Of late I’ve been traveling up north about once a month to attend a Tarot Meetup Group that has been gathering in Montpelier. (See my Events page for information on upcoming gatherings.) These Meetups are wonderful; and we’ve been having more and more interested individuals come to join us. It’s a very welcoming and affirming space, with skills levels that vary from professional readers (ahem) to novice-level, and even individuals who have no experience at all but want to learn more about the tarot.
At the most recent meeting, one of those newer tarot enthusiasts asked me to define the difference between the three main types of tarot readers: psychic readers; intuitive readers; and therapeutic readers. It was my own fault for bringing up the topic… And having put myself on the spot, I gave a super abbreviated answer that really deserves some additional dissection and perusal. It also seems especially relevant in light of some of the themes to which Dr. Irvin D. Yalom devotes quite a bit of writing in his book, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients (Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), which I have been discussing recently in this blogroll…
First, the three tarot school philosophies defined more articulately:
There is a lot of debate amongst tarot readers trying to define the differences between psychic reading, intuitive reading, and therapeutic reading. Part of the reason is that there is—truth be told—quite a bit of overlap. Or another way to think about it is that all these definitions sit on a scale—kind of like a Kinsey scale of sexual orientation, I suppose—with psychic readers at one end, intuitive readers somewhere in the middle, and therapeutic readers at the other far end. Tarot readers don’t have to be sequestered solely within one type of school. It’s not like the sorting hat at Hogwarts. Some readers elide between psychic and intuitive; others fall somewhere between intuitive and therapeutic; and there’s absolutely nothing that says you can’t be psychic and therapeutic, or incorporate all three schools.
That said, some people do have distinct preferences about the type of school to which they are associated, and some people have downright distain for other types of reading school types. Some very well-known and respected tarot readers (even at the master-level) are a bit outraged that the term “psychic” seems to have recently gotten a bad rap. Unfortunately, this is because there are far more examples on the “psychic” end of the spectrum in which innocent clients have been taken advantage of and abused. For this reason, a lot of tarot readers shy away from the term “psychic” because it has garnered some socially unacceptable associations and presented some fantastically infamous sensational headlines in the media.
There are also lots of places where psychic reading is illegal. This includes virtually all of the United Kingdom, and several independent counties and states (for instance, New York and Pennsylvania) in the United States. If you think you want to explore your psychic abilities or perform “fortune telling” in your neck of the woods, you would be wise to first check out your municipal laws to make sure you can’t be cited, fined, or even arrested. (Some of these municipal laws are extremely outdated and reflect witch-hunt sensibilities in some colonial and southern bible-belt areas. Nonetheless, the standing laws can make it easier for disgruntled clients to have a case brought up against psychic professionals.)
So the psychic school of reading relies on a much more esoteric sensibility than other types of schools. Psychic readers often feel like they have extrasensory abilities upon which they can draw. In some cases, psychic readers may believe that their abilities include mediumship (drawing on messages from deceased individuals). If I’m gonna come completely clean, I have to admit that I not only do not personally ascribe to the psychic school, but I have some harsh cynicism of the practice. But the truth is that I have several tarot friends who claim this particular talent, and they are truly really good tarot readers. They can regale anyone with any number of fantastical stories about their success using psychic abilities, and—rightfully—can claim many satisfied clients.
Theoretically, psychic readers don’t necessarily have to have a question expressed in order to do a reading with the cards. There is a presumed confidence among psychic readers that their reading will always reflect the client’s needs. The client might not know that they need to know the information, but the reader is confident that it’s relevant regardless of here-and-now recognition (or confusion) by the client.
While I don’t personally find psychic readings to be useful, I would also never disenfranchise a psychic reader from his or her belief in its feasibility as a valid tool for self-discovery or as a method of client compassion and consolation. The truth is some people find psychic affirmation to be highly comforting and therapeutic. (Did you catch that?… “Therapeutic.” That’s right; I said it. Thus, confirming a sort of cross-over between schools of practice as I noted above.) Everyone tries to find meaning in the universe in his or her own unique way. Some people have decided that developing their psychic abilities is one way of exploring the depths of wonder in the world; and no one should be dissuaded from or condemned for that. If you want to understand more particulars on why I don’t personally ascribe to psychic abilities, you can read my Bio web page and my Reading Philosophy web page. If you’re interested in this type of tarot reading, there are plenty of books on the subject.
But my personal preferences and opinions aside, there can be found, in fact, some scientific backing for what actually happens during the psychic experience. Much of this has to do with advances in brain activity mapping. I have also attended a conference workshop by a highly respected tarot master—and someone I consider a friend—who has spent a lot of research time investigating various states of brain activity—alpha, beta, and theta wavelengths in the brain—and the various sensory abilities that are associated with them. The findings are profound.
And again, a lot of readers have expended a lot of energy not only exploring the various schools of reading, but identifying what school most represents their own practice. I know a lot of readers who interchangeably use the terms “psychic” and “intuitive” to mean the same thing. Others believe that when people use the word “psychic, what they really are referring to is “intuitive abilities.” (But just as many readers will be irate that you’ve dismissed their psychic muscle by replacing it with a term to which they themselves would object!) It’s all a very touchy subject.
Intuitive reading, while still often revealing hidden or previously unseen information, can in some ways claim to be grounded in less fantastical enterprises. Intuitive reading deals with the subconscious and with comprehending subtleties in human nature, dialogue response, inflection, and body language. Intuition can definitely be exercised and grown. It’s something all of us have been doing all our lives; it shapes how we dialogue with other people; it helps us respond appropriately to situations, to other people’s temperaments and moods; and warns us when things are “off.” There are over a million different musculature variations in the human face, and we have evolved and adapted to use them all in order to express ourselves and our emotions in the subtlest of ways. Intuitive readers have built up their human reading capabilities to an extent that they can often tell us things about our emotional status before we ourselves are consciously aware of them. This talent works ideally for tarot readers who are trying to help clients move past “blockages” of understanding, or clients who are grappling with suppressed emotions, or clients who themselves have trouble understanding the myriad number of human emotional expressions we’re tasked with interpreting from our co-workers and family and friends.
Let’s think about this…because Dr. Irvin Yalom contends that successful therapy relies on (1.) the importance of interpersonal relationships, and (2.) the idea of therapy as a social microcosm. (p. 47) In some respects, we have discarded much of our evolved ability to interpret the subtleties of emotion from our human counterparts because so much of our communication and interaction happens electronically now—through email or through text messaging, through phone messages, or even through the minimalizing communication medium of emojis. None of these communication methods allow us to decipher the subtle inflections and muscular variances that communicate underlying meaning to our words. Interpersonal relationships in some senses are becoming a lost art!
The live, in-person tarot reading session, however, provides an opportunity—just like in a therapy session—for keen observation, an outsider’s perspective, and permits the experienced reader of subconscious subtleties to reveal a fuller expression of the client’s emotions than is normally—socially—possible. Both therapists and tarot readers have the opportunity to observe significantly rich data, whether the client is aware of it or not: how the client greets us, how they take a seat, how they inspect (or fail to inspect) their surroundings, how they dive into their issues, how they recount their history, how the client relates to us as the reader… All these things are intuitive indicators that a trained reader can process.
This is what Yalom means when he refers to the session as a social microcosm: “[T]he interpersonal problems of the [client] will manifest themselves in the here-and-now of the [client-reader] relationship. If, in his or her life, the client is demanding or fearful or arrogant or self-effacing or seductive or controlling or judgmental or maladaptive interpersonally in any other way, then these traits will [tend to] enter into the [client’s] relationship with the [reader during the reading session].”**
The intuitive reading approach also has less need to concern itself or be based upon historical precedent—it is basically ahistorical in nature: “There is little need of extensive history-taking to apprehend the nature of [interpretable, subconscious] patterns [in the client] because [theoretically] they will soon enough be displayed in living color in the here-and-now of the [reading session].”** It is these observed intuitive indicators that the intuitive reader primarily uses to determine and focus on in the reading, zoning in on the context clues that might culminate in offering the client relevant advice (or alternatively a scenario that opens dialogue for the client to observe new choices).
The therapeutic school of tarot reading, then, doesn’t disregard the need for this microcosm of the session’s here-and-now interpersonal dialogue. But unlike a strictly intuitive reading, it does take into factor historical precedent and lively discussion and story-building, and essentially demands that verbal communication takes priority for accountability in the session. Therapeutic readings may include more active participation by the client. He or she isn’t necessarily there to be a passive receptor of information about the cards, but rather may be encouraged to engage in cooperative, co-participant activities that are meant to teach, reveal, or express ideas helpful to investigating the issue at hand. As is the goal with several schools of psychotherapy, the goal of therapeutic tarot is to provide the client with the greatest opportunity for discovering their own results, realizations, and newly discovered choices for proceeding forward. Although some therapeutic tarot readers are also professional psychologists and psychotherapeutic professionals, it is not necessary to be a licensed therapist to engage in therapeutic tarot.*
Notice that I have not discussed specific card interpretation techniques in this blog. Reading technique doesn’t have much to do with the reading school to which a tarot reader models their practice. You can be a psychic reader and either read the cards by rote definition or by phenomenological inspiration and the overarching school of style can still hold true—it’s a matter of ideological perspective regardless of interpretation technique. The same is true for intuitive as well as therapeutic reading styles.
These are distinctions and definitions that I have formulated over the years between these three tarot reading styles—through discussions with other tarot enthusiasts and professional readers, reading others’ opinion pieces, and experiencing various tarot styles in person. There are plenty of people who would disagree and argue with me about my concluded style descriptions. Which is absolutely fine. Diversity of opinion—and a blossoming variety of tarot reading styles—makes the world a more interesting place. And, again, you don’t have to pick a specific school or style if you are learning to read the cards. The best advice is to experience a wide range of styles and learn from a variety of experienced teachers and professionals…in order to develop your own preferred style of reading the cards. No one said you had to become a professional tarot reader, either. Lots of expert tarot enthusiasts read only for themselves and therefore could care less about any of these reading styles at all!
If you are someone looking for a tarot reader and don’t know what style of reader would best suit your needs, you should ask any potential reader about what their style is like. (You can read a little about what my tarot readings are like HERE.) If you feel uncomfortable with a reader’s style, it’s okay to decline service or to decline being read. There are plenty of tarot readers out there to choose from. Find one that feels right for you.
*Although I am exploring Yalom’s reflections on the profession of Psychology and Psychiatry, I do not claim or pretend to have any training in either of those professional fields. I am simply interpreting Yalom’s reflections and concepts from the perspective of the art of reading the tarot, which although it is a talent for which I have had certified training and for which I have several years of professional experience, is not a clinical or licensed profession or activity. Readers of this blog are reminded that unless you have training and a license in the psycho-therapeutic arts, that you should NEVER be diagnosing or attempting to diagnose a reading client for clinical symptoms. Rather, you should always refer the client to seek professional help if the concern arises that the client’s issues may be related to or appear to be psychosomatic in nature.
**In quotations taken from Dr. Irvin Yalom’s book that are presented here, some terms are exchanged in order to make their pertinence relevant to the art of tarot reading. In particular, “therapist” is often replaced with “tarot reader”; and likewise, “patient” is often replaced with “client” or “querent.”
FURTHER READING (BOOKS):
Antenucci, Nancy and Howard, Melanie. Psychic Tarot: Using Your Natural Psychic Abilities to Read the Cards (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2011).
Junjulas, Craig. Psychic Tarot (Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1995)
Rosengarten, Arthur. Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2000).
Wynne, Katrina. An Introduction to Transformative Tarot Counseling: The High Art of Reading (Yachats, OR: Sacred Rose Publishing, 2012).
Daniels, Kooch N. and Daniels, Victor. Tarot at a Crossroads: The Unexpected Meeting of Tarot and Psychology (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publications, Ltd., 2016).
Yalom, Irvin, D. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).