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Tarot EssaysTeaching Tips

The Wisdom Game: Coming of Age with the Cards

By January 9, 20108 Comments

This article has been rewritten, thanks largely to the helpful comments which have helped me to better view and articulate my ideas.  Some of the comments reflect the older versions of the article, so bear that in mind while reading. Enjoy!

I answer a lot of questions about how I know so much about Tarot, and how I reach many of the meanings and ideas I have during readings or lessons. The real answer is that while I have a lot of information about the cards like history and correspondences to other systems, I rely almost entirely on my intuition to guide me. I experience my response to a picture on the card, and then analyze my response – I ask myself questions; Why does the three of swords card make me feel sad? Is it the dreary weather, the allusion to heartbreak, the violence? What about that combination cultivates a sad response in me, and how might it be different for other people? What if I felt angry about this card, what might that mean for me? And so on, forever. This brings me to a personal connection with the image, and a degree of experience handling the card and its possible impacts upon people. A big part of this process is being honest with myself and uncritical of my automatic responses. Tarot is a visual system first, so being able to see and feel in response to what you see, is the only skillset one needs to use the cards.

I have experienced that everyone I ask to look at the cards in this way can do it immediately. People are born with innate wisdom, a well of resources with which to handle life’s challenges on their own. People are also equipped with innate intelligence, an ability to make connections and learn lessons abstractly. These two traits work together to give us all we need to overcome unknown obstacles in life and evolve into the best we can be. You don’t need to know where the Tarot game came from or which major arcana correspond to which planets in the zodiac to be able to tap into your wisdom – its automatic! Look at the card and draw your own conclusions – thats the game of it. I call the Tarot the Wisdom Game because it is playful and freely associative. Knowing information about the cards can be fun, but it isn’t at all required.

Recently I was flattered by somebody who listened to me speak about Tarot when they mentioned that they were surprised a person as young as I am had so much wisdom. I never know what to do with praise like this other than quietly thank the person and quickly change the subject, so I did. But again, I have to be honest with myself. Praise like this makes me uncomfortable, and there is a reason. That reason is, I think that everyone else can do it too, and I also feel like I was lucky – My mother taught me Tarot as a teenager, when I was otherwise fairly lost and depressed, as a lot of teenagers tend to be. Learning to draw on Tarot while I was young gave me a ‘head start’, where many other kids were being told nothing except that they’d ‘understand things when they were older’.

I never thought about it at the time, but children have historically been considered equipped to be adults in their teens. With the creeping adolescence of the modern age there is less encouragement for kids to develop their innate wisdom into personal, confident, articulated perspectives on life and their place in it. Being taught Tarot and encouraged to read for other people right out of highschool, I was giving readings and helping people much older and more experienced than myself. A lot of kids don’t get that encouragement, and so I don’t feel more accomplished for having ‘wise’ things to say while I’m young – I feel like I’ve been given the tools to be wise on my own terms, and I’m thankful more than proud of that condition.

I imagine how it could’ve been if I’d never been given Tarot cards to develop myself both socially and privately. I may’ve felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything at all until I’d gone through college for a philosophy degree, then struggling at the lowest levels of employment for years and wondering what I was doing the whole time. Maybe I’d independently figure out my own confident approach to life sooner than that, but what I’ve seen from society is that struggle and want are the status quo – there isn’t a lot built into the system to make you feel comfortably in control.

Luckily for me, the Tarot offered a self-contained educational system of personal reliance and self discovery. I find the deck to be a playful arrangement of evocative pictures, designed to be explored in any order that best suits one’s own personality and interests. The breadth and depth of the cards are as limitless as one’s imagination to consider them – Eliphas Levi said a man left in a cell with nothing but tarot to contemplate could ‘acquire universal science within the space of a few years’. This richness lends itself extremely well to personal development, becoming a framework for people of all ages to better confront and express their own innate wisdom. Also, reading for others develops meaningful and potentially life-changing connections between people, building social resources as well as personal ones.

I learned young how to use Tarot in a confident, playful way – its been a companion ever since, and I definitely feel like learning and reading Tarot changed my life. Tarot is far from the only medium for this kind of learning, but it is a strong and easily accessible choice. I’ve included below the way I find people learn the cards best, helping people to quickly use the cards in very helpful ways. These steps are aimed mostly at someone more familiar with the cards to guide someone less so, though with books and websites to assist with other interpretations it can be easily adapted by the solo student.

Teaching Tarot

Here is a way to teach tarot to beginners which emphasizes the usefulness of tarot as an individual medium for expression, training the student to rely on their own awareness and intuition. This is the way I have been taught and passed on the Tarot, and I am sure others already share this method. Here is an outline of the approach teaching cards. 

1) Explain Nothing
You want to help students articulate their intuitive responses. The best way to start is to not give them answers before they try to come up with their own solutions. If they struggle, guide them with ideas.

2) Ask the Student to Describe the Card
A solid, detailed look at the card is the first step to cultivating emotional responses to the imagery. If they miss any details you think are important, try to get the student to notice them instead of pointing them out yourself. This encourages complete perception.

Teacher: “This is the Hierophant. What do you see in the card?”
Student: “I see … a priest, or a pope. Hes at the pulpit in a church.”
Teacher: “Who else is there? What colors do you see …”

3) Ask What is Happening within the Card
Ask them how the figures seem to be feeling by their body language and expressions, what is ‘going on’ in the card. Ask them to tell you a story, give reasons why the figures may be feeling the way they are, and what the purpose in the story all the elements may have. A good tip is to use the student’s own words to ask questions, to encourage them to keep using their own vocabulary.

Teacher: “What is going on in the card? What are they doing?”
Student: “The monks seem to be praying, the priest is holding his hands up in the air. Maybe they are praying, or they are having communion.”
Teacher: “What do you think the Priest is there for …”

4) Ask What the Card Means
Usually students have difficulty at first, people are used to being given solutions and repeating them rather than developing their own. Asking simply, ‘What do you think this card is about, based on what you see?” will usually get simple answers at first; ‘Sadness’ for the five of cups, ‘Death’ for the ten of swords. Prompt them to go deeper before you begin giving information.

Teacher: “So what do you think this card is about?”
Student: “I’m not sure. Prayer, or religious learning?”
Teacher: “I like that. Anything else …”

5) Encourage Individuality and Teach Standard Meanings
Here is where you validate their efforts by saying they did well, and their intuition is correct. If they missed any important nuances in a card, you can guide them by asking them questions about the card and it’s story. Reinforce more ‘standard’ meanings as they emerge.

Teacher: “Excellent read on this card. How are the monks learning here, are they in a dialog with the priest?”
Student: “It looks like they are just listening to him.”
Teacher: “Excellent. Listening is a key concept in this card for many readers …”


Putting it Together

Though this is a bare-bones guide, this is all you need to begin. I try to use this approach as much as possible before explaining things such as elements, numerology, astrology, etc – the core value of this teaching style is to allow for the student’s own intuition to come to the foreground, rather than relying on knowledge of the symbol systems to piece together intellectual meanings for cards.

This can even be done alone; Pick a deck you like, find several good tarot books, and examine a card. Question your default understanding of a card, asking ‘why and how does it mean this?’ See if there are any other meanings, or elements you have missed. Once you run out of steam on a card, begin looking at other people’s ideas. If their meanings don’t make sense, see if they might upon further examination. Establishing why you do or don’t agree with a given meaning for a card can help a lot with articulation of your own interpretations.

Tarot is fundamentally a toy, and ought to be played with! Even without outside material the cards provide a huge resource. I hope this information finds who it may help best, and I look forward to any and all feedback.

Thank you Morgan for help with the title!

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Karinjenny says:

    Lionel – what an interesting and thought provoking article! I like the first section which outlines your premises (a) man/woman is born with innate wisdom and intelligence b)the Tarot in a “strong choice” for developing and unfolding this inheritance and for empowering the individual to grow into “all one can be”! The Levi quote is excellent. The part on history (“Children have historically been considered equipped to be adults in their teens” I would love to see fleshed out a lot more. The philosophical and sociological implications of this trail of thought are far-reaching and visionary, I believe.You embrace a paradigm of growth and self-realization and see the Tarot as a game, a toy, a path and a tool on that journey of becoming “all one can be”. I also really like the “pedagogic” section where you outline your teaching approach – The dialogue style makes it very fun to read. You might enjoy going back to Plato’s dialogues – very similar way of [ulling the reader/listener in. I look forward to seeing this evolve further. On the passage
    “1) Explain Nothing
    You want to help students articulate their intuitive responses. The best way to start is to not give them answers before they try to come up with their own solutions. If they struggle, guide them with ideas.” I would like to submit that the last word may be “questions”. Ideas are just what THEY need to come up with, and questions solicit them. Does that make sense? This article is just SO fun to read and excellent! Thank you!

    • digiacom says:

      Questions are certainly where those ideas take form! I look forward to developing some historical perspective a little more as I develop the talk.

      Thank you for your supportive comments, I always enjoy them!

  • Yes, excellent! Very well written article; clear, concise and thoughtful. I too would love to see younger people engage with the tarot more. It is unfortunate that the youth of our age is not encouraged to develop in so many ways including intuitively. I think you can bring that gift to our compatriots and I look forward to those changes.

    You’re awesome. <3

  • Hi Lionel.
    Great article.
    I am not sure I totally agree with your take on how today parents relate/raise their teenagers/young adults children,but then again, I belong to the other generation group.
    I agree with the concept tha a Tarot deck would come in very handy in seclusion. I also believe the best way to learn Tarot is by reading for all knds of people. If you only read for your-self you end up dealing with a limited amount of situations. Reading for people with different life styles, beliefs and concerns brings out many other meanings for the same card.
    I love the way you suggest teaching Tarot to a beginner.I learned by studying some of the symbols, the meaning of the cards, and their correlation to the tree of life. I was taught with the Marseille deck. When I moved to the RWS some of the symbols did not apply any more, not to mention the PIP were all new to me. I then relied more and more on books to learn the meanings of the cards. I read a lot of them, and I learned a lot, but I also lost confidence in my own ability to interpret the cards.
    It took me many years to regain that. I therefore strongly agree with your suggestion that it is important for beginners to learn to make sense of the cards from the start. The way I eventually learned to wean my-self from the books, was by doing a reading first, come up with my own interpretation and only then consult Tarot books to see what I may have missed.
    Thanks for sharing.


    • digiacom says:

      I’m so glad you’ve found this learning style on your own and can contrast it so clearly – Feedback like that is especially helpful for me, since I have never learned it any other way.

      I am certainly avoiding parenting in some part and perhaps being harsh. I mean to say there isn’t a broader social mechanism to offer children and young adults the confidence to simply be themselves without hesitation that they “aren’t good enough”. That isn’t to say families don’t do their best to support their members; I myself had wonderful parents. I still found myself confused and found a lot of guidance from the Tarot. I’ll certainly try to emphasize that it is certainly also natural to some people to remain adolescent until they are circumstantially ‘forced to grow up’ – either by becoming parents or bearing needed responsibility in the home. I can come up with a few people in my own life who needed to be depended upon before I saw them build confidence and grow into themselves.

      Thank you for the rich feedback, I appreciate especially your experience learning the Tarot and struggling with the miasma of prepared meanings that can choke personal interpretation.

  • Teisha says:

    Yes, great job, Lionel! I really enjoyed reading this. A few comments:

    I agree with Karinjenny that your suggested teaching methods made Plato’s Dialogues (the Socratic method) come to my mind too — the importance of letting the student discover meaning through their own efforts (driving them on through questions) instead of just telling them the meaning. (I do think this is a very effective teaching approach in general, but the problem with mainstream educational institutions using this approach is that it requires a lot of one-on-one interactions, and packed, broke public schools aren’t usually allowed this luxury — it’s great this option is there for something like teaching the Tarot.)

    Also, I just wanted to mention that it might be good to address the accuracy of how pop culture portrays the Tarot. Honestly, my main exposure to the Tarot has been through general pop media, and I’m sure this generates a lot of misconceptions for beginners.

    Again, great article, Lionel! It was a really nice read and thanks for sharing.

    • digiacom says:

      You’re right, this type of teaching is really only practical in extremely small groups or one-on-one. Mainstream education is forced to compromise, and unfortunately in the case of the struggling student such as myself, it seriously degrades the sort of self reliance and confidence I believe this kind of study offers.

      I definitely should approach the topic from the perspective of stereotypes! I hadn’t even thought of it, steeped as I am in the archetypal/psychological viewpoint of the Tarot. I’m hoping to attract both familiar readers or teachers and also new people, talking about nomadic fortune tellers and magic spells can only make the whole thing more entertaining and accessible for everyone – Thanks for the suggestion, and the thoughtful comment! I’m so excited to know you read and enjoyed it 🙂