I’m always intrigued and fascinated by all of the interesting discussions going on about the Tarot. People are passionate about their views (as in the case of most discussions and debates), but I find that folks in the Tarot world actually practice civil discourse for the most part. I rarely see tempers flare to the point of finger-pointing and name-calling. Faces may get red and tone of voices may rise, but everyone still remains respectful. Ah, if that only happened in other areas of public debate…
One of the oldest and often continuing discussions concerns how to go about learning card meanings. (This is a great way to spice up a conversation among Tarotistas – try it sometime.) There are, of course, two opposing approaches: learning the meanings from a book and letting your intuition formulate the meanings.
The “Use Book Meanings” Camp
This approach involves learning card meanings from one or more good Tarot books. The idea is that you should learn the well-established meanings of the cards so that you can read them properly and accurately. It also provides you with a common base of knowledge that other Tarot readers already have, thus giving you the confidence to have intelligent discussions about the Tarot with your peers. Finally, this method enables you to learn the meanings in a methodical and easy to learn fashion.
Here is something to keep in mind about this approach. Realize that the established core card meanings are conceptual, so everyone is going to have his or her different take on a given meaning. For example, you’ll find some of the same base concepts for the “Star” card in many books (hope, inspiration), but you’ll undoubtedly note that each author presents his or her slight spin and perspective on the meanings. So, who is right and who do you believe? No one and everyone. I believe there are no right or wrong meanings to the cards, and I believe everyone’s take and perspective on a given card is valid. (I can hear the groans now!) If you’re using more than one book to learn card meanings, the best thing to do for now is to integrate those meanings that connect with you and draw upon them when you do your readings. As your skill level increases and you get more comfortable with the cards, some of the other meanings in your books will likely begin to make more sense.
The “Use Your Intuition” Camp
Now, this approach requires you to throw away the little white book that comes with a deck immediately after you take the deck out of the box, and that you get rid of all the Tarot books collecting dust on your bookshelf. Neither the little white book nor your Tarot book collection is going to help you learn what you need to know about the cards anyway. Instead, you should let your intuition expose the meanings of the cards to you. Compile your own set of meanings based on how a card makes you feel, what it makes you think about, how it strikes you visually, and what it seems to say to you on a personal level. I use a lot of Star Wars references when I work with the Tarot, so I see this mostly as the “Use the Force, Luke” method.
Although I agree that this is a good approach to learning card meanings, I think that this might be a challenging method for some people to attempt. It assumes you are already in touch with your intuition, that you’ve worked with it and believe in it to some extent. There are many folks just getting into the Tarot who have yet to work on their intuitive sides and would gain more benefit by learning from books. That aside, however, allowing your intuition to help you come up with meanings can be a very surprising and enlightening experience. You’re likely to discover meanings that you would have never thought applicable or possible. You certainly will make the deck feel more personal using this method.
My Own Approach
My philosophy (and what I teach my Tarot students) is to take the best of both camps and build a broad base of meanings. I believe the Tarot is a language, and a broad vocabulary enables you to express yourself with greater clarity and nuance. There’s a lot you can learn from books, and there’s a lot you can learn from listening to your intuition. Instead of forcing the issue into a “Yes/No” proposition, just integrate what you learn from both methods and use it to your greatest benefit and advantage.
In the end, it’s all about context. What does a given card mean and what does it seem to say to you in context of the overall story you see in the reading? Trust that Spirit and the Universe will expose the appropriate meanings to you, and the cards will, indeed, clearly and accurately convey the story and message that you need to pass on to your client.
The way I read the Tarot is extremely similar to the way I play guitar. I have a vast knowledge of music theory, styles and techniques, but I don’t think about any of this at all while I’m playing – I just let it flow and play what I feel in my heart and let Spirit and the Universe take care of the rest. When I do readings, I don’t think about meanings, symbolism, color or anything else – I just let the story from the cards flow through my mind so that I can convey it to my client.
Remember that faith is a key ingredient in what we do – faith in Spirit and the Universe, faith in our gifts, and finally, faith in ourselves.