pulling one card every morning and evening. Through that slow process of getting to know the cards, I also got to know myself. That was exactly what I needed from the cards when we first got together. Still, there are things I’ve learned over the years that I (and my editor) thought you might like to know.

The first thing I want to say before I share anything that resembles a how-to or that might be taken as a protocol is this: Nothing I will say here is to be taken as hard and fast. You will need to decide for yourself what’s of use and what isn’t, what may be valuable now, and what might need to be tucked away until later. I still go back to my first tarot book (Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom) and find secrets that are everything now but meant nothing back then.

So I’m going to give a bit of structure here to get you going — some charms for the road — but don’t get boxed in. Tarot will remind you both that you are not alone and that your particular path is yours and you alone can walk it.

The Best Tarot Deck For Beginners

The deck that’s best for you as a beginner is the one you feel most comfortable and inclined to spend time with. The one that speaks a familiar language, one that feels like home, even if you’re still figuring out what home is. Familiarity doesn’t require fluency, but that will probably come, too, the more time you spend. Choose a deck that you genuinely want to spend time with. One that inspires humility, curiosity, a real wanting to understand.

I’ve heard some truly intricate tales of drawn-out relationships with tarot decks — “well, the illustrator is a dear friend or a person whose work in another field I respect”; “a loved one gifted me this set on their deathbed”; “the artist is from where I’m from,” on and on and on — to explain why, despite having no real connection of their own with the cards, a person feels obligated to work with them. Watch out for that.

How To Ask Questions In Tarot

Many traditional styles of tarot reading begin with a question. When I give readings, I encourage people to use open-ended questions, or even frame queries in the form of intentions if that feels good, when consulting the cards. For instance, someone could ask, “What do I need to be aware of right now?” “What am I not seeing?” or “What secrets do you have to tell me today?

If you’re pulling cards for yourself, you might also choose to phrase your query in the form of an intention, like this: “I’m aiming for deeper clarity around this issue,” or “I wish to broaden my perspective and see what is on the periphery, not the center,” or “I am listening for what secrets the cards wish to tell me about how to be more loving/compassionate/gentle/authoritative/empowered” or whatever else you’re going for.

You can certainly use the cards to tell you what to do but asking yes or no questions may narrow the possibilities for edging into unanticipated spaces, to do new learning. I prefer to work with cards as if we — my cards and I — are collaborators; we each give something, receive something, and stay willing to do our part.

How To Shuffle Tarot Cards

As I’m thinking about the query — whether my own or that of the person I’m working with — I shuffle. How will you know when you’ve shuffled enough? If I’m pulling for myself, I’m done when I feel settled. I sometimes think of shuffling as a sort of grounding technique that can bring me back into the body, where I can access the parts of my imagination that light up best when I feel rooted. To get here, I might focus on the temperature and texture of the cards, or the quality of my breath.

If I’m pulling for someone else, I’m shuffling while listening, so I might shuffle until I have a clear sense of, not the question per se, but the energy of what’s needed. This is subtle, takes practice, and requires a kind of listening into liminality — between the lines of what’s being explicitly stated — that we’re not all used to. I’m listening for things like, Is this person’s spirit anticipatory in a good way, or in a difficult-to-work-with way? Is their heart frightened, or lonely? Do they need to be supported or frustrated? Once I have a sense of that, I can stop shuffling.

If you’re in the early days of your practice and this all feels like too tall an order, rein it in and keep it simple: Shuffle until the cards are in a different enough order than they were when you picked them up. Imagine that your energy is intermingling with them, and theirs with you. If you feel fearful or anxious, notice that and know it is OK to feel that way. No need to get rid of any feeling that’s coming up, but see if you can temper it with some curiosity.

How To Pull Tarot Cards

Once I’m done shuffling the cards, I — and you’re welcome to use this method, but the best thing to do is find a way that feels good for you — divide them into three piles, facedown, in a horizontal row. Then I take the middle pile, put it on top of the left side pile, and then put that stack on top of the right-side pile. I draw each card from the top, placing the cards facedown on the table as I pull them.

When it’s time to turn them over, I turn them all over at once. I like to see the full picture and find that, for me personally, secrets are more audible that way. But you may find that turning them one at a time is the best way to activate and amplify what wants to emerge. Take the time to experiment and listen for what’s best for you and the cards.

How To Read A Spread In Tarot

Three-card spreads are an excellent stepping-stone from one-card draws to larger, more complex spreads. Many people like to assign “past, present, future” values to a three-card spread. I, personally, shy away from chronological approaches to interpreting spreads. I really can’t speak to using cards to divine the future; that’s just not what I do. But if you want to try a “past, present, future” spread, you might do so by asking something like, “What do I need to be aware of?” for each position in time. This way, you’re not necessarily predicting what will happen, but laying down a doorway to walk through — a threshold to cross over — where you might gain access to a new detail that you may not have otherwise noticed.

When I do a three-card pull, I draw the cards from my shuffled pile and place them face down in a horizontal row. Unlike some of the more classic spreads (such as the Celtic Cross or even “past, present, future” three-card draws), I don’t give the positions assigned meanings (such as obstacle or outcome), and I don’t view them in any chronological order. Rather, I think about each card as if it were a doorway to walk through and poke around in, see what’s there. Sometimes it’ll feel like tumbling through the back of a magical wardrobe, others will look more like a broom closet. Maybe there’s a charm somewhere in there, but it’s hiding in the corner covered with generations of dust and you’ll only get a glimpse if you really look hard.

When you’re pulling cards, you’ll have ideas about what the cards mean, interpretations you love, associations you’ll be eager to amplify. But first, just notice. What are you feeling in your body? What memories are lighting up? What’s your heart doing? Which feathers are getting ruffled? Where does the hair stand up? If you think you know what a card means right away, well, think again. As my old friend and artist Robert Tannen used to say, “Think that you might be wrong.” When the cards don’t make immediate sense, see if you can be with that. What’s the texture of the feeling when nothing resonates? What about certain symbols strikes you as neutral, uninteresting, or void of meaning? What about them bores you, shuts you down, or even gives rise to resistance?

In my earlier days of teaching about tarot, I used to always tell people that if you pull cards and they don’t resonate, you’re allowed to put them back and shuffle again. These days I’m a bit less hurried, more interested in a good thing that takes time to bloom. You can always put the cards back and draw again, but do make room for the ones that like some time to aerate. Lay them out in a place that you’ll see them and see if they shape-shift throughout the week. Make a habit of getting receptive to what wants to be seen rather than expecting revelations on demand.

As more of us come around to the knowing that tarot can be used as a tool to take care of ourselves, I think it’s really important to remember that self-care isn’t always about feeling good. Our sense of entitlement to experiencing only nice feelings can often manifest, ultimately, as the antithesis of care. Is it truly self-care if it doesn’t extend to all aspects of our experience, including — and perhaps especially — the things we’d rather reject, disown, or avoid altogether?

After all, the assumption that what feels good is good and what feels bad is to be avoided is incompatible with the philosophical underpinnings of tarot, which strive toward the totality of experience. A regular practice of pulling cards is one of many ways available to develop this understanding on a visceral level, and to learn to live it. Each time we pull a card and remain open to what it might activate in us, we are carving out a safe, stable container in which we can learn to be with the stuff we’d rather not be with. And that can be life-altering.

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Excerpted from Tarot For Change: Using the Cards for Self-Care, Acceptance, and Growth by Jessica Dore. Published by Penguin Life on Oct. 26, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Dore. All rights reserved.