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Using the Tarot to Access Past Lives

This article was written by Mark McElroy
posted under Tarot

Do you believe you’ve lived before?

At a party I attended in 2006, I met a middle-aged man who claimed to have recovered memories of a past life. After dinner, he pushed back his plate of bread pudding and announced, “In a former life, I was a black woman. I clearly recall giving birth to a baby in the middle of a cotton field behind the railroad tracks.”

Earlier the same year, I met a woman known for her ability to help others glimpse their past lives. She darted around the room, peering into people’s eyes and announcing what she saw: You were a fish. Yes, definitely a fish. And you—you were a horse. And you? You were a dancer in Russia, but you starved to death before you could make your first performance.”

I’ve also met a young man who very quietly recounts his own past-life story: “I dream about this place constantly,” he says. “I lived in a muddy, rutted village. We were always cold. There was something wrong with my teeth; I was always in pain. There’s another man there—overweight and dirty and ragged. We work together, but at some point, he kills me in an argument over food.”

In 2005, ABC News covered the dramatic tale of James Leininger, a six year-old-boy believed by his family to be the reincarnation of James M. Huston, Jr., a World War II fighter pilot. A number of people, including Huston’s own sister, have been convinced by the vivid details Leininger seems to recall of his life and death.

Some people believe stories like these are proof of the reality of reincarnation. Others insist that “reclaimed memories” are nothing more than half-remembered dreams or vivid fantasies. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I do know this: if you’re interested in exploring the idea of past lives, your tarot deck is a powerful tool for doing so.

Reincarnation: A Secret Teaching of the Tarot?
Reincarnation has long been one of the esoteric tarot’s “hidden teachings.” Over the years, many writers have equated the Fool with themes of life, death, and rebirth. Kabbalistic systems often equate the Fool with Kether, the crown and “The Source of Life”—an assignment that suggest the Fool’s descent form the world of potential into the world of distilled physical forms.

Many readers equate the pack over the shoulder of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Fool as the repository of memories and wisdom collected during previous lives. The Fool’s number—when he’s given a number at all—is usually zero, a number who’s shape suggests the idea of endless cycles. And, of course, there are the Majors, which achieve the integration and enlightenment suggested by the World, and then begins the journey anew.

Reincarnation, then, would appear to be woven into the fabric of the modern esoteric tarot. That fact, combined with tarot’s unique ability to tap thoughts, memories, and stories long submerged in the subconscious, makes the deck a powerful tool for exploring past lives.

Gentle Words of Caution
If you plan to work with tarot as part of an effort to illuminate past lives, please keep the following cautions in mind:
  • Past-Life exploration is a serious venture. Attempts to peer into previous lives should not be taken lightly. Proceed with this exercise only if you feel a compelling need to make a connection with a prior self.

  • Not all past lives are pleasant ones. Repressed memories (whether forged in your current or your previous lives) have often been buried for a reason.

  • Past lives often don’t “perform on demand.” As a result of dreamwork or meditative regression, you may wish to explore a specific incarnation. The details uncovered by this exercise may relate to that existence…or come from another. Be open to whatever insights occur.

  • Not everyone can be Helen of Troy. While you may fancy having been the “face that launched a thousand ships,” you may connect with a fairly mundane prior existence. Fame is not necessarily an indicator of a successful incarnation. The insights you achieve as a lowly shopkeeper may be more important than those achieved in a more high-profile previous life.

Stepping Back
This process of reviewing a prior existence is simple but powerful. I recommend you perform this experiment only when you have a minimum of one hour to pursue it; otherwise, you may rush through the steps and neglect important insights.

Step One: Preparation
Prepare for this reading by grounding and centering yourself using whatever tradition you honor. Turn off cell phones, telephones, televisions, and other distractions. Do whatever must be done to avoid interruptions during this work. The experiment may be undertaken in any setting; however, you may find it useful to dim the lights, light candles, play meditative music, or burn incense. You should feel protected, empowered, and safe.

Step Two: Meditation on the Fool
From whatever deck you prefer, remove the Fool (or its equivalent). Once you are seated comfortably on the floor, take the card in both hands and focus on the illustration. Clear your mind. When distracting thoughts occur, acknowledge them, tell them, “I’ll deal with you later,” and return your attention to the card.

With time, your focus will soften or your eyes will grow heavy. When this occurs, allow your eyes to close—but maintain the image of the Fool card in your mind. Think of this image as a frame of film. When you feel ready, prompt your “inner projectionist” to play the card’s “movie” in reverse.

If you are working with the RWS Fool, the young man in the illustration will walk slowly backward. The clouds above him will retreat toward the distant horizon. The rose he carries will revert from blossom to bud. The white dog at his feet will cavort in reverse.

Keep your inner eye on the Fool as he shrinks from your field of view. When you can no longer see him, allow the image of the card to slowly fade to black.

Step Three: The Reading
Gently open your eyes. Replace the Fool in the deck and shuffle it. Beginning at the top, deal eight cards into an upright column: three cards above, two crossed cards in the center, and three cards below.
  • Card One: Your Gender. This card holds clues to your gender during a past life. Don’t obsess on the apparent gender of the character in the illustration. While this may be an indicator of your previous gender, the really important question to ask is this: what gender do you feel the card symbolically suggests?
  • Card Two: Your Family. This card indicates something of importance about the family into which you were born. The Ten of Cups may suggest a large, happy, loving environment. The Justice card may point to a strict, sterile household where rules were more important than freedom. The Eight of Cups may suggest that something was missing from your home environment, and could be read as anything from “an absent parent” to “life as an only child.”
  • Card Three: Identity/Personality. This card provides insight into your core identity during this previous lifetime. A Major in this position indicates a behavior, belief, or would view that dominated this existence. (The Lovers, for example, might indicate you spent this lifetime desperately seeking a soulmate…or that romantic relationships were always a challenge for you.
  • Cards Four and Five: Critical Situation. These cards are a snapshot—a “Kodak moment,” if you like—of a critical situation that arose during your previous life. The two cards represent two energies, forces, or people whose interactions created a climax of life-changing dimensions. If you find the Eight of Wands paired with the Four of Coins, you might decide your previous self received a sudden insight (Eight of Wands) that prompted him to save food and money (Four of Coins) in preparation for a coming disaster.
  • Card Six: Response. This card represents all-important response you made to the crisis defined by cards Four and Five. The Devil in this position might indicate that the fellow from you previous example hoarded his provisions for himself; the Six of Coins, though, might suggest that he endeared himself to others by freely sharing his resources.
  • Card Seven: Life Lesson. This card symbolizes the life lesson you learned during this existence. Expect this card to refer, at least in part, to the crisis outlined in cards Four and Five and the response signified by card Six. The Tower in this position, for example, might indicate that, as a result of being led to help others, you learned to escape the prison of obsessive self-interest.
  • Card Eight: Influence on Your Present Life. This card will reveal how the existence depicted in this spread colors your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and choices today. The King of Swords in this position could suggest that your cool handling of a past-life crisis prepared you to be a present-day leader. On the other hand, the Two of Wands might suggest today’s inability to stick with a course of action is rooted in self-doubt left over from a previous incarnation’s self-doubt.


Step Four: Follow-Up
Knowing about a past life is one thing; knowing how to use this information to foster positive change and growth is another.

Once you have genuinely opened up yourself to the revelations of this reading, collect all the cards, shuffle them, and draw three new cards, placing them in a simple horizontal line.
  1. Card One: Honoring the Past. This card suggests something you can do today as a means of acknowledging the work you performed in the past. The Four of Swords might prompt you to offer a prayer for the person you were, or the Star card might lead you to make a libation—a small offering of wine or water, poured out over an altar of small stones—in recognition of a former self.
  2. Card Two: Putting Wisdom to Work. This card suggests a way you can put your past life experience to work today. If you discover, for example, that you worked as a successful craftsman in the past, drawing the Eight of Coins might encourage you to take up a handicraft you could use to enhance present-day income.
  3. Card Three: Looking Forward. Reconnecting with past lives can be exciting, but your present life has lessons of its own to teach! This card, which hints at your current life’s agenda, will suggest a matter in the present that requires your attention. (Drawing the Hierophant, for example, might motivate you to schedule more time for deliberate spiritual practice.) Pondering how this card extends or builds upon your past life experience will be both satisfying and enlightening.


Additional Tips for Past-Life Explorers
  • Take some time to explore the insights suggested by this reading. Expect connections among cards to reveal themselves in subtle ways. One good way to expand and preserve the information you gather during this exercise is to translate it into a journal entry by writing a paragraph or two about each card.

  • Want to explore a specific past life you’ve glimpsed before? Choose cards deliberately to represent what you do know; draw random cards to “fill in the blanks” and complete the picture.

  • If some cards remain inscrutable, or if you feel uncertain about the information you receive, you can always supplement your insights with commentary cards: additional cards drawn to amplify or enhance the meaning of the original card. Place commentary cards to the right of the cards they modify; they will “extend” the story and allow you to glimpse additional details.

  • Even if your current beliefs do not embrace reincarnation, this spread can still provide you with a great deal of insight. After “generating” a past life with the cards, try interpreting the story you’ve crated as though it were a symbolic dream. What truths about your present life might this “past-life experience” reveal

From Llewellyn's 2008 Tarot Reader. For more Llewellyn Tarot titles and decks, click here.

Mark McElroyMark McElroy
After purchasing his first Tarot deck in 1973, Mark McElroy began terrorizing other neighborhood nine-year-olds with dire and dramatic predictions.Today, he calls Tarot "the ultimate visual brainstorming tool," and shares techniques designed to help...  Read more

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