What I Learned From a Year of Studying Tarot
To me, the cards are tools for introspection rather than prediction
I was never one of those kids who played with Ouija boards. Was it a game or a spooky prediction tool? I didn’t know and frankly, trying to predict the future scared me. I was afraid it might predict someone’s death, or my own. I stayed far away.
That changed when, as an adult, I turned to Tarot cards. I went to my first reading in an occult bookstore in New Orleans as a fun afternoon diversion. I left a believer and purchased my first Tarot deck that day. I told myself I was just having fun — but after a failed relationship and job loss, a little part of me wanted the cards to predict my future. I wanted to know if my bad luck would continue. I wanted more control over my future, or at least to know if something bad was coming. This way, I could brace myself for the impact.
One day, I got my cards read by a professional in the back of an esoteric shop in San Francisco’s Castro district. I got the Death card. I froze. “It doesn’t predict death,” the Tarot card reader reassured me. A month later, I nearly died from an infection that threatened to close my heart shut. When you’re dying you know it, and I was definitely hovering on the edge. When I coded, a quick-thinking resident saved me. I was in the cardiac ICU for a week, hooked up to a plethora of monitors, nurses hovering to make sure I stayed alive. I was the youngest person in the unit by more than 50 years. Not one of my 14 doctors could understand how someone my age could get so sick.
Logically, I knew the cards didn’t predict my near-death experience. Still, receiving that card in such close proximity to my near-death experience made me leery. I stopped reading my cards and didn’t get another reading for over a decade.
I worked on trying to control the future less and becoming more introspective, more resilient. As I became an executive coach, my introspection increased. I’d pick up any tool I could to help me and my clients. Eventually, I picked the cards back up, this time using them as an introspective tool rather than a predictive one. At times, I still found it difficult to see the cards as a tool for deepening my understanding rather than for prophecy. As my understanding of the cards expanded, I found myself drawn to them more frequently. I decided to dedicate myself to learning to read them for introspection only. For the next year, I spent an hour every morning with a matcha latte and a Tarot deck. I read my cards first, before even looking at my phone — it was my way of listening to myself without outside influence.
I read using only jumpers — cards that leap from the deck as you shuffle. This method felt organic, helping me release control. Some days I pulled three or four cards, other days seven or eight. I trusted that whatever fell out was just what I needed. To deepen my learning, I picked a study card each day — usually the first one that fell from the deck. I’d spend the next hour researching the symbols, numbers, and imagery on the card. I used The Ultimate Guide to Tarot by Liz Dean to gather an understanding of each card’s traditional theme. Then I turned to Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack to dig deeper. What I love about this book is that she doesn’t present one message for each card. Rather, she talks about the symbols, archetypes, and imagery in detail, sometimes weaving in history and spiritual traditions. She encourages you to find your own meanings rather than imposing one. This is rather like life, right? In school, we’re often taught that there’s just one answer, but when we get into the world we begin to see that there might be many interpretations to a situation. Pollack’s philosophy made it easier to use Tarot for deeper thought rather than immediately worrying about what the cards meant for my future.
Sometimes I’d pull a card from another deck to see what might come. Often, while shuffling, the exact same study card would fall out. Strange how that happens, isn’t it? When this happened I knew it was a card I needed, and I’d spend extra time contemplating the lessons I might take from it.
Instead of looking for the next calamity, I look for messages about how I can respond differently to challenges, how I can become more resilient, how I can become closer to myself.
These study cards helped me move away from trying to control my future and toward trying to understand my present condition. When I read Tarot for prediction I worried about getting cards like The Devil or The Tower, as they’re seen as predicting a downfall or bad times. Whenever I’d get a “scary” card I’d shove it back in the deck, pretending it was an accident. A few months into the year, I still dreaded them, despite my resolution not to see them as harbingers of bad news. Then I had a session with Jessica Dore, a licensed social worker who uses Tarot as a tool in her work. We talked about how I’d been using the cards for introspection and how I’d found it so helpful to my growth. She shuffled the cards, turning over six on the table. The Three of Swords came up. The image is a heart impaled with three swords.
I inhaled sharply.
“Oh no. Not that card.” I whispered.
She asked what was wrong. “I thought you used Tarot for introspection rather than prediction?” she inquired. Then she told me that her reading of this card alongside the others meant I’d gained resilience through all the heartache I’d experienced. It was a sign I could trust myself, I could handle whatever came.
My relationship with Tarot changed after that experience. I greeted every card more warmly, eager to find its message, to understand how I might look at a situation through different eyes. The Five of Pentacles is usually a predictor of financial loss. I no longer hold my breath, waiting for financial ruin. It’s a reminder to think more expansively, to worry less, to trust myself more. When the Hanged Man shows up it reminds me that building a business takes time, I need to be patient. Sometimes the lessons are tougher, like when The Devil — traditionally a card about addiction — turned up. It jumped out of the deck again and again for several weeks. Not generally an addictive personality, I was confounded by what it meant and why I kept getting it. Finally, I realized I was addicted to holding on to relationships, even when they no longer felt good. After never unfriending anyone, I unfriended 90 people on Facebook in two weeks. Then I backed away from a decade-long friendship because it felt like a one-way street. My energy surged, I became more productive. I felt lighter. I made a few new friends more aligned with who I am now.
After my year experimenting with Tarot, I trust my instincts more. I’ve deepened my understanding of myself. Instead of looking for the next calamity, I look for messages about how I can respond differently to challenges, how I can become more resilient, how I can become closer to myself. I no longer fear my future. I know that you can’t forecast your future, you have to write it. I write it through my everyday actions. The way I think, what I think about, what I act on, what I choose to ignore. Using Tarot for introspection is an invitation. It’s up to me to take the invitation, breathe in the message, and make something of it.