The journey toward a fulfilling and happy life is one of the most personal and most challenging ones. You have to break through the noise of all that external pressure to conform to a norm so that you can figure out what it is that actually makes you happy. You have to dig deep inside and sift through the clutter to figure out what drives you and what personal challenges you face. And you have to do all of this with little to no outside help since, at the end of the day, only you know the right answer.
Tons of reflection is key to figuring out what that right answer is, but it can be incredibly difficult. On the one hand, you might avoid self-reflection, particularly about tougher topics, as it would force you to confront things that you’d rather keep safely hidden in an elaborate Indiana Jones-style booby-trapped fortress. On the other hand, you might be the sort of person who, each time you try to analyze yourself, you instead descend into a vicious spiral of overthinking and rumination that always seems to come to the same conclusion that the pursuit of happiness is futile, and your true self is an unknowable mess of insecurities.
One unique solution to deal with those challenges is using tarot cards for self discovery. It requires zero belief in any magical or spiritual forces at work in the cards because the cards are really just there to keep you focused on the task of self discovery at hand.
Tarot Cards: Not Just for Fortune-Telling Anymore
Tarot cards are most well-known as the tool of fortune-tellers and they’re still more widely used in that sense than any other. However, a certain subset of tarot readers don’t necessarily believe in the magical divining powers of the card and mostly just see it as a helpful way of divining their own self. They’ll use them to answer questions about who they are, what they really want, or how to handle difficult decisions in a way that best aligns with their own vision of happiness.
Tarot cards can act as a workaround for may of the challenges that make intentional and consistent self discovery difficult. It’s easier to make a habit out of doing regular tarot readings on yourself than it is to make a habit of a vague plan to think about the questions that plague you. It also provides some external guidance that can help inspire certain thoughts and nudge you toward those things your mind is trying to avoid.
Tarot cards work not necessarily because they’re magic but because reading them is an inherently interpretive practice. Where a fortune teller is trying to interpret what the cards mean in the context of a particular person’s question about their future, introspective tarot readers are interpreting what they mean in the context of a question about themselves.
The act of interpretation is a process of making connections and making meaning. When you apply that connection-making, meaning-making process to your own mind, it becomes a process of self discovery. You’re digging up the pieces of yourself that you might have been overlooking and learning how to better hear that little voice inside you that knows what you really want out of life and what you should be doing to live a more fulfilling life.
How to Start Using Tarot Cards for Self Discovery
Like meditation and other techniques for improving your mental health, self discovery through tarot cards takes practice and time to really start working. At first, you’ll likely struggle with how to interpret a card, how to tell the difference between your own thoughts and the ones you’ve internalized from the society around you.
In the beginning, it’s easy to fall prey to certain psychological escape mechanisms like wishful thinking or just being so blocked off from yourself, that it’s hard to interpret the cards in a way that really helps you learn anything about yourself. If you struggle with anxiety or self-esteem, you might also fall prey to second-guessing yourself or over-analyzing a card to the point that everything becomes meaningless.
Like other techniques, however, the more you do it, the better you get and the more productive each session will be. Here are some general tips to follow to help you get better at doing tarot readings for self discovery:
- Define your routine. Some choose to draw a single card and then meditate on it for the entire session. Others draw specific multi-card spreads used in fortune telling but then adapt it to their self-exploration. Either way, your defined routine should include the spread you’ll use, the length of time your reading session will last, and how frequently you’ll do it. Daily 5-10 minute sessions will be better than weekly 30 minute sessions but whatever routine you can actually stick to consistently is the best one.
- Ask a specific question. Each session should focus on a specific question. This could be as concrete or immediate as “Should I break up with my partner?” It could also be as broad as “What should I do with my life?” The more specific it is, the easier it will be to think through it. But the key is that you’re focused on a single question for the session so you have some direction when interpreting the cards.
- Keep a journal. Keep a record of each tarot reading session. At the most basic level, your journal entry should include the question you were asking, the card(s) you drew, and a basic one or two sentence explanation of your interpretation of the card(s). Once in a while, take time to review previous sessions to see if your original interpretations still hold or if they can help you with later readings
A Primer on Interpreting Tarot Cards
A tarot deck comes with 78 cards, each one having a distinct meaning depending on whether it’s upright or upside down when you lay it down. The “upright” or “reversed” orientation is based on who the reading is for. When using it for self discovery, if the card is upside down from where you’re sitting, use the “reversed” interpretation. If you’re doing a reading for a friend sitting across from you, base your interpretation on whether it’s upright or upside down from where they’re sitting.
At first, you’ll probably find yourself consulting the book of card meanings that comes with your deck often. With practice, you’ll start to remember the general meaning of each card and it’ll get easier to just dive right into the self reflection. To reach that point faster, start by learning the general meaning of the five major categories of tarot cards:
A tarot deck is made up of 22 major arcana cards along with 56 cards divided evenly among four suits. While the four suits are organized similarly to a deck of playing cards, the major arcana are 22 individual concepts like sun, moon, judgment, death, or fool.
Functionally, they’re meant to represent different phases of human life, with the fool representing the beginning and the world representing the end. As such, the associated meanings tend to relate to that particular stage of life.
The fool, for example, represents innocence, openness, and wonder or conversely, recklessness, gullibility, or lack of focus—all things that could be present at the start of something new. The world, on the other hand, represents fulfillment and achievement or, conversely, a sense of emptiness or lack of closure.
Cups are one of the four suits of cards. Like all suits, it includes 14 cards: the ace of cups through the ten of cups and then the page, knight, king, and queen of cups. In tarot readings, any cups card you draw is thought to reflect your emotions, unconscious, or intuition about a situation. They also represent creativity and imagination.
The ace of cups through the ten of cups generally represent different temporary emotional states like inner happiness or grief while the page, knight, queen, and king are more permanent dispositions like “idealist” or “healer.”
The pentacles are all associated with material or worldly things. Your financial security, your health, your physical environment. The meanings of specific cards range from opportunities for material gain to abundance or stability. Reversed meanings tend to deal with either a lack of some material need or comfort or an overindulgence or excess.
The suit of swords is broadly associated with logic, truth, communication, and conflict. They’re also associated with intelligence and ambition. The meanings of each card range from breakthroughs of understanding to unwavering devotion to truth. Reversed meanings tend to deal with dishonesty, confusion, lack of clarity, or at the other extreme, lack of empathy and over-reliance on rationality rather than intuition.
Wands are associated with willpower, passion, and inspiration. This is your primal drive to survive, to succeed, to endure, to overcome. The meanings of cards range from perseverance and willpower to foresight and decision-making. Reversed meanings range from impulsiveness and arrogance to over-caution or lack of direction.
A Note on Inclusivity in Tarot Decks
Tarot cards have been around in some form since the 15th century. In their earliest form, there was no special deck of dedicated fortune-telling cards. It was simply an ordinary deck of playing cards that some used for fortune-telling the same way they might use the dredges of leaves at the bottom of an ordinary cup of tea for fortune-telling.
Over time, cards were added to the deck and, over more time, it became standardized into the 78-card deck it is today. In 1910, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck—the one that has now become the traditional, iconic tarot deck—was printed. It featured only white, cisgender figures and only heteronormative couples on the cards. The booklet that comes with it included interpretations of each card that are noticeably heteronormative and couched in a binary, patriarchal understanding of gender.
While it’s still possible to use a traditional deck no matter who you are since most of the process is your own interpretive powers at work, running up against a heteronormative description of a card in the booklet or encountering a sea of white faces across all the major arcana can be both disheartening and distracting.
Trying to overcome external pressures about who you are and what you should do with your life is hard enough. Doing it with a deck that doesn’t celebrate (or even acknowledge) your existence can make it even more difficult to chip away at those internalized feelings of shame or alienation.
To stick with the practice and create an empowering, productive space for self-reflection, it’s important to find a deck that you can connect with. If you like the traditional look of the Rider deck, go for it. However, many independent artists have started designing gorgeous, diverse decks, complete with booklets that feature more inclusive interpretations.
I strongly recommend browsing through different decks and picking something that really stands out to you. Look for artwork that you enjoy looking at because this journey requires a lot of time spent looking at these cards—so they should feature figures that you can connect with and artwork that you enjoy.