"Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a pot;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Build walls for a room;
It is the space within that makes it useful."
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
In Hebrew theology there is the idea of tzim tzum, the act of God withdrawing in order to make space for creation to happen. Another interesting aspect of this idea is that God left creation unfinished and that humans are invited to participate in the continuing co-creation of the world.
The famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma says that music exists in the space between the notes.
I think that the wisdom of a tarot reading is found in the space between the cards.
We spend so much time and energy learning what each individual card means…deep and wide complex interpretations that make any one card worthy of intense study…but we spend so little time studying how they interact. We lay out the cards on the table and interpret them one by one. For me, those readings feel lifeless, like a computer-generated reading that cannot take into account the relationships between the cards. One notable exception is when dignities are employed, but even that technique doesn't recognize the magic and life that exists in the space between the cards. This is a shame because a tarot reading is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Most of my students do not come to me to learn the meanings of the cards. They come to me because they already know the meanings, and yet their readings feel lifeless. There are many things that we can do to create more cohesive, unified, and extraordinary readings—and this is my favorite thing to teach. One of the approaches is to pay attention to the interaction of the cards, what they do together in the space between them. The cards mark the foundation, but it is in the space between, like the space tzim tzum created, where new life, the exciting wisdom for that reading, is found.
Paying attention to the space between the cards is like attending to negative space in art. In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards teaches:
"Emphasis on negative space unifies your drawing and strengthens your composition. Emphasis on negative spaces automatically creates unity and, conversely, ignoring negative space inevitably dis-unifies an artwork. For reasons that are hard to put into words, we just like to look at artworks with a strong emphasis on negative spaces. Who knows—perhaps it is our human longing to be unified with our world, or perhaps because in reality we are one with the world around us."
A reading that ignores the space between the cards is like a work of art that does the same: dis-unified and unpleasing. Worse, it is unsatisfying and lifeless. Besides creating a unified reading, paying attention to what the cards create between them reveals deeper wisdom that can be overlooked in a reading where the cards are interpreted individually.
Here is an example, a simple Past-Present-Future reading about the progress of a project.
A card-by-card reading might go something like this:
The parts of the project are spinning around, like a wheel with everything in its normal order, one after another with everything going according to plan like clockwork until something unexpected happened that caused things to move much faster.
By paying attention to the connective tissue, as it were, between the cards, we get a fuller picture.
The parts of the project are spinning around, like a wheel with everything in its normal order, one after another with everything going according to plan like clockwork. What happens between the Wheel and The Tower? The calm, cyclical movement is jarred to a halt as a big disruption crumbles the wheel. What happens after the Tower? The Tower throws everything up in the air, and Eight of Wands swiftly catches it, taking that force into itself. From the disruption, the Eight of Wands reforms the energy not in a cyclical motion but in a linear formation. Movement is changed almost violently from a gentle endless circle to fast moving lines, racing toward a conclusion that received its direction from an unexpected occurrence.
This second reading gives us so much more to work with and so much more information that can be useful. In the first reading, we get a sense that things are moving along very well until something happens, making a mess. In the second reading, when we see the interaction between the Wheel and the Tower, we can see that perhaps the Wheel isn't necessarily "everything going well" but perhaps a rigid system that lacks the flexibility to adjust to unforeseen events. If the Tower event hasn't happened yet, the querent can perhaps begin infusing his project with flexibility so that the conflict between the Wheel and the Tower is not as destructive. However, we should finish the reading before prescribing any advice.
By paying attention to the interaction between the Tower and Eight of Wands, we see that the momentum generated in the Wheel that was shattered by the Tower does not keep flying in all directions but rather falls into a linear pattern (rather than the cyclical pattern of the Wheel). So rather than the usual hot mess created by the Tower, when read in isolation, we see in this case that the project's energy actually becomes more focused, more elegant, more efficient.
Now we get the sense that the project was actually in an endless repeating cycle that might never have moved to conclusion if the Tower didn't help rearrange that energy. In fact, because the Tower card is in the "present" position it is possible that the event, whatever it is, hasn't happened yet. And it is even possible that it won't; this reading is one of advice for the querent: Do something, anything, to shake up your project or it will just cycle and cycle never getting finished.
The space between the cards. Explore it. Observe how the cards interact together rather than relying on rigid or strict card interpretations. The basic card meanings are a place to start. It's where they go from there that is fascinating.