What does tarot mean to me?

This is part of a series in which I blog my participation in Beth Maiden’s Alternative Tarot Course over at Little Red Tarot. First up are some basic questions that will help me understand what tarot means to me as I learn how to read the cards. I’d love to hear your answers to any of these questions, too!

I first came across tarot when…

Well, I actually can’t remember. Can’t remember buying my first deck, circa 2000/age 15-ish, nor do I know how I even knew what the deck was before I bought it. I think my earliest memory with it was when I did a Celtic Cross for George Harrison when I heard that he had cancer. (I was a Beatlemaniac when I was a teenager.) It was probably the most clumsily executed Celtic Cross ever performed, but I do remember that the outcome card was the Three of Swords.  😦  Miss you, George! Prior to my first encounter, I must have vaguely known about fortune-telling with cards. But yeah, did not have a lightning-bolt first encounter with the tarot!

The reason I want to learn tarot is…

Welp, I don’t know. Something draws me to it, but I’m not sure what. I like working with the cards and learning about them, so I will just let that desire drive me for now. It occurs to me, though, that since I’m winding down my Ph.D. program, tarot is probably filling in the gap, rushing in so I can have something new to learn as I move into the final stages of a big intellectual project. And I’m cool with that.

Here’s how I feel about learning tarot in three words:

excited, daunted, open

Tarot’s main purpose (for me) is…

to act as a mirror. I think it reflects things back to us about our minds and lives that we already know intuitively but can’t access on a conscious, rational level. Tarot is for showing us our blind spots, which helps guide us along as we go through our lives.

Here are some things I don’t believe about tarot:

While I think tarot has the ability to predict the future in the way the a meteorologist can predict the weather, I think the web of cause and effect is simply to big and too complex to be seen clearly by a single person asking a single question of a single pack of cards. So, I don’t think that the tarot can necessarily predict that six months from now a woman with dark hair will come into your life. That being said, I think tarot is good at identifying forces in one’s life and one’s habitual patterns. When you combine the two, you can get a pretty good idea of how things will turn out with specific situations, particularly in the short term, such as when a new relationship is being set up to fail.

Additionally, I think it’s funny that I put faith in tarot, but I regard the stuff that it’s based on much more skeptically. Traditional things like astrology, numerology, etc. are fun to me, but I’ve never put a lot of serious credence in them. That may change, but for now I’d rather just work with the tarot with an open mind. The notion of “vibrational energies,” to which a lot of people nowadays ascribe the cards’ power, also leaves me a little cold. I don’t need a 100% scientific definition of what people mean when they say “energy,” but it tends to get used in pretty vague and arbitrary ways that make me suspicious. A few weeks ago, I saw a quote on someone’s Instagram that said something like, “Keep your vibrations high! They affect everyone for 18 miles around you.” That’s when I go, “Uhhhhhh……” So, yeah. Jury’s still out on the energy thing.

I think the most important qualities for a tarot reader are:

Compassion for themselves and others, good listening skills, and equanimity, particularly in the face of unpleasant news.

In learning tarot, I hope to…

have fun, use the cards as a tool for making better decisions for myself and working with problems in my life, find friends to bond with over tarot, and maybe one day help others by doing readings.

I think my main challenges will be…

striking a balance between confidence and what we call beginner’s mind. I’m almost 30, I’ve almost completed a Ph.D. program. I’ve got some cred when it comes to learning stuff and mastering new skills. I feel comfortable with the process of learning tarot, and have confidence that if I stick with it and give it the appropriate amount of time and energy, I can gain enough mastery to do readings for others. But I also need to equip myself with humility and a basic sort of curiosity because my confidence could easily turn into arrogance, which will not only make me into an asshole, but hinder my learning and my true goal: to help people.

I’m also in the honeymoon stage of tarot learning. Just like at the beginning of a new relationship, I’m feeling a lot of manic energy (there’s that word again!!!) when it comes to tarot that is at this moment detrimental to my Buddhist studies and my meditation practice. (The desire for every tarot deck in the world–talk about dukkha!!)

But I will try to overcome them by…

bringing humility and equanimity into my practice with tarot. I think I need to start integrating it into my Buddhist practice in a formal way. Lots of people who don’t consider themselves Buddhist already use meditation as part of their tarot toolbox. I need to balance my tarot studies with my Buddhist studies and get in the habit of meditating before I do any readings. Otherwise, it’s just too easy for me to become ungrounded.

Additionally, I need to remember that I take up tarot as an act of service. Even if I’m only reading for myself–even if I only ever read for myself–I’m doing a service to the world by sorting out my own shit and being the best person I can be. If I ever do get the chance to read for others, I need to see myself in a role of humility and service, always.

I am really enjoying the Alternative Tarot Course so far. It’s only $25, which is crazy cheap, and the first week has been worth more than every penny already! Please do check it out if you’d like to learn about tarot in a way that focuses on developing it as a practice that’s significant for you.

The $2 Deck Wrap

One thing I can say for sure is that many of the rituals surrounding storing and “cleansing” tarot decks really don’t appeal to me. Sometimes my die-hard skeptic comes out and I’m like–“There is no way I’m going to waste a bunch of salt or sage on a tarot placebo.” The same goes for the idea that decks should be wrapped in silk. I don’t personally use silk, since silkworm larvae are killed in the process of harvesting. I also read somewhere…on another blog (sorry, attribution fail) that silk is one of the fabrics that is most likely to attract critters and therefore one of the worst for storing tarot cards.

U Waite box
Oh, the sadness of this box.

Until recently, I haven’t really been concerned about storing my cards at all, mostly because I have only one deck and use it pretty much every day. But I haven’t been keeping my Universal Waite cards in their box for the past few months because my box is sad. When I pulled them out of storage in January, I was surprised how beat-up the box was, but didn’t remember it being any other way. The upshot is that I must have used the cards a lot as a teenager and only remember a fraction of that use. (The same goes for watching anime or listening to Green Day, probably.) So my deck has been sitting all naked and lonely on my altar for a while.

I’m actually fine with a naked and lonely deck, but things become more complicated when you add multiple decks to the mix. I will soon be the owner of not just one, but FOUR tarot decks (the Linestrider, as well as the Wild Unknown and Pamela Colman Smith Centennial decks that I ordered yesterday.) Since I won’t be using them all at the same time, I want a nice way to store them, one that keeps them easily accessible and easy to tell apart. I think the Linestrider will come in a pretty standard paper box, so while that’s OK for long-term storage, I don’t want to be opening and closing it all the time if I’m reading with it often. Likewise, the Centennial deck will come as part of a huge boxed set, so I will want to have some place else to put it if I’m doing regular readings with it. (It does come with a little organza bag, but one that doesn’t set me on fire, to say the least.) The Wild Unknown comes in a pretty snug, sturdy, and compact box, from what I can tell, so I will probably keep it there most of the time with the exception of when I travel. So, I need something to store the other three decks.

I was inspired by the Slow Holler people (by the way–support this amazing deck in the last days of its Kickstarter campaign!!!) creating a custom handkerchief/bandana to store the deck. And I thought, huh, why don’t I just buy a few bandanas? So I went down to my local menswear shop and picked up a couple of US-made bandanas for $2 each.

bandana layoutI’m mostly familiar with bandanas as the thing that my dad wraps around his forehead before he goes to mow the lawn. Having purchased a couple for myself, I was struck by how beautiful they are, and how much we take traditional bandana patterns for granted. So I’ve decided to not only wrap my decks in them, but to use them as “laying cloths” as well. I bought a dark blue for my Universal Waite, a lavender for the Linestrider, and will get a sky blue for the Centennial deck and a black one for the Wild Unknown. My only concern is that dye from the bandanas will rub off on the decks. This is probably more of a concern if I’m traveling and the edges of the deck are getting jostled against the cloth. It’s also not that big of a concern. I want to treat my decks well and with respect, just like with any other everyday object I use, I actually want to use them, which is different from keeping them in pristine condition.

bandana wrapWrapping my deck has taken a little getting used to, but I really like the sturdy, soft package that results. I feel much better about the prospect of traveling with my cards because wrapping them tightly in cloth makes sure that they don’t move around much and gives them good padding all at the same time. The bandana cloth likes to stick to itself, so I don’t think a bundle would come undone easily.

And while I don’t think there’s any inherent power or energy in a deck-wrapping, I do think the ritual of unwrapping the deck before use and re-wrapping it afterwards adds a nice intentionality to the act of reading the cards

Retreating and Advancing

Over the past couple of years, I have had the immense privilege to go on several multi-day meditation retreats. I say it’s an immense privilege because it really is–I don’t have children, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to take the time off, and I have the funds to pay for it. But it’s also kind of funny, because retreats are hard, so it’s like paying money for the experience of being miserable. Whenever I tell people I’m going to a meditation retreat, they usually say, “Oh, that sounds so relaxing.” That’s how you can tell a person has never been on a meditation retreat.

Basically, on retreat  your job is to meditate all the time, whether you’re sitting on a cushion, walking, eating, resting, working, peeing–all the time. At my temple, there are about 9 hours a day of formal meditation interspersed with other activities. By the end of the first full day (which feels about as long as 3 normal days) your knees hurt, your back hurts, your ankles hurt, and every mental demon you have has decided to come out of the woodwork and do a merry jig on the living room carpet of your consciousness. You don’t have a choice as to how you spend your time, what food you eat, how much sleep you get. You can’t talk or write or even look at yourself in the mirror. (Well, of course you can do all these things, it’s not like the Buddhist police are going to throw you in jail if you do. But these are the guidelines for the retreat and pretty much everybody follows them.) As a friend of mine put it, “I can’t believe we’re going to pay money to sit on our asses for five days!”

But I do it, and continue to do it, because retreats build stamina, concentration, stability, quietness, and the capacity to be happy even in less than ideal conditions. You also gain a close connection with your fellow retreatants in a way that doesn’t happen in the small talk of our everyday lives.

Before going to retreat last Thursday, I thought it would be an interesting experience to consult the tarot about it. I’ve never really thought of tarot as having a lot of insight about my meditation practice, but I was surprised by the results. So before I left, I asked the question, “What am I carrying with me into this retreat?” and after I returned I asked, “What am I carrying with me as I go back to daily life.” I didn’t have any set spread–just pulled three cards–but the answers were quite illuminating.Continue reading “Retreating and Advancing”

“Knowledge is made for cutting”: Swords, Intellect, and Suffering.

swords pipsOf the four minor arcana suits, Swords tends to have more than its fair share of dark and scary cards. Where to even start? The confusion of the blindfolded figure in Two who balances crossed swords on her shoulders, the pain of the swords in Three piercing a heart, the unethical behavior of Five and Seven, the bondage and torment of Eight and Nine, the black skies and over-the-top back-stabbing in Ten? When I first took up tarot cards as a teenager these cards creeped me out, but I didn’t know why. Now that I’m older, with some Buddhist teachings and painful but valuable life experiences under my belt, I have a better understanding of of the perils of this suit. Swords are the suit that represents intellect, reason, logic, and empirical knowledge the the product of these things: our beliefs.

Thinking about the suit of swords brought to mind one of the Buddha’s more famous teachings, the simile of the two arrows. You can read it here, but it goes something like this:Continue reading ““Knowledge is made for cutting”: Swords, Intellect, and Suffering.”

Bodhichitta Tarot Spread

When I became interested in tarot again, I really had no sense of how it might connect to my Buddhist practice. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between tarot and Buddhism–as I understand each of these–a lot lately and haven’t really seen much of a connection. I see Buddhism as my main practice which guides all other facets of my life, including tarot. Rather than see tarot as a transcendent path, I see it as a helper on the everyday level. (And this is not to knock tarot–everyday life, as we say, is the Way of Buddha.)

But the more I work with the cards, the more connections become apparent to me. So much so that I have created my first spread based on Buddhist ideas–although it’s useful to anyone.

A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with creating my own tarot spread, one that would give me a sense of where I am at the beginning of the coming week. Two of the card positions are: how I can take care of myself and how I can take care of the people in my life. As it turned out, I love the latter. It’s my favorite damn question of the whole spread. The first time I got it, I got the Knight of Cups and I was like, “Oooh! I can be creative and bring beauty into people’s lives!” The next time I got The Heirophant, and was like, “Oooh! I can support my religious community and help be a moral compass for people!” It was here that I got my first inkling into how I can integrate tarot into my practice. I call this the bodhichitta card and later decided to do a bodhichitta spread.Continue reading “Bodhichitta Tarot Spread”

Reading and Making Meaning in Literature and Tarot

In the summer of 1971, the professor and scholar Stanley Fish pranked a class of graduate students. He was actually teaching two classes of grad students back to back–a class on theoretical linguistics from 9:30 to 11am, and a class on 17th century religious poetry from 11-12:30. For the first class, he had written their homework on the chalkboard, a list of linguists whose work he wanted them to read. The list looks like this:





Ohman (?)

After the first class cleared out and before the second entered, he drew a frame around these names and wrote “p. 43” above it. Once his students of 17th century religious poetry settled in, he pointed to this list, told them it was a religious poem, and asked them to analyze it.

And oh, they did! The students were able to find significance in the shape of the poem (although whether it is a cross or an altar one can’t be sure) as well as the names. They saw the poem as a religious riddle. “Jacobs”=”Jacob’s ladder,” “Thorne”=”crown of thorns,” “Ohman”=”omen” or “Oh man,” etc., etc. I won’t go into detail about everything Fish reports that the students saw in this “poem,” but suffice it to say that they found a lot of significance.

So what was Fish’s point in giving his students a fake poem to analyze?Continue reading “Reading and Making Meaning in Literature and Tarot”

The Linestrider Tarot Deck

Well, I finally gave in. I promised myself that I would not buy anything having to do with Tarot–no decks, no books, no apps, nothing–until the end of the semester. (In this case, it means after the last day of classes on April 20th. I’ll need something to motivate me getting through final grades, after all.) BUT then a special case popped up. Someone linked to Siolo Thompson’s Linestrider Tarot Deck campaign in a blog post I was reading and I just fell in love. Mind you, this was a few weeks ago, so it’s not like I was completely impulsive, but I gave in just now. How do I justify this purchase to myself? Well, the Linestrider Tarot is just an IndieGoGo campaign right now and I honestly have no idea if I’d be able to get my hands on one after the campaign is over. Also, it won’t ship until May, so I am considering it my birthday present to myself.

Desires always have a way of enlisting reason into their service, huh?

At any rate, I will leave my other three planned Tarot purchases–The Wild Unknown deck, Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot, and Paul Quinn’s Tarot for Life–until April 20th. I am SO excited about the prospect of getting two new decks and a couple of great books! I definitely plan on sharing my journey with the Linestrider and the Wild Unknown on this blog!

March 14th Reading: Turning the Page

For about 2 months now, I have been doing a daily 4-card pull almost every morning. It’s a spread I modified from Benebell Wen’s beginner’s study guide to Holistic Tarot. Four cards every day is simply too much info to work with, and I know that. But it is helping me learn Tarot…approximately four times faster than if I just pulled one card a day! Some day I only have time to pull the cards, take a picture of them, and paste it into my Tarot journal. Most days I pull the cards, take a picture, note the card meanings in my journal, and move on. But sometimes I have time to really sit with the spread and try to do some reading. So I’m going to write up what I got out of the spread I pulled this morning, with the caveat that this is for learning and I will probably make mistakes.


Position 1: What is today’s outlook/overall energy? Page of Pentacles

Position 2: What am I carrying with me into this day? Three of Swords

Position 3: Yesterday’s unfinished business. Page of Cups, Reversed

Position 4: Something I need to work on. The Wheel of Fortune

Position 1: Today’s outlook–the Page of Pentacles. I also got him in this position the last time I did a reading two mornings ago. It’s little synchronicities like these that keep bringing me back to Tarot and make me want to keep doing morning readings. I shuffle the cards quite thoroughly, doing a mixture of riffling and hand-over-hand. Then I spread them all out and choose which ones feel right for each position, so it’s not as easy to pull the same card twice, as it would be with drawing off the top, I think. It’s a coincidence that I picked this card in its upright position out of all 78 for the same position in a spread two times in a row. But sometimes random chances make you sit up a little straighter to see what’s going on.

Anyway, the Page of Pentacles. I feel like I get a lot of Pentacles. Or rather, Pentacles are the cards that I seem to pay the most attention to in readings right now. And that makes sense, given that I’m looking to start a new career after I finish my Ph.D. But when I look at the Page of Pentacles, I really feel this guy right now: he’s a dreamer, but he’s also a student. He straddles the line between the world of imagination and the earth. I’d say of all the court cards, this is the one I identify with the most at this point in my life. I’m constantly shifting between dreaming and doing–between thinking big and mucking around in the particulars.

Position 2: The Three of Swords, which I’m carrying with me into this day. YIKES!!! Or so I thought at first. This is the classic card of grief and loss and made the strongest impression on me visually back when I messed around with the cards as a teenager. But am I really carrying grief, loss, and sadness into this day? Not literally, no. I had to think about this one for a while, and Biddy Tarot helped:

The Three of Swords therefore serves as a reminder that if you can start to see pain as a learning opportunity, life will suddenly become less painful. You need to really get in touch with pain and sorrow. Challenges remain but once they are no longer perceived as negative or ‘bad’, they lose a lot of their impact. This card is therefore encouraging you that you have the ability to conquer any pain that comes your way. Understand how the pain can help you grow.

This makes much more sense to me, particularly because I spent all of yesterday reading a book about exactly this topic: No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His basic argument is that “the art of happiness is also and at the same time the art of knowing how to suffer well” (p 10.) This is a pretty familiar Buddhist teaching, but only as I read this book yesterday did I really start to get it. More on that in a bit.

Position 3: Yesterday’s unfinished business–the Page of Cups, reversed.This guy has shown up a few times for me in the past month or two, usually in this position. Since the Page of Cups is a card of intuition, emotion, and creativity, its reversal suggests that something is out of balance here. Looking back on yesterday, which was an emotionally balanced day if there ever was one, I’m going to go with creativity. I can pin this to a very specific thing, which is that I am trying to create more art. While I’m doing better with drawing more regularly, I think, I need to keep going. There’s more work to be done–hence the unfinished business.

Position 4: The Wheel of Fortune–things to work on. I don’t get this card all that often, so I’m not that familiar with it. It seems to me that it’s about things that are out of my control, but as I looked at it in conjunction with the Three of Swords, things started to make sense. And so…

Bringing it all together. I really do think that this morning’s reading is a snapshot of where I am right now. There are lots of Pages because I’m at that a Page-y place in my life: once again, I am transitioning from mastery (or at least competence) as a scholar and teacher into a novitiate re: the new career I am choosing for myself. The Page of Pentacles is where I want to be, but I can’t neglect the Page of Cups–creativity, intuition, and emotional sensitivity are things I need to cultivate alongside earthy studiousness and planning. The Page of Pentacles dreams, but the Page of Cups tells him why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming about. Why am I choosing a career in environmentalist nonprofits? What are my real goals in doing so? Even as I prepare to start networking, resume-writing, and all that nitty-gritty stuff, I need to enlist my intuition and creativity to help me figure out what my real goals are.

But even more poignantly (pun intended), I was struck by seeing the Three of Swords paired with the Wheel of Fortune. Frankly, I am coming out of a fairly crappy few months. Only fairly crappy–not the worst, but from about mid-September to the end of February, I was not feeling good. Part of this was the stressful class I was teaching last semester, which made me realize that classroom teaching at the university (or probably any) level is not my path and takes a serious toll on my mental health. Part of it was also the Huge Family Emergency that happened in November, which came at a time when I was feeling pretty numb and withdrawn already. I don’t usually have Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I am wondering if the weather has had something to do with my mood as well. During times like this, my feelings begin to dry up and anxiety creeps in. I’m in a MUCH better place for dealing with it than I was three years ago, however. Only in the past couple of weeks has life been starting to feel juicy and inviting again, so now I’m in a place to reflect on the past half-year.

The Three of Swords and the Wheel of Fortune together remind me to reconsider the value and place of pain in my life. When I feel crappy, I think back to times when I wasn’t feeling crappy and assume that happiness is the default and any time I’m not happy is wrong.

What the Wheel tells me is that, no, life is actually made up of a mixture of happy and not-happy times and that’s just how it is. Therefore, appreciate happiness when it’s here because it is impermanent. Likewise, the Three of Swords tells me: learn from sadness, grief, numbness, and depression when they are here. Don’t look back on happy times as the default or the way things should be. Don’t beat yourself up for not being happy. Enjoy happiness in the now, learn from suffering in the now.

As my two Pages saunter forth into uncertainty, hopefully the Page of Pentacles can help the Page of Cups pull himself upright and they can work together with the wonderful and terrifying things that are coming and learn to appreciate both.