Improve Your Tarot Readings by Avoiding “Meaning Paralysis”
Stop asking “what do these cards mean?” and tell the story right in front of you
Many years ago, I had a breakthrough when it came to reading tarot. It changed my whole perspective and made my readings exponentially better. Now, it’s the way I teach others to read, too (including students in my Art and Magic of the Tarot class — see details below!).
I didn’t have a name for this new style of reading, but I realized it was a game changer. My students could start doing insightful readings after just ONE day of instruction, with minimal memorization. Even better, the simple, common-sense method could be used with any deck.
One of the reasons it works so well is it helps beginning readers avoid what I call “meaning paralysis.” Here is an example:
A novice reader will put a few cards on the table. And then they stare at the cards, eyes going back and forth. Their brows knit in concentration. You can almost hear the neurons sizzling as they search their brain for memorized card associations, trying to dredge up “meanings.”
It’s clear what’s happening: they’re thinking “What do these cards MEAN?”
That’s meaning paralysis.
Here’s the quickest way to make your readings dramatically better
Stop thinking “What do these cards mean?” and start thinking “What is happening here? What is the story?”
Here is an example that I use in my classes.
My client asked me: “Why is my boyfriend being so cold to me? Ever since I started grad school he has been standoffish. It’s almost like he barely notices me.”
I pulled three cards from my trusty CBD Marseille tarot:
So . . . what is happening in the story above?
Well, we have a woman (The Papesse, or High Priestess in modern decks), wearing a lot of formal clothes and sitting with a book. She’s looking to the left.
Then we have a man (The Fool), to her right. He’s walking away from her, with his bags packed, moving and looking toward another woman. There is an animal—a dog? or cat?—clawing at his ripped pants.
The woman on the right (The Star) is naked, her hair down. She’s kneeling and pouring out jugs of water into a stream.
Does that tell a possible story? YES!
“So you’ve been studying a lot, yes?” I asked my client, pointing to the Papesse card. “Spending a lot of time hitting the books?”
She nodded. “Constantly.”
“And he,” I pointed to The Fool, “has barely been paying attention to you. Maybe even distancing himself.”
“Exactly,” she replied.
“So the question for me is this: who is that woman to the right?” I pointed to The Star card.
“Do you think that fool is cheating on me?” she asked, alarmed.
“This isn’t about what I think, it’s about what you see. Is he the cheating type? Do you have any evidence of that?” I asked.
“Not really.” She looked closer at The Fool. “He does spend a lot of time with his dog.” She laughed.
“Then maybe that woman, the Star card, is . . . you?” I asked. “Not the hard-studying, formal version of you absorbed in your degree work, but the version of you he’s longing for — with your hair let down, open and free, pouring out your attention on him.”
“But I can’t be that version of myself right now,” she said. “How can we make this work?”
Pro Tip: Change positions, change the story
I moved the cards around like this.
So . . . how does that simple change of positions change the story?
“Let’s bring you to the center of this situation,” I said after I moved her card (The Papesse) to the middle. “What do you need to do to get him to look you straight in the eye again?”
She sighed. “That’s what I’ve been thinking. We need to have a real, honest conversation. I just haven’t wanted to say anything.”
“That other part of you is still there, right?” I asked, pointing to The Star card. “The version of you with your hair down, who can give him the attention he’s wanting. But she—the Star version of you—has to be in the background right now.”
“Exactly,” she said. “I need all my attention focused on my work. This is important to me. It’s my future.”
She spent a few minutes looking at the cards—at the story in front of her.
“He needs to know that part of me still exists. It’s still there.” She pointed at the Star card, then to The Papesse. “But right now I—the me in the center—need to focus on finishing my degree.”
That’s what I call the “lightbulb moment”—when the client comes to a conclusion based on the cards in front of them.
She smiled and shook my hand. “Thank you—I will sit down with him for a heart-to-heart tonight after class. I’ll reiterate how important my studies are right now. And maybe I can plan a weekend getaway so we can reconnect—and even have some fun—when I’m not so overwhelmed. I could really use a break, too!”
Happy client! Empowered by her own insights! And NOT ONCE did I have to say what a card “meant.”
Learn to look at the story right in front of you. I promise, this shift away from a focus on “meanings” will vastly improve your readings.
Want to Learn More?
Did you find this informative? Want to learn how to read tarot with a minimum of memorization and maximum insight?
I’ve launched my popular The Art and Magic of the Tarot: Foundations class online and I’d love for you to sign up! This is the same class I have taught for over ten years to sold-out crowds at Johns Hopkins University and other venues around Baltimore and D.C. By popular demand, I reworked the course for an online audience and added some exclusive new content.
If you’d like to take part in this innovative, 7+hour online tarot intensive, or to get more emails packed with information about tarot, divination, and magic, please sign up for my mailing list. Hope to see you!
Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, occultism, and more.
His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle, Vox, Cosmopolitan, and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator, which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”