Posted Under Tarot

Better Tarot Readings through Brainstorming

If you've been working with Tarot for any length of time, you've already confronted at least one of the following challenges:

  1. An anxious client sits across from you. Her question is very clearly defined. How long before that money arrives in the mail? Will her son ever marry? Which one of these two job offers is the one she should take? When you suggest using the cards to explore options or look for solutions, she shakes her head. "I just want you to tell me what's going to happen," she says. "I just want The Answer."
  2. Concerned with your own future, you steal a quiet moment to read for yourself. You shuffle, cut, and deal the cards … but suddenly the images that once spoke volumes fall silent. Worse, no matter how hard you try to be objective, the cards seem determined to reflect your worst possible fears.
  3. You work with the cards for years, taking delight in their uncanny ability to reflect events and illuminate choices. You amass a collection of decks—though, at some point, you discover you're buying more decks, but enjoying them less. In the past, working with the Tarot became a part of your daily routine. Now, you let days—or even weeks—go by without touching a single card.

Eventually, everyone interested in Tarot faces some or all of these challenges: the pressure to deliver The Answer … the struggle to maintain objectivity … a decline in interest as what once seemed magical becomes mundane.

The good news? The key to overcoming these hurdles may be just one brainstorm away.

Inspiration through Integration
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing Putting the Tarot to Work. The book promotes the benefits of using Tarot cards as brainstorming tools for business people. (Having worked for almost two decades in the corporate world, I can assure you no group is more desperately in need of insight and inspiration than executives, managers, business owners, and their employees!)

And let's face it: using the Tarot as a brainstorming tool makes perfect sense. The illustrations, titles, numbers, and keywords on each card amount to a visual encyclopedia of related ideas. The deck you pick up at the corner bookstore for less than twenty bucks fits easily into your pocket or purse. Do you know of any other creative tool that's more accessible, affordable, or portable?

Writing Putting the Tarot to Work changed my approach to Tarot forever. When I sit down with a client, I no longer feel obligated to go on a quest for "the" answer. When reading for myself, I have far less difficulty attaining a sense of objectivity. Best of all, I feel passionate about working with the cards again—and when I turn the cards over, each one seems packed with fresh ideas and new perspectives.

What happened? As it turns out, while integrating Tarot techniques into my approach to brainstorming, I wound up integrating brainstorming techniques into my approach to Tarot!

Borrowing Brainstorming Basics
Brainstorming involves rapidly associating one idea with another, allowing the stream of consciousness to take participants from one concept to the next. The best brainstormers learn to silence their Inner Critics, because they measure success by the quantity—not the quality—of ideas. As a result, criticism gives way to creation.

At its best, brainstorming becomes a free-wheeling thrill ride through unexpected territory. Though we've often worried about our budget, we've never considered how our budget is like an apple tree, or a brick wall, or a sack of potatoes. This juxtaposition of unrelated ideas forces us to see our budgetary challenge from a new perspective. Suddenly, the barriers to success fall away, and insight leads to innovation and action.

At least, that's how it's supposed to go.

Sometimes, pressure to deliver The Answer before a deadline crushes our creativity. Occasionally, we're too close to the problem to think outside the box; as a result, our brainstorm reflects our internal upheaval. Or, after years of successful brainstorming, the once-exciting process becomes all too familiar. Before we know it, we're scrabbling for progress and banging our heads against the wall, saying, "You know, I used to brainstorm about these kinds of questions…"

Experts—having anticipated problems like these—have devised a number of clever strategies designed to boost the effectiveness of the brainstorming process:

  1. Maintain creativity by insisting on finding many possible answers—not just one.
  2. Maintain objectivity by deliberately adopting viewpoints other than your own.
  3. Maintain freshness by keeping a library of creative strategies on hand at all times.

As Tarot reading and brainstorming have a great deal in common, each of these guidelines can be adapted to boost the effectiveness of Tarot readings, too.

Strategy One: Avoid "The Answer"
Everyone wants The Answer.

Is Rhonda really the one for me? If I marry Gilbert, will I be eternally happy? Am I really supposed to take that job de-beaking chickens down at the processing plant?

Often, our hunger for The Answer positions us as victims of fate. When we start asking "Yes or No" questions, we often hope to cast the burden of decision on someone else. In short, we relinquish control of our lives to seventy-eight pieces of laminated cardboard.

Brainstorming experts suggest we can boost our problem-solving ability by leaving the myth of The Answer behind. Problems can have many solutions. Questions can have many answers. Any path we choose can branch off in an infinite number of directions … and the variables governing which path we take aren't always under our control.

So what to do? Rather than believe a reading is a success when it produces The Answer, we reset our expectations. We increase our effectiveness as readers by deciding that successful readings are the ones that produce the most possible courses of action.

Before I stumbled on this shift in thinking, I didn't realize how completely my own set of "one answer blinders" restricted the quality of my readings. With a question in mind, I'd draw a card or a series of cards—and dutifully go about decoding The Answer, as though there were only one answer to be had.

Today, however, when asking, "What does this card mean?" I force myself to consider a minimum of ten possible answers per card.

Let's say I ask, "Should I blow off all the work I have to do today and go see Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for the eighteenth time?" After shuffling the deck, I draw the Six of Swords from the Universal Tarot.


Rather than search for The Answer, I make a quick list of at least ten possible interpretations:

  1. If I really need a break, maybe it would be better to do something else entirely—like going boating.
  2. The scene on the Six of Swords involves a boat, and the movie has a scene in which Frodo Baggins is taken away in a boat. That's a definite "Go!"
  3. Boats take people where they want to go—so will taking this day off bring me closer to (or take me farther from) my ultimate goals?
  4. The figures on this card seem depressed or distraught. Will I feel more or less like them after taking the day off?
  5. By taking the day off, do I become more like the rower (the person in charge of the journey) or the passenger (someone allowing himself to be carried along by others)?
  6. The distant shore looks green and attractive. What's attractive to me about blowing off my workday? What's attractive about sticking around and getting my work done?
  7. The fellow in the boat looks lonesome. Would I enjoy the movie more if I waited until later and saw it with friends?
  8. The boat moves from one shore to the other. Am I limiting my thinking by forcing a choice between one destination (the movies) and the other (getting work done)? Is there a way I can do some of both?
  9. The gray sky looks threatening. What storms may come if I put off my work for an additional day?
  10. Six is the number of collaboration and cooperation, and the suit of Swords resonates with logic and decision-making. How will my decision to abandon work today impact others whose work depends on mine?

Some of these ideas are silly. Some of the associations are a stretch. Some of these responses make perfect sense. Some contradict each other. But by abandoning the search for The Answer and forcing myself to consider many possible answers, I generated far more personal insight—and discovered options I overlooked before.

Want to boost the effectiveness of your readings? Avoid The Answer—and reward yourself for generating as many answers as possible!

Strategy Two: Play with Perspective
While on a trip to San Francisco, a flight attendant spied my cards and asked me to come to the back of the plane for a reading. Once there, she lowered her voice and asked, "Will seeing two other men secretly while remaining engaged to my fiancé cause me problems down the road?"

I didn't think I needed cards to answer that question.

All the same, I shuffled and drew three responses: the Ten of Swords, the Ten of Wands, and the Tower.


I struggled to keep my face neutral. "What do these cards suggest to you?"

Inexplicably, her face lit up with a smile."This is telling me to kill my doubts, carry on despite the difficulties, and strike while the iron is hot!"

Especially when reading for ourselves, maintaining objectivity is always a challenge. Like my friend on the plane, it's all too tempting to see what we want to see—or, worse, to allow the cards to reflect our deepest fears.

When brainstorming, the best way to maintain objectivity is to deliberately adopt viewpoints other than your own. The process is not unlike those debate class assignments where the professor asks students to argue passionately in favor of positions they personally oppose.

How does this work in readings? When my emotions threaten to overwhelm my objectivity, I employ a simple—but powerful—technique. With the spread completed, I ask myself three questions:

  1. What's the worst possible interpretation of these cards?
  2. What's the best possible interpretation of these cards?
  3. What interpretation lies between these two extremes?

When answering the first question, I pretend I thrive on disaster. I force myself to come up with the darkest possible reading I can—and then I ask myself, "How can I make this even more toxic, more desperate, or more depressing?" (In the process, I not only succeed in adopting a viewpoint other than my own—I learn a lot about the fears and insecurities that color my readings.)

When answering the second question, I put on my flashiest pair of rose-colored glasses. I pretend that everything I touch turns to gold, and that the Universe was created for the sole purpose of granting my every wish. (This kind of infinite optimism not only enhances my objectivity—it helps me understand more about how my desires and ego may be influencing my take on the cards.)

Finally, answering the third question tends to bring me back to reality. In my experience, Truth is rarely extreme, and this part of the exercise helps me achieve a more moderate perspective on the issue at hand. (More often than not, these "middle of the road" readings, generated after examining the extremes, are my most accurate.)

When going to extremes fails to enhance my objectivity, I use another powerful technique I first wrote about in Putting the Tarot to Work: WWTD? (What Would the Trumps Do?) The process is simple:

  1. Lay out all twenty-one trumps, plus the Fool.
  2. Pretend each of these Trump cards are experts whose experience, regardless of the situation, always allows them to succeed.
  3. Go down the line, asking each Trump, "In my situation, what would you do?"

For example: let's say that, following a painful break-up, you're at a loss as to how to proceed with your life. If you connect the Fool with new beginnings, he may recommend you throw yourself into a new relationship right away. The Empress may recommend a visit with a comforting, nurturing friend whose home cooking and warm attention will improve your self-esteem. The Hermit may recommend you spend a little time alone, considering how you might be happier on your own. And the Devil? For now, I'll leave his opinion to your imagination.

With practice and a degree of familiarity with the concepts and perspectives associated with each trump, you can use this technique to generate twenty-two answers, options, or insights in twenty minutes or less!

Want to improve your objectivity while reading for yourself or others? Once the cards are on the table, play with perspective by adopting viewpoints that differ radically from your own.

Strategy Three: Build a Bag of Tricks
What with all the hopping around from one idea to another, brainstorming sessions can seem totally random. Fact is, the most successful sessions employ a large number of clearly defined strategies designed to keep the ideas flowing. When a good facilitator senses a droop in the group's productivity, she shakes things up by pulling a new twist out of her bag of tricks.

Over time, Tarot readers, too, fall into a rut. Before we know it, we start doing the same old thing in the same old way, over and over again. Eventually, boredom sets in, and the cards we once treasured find a place on a dusty closet shelf.

To combat this tendency, I recommend keeping a set of tried-and-true strategies—a library of techniques, reading styles, and creativity boosters—close at hand. When you catch yourself dozing off at the table, deploy one of these solutions as a way of maintaining interest and engaging your imagination.

Some of the "secret weapons" in my personal bag of tricks include:

  • Buy a new deck. (The folks here at Llewellyn love that one.)
  • Read with a deck I don't know—or don't like.
  • Read with cards drawn from several different decks.
  • Time travel: conduct a reading on the present from the perspective of the past or the future.
  • Do a reading with a collection of personal photos, or book jackets, or vacation brochures, or CDs, or random images generated by a Google image search instead of Tarot cards.
  • Try speed reading: like those television psychics, tear through the deck a card at a time, reeling off a sentence per card.
  • Do a comparative reading. Popularized by Valerie Sim, the comparative approach involves laying out the same spread with equivalent cards taken from several different decks. (To save space, you might consider doing this with Lo Scarabeo's Comparative Tarot, which offers illustrations from four different decks on each card.)
  • Focus on one object in each card, make a list of things you associate with that object, and use those associations to inspire new perspectives.
  • Borrow Mary Greer's permutations exercise: rotate the cards in the reading through the various spread positions and observe how this changes the meaning.
  • See how a reading changes if you "promote" (substitute the next highest Trump or suit card for each card in the spread) or "demote" (substitute the next lowest Trump or suit card) each card in the spread.

You might consider keeping a collection of these strategies written on index cards. When you get in a rut, draw a card. Keeping a library of creative strategies on hand goes a long way toward keeping your experience of the Tarot fresh and new.

So: abandon the quest for The Answer. Enhance your own objectivity. Keep a supply of creative fuel on hand. By borrowing these strategies from the world of brainstorming, you shake things up, freshen your perspectives, and greatly enhance your work with the cards.

About Mark 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 ...

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