I have often heard people tell me, “Oh, but I don’t believe in the tarot.” I’ve heard that almost as much as I’ve had people ask me: “But how does tarot work?”
The idea that one has to believe in the tarot in order for it to work puts it on the same level as either 1) religion or 2) chicanery.
The idea that tarot either does or does not work implies that it sometimes can go right and sometimes can go wrong, much like a car or a computer, running smooth on some days and broken down on others.
In my opinion, there’s nothing inherent in the deck in which to necessarily believe. I think the declaration from people that they “don’t believe” in the cards comes from not understanding what the cards are about and how they can be used, and perhaps fearing them for that same reason. It’s a way to dismiss the cards as insignificant, unimportant, unworthy of faith, silly; and as such, reassuringly impotent, unintimidating, docile, unthreatening. We know that ignorance breeds fear. And doesn’t organized religion often require a firm belief in its tenets so as to keep the faithful in line (controlled, manageable, unempowered)?
Tarot doesn’t ask anyone to believe anything. It simply exists and is available as a tool, as a mirror, to those who wish to consult it.
There’s no need to associate belief with tarot. There’s nothing to believe in.
As far as how it “works,” that’s another story. When I asked that very question to my tarot teacher Enrique Enriquez, his immediate response was: “Who said it works?”
This one is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because obviously those of us who have a tarot practice wouldn’t spend time with the cards like we do if we weren’t getting some benefit. So I’m not dismissing the cards here as saying they have no use or no purpose. But the idea of them either “working” or not working is a loaded question.
I appealed to some of my friends and colleagues for an answer; if you haven’t read “Five Tarot Experts Explain How Tarot Works,” I encourage you to have a look.
It’s important to take the multiple layers of mysterious, imposed potency off of the cards. It’s important for readers to stop insisting that other people agree with them that the cards are useful, special, magical. Tarot is not a religion, it’s a practice. Tarot cards are not imbued with super powers. They don’t either work or not work.
What makes them so special, then? Why are people afraid of them? Why do people sometimes dismiss them, fear them, belittle them, or impose otherworldly powers upon them? Why do those of us who use them keep coming back to them, despite all the misunderstanding?
Well, let’s ask the cards themselves.
- What’s the most misunderstood aspect of tarot?
- What’s at the core of a tarot reading?
- What’s the best way to sum up the cards?
In the 8 of Cups we see someone actively walking away from a set-up that seemed nearly perfect, but something was missing. No matter how hard this person tried to make things work, to fit the square peg into the round hole, it simply wasn’t going to ever be the way the seeker, the person walking away in the image, wanted it or needed it to be. As such, he or she is walking away from something that he or she invested heart and soul in, but is now letting go of. This person understands, even if it’s hard to acknowledge, that it makes no sense to keep devoting energy, time, heart, and soul to something that is clearly never going to change.
In my interpretation the most misunderstood aspect of tarot, then, according to this card, is that it isn’t about having all the answers tied up with a pretty bow and presented to you in a perfect gift box. It’s about seeking the answers and being honest about what you receive, and knowing when to take action, even if it hurts to do so, because it furthers your personal growth. It’s about knowing when to walk away, knowing when to give up, knowing when to let go. (In fact, I’d say this flies right in the face of the pop-culture notion of tarot as providing neat and accurate “hits” or predictions that give querents the answers and outcomes they desire, or, on the other extreme, cards that foretell of terrifying and unavoidable doom. Both of these concepts remove agency from the seeker. Tarot doesn’t show you what you want, it shows you what you need.)
At the core of a tarot reading is speed, and news. The 8 of Wands is about getting a message fast, about events moving at lightning speed, and about not having enough time to fully digest and comprehend everything that’s swirling around you. At its core, tarot goes straight to the heart of the matter before you even realize what’s happening. You either learn how to dance with this, or you resist it, or you try to rationalize your way out of it, or you try to control it. But at its core, it’s like a speeding bullet. You either consciously ride the fast current of the river, or you get swept up in it and carried away.
The best way to sum up the cards is the 4 of Swords – total silence and stillness. I’ve often had people tell me, after their first-ever reading, that they think “everyone” should have a reading, because it “puts you in touch with your inner self.” Let’s get quiet, and still, and listen, and stop. That’s what the cards can do for us. They can give us respite, a place to be silent and reflect, a place to recuperate and to regenerate, a place to completely stop and focus.