In this article we’d like to discuss the teaching and learning of Tarot. We’ll start with a few questions: if you only had ten minutes with a stranger straight off the street, who had no experience of Tarot other than perhaps having seen a few cards on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how much do you think you could teach them? How much do you think you could learn in that time? Where would you start, and how would you go about it?
These are all questions that a teacher will ask themselves about any subject, and they are ones I brought to Tarot twenty years ago when I first started teaching. It is the same set of questions that we used when writing our book, Around the Tarot in 78 Days.
Our answer to these questions is fairly radical—we can teach anyone, with no prior knowledge, in ten minutes how to read any card, in any position, in any spread, for any question. It then takes us a further ten minutes to teach them how to put cards together to create narrative, and after thirty minutes they are able to perform a 78-card spread. We’ll say that again—a spread that lays out all 78 cards.
Whilst this certainly does not mean they are then on par with anyone who has been reading tarot for five, ten, or thirty years, we teach in this manner for a number of reasons, mainly to inoculate our students against erroneous pre-conceptions about their learning. These include:
- The Court Cards are "difficult."
- You should learn a card at a time, or do a card of the day.
- Larger spreads are progressively more difficult.
- Learning Tarot requires the same skills for everyone.
- Any issues with learning tarot are unlike learning any other skill.
With the student experiencing a complete violation of all of these erroneous assumptions in their first hour of learning, in their real experience, they do not pick up bad learning habits that can last a lifetime. We’ve had many students, including those with decades of reading experience, come to a beginners class who still have "difficulty" with certain basic aspects of Tarot, or who have learned unbending rules that have limited their development. In Around the Tarot in 78 Days we sneak in a lot of provocative teaching under the guise of a standard "card a day" delivery—this is a very deliberate bridge between the two approaches.
So when learning or teaching Tarot, what is most important? In our view, it is the basic difference between tarot-related skills, methods, and application. We see that a lot of tarot is taught straight from the methodology: how to do a spread, how to read a card, what a combination of cards might mean together, etc. However, this is not necessarily the only way to teach. In our approach, we often provide exercises or games that appear to have nothing to do with tarot; making a story up about a sequence of sounds, playing a memory game, describing how you cook something, but in reverse, or learning how to say something in the future tense. These "install" the essential skills we have modeled from experienced tarot readers.
Once those skills are in place, we then provide the "method" (reading three cards together, speaking to your querent, reviewing a whole spread, etc.) in which those skills are applied. Suddenly students find themselves doing readings that would be laborious to teach in any other way. The best thing is that people then start to make new methods up on the spot, based on their application of the core skills! We’ve had absolute beginners invent whole new decks, concepts, and ways of reading, that are truly innovative—only they don’t know so!
What are the essential skills, then? Well, there are actually many, because each person has their own voice in Tarot, and to us it is most important to get out of the way and let them discover their own oracular talent. This is the most delightful thing about teaching tarot, anyway, watching someone find something inside themselves no-one knew was there. So we tend to adopt a hands-off manner that involves getting students to do exercises, rather than learning by rote. Whilst we offer keywords, meanings, stock spreads, and so on, we don’t really encourage or practice them ourselves, nor do our students—even our basic books teach methods to design a spread from the question, not be limited to just a few standard spreads.
However, when modeling experienced readers, there are several core skills that we have used in Around the Tarot in 78 Days, which include:
- Chunking: the ability to move up and down levels of detail. In the case of tarot, this allows the reader to not only explain things clearly to the querent, but also to see both the "big picture" and the individual symbols on the cards at the same time.
- Correspondence: the ability to discern a connection between one thing and another in any way. We tend to teach this skill with surrealist games, for example an exercise where you have to describe a tree in terms of a sword. This develops the essential skill of being able to apply a picture of a hanged man to a question about a sports team, or any other combination.
- Time/Space: the ability to perceive and phrase images in terms of past, present, and future, and glide between them easily. This skill can be easily taught, when we work with your own representation of time inside your own head. Experienced readers find this representation changes over time, due to their reading of tarot, so it is a fundamental ability. As an example, think of a past memory, then think of something in the future. How do you know—in the way these appear in your head (or outside!)—that one is the "past" and one is the "future?"
Many of the experiences we offer in Around the Tarot in 78 Days and our other books comes from applying to Tarot "Neuro-Linguistic Programming," or NLP, which is a loose system of models and methods working with the way we represent reality. It turns out this has been a fantastic way of deconstructing the oracular art to teach it others, and something we are pleased to do.
Of course, there is essential magick in the art. This is not something that can be reverse engineered and turned into a production line. What is interesting is often the rapid grounding in the essential skills clears the way for inspiration to make itself present. Here’s an example you may wish to try. It shows how when the conscious mind is taken out of the way for a moment, something magical can happen. And that inspiration, whilst it cannot be taught, it can be accessed by simple methods.
Take sixteen Tarot cards.
Lay them out where you can see them, as a block, say 4 x 4.
Take a deep breath.
Start to talk about the cards, what you see, what draws your attention, what is happening in the cards, anything, but use the following linking words throughout what you are saying:
and … while … so … whilst … because … then … if … or … so that you don’t actually complete a sentence and the words keep tumbling out of your mouth. You must say them out loud. Keep going, don’t stop, find a pace that feels right, and all of a sudden something will trip over and you’ll say something you may not have been expecting.
It might sound something like, "I see the King of Cups, he is holding a cup because it is heavy and there is another card here where a man is hanging upside down whilst a bird flies in the sky so that it seems like there are many clouds in each of the cards such as the Knight who is on his horse which is going very fast or perhaps he is in a hurry to make his mark…"
That last bit "just came out," and it was not something I have ever thought about that card before. It may or may not be profound, it may or may not be that new to you, but the sensation of those words coming out of you unexpectedly and unbidden is what we are after. It is the edge of your conscious landscape of Tarot, and there is a whole country the other side of it. In Around the Tarot in 78 Days we take you into that country, with a map, a compass, and a deck of cards.
May a full deck of possibilities be yours,
Marcus Katz & Tali Goodwin