a beginner's guide to tarot cards

how to read your future in the deck

Photo via Bakaraw

We've spent many a party huddled over a deck of tarot cards while a reader told us what to expect in our budding love lives and future paths. We've even found ourselves in candle-lit rooms filled with curious oddities and strange trinkets as a woman dressed in mystical, bohemian garb explains how a single card fortells the good fortune that's about to befall us. The practice of tarot has always had a sort of magical air around it, making it hard to fully grasp and daunting to study—after all, can you really see the word "Hierophant" and not get a little intimidated?

However, in practice, tarot has a lot less to do with untouchable mysteries and a lot more to do with intuition, self-consciousness, and personal spirituality. A deck of cards doesn't have to be reserved for a special occasion, but can instead become a part of how we live our daily lives and get in touch with our feelings and environment. In order to find out just how to use tarot cards to improve our spiritual lives (and get more in-tune with our friends and families) we spoke to three tarot readers about how to get started. Now, draw a card and read on. 

What are tarot cards meant to do?
Tarot isn't the future-predicting, fortune-telling medium that pop culture would have you believe it to be. In fact, these cards have more similarities to maps than crystal balls. "I see the act of reading tarot as similar to reading a map, looking in the mirror, or consulting your GPS," says professional tarot reader (and witch!) Paige Zaferiou. "It's about achieving a better understanding of where you are in life, what your challenges are, and how you can best navigate these challenges with strategy and action." 

By seeing tarot readings as a map instead of a set prediction for the future, you can better use them to help solve the challenges and issues present in your life. "Tarot can be an amazing way to confirm gut feelings and strategize new projects," says intuitive guide and clairvoyant energy healer Molly Burkett. "The cards reflect your highest potential, your deepest insecurities, and your greatest strengths, and show you the pathway to balance." Selecting a tarot card is not meant to create a set-in-stone path that you must follow. Rather, it helps to put different aspects of your life into perspective so you can choose what path to take next. "The goal for me is not future prediction, as the future is not a fixed space and changes moment to moment depending on our choices," says tarot reader Bakara Wintner. They aren't meant to tell your fortune—but they can help you find good fortune by helping you to look inward first.

How do you select a deck?
"To find the right tarot cards for you, keep in mind these words: resonance and connection. You want to find a deck that you can read—and that means you need to feel connected to the images, as if they were extensions of yourself," says Zaferiou. There are so many decks available in different styles that when it comes down to choosing, you should go with the one that most speaks to you.

If you are interested in learning more about the meanings behind tarot cards, then look for a more basic starter deck. "The conventional decks like the Rider Waite, Thoth, and Osho cards have more guidebooks that correspond with the imagery of the cards, so there are more resources available to learn if you choose a more widely used deck," says Wintner. Other popular decks include The Wild Unknown and Spiral Tarot. Burkett also recommends looking into decks designed by artists who make images based on their own spirtual experiences, like Devany Wolfe's Serpent Fire, Mary Bean Evans' Spirit Speak, Danielle Noel's Starchild, and Marcella Kroll's Sacred Symbols OracleTo get a look at cards before purchasing, The Aeclectic Tarot has photos and descriptions of 1,500 different decks. 

Although choosing a deck is wholly up to your own intuition, there are still some practices that should be maintained when handling tarot cards. While some believe that tarot cards must be received as a gift and not purchased for oneself, most modern practitioners agree that buying your own deck is completely acceptable. However, when using your tarot cards to read for others, Burkett advises to clear the deck "by shuffling, reseting it in its original order, or setting a selenite or quartz crystal on it."

How do you read tarot cards?
While guidebooks (and the Internet) can give you the traditional meanings of cards, it's up to your own interpreting skills to really figure them out. "By all means, research the symbolism, traditional associations, and nuanced meanings of the cards—but also learn to trust your gut," says Zaferiou. "The best tarot readers strike a balance between intellectual knowledge of the tarot's symbology and intuitive hits on what that symbology is saying about the situation in question." 

It can be easy to get caught up in the textbook-level aspect of tarot, trying to memorize all of the meanings within a deck. However, this can detract from the purpose of reading tarot at all. As tarot cards set out a map for you to reflect on, it's most important to stick to your gut. "You don’t have to be special or chosen or initiated at birth by your Shaman grandfather to do healing work. Each person is, at their core, intuitive and spiritually connected," says Wintner. "The hardest and greatest lesson I and all readers have to learn is to trust their gifts and their goodness."

However, in the face of self-doubt, sometimes a little collaboration can help. When reading for another person, look at it as a conversation rather than a dictation. "I believe a modern, ethical tarot reading is an interactive, co-created experience between the seeker (the client) and the guide (the reader). The key is to listen to the person you're reading for and stay curious and upbeat," says Burkett. A little discussion helps the person you're reading for to figure out how to apply the cards to their own life and can also help you to shape your own interpretations of deck.

How can you improve your tarot-reading skills?
As a centuries-old practice, tarot has a rich history, so there are plenty of books filled with information about the cards—Zaferiou recommends Holistic Tarot by Benebell Wen and Tarot Tells The Tale by James Ricklef—that can shed light on the deeper meanings behind them. Today, blogs and even Instagram hashtags like #dailytarot and #cardoftheday work to share knowledge about the practice.

Your individual practice can also be improved through note-taking and journaling. "Each time you engage with or learn about a card, come up with some key words or phrases that describe what the card is saying. Record those key words and phrases in the master list, and over time you'll have a personalized record of what each card means to you," Zaferiou says.

However, connecting with others can also help to improve your knowledge and experience with tarot. After forming a group of people interested in learning more about the practice, Wintner co-founded The Brooklyn Fools, a formal tarot discussion and training collective. "I cannot overstate how important community was and is to me as I found my way in this work," she says. "To be witnessed, to have others hold space and give support and not judge gave me the courage to take the risks I did in the face of a lot of fear and self-doubt."

When learning tarot, there is a lot to take in: symbols, meanings, interpretations. The more you practice, the better you become at it, but there is no final end goal or state of complete enlightenment, but rather a continued process of growth that help you to become more in tune with yourself and your surroundings on a spiritual level. "Tarot is not a system to be mastered, it's an art to be practiced, like ballet, or tae kwan do, or avoiding creeps at the deli," says Burkett. "Every reader has their own philosophy and style—practice and experiment until you figure yours out. It wasn't until I started combining tarot with energy work that I realized I was not so much a tarot reader as a healer who uses tarot cards. You have your unique angle and strength, too, whether you realize it yet or not."