Learn to Read Tarot in 3 Easy Steps

We’ve all been there, sitting on the floor with a beginner’s Tarot book, squinting sideways at the mess of cards trying to get a grip on what they could possibly mean. Checking website after website for the explanation of a card until we’re so confused that we just chuck it all in a box with the ukulele, the contact juggling balls, and all the other junk we once thought we would master.

But don’t get discouraged just yet! Many professional readers and Tarot authors don’t want you to know just how simple learning Tarot really is. You don’t need a book. You don’t need a head for memorization. You don’t need to be a 33rd degree Mason or a High Priestess of some coven. All you need is a good deck and your two eyes. Follow these simple steps, and you’ll be reading Tarot in no time.

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1. Get a Deck, and Don’t Overthink It!

You can spend hours trying to find the perfect deck. There are so many in print, and artists are producing more all the time. How do you choose? Which one fits your personality the most? Is it the Quirky Cats Tarot? The Extra Spiritual Native American Tarot? The Magical Special Dolphins Tarot? Or maybe something edgier and darker, to express your fashion sense. The answer is simple. It doesn’t need to take hours, because the options are really quite few.

Don’t make the beginner’s mistake of buying a derivative deck. Most Tarot decks in print today are based on the Rider-Waite Tarot. The artists behind all the fancy schmancy themed decks usually present a diluted version of the Rider-Waite, which to the trained eye reveal how little they understand the cards. Many feature amateur artwork, culturally appropriative themes and other atrocities. The Rider-Waite, as a foundational deck, is more potent and layered than most decks based on it. You don’t need to express your personal interests with your Tarot purchase–especially not with your first one. Buy a good deck that will help you learn, and save the Magical Special Dolphins for later.

The standard Rider-Waite is fine, but the Smith-Waite Centennial Edition has the same 78 images and is slightly more attractive. It is easier on the eyes because it maintains the colors of the original artwork. These are earthier tones instead of the oversaturated ones in the standard Rider-Waite. Your local New Age bookstore probably carries both. It’s usually about $2 more for the Smith-Waite.

2. Spend Time With Each Image

Your deck probably came with a little white booklet full of very instructive keywords for each card. Throw it away! Keywords are great for confusing oneself and for dancing around the true meaning of a card, but they can never touch the living heart of the image. The best way to learn the cards is to remember that they are, before all else, images. And what’s the best way to learn about an image? Look at it!

Choose a card at random, or find one that stirs you. Hold it before you, relax your eyes, and pay attention to your emotions. Clear your mind of all thoughts, especially words and keywords. What feelings spontaneously arise? Don’t limit them with labels. Don’t analyze what the image symbols might mean. Just behold the image quietly, and notice your feelings. Watch them shift and tip. You are having an authentic experience with the image. That is more valuable than anything anyone else has ever written about the card before you.

Do this with all 78 cards. Take your time. Spend one day with each card, and in 78 days–about two and a half months–you will be in touch with your deck in a way that cannot be read or learned. Many readers, even professional ones, lack this intimate experience of Tarot images, so this will give you a solid grounding in the visual language of the cards.

3. Practice on Yourself and Your Friends

Learning the 78 individual cards is like learning the musical scales. It’s good knowledge, but not the end. These are only the building blocks of the song. Putting two or three cards together is like making a phrase. A sequence of phrases becomes a song, and that’s when Tarot reading comes to life.

Start to put the images together, and see how your emotional response changes looking from one to the next. What is the relationship between the images? Is one of them lurking? Does one leap out? What is the arc of this story? Is it a rising action, a falling action, a full circle? Is it static, or dynamic? Don’t fixate on these words, just try to feel it.

If you can feel it, you can express it. Try to say it a few different ways. Use metaphor and storytelling. Write down some of your thoughts. At this point feel free to check your thoughts against what others have written about the cards. But their thoughts are supplemental to your experience. They can revise, but not overturn.

Don’t worry about following formulas like the 10 card Celtic cross. The Tarot is very flexible, so make up your own formulas. Experiment and explore. Let the Tarot reveal itself to you. Test it and see what it’s capable of.

When you’re comfortable and bold, give a simple three card practice reading to a friend. Don’t put any expectation on it. It’s just an experiment, and you can let them know that you’re learning. If you have a sense of curiosity about the cards, they will step into that curiosity with you. When you turn the cards, don’t be in a rush to explain what they mean. Take a moment to feel out the song. Then take your time expressing what it feels like to you. You and your friend might be surprised.

So There You Go!

Now you have everything you need to read the cards. It’s not as hard as you thought, is it? The most important things to remember are to practice and experiment. Stay open to the experience of the images and don’t get hung up on keywords or formulas. You’ll find yourself starting to say things like “that was totally a seven of swords moment!” Soon you’ll have a thing or two to teach those keyword authors.

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