In his abbreviated commentary on the Major Arcana at the end of The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley observed that the Wheel of Fortune describes “Change of fortune. (This generally means good fortune because the fact of consultation implies anxiety or discontent.)” His point is that people who seek the advice of a diviner usually feel that their lot can only get better, and that’s what they come to hear. It’s probably fair to say that, unless they’re doing it strictly for fun (or somebody else has paid for it), most people purchase a reading when they are unsettled enough to make the effort and swallow the expense. As a reader I’m in an unusual position in this regard since I normally follow Eden Gray’s suggestion in The Tarot Revealed that “The question can be . . . left unspoken” as the sitter concentrates on it during the shuffle. This means that I don’t know what is on his or her mind at the start of the reading, although the cards (attuned to the client’s subconscious sensibilities via the shuffle) invariably do. In a face-to-face setting, about as far as I will go is inviting sitters to identify the broad area of life they’re interested in exploring (e.g. romance, employment, family, education, finances). This obviously won’t work for remote readings where I shuffle the deck myself, but I prefer not to do those anyway.
Almost without exception, my professional readings have been done in this manner. The client shuffles the deck and silently contemplates the question or subject while I clear my mind of all conscious thought. (I have a “peace” mantra that I intone to myself during the process; I must be careful, though, since it’s the same one I use to dispel my occasional insomnia.) After the cut, I deal the cards and commence a general overview of the layout, gradually zeroing in on specifics as they jump out at me. I don’t flatly observe the Golden Dawn’s directive to “Tell the Querent what he has come for,” but I lead the dialogue in the direction of having the sitter’s intent surface piecemeal during our discussion of the cards. It may take longer to arrive at the heart of the matter, but this level of involvement places the emphasis squarely on the sitter’s contribution to the narrative. French writer Joseph Maxwell said it best in his book The Tarot:
“Intuition is a good guide, but in the interest of making a full and helpful divination, it is necessary to verify with the enquirer at each step if the intuition is taking the right path.”
This approach exemplifies my “peeling an onion” mode of interpretation, by which the possible layers of meaning in each card are laid bare until a nerve is touched in the sitter’s personal understanding of the situation. As the context becomes clearer, I may follow a “hunch” about the trajectory of the reading, but I never insist on forcing my impressions on the sitter and always solicit concurrence. In this way the reading takes the form of what I like to call “a mutual voyage of discovery.” It’s also where I find the most satisfaction (and fun) in reading for others. If I were limited to sitting at a computer and delivering my observations by email, I don’t think I would bother doing this stuff.
Reading the cards skillfully may be an art form, but it is also best pursued as an interactive discipline that places the seeker in a state of enhanced self-awareness, thereby stimulating self-help. The seeker’s subconscious “owns” the reading and writes the story through engagement with the cards, while we as readers aid them in deciphering and applying the gist of it to best effect in their lives. Although the cliches of affirmation and empowerment are a step too far down the New Age garden path for me as a “fortune-teller” rather than a therapist or life-coach, such impetus can certainly result from the enlightenment obtained through a reading. I aim to give my sitters actionable insights, not merely pleasant visions of a better future.