Reading the Tarot is not an exact science. It’s not a science at all! It’s an art, an intuitive skill, and a focused experience that requires your utmost attention and clarity. For these reasons, it’s common to have trouble reading the cards for yourself (and/or others), especially in the beginning.
So, what do you do with a confusing Tarot reading? A Tarot reading that doesn’t make sense? How can you make your readings as clear and useful as possible? And how can you troubleshoot your readings when you’re just not getting anything or the cards don’t seem to make sense? Here are 6 proven tricks I have used time and time again when I’m working with my own cards.
Of course, the following suggestions assume you’ve already done some of the foundational work. Meaning, you’ve centered and grounded yourself, taken some deep breaths, and cleared yourself as much as you can so that you’ll be able to connect with the energy of the cards and accurately decipher their messages. If you’ve done all of that, and you’re still drawing a blank or unable to read the cards clearly, I encourage you to try these tricks. Keep them in your Tarot toolbox — you never know when you’re going to need them!
1. Draw a clarifier.
This is one of my favorite ways of expanding a spread or even a one-card reading. If you’ve pulled a card and it doesn’t seem to make sense for a specific question or position in a spread, pull another one from anywhere in the deck. This is called a “clarifier” and it’s meant to illuminate the first card you drew. This is one of the easiest ways to understand a confusing Tarot reading. Read the clarifier in relation to that first card. Pay attention to the first detail or image you notice on your clarifier card, as it will probably play a big role in answering your question.
With this method, you want to make sure you establish a limit before you begin. For example, I only pull 2-3 clarifiers per spread (if it’s a spread with 6 or more cards). For a one-card reading, decide in advance to only pull one clarifier if it is needed. You don’t want to get into the habit of pulling cards endlessly until you get the answer you want to hear. That’s not helpful!
2. Highlight the background details.
Sometimes, we’re so focused on the central part or image of a card that we miss the background details. If the image or symbols on the foreground don’t seem to make sense or answer the question you’re asking, shift your perspective and look at the background details. Don’t ignore anything, since every color, figure, symbol, and image on the card is meaningful.
For example, here’s Death. It’s easy to zoom in on the central figure of Death riding a white horse. It’s so striking, after all. Your eyes might naturally go to the priest dressed in yellow as well. But do you notice the small child offering Death a flower? Even further in the background, do you notice a bright sun emerging from the horizon? Do you notice the twin pillars that frame that sun, which connect this card to The Moon (which also features two pillars)? Do you see the water and boat behind the white horse? Often, the answer we’re looking for can be hidden in these less noticeable details. If you’re stumped, look at your cards deeply and carefully.
3. Forget the “book” meaning of a card and use your intuition.
There are infinite ways of reading a Tarot card. For example, we can read Death (from above) as:
- the physical death or transition of someone in our lives
- the metaphorical death of a project, venture, relationship, job, or any other circumstance
- radical transformation of any kind, which *hurts* in the moment but brings renewal and strength with it
- the need to let things go, to release, to transcend nostalgia and regret about the past
- the need to let go of old traditions and behaviors
- the need to embrace change and welcome the future with open arms
- the need to become more adaptable and to sway with life’s changes (rather than trying to control or stop them)
You get the point. While all of these “traditional” meanings of Death are accurate and often apply to a specific reading, it’s also important to think outside the box if a certain card just isn’t making sense.
For instance, we might read the child figure on the Death card as reminding us to be more playful and to not worry so much about the future (or the past). Noticing how the child welcomes Death (or transformation) with such open arms might remind us of our own behavior as children, when we were carefree, totally open, and willing to take risks. This is not a “traditional” book interpretation of the card (at least not primarily), but it would still make sense given the right question.
4. Clear your deck.
If you’ve been doing reading after reading without clearing your deck, that might be the root of the issue. Every time you do a reading, whether for yourself or others, your cards are picking up energy from everyone who is handling them. If you’ve had a crappy day and you use your deck when you get home, your cards pick up some of that crappy, stressful energy. If you’re reading for someone who’s very anxious, fearful, or worried, the cards pick up those energies as well.
Just as you need to clear yourself and the space where you read, you need to clear your deck regularly. If your reading is not making any sense, and you’ve tried the 3 suggestions above with no results, clear your deck. You can do one or all of these:
- Tap your deck on both sides with your closed fist (as if you’re knocking on a door). This shakes any stagnant energy loose and it’s a quick way to get things moving again. If you’re doing many readings in a row — say, if you’re at a fair or event — this knocking method can help you quickly clear the deck between clients.
- Use incense or sage. Just run the smoke through your cards, either in small piles or individually.
- Shuffle your deck for 5 minutes and then put it in a sacred space (your altar, reading room, special Tarot shelf) with a crystal on top. Leave it there overnight.
- Lay out your deck under the full moon.
5. Take a few deep breaths and check your energy.
Perhaps it’s not your deck that needs to be cleared, but YOU! How was your day before you sat down to work with your deck? Peaceful and enjoyable? Or stressful and hyper-busy? How were your mood, thoughts, feelings, and sensations before you sat down? Try to bring as little baggage as possible to your readings, because it will get in the way.
If you feel “off” in any way, or if you’re too emotionally invested in the question you’re asking, chances are the cards will not cooperate. Either that, or you won’t be able to clearly interpret what they’re trying to say to you.
To clear your own energy, you can take a detox bath, have some relaxing chamomile tea, meditate, do some journaling, do yoga, and/or center and ground yourself. Return to the cards once you’ve engaged in some self-care and shifted your energy.
6. Re-phrase your question.
If your reading still isn’t making sense, perhaps it’s time to try asking a different question or experimenting with another spread. If you’ve been asking “What’s the status of my current relationship?” over and over again, try approaching things from a different angle. Ask instead, “What can I do to build up my confidence and sense of self-worth?” or “What is this relationship teaching me?”
Often, a slight re-wording of your question is all that’s needed to see your cards in a whole new light.
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*Illustrations from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, known also as the Rider Tarot and the Waite Tarot, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. 1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved. The Rider-Waite Tarot deck is a registered trademark of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.