My wife makes a very elegant four-layer chocolate/coconut/custard cake with different fillings between the layers. It’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates; “You never know what you’re gonna get,” but it’s always delightful (yes, even the jelly fillings). It’s a perfect analogy for how I view the cards of the tarot. I like to say that tarot is infinitely flexible and adaptable to any situation, and that every card has layers of meaning that will always bring something relevant to the surface no matter how misaligned it seems to be with the subject of the reading at first glance. One of my favorite quotes in this regard comes from James Ricklef, who has a philosophical approach to cards that just don’t seem to fit the context: “Let them simmer in your consciousness. They will eventually make sense; they always do.” This has been my experience exactly but it can be a challenge to achieve, especially when reading “on-the-clock.” I’ve developed a way of working that takes me to the heart of the matter with minimal second-guessing. It is especially useful when the cards of the draw don’t seem to be answering the question that was consciously posed.
Although I won’t go as far as Israel Regardie did in calling the Qabalistic Tree of Life a “giant filing cabinet” that can accommodate any idea whatsoever, I do think every card can be encyclopedic within its customary purview. Take the Sun, for example: it is obviously inspiring and affirmative in almost all cases, but it can also be merciless; there is no place to hide from its penetrating gaze, especially if something is going on that prefers the shadowy corners. At its worst, it can give mixed testimony that reminds me of a couple of lines from Thomas Algernon Swinburn’s epic poem, Atalanta in Calydon: “Pleasure with pain for leaven” and “Night, the shadow of light.” Without the glare of the Sun there would be no soothing shade (but also, it might be added, no need for it).
When a card appears in a reading that gives me pause, I automatically go into a three-tiered mode of interpretation. The top layer is always practical, reflecting what A.T. Mann once called “the Conditions of Life.” Here I just “read the cards” at face value and don’t try to get too fancy. If my sitter doesn’t warm up to the “flavor” of that layer, I move on to a more psychological perspective that examines the “character” of the situation and the people involved, both the sitter and others. This can get more into the “why” of the matter that ideally fleshes out the “what,” and it is one of the most effective tools in my interpretive toolbox since almost every sitter arrives at my door with opinions (or at least suspicions) about what is behind their malaise. Here I can tease out some of the reasons for it.
My last resort, and one that is seldom necessary, is a universal viewpoint that typically develops into a philosophical or spiritual discussion with my sitters. This can give them a unique understanding of the underlying causes for their circumstances, but it can be more on the order of emotional “comfort” rather than actionable “content.” They may walk away feeling a little better about their predicament, but doing much about it can be largely out of reach. This is particularly true with trump cards, for which the only reasonable response may be to simply adjust and adapt to their uncompromising influence. Eden Gray put her finger on it in The Tarot Revealed: “. . . any of these twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana can be the foundation for a great deal of meditation and inner enlightenment.” The downside for querents is that there is rarely a “quick fix” for their problems and they will be forced to take the “long view.”
The common theme in all of these approaches is that the sitter must be actually sitting there at the table with me and able to participate in the shifting of gears that it usually entail. My methods will work in remote reading situations, but it would involve covering all of the possibilities in some depth; think of it as an exercise in “Boolean logic:” if not this, then that. At least when writing up our analysis, we don’t have to think on our feet and can enjoy the luxury of as much time as it takes.