Do You Have To Believe in Tarot For It To Work?

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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.

  1. What’s the most misunderstood aspect of tarot?
  2. What’s at the core of a tarot reading?
  3. What’s the best way to sum up the cards?

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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.

Your thoughts?

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Balancing Movement with Quietness

In the tarot, the Death card can have many meanings. The first one is death, obviously. Something or someone is going to die. Usually it’s something that dies, so you can lay that particular image down to rest. In fact, in my practice, I’ve foreseen actual physical deaths more often with other cards of the tarot (like the Hermit or the Chariot) than with the Death card. And well, when I say something, I mean everything that is something: a cycle in life that ends; a relationship; work, etc. And then, well… there’re all those meanings that usually come up in books about changes and transformations… But between you and me, since no one else is reading this, all of these meanings are just for those who can’t accept death at face value.

My relationship with Death is just like that. I have no problems accepting that someone dies and I usually deal with that very well, just when I start thinking about my own death, everything changes and what was rational becomes emotional. The whole idea that death is just part of life and that everything has an end I was brought under gets cut down and I find myself looking into the abyss, this long and dark abyss wondering what the hell is going to happen to me. Death frightens me, because I love having a life and the idea of loosing it is just enough to scare the shit out of me..

It’s also interesting how we keep using the word “loosing” when talking about death. There’s never any mention of loss in the tarot books. And yet, we loose. We loose our lives and the company of others. We loose things in us that we cared about. Even when we didn’t do that much to keep those things near to us, death still acts as a painful reminder of what was once there. There is loosing and there is protecting those whom we might think are incapable to deal with the issue of death. Like children, who are often told not that someone has died, but that that someone has left. ‘Gone to God’, ‘gone to heaven and became a star’, ‘left to be with some family member’. There is death and there is loosing. My death frightens me because I loose everything: family, friends, living, etc; but other people’s deaths don’t mess with me, because no matter how personal the loss, there’s still something left behind.

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One of the things that I like about the Death card of the Waite Smith deck is looking at the people who face their coming end. Everyone of them has a different reaction. I mean, here is Death all high and mighty entering stage left riding its horse and flying its banner. And all of a sudden, people start dying at its passage. There’s a priest there, a young girl and a young lady. On the left, the King has died, as it should, he being the symbol of temporal power. Of the power that always ends up dying. The pope, who raises his hands high, either as a sign of worship or to plead to death not to take him just yet. The young woman with the flower wreath, hands down, lying on her knees with her head leaning sideways, as if she has just surrendered to death. And the child who boldly walks up to death and kneels before it.

Death takes all, young and old, rich and poor. It takes both the ones who are tired with living and the ones who embrace it. For, as we were taught since we were little, death is one of the very few certainties about life. And really, were I to have a life without death, would I want it? I don’t know. There’s something about things having to end that gives them value. If there’s anything I cherish in this life it’s those moments the happen before everything is done and over. Like I said above, I take many things for granted. Not giving them the attention and care that they should have. It’s the idea that they might end someday that makes me move and want to enjoy this moments as often as possible. If this idea is over, what is left? People and moments that little by little become forgotten in the haste of daily routines. Connections who just sit there, gathering dust, not really going anywhere and not really ending, since there was no end in site. How bland everything would be…

On the other side, two things usually bother me in the Waite-Smith card: that death arrives fully armored and that it rides a living horse. I can understand that sometimes, death does come announced: in a prolonged illness, in a fall from a building or something like that. But other times, it comes softly, unnoticed. So this parade that is seen in the Waite-Smith card can be unsettling. Ok, it’s the idea of Death as the great conqueror. But look closely: Death is riding a living horse! Surely all living things already carry the seeds of death with them. And then I look at the Marseille card, with just a skeleton doing its dance, grooming its garden and I end up asking, “Why the hell does all of this mean?”

Thankfully, cards can answer all questions. Even those about them. There’s something you don’t understand in a card and can’t work it out by yourself, well then: ask the cards! Which is what I did.

Why does Death come fully armored?

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THE POPE / THE WORLD / THE MAGICIAN
I look at the Pope, and see him pointing upward. Death comes from above, he seems to say. As it enters this world, It needs something to manifest her in it. Hence the armor. The key is in the world card: the four figures in the corner, standing for the four elements indicate our world. And then there’s Death, separated from it by that green wreath. It is coming, bearing its gifts, but still needs to take a form, which is what she ends up doing in the Magician. For all of its power here, Death remains disconnected from this world. It remains its own unique thing. For Death is death and there is nothing remotely like it.

Why does she ride a living horse?

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THE EMPEROR / THE WHEEL / DEATH
Two cards caught my eye here: the first is the card of Death. I mean, really? I’m asking about Death and it decides to show up in the reading? Talk about being omnipresent! The second was the Emperor card. I see immobility here. I see a man wanting to do its stuff but being stuck in its place. And yet, as the Wheel card seems to point out, things continue to move in this world of finite beings; everything keeps going. We know that the Wheel card refers to this world, because once again, the four figures at the corner that represent the elements are present. And so, death comes. Riding a living horse, because again, all living beings carry the seeds of death.

But then, there’s something else. Something right there staring at me and demanding my attention. And I notice: there’s movement in the world of the living, but not in the realm of Death. There is no change in Death; only permanence. This means that to act upon this world, Death needs to be able to move. Which is the domain of the living. So it really has no choice but to use a living being.

This is an interesting idea: that which is comes after that which moves. That which moves can only hope to remain still. But living is all about moving: it is doing stuff, meeting people, seeing places. It is about creating events. And I look again at that little girl down on her knees, looking up to Death and I smile. For in her young age, she is the only one in this whole picture that actually understands what it means not needing to move.

The Ultimate Lesson of the Cards

Today I wanted to talk about a great experience I recently had in my life. It happened about a month ago, when I had the opportunity to meet two amazing people that welcomed me in such a wonderful way that we can say that yes, it is possible to have several families in the heart. In this case, I’m talking about this particular family which is the Maelstrom gang that happened to get together, even though we remain scattered throughout Europe. Talk about social networking…

I’ve already knew Miguel, with whom I studied, but I still had to personally meet the two ladies that are part of this family, Shelley and Isabel. Shelley knew only Miguel, and I think Isabel didn’t knew anyone personally. Thus, a weekend was arranged and set so that we could all meet up and hang out. I and Miguel were meeting Shelley at the Amsterdam train station on Saturday morning. We were supposed to travel south to Den Haag, where Isabel was waiting for us all. But meeting Shelley was the real ice-breaker. She had such a beautiful and truthful smile, that combined with her warm and powerful hug, I immediately lost all anxiety that this meeting was causing me.

Here, I want to confess that meeting up with tarot people usually leaves me anxious. I never did have that many contact with other tarot readers, apart from a few persons here in Oporto and once, when I was at a tarot conference in England. That experience helped me open up a bit (if you want, you can read about it here), but I still get all jittery inside just thinking of it.

I guess that happens because we almost never speak the same language when talking about cards: most people have this thing about keywords and how each card means this or that and I just keep staring at them trying to figure out what the hell do they mean. Or, if I start to talk about how I see cards and how the images seem to dance in front of my eyes, building up a story right there, there’s usually someone looking at me and wondering where can he or she find that liqueur I just had. I mean, I do understand their point: there are no references in how I read, just images. But then, that’s part of the magic of reading cards. How the same card can indicate so many different things instead of the same old same old. Ok, so maybe I’m simplifying things, but you get what I mean, right?

Well, meeting up with my colleagues here at Maelstrom was quite a treat. First with Shelley on the train station, and later on the train towards Den Haag. It all seemed like we knew each other for quite a long time, that not even the old hag complaining about the noise inside the train — hey! we’re latins, know what I’m saying? — was able to spoil anything. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, since right after we were shushed and that learned that “silence usually means not talking”, this wonderful child — which no doubt also has some great latin genes — started making all kinds of loud noises for the remaining of the journey. This is magic of the highest level, when the Universe itself deems to tell you that you’re right on the spot!

Then it was arriving at Den Haag, a city where I lived in about 16 years ago, during that short time of my life that I was living in the Netherlands. And a place that really I had such a great time, it really grew close to heart. This return to Den Haag was stirring all kinds of emotions and memories inside me. But the that wonderfully pesky child in the train told me, if this was to happen, if we were all supposed to meet, maybe things would be easier here, as in a way it was like coming back home.

Returning to Den Haag after all this time was lovely. Isabel was there with a greeting in everything the same as Shelley’s. And we had some time to walk around the city, although I couldn’t really relate to anything from the time I was living in there. Guess that too much time has passed. But I got to know this wonderful cafe, run by one of Isabel’s friends…And quite a fierce card reader as well.

You know the old saying… whenever there’s cards and readers, there will be readings. It’s as sure a thing as death and taxes. And we did! We did! We did read cards. Isabel read to Shelley, Miguel read to me and Shelley, I read to Isabel and so on and so forth. But we didn’t really read the cards. We would lay the cards on the table and everyone would talk about what they saw. Whatever was on the table, the Tarot of the Bones, The Sibilla Oracle, the Waite-Smith, the Carolus Zoya, the reading came out not from an individual mouth, but from the whole collective. More than a reading, we got into a sharing process where everyone was building on top of everyone else, until a conclusion was reached that was beyond the individual.

For me, it was an eye opener: I was used to people arguing about the meaning of a card. Curiously much more about the meaning of a particular card than the importance of that particular card in the spread. Usually, but not always, it’s those that have a fixed set of meanings for each card and immediately start running infinite mental combinations in search of that special sentence that provides the answer to what they’re seeing. The whole thing feels like it’s some sort of safe-cracking gig, but to each it’s own. Then, there’s the ones that see different things in the same cards, but arrive at the same conclusions: their readings reinforce your own, but add little value to what you’ve put to the table. And finally, there’s the ones that go synergistic, everyone combining their eyes to build a better eye that comes closer to an all-seeing eye.

Because, let’s be frank, the secret to card reading is not so much what we know, but what we allow ourselves to see. What I strive for, as a card reader, is the ability to see everything that is in front of me. But, that means that I must not care about anything: I must not care about my feelings or about anyone else’s feelings for that matter (empathy, is such a big no-no that it should be cut down the instant it approaches). This also means that I must not care about the results of the reading or any consequence that it may entail. There is only the reading and nothing more than the reading.

Reading like this would be perfect! But I’m still so far away from that that to actually have people around me that can make me overcome my blind spots to go that extra mile is great. And when I can also do this to them, then there is equal sharing. There is symbiosis. And what comes out of it is no longer a simple group of people, but something much larger than that. Something that takes you to a whole new level of reading and perception.

In all, it was a truly magical day, where people from different parts of the world got to meet in a special city and understand how they functioned better together than apart.

It was no surprise than that when all things were over and I was alone in my room, I got this for the question “Did we really need to be together for this journey?”

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We did. Justice on the side (in the position that reflects what’s behind the question) is arbitrating the whole thing. And justice stands for truth, so there it is.

I usually use this as a yes or no spread. But here, it’s one of those special cases where there is no “yes” path and there is no “no” path. There only is. And you can find a single story through out all of these cards.

What the cards are indicating was that this was the right moment for us to meet each other and start profiting from each other’s strengths. We will push each other’s boundaries so that all of us can get out of their comfort zone and see things in a different fashion that will ultimately lead us to a higher level. And even if we took the bottom line as a “no”, the first two cards are very explicit: you will go out and search for what is missing, but in the end, you would not leave your own backyard, becoming content with playing with your toys. The question that pops up to this reading would then be “what is it that is missing?”, but this would just send us back to the original question: “Did we really need to meet…?”

When things need to happen, they need to happen. When they are special, they are indeed special. You will know, because there are pointers everywhere. Even if it’s just a little child on a train making sure you know that you should not shut up. It does make me wonder why do we need card readings at all, if all it takes is to be aware of all that’s happening to us and with whom things are happening. I guess that’s the ultimate lesson the cards can give us: be aware… now and for ever. But, while you’re working on it, do read some cards.