Monday, November 18, 2013

The Best Way to Learn Tarot?

I read a series of comments on a Facebook forum the other day where this was the topic of debate: "What is the best way to teach or learn Tarot?"

The funny thing is that each person has a different way of learning, and I truly don't believe that there is only one, best way to do anything at all, really.  The only thing that I do feel applies to all things one might learn in life, is that to truly understand it, you have to do it.

When I learned Tarot I studied the cards incessantly for quite a long time. I approached it almost as if I were taking an independent study course. I thought that I needed to memorize all the potential card meanings, and I took the "flash card" approach which I know that many people tend to do.  I used a deck that had unillustrated pips (Minor Arcana, excluding the Courts) so I had no images to help me understand anything at all.  I kept detailed notes, I went through the Minors by number (first all the 2s, then the 3s, etc). I would randomly quiz myself to see how many keywords I could remember for each card.  Later I did something similar when I decided to study reversals.

Now this is not a "bad" way of learning, but I don't think it's the best way either.  Tarot as flashcards don't give depth or breadth to a story, and are rather sterile.  It takes experience doing many readings to learn how to weave a story together, and understand the subtle ways that card meanings change depending on context.  Later I read a book called Psychic Tarot, by Nancy Antenucci, and her first step to learning the cards was not to study the meanings, rather to sit with each card and figure out what it means to *you.* How does it make you feel?  What do the images and details say about what the card might signify?  Not having "book meanings" stored in your mind allows so much more freedom when it comes to exploring your personal relationship with Tarot - it's much more organic. And each reader truly has their own, unique, highly personal relationship with the art of Tarot. I found myself wishing that I hadn't memorized all the meanings, and felt I'd robbed myself of this potentially very rich way of starting the learning process. By starting with memorization, it was more of a challenge to let my intuition "speak," because if it was telling me something that didn't jive with the traditional meanings, I hesitated to give it credence.

Later I took an Intuitive Tarot course which was invaluable to me.  I brought my Rider Waite deck because, knowing nothing about how Tarot courses run, I assumed it would probably be best to bring the old traditional stand-by, even though it's not my go-to.  The instructor surprised me in a very pleasant way, and said "if the deck doesn't speak to you, don't use it."  Why bother working with a deck that you don't connect with?  Now I do read just fine with my Rider Waite, but no, it's not my favorite.  The images can be pretty, but they don't necessarily touch those deeper chords in my soul. She also said "if you want book meanings, use the internet. This class is about developing your intuitive understanding of the cards. So no notepads are necessary - we won't be covering anything traditional."

**So what's the point of your Tarot journey?  Do you want to take an intellectual approach? An intuitive approach? Do you want to become a Tarot scholar? Do you want to simply give accurate readings for other people or for yourself?**

One of the women in the course I took was terrified of learning the cards. She had purchased the Rider Waite out of the assumption that it would be required (much the same reason I had brought mine to the first class). She felt her memory was poor and didn't think she had what it would take to be able to work with alllll those 78 cards.  She *almost* quit after the first day, but decided to give it one more chance, and by the end of those six sessions she was giving wonderful, accurate readings.  Had she memorized meanings? No. Did she study the deeper significance of Rider Waite symbols?  No. What she was doing was using a deck that appealed to her, that drew her in, that "spoke" to her, and that engaged her intuition (like the instructor, she was using the Halloween Tarot by Karin Lee and Kipling West).  It was wonderful to observe, and made me, yet again, wish I'd done things the other way around.

Once you learn the meanings, you can't unlearn them.  And truth be told, I'm glad I know them.  But I  had to work harder to detach from book meanings in order to let my intuition tell me what it needed me to know.  Fortunately I now feel I have a great balance between the two styles, and feel comfortable working in this manner.

Regardless of why you want to learn Tarot, I think a great way to start is to leave the books alone, and start by developing personal meanings based on your own feelings about the images and colors in each card, and by using a deck that you love.  You can, indeed, perform excellent readings based only on your intuitive connection to the cards in your deck.  Later, of course you can deepen and expand your knowledge by studying what the books have to say, and learning about traditional symbols that are featured in decks like the Rider Waite (and as this deck is the focus of so many books, you don't have to own the deck in order to learn them - it still provides background knowledge that can influence your own readings with a non-Rider Waite deck). That said, there are so many Rider Waite clones out there, you may well find a deck that you absolutely love that reflects many of the scenes and symbols in the Rider Waite deck, but that at least features a theme or world-view you hold sacred, or that you simply like to look at.  So if you like fairies, go for it!  If you're into vampires, I'm sure you can find something that sits right with you.

Tarot never stop teaches you new things, and there is never a lack of other people's material that you can peruse.  You experiment, read books, find out what you like and what you don't, what works for you and what doesn't.  What decks you like and which you don't care for. You read, and read, and read the cards more, which is the only real way to integrate your understanding, and to open new doors.

There's no "best" way, but the way I would recommend is to start off intuitively. Spend time feeling out each card using a deck you adore, and try giving readings to yourself/friends/family based on what the cards say to you, before you know what they are "supposed" to mean, and see how you do.  Later on you can dive into more formal study, and explore the millions of avenues of esoteric learning that are available to you, per your interests, desires, and motivations.


  1. I usually take a bit form both sides. I like the intuitive approach to the cards as well as using the book meanings. Sometimes I choose one book just to compare my intuitive insights with.
    Perhaps that's one reason why I like the Wildwood tarot that much. It lets me start all over again.

    1. Hey Ellen! Yep, I do the same. I don't favor one over the other, but like to use a blend of both. I think it's harder to develop trust in your intuitive feelings when you memorize meanings first, so I think it might be nice to have people start with intuition, and then move into book meanings to learn the balance in that order. (You know, "I feel that maybe this card is telling me that I need to go back to school, but that's not at all what the book says it's supposed to mean, so I'm probably wrong…") I agree about the Wildwood :) New structures help make us uncomfortable enough to make it feel almost like starting from scratch!

  2. What I really don't get is people who firmly believe that there is only one acceptable way to learn anything. As you say, we're all different, with different strengths and needs. Like you, I think I have a reasonable balance between book-learning and intuition, and that spending time with the cards can only strengthen that connection, and broaden our perspectives. Everything else is optional :)

    1. Yes! Perhaps I'm a bit "post-modern" but when someone says "It has to be done THIS way," I start to resist! ha…