How Does Tarot Work?

How Does Tarot Work?

At the most basic level, tarot is a tool that offers a visual, concrete approach to exploring human consciousness. The 78 cards in the tarot deck describe various aspects of what it means to be human.

Metaphors have been used in various forms of psychotherapy for decades, which explains why the tarot can be so powerful. They are a memorable and effective way of understanding the many facets of what it means to be human.

Studies show that when metaphors are used in therapy, clients rate sessions both more memorable and more helpful. Metaphors were particularly effective when clients were asked to participate in developing and describing them in relation to their circumstances.

Tarot readings, too, are a collaborative process.

Drawing from my professional background in clinical psychology writing, here are a few of the reasons I’ve come up with that tarot is such a useful therapeutic tool.

The cards make abstract concepts concrete.

Every tarot card has an illustration that offers a more concrete way of experiencing what might otherwise feel abstract.

A client may be going through a tumultuous break-up, sudden job loss, death of a family member, displacement, or be otherwise experiencing a time of upheaval in which everything seems to be falling apart.

Like many people, a client may be unable or unwilling to adequately label her experience , and the thoughts and feelings that have come up as a result.

The Tower card, for instance, which depicts a building crumbling as its inhabitants plummet to the ground, provides a safe, external representation of the thoughts and feelings that may be associated with an experience like the one mentioned above.

The cards are a reminder that there is no experience, no matter how painful, that is unique to us.

If you’ve worked with the cards for long enough, you know there is no human experience that the cards don’t cover.

When we work with the cards, we’re reminded that we are not alone. After all, human beings that were just like us created the cards and assigned them meanings through illustration. They, too, knew intimately what it meant to be a human and to suffer.

Inherent in the scenarios depicted in the cards is a reminder that all humans struggle, as we do. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to experience hardship. Things like grief, loneliness, fear, hopelessness, shame, and despair are simply not unique to us as individuals.

The awareness that all humans suffer and that therefore we are never truly alone in our experience is one of the foundational truths that form the basis of compassion.

Understanding this fundamental truth allows us to approach our problems with an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. When we do this, we shift out of a painful, self-centered perspective, in which our suffering is often compounded by judgments around unfairness, isolation, self-pity, and shame.

In doing so, we’re able to feel calmer, and less alone.

The cards prompt feelings, facilitating a level of emotional contact that the client may otherwise avoid. 

One of the biggest challenges we deal with as humans is that we’re hardwired to want to avoid painful feelings, oftentimes at a the cost of living in alignment with what truly matters to us. When we work with the tarot, things come up in the cards that we might otherwise not choose to look at, lean into, or explore.

Particularly when exploring an especially challenging life question or issue, the cards often prompt emotional reactions within us. A skilled reader can provide a safe space in which clients can either choose to move toward, or back away from what comes up.

It is all too easy to spend our energy unconsciously distracting ourselves from the things we’d rather not think about. But avoidance is largely ineffective if our hope is that ignoring will make such things go away. In reality, the things we avoid materialize as blocks that bar us from experiencing things like belonging, fulfillment, connection, and so forth.

Tarot nudges us gently toward making contact with and inviting into awareness the things we might otherwise wish to hide from and avoid. 

Tarot cards facilitate an important process of learning to shift flexibly between perspectives.

Science has proven that being “psychologically flexible” is fundamental to well-being. What this means, in part, is that we’re able to shift from one perspective to another; a core skill for qualities like compassion and empathy.

The ability to shift perspectives can be trained through practices like meditation, charitable behavior, and you guessed it, Tarot. 🙂  

When we look at a spread of cards that represent aspects of our lives through metaphor, we’re stepping back and seeing things from a new perspective. We are no longer caught up inside the content of our minds or lives, rather we are observers.

This ability to step back is one of the core skills of mindfulness, which has been increasingly supported through research in recent years, and proven to provide a host of mental health benefits.

For more about tarot, check out my weekly readings or book a personal reading with me.