BY ASA WEST
I don’t have a vast amount of disposable income to spend on having my cards read, but I do try to do it when I can. Everyone’s got blind spots; why do you think therapists have their own therapists? Plus, as a professional reader, I’m keenly aware of the constant pressure to give readings away for free, and I want to support my colleagues. I also learn something new from every reading I get—even if it’s a bad one.
And, sadly, I’ve gotten my share of bad readings.
About a year and a half ago, I was on a trip and found a little occult shop that was advertising 10-card readings for $20. Readings that cheap make me suspicious, but the shop seemed quality and I had a big question gnawing at me, so I went for it. The shop owner sat me down and, to my surprise, led me through a lengthy grounding meditation. Then he had me shuffle the deck and separate it into three piles. Finally, he asked me to concentrate on the piles and pick the one that called to me.
It was a strange amount of preparation to ask of a client. Grounding and visualization, after all, are only as effective as the amount of training you’ve gone through.
After I selected my pile, I waited for him to ask me for my question. But he didn’t. He laid the cards down, asked if I was ready to get some bad news, and dove into the reading.
Now, if you lay any sequence of cards down, you can construct a narrative from them, so it was no surprise that the cards arranged themselves into a pretty concrete story. My husband was going to cheat on me and our relationship was going to end. There was a woman who was going to get close to me and then betray me. Disaster loomed!
Except my question was about my career, not my romantic life. I’d been offered a new job, and it would involve moving to another state, and I needed to know whether that would be a good idea.
For a long time after the reading, I tried to keep an open mind. I looked for danger signs in my marriage. I looked for the woman. But as the months went by, my already-tenuous confidence in the reading faded. Eventually I had to admit that the reader had simply been wrong. You get what you pay for.
So why do bad readings proliferate? Or, to put it bluntly: why do so many card readers suck at something they love? Well, there are a few reasons.
You Need Training to Read Cards
There’s no formal training process for tarot readers, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our culture is obsessed with degrees and credentials, which keep hierarchies in place and shut out people who can’t pay tuition, and this obsession is seeping into modern witchcraft. When my first coven formed, one member said that we should require any potential initiate to go take a class before being allowed to join. I wondered how many of my new covenmates knew that traditionally it was a coven’s job to teach the core elements of a tradition, not some external teacher’s.
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But. In an environment in which anyone can put up a shingle and call themselves a reader, clients need to be careful, lest they pay for a reading by someone who has literally no training at all. And readers need to be careful, too, to make sure they’re not taking on paying clients before they’re ready.
Exacerbating the problem of training is the idea, born of a genuine movement towards self-empowerment and a lot of pop-spirituality schlock, than anyone with even a passing interest in cards can perform an adequate reading from the moment they buy their first deck. I’ll never forget Callie Watts’s Fall 2013 article in Bust magazine, in which she declares herself a "real-deal" witch after spending a whopping two months reading books and websites. In the print version, one photo is captioned "a tarot reading in the grass"—except she’s not giving a reading at all. She’s got the cards in front of her, yes, but what she’s studying is the booklet that comes with the deck.
Imagine having zero training in cooking, yet assuming that the bland stews you’re throwing together are just as good as something a professional chef could make!
Wanting to be Psychic Doesn’t Make You Psychic
The second reason there are so many bad readings out there is the idea—which, to be clear, has a lot of truth to it—that "everyone is psychic."
Because, yeah, there’s evidence that the average person’s intuition is much more powerful than they think it is, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same level of raw talent, or that someone who has trained for years isn’t going to have much stronger psychic muscles than someone who just read their first book. Almost everyone has some singing ability, too, but one night at a karaoke bar will disabuse you of the notion that anyone can be Beyoncé.
This misconception, I think, is what sent the reading I mentioned above careening off course. Because for all the grounding and deep breathing and visualizing the guy did, he just wasn’t a strong intuitive. The reading would have gone better if he’d given me a chance to ask my question out loud.
Am I annoyed that I spent 20 bucks on a pointless reading? Partly, yeah. But, like I said above, I learn something from every reading I get. As it so happened, when I got this reading, I was in the middle of taking Camelia Elias’s course on the tarot of Marseilles, and one thing she stressed again and again was that a clear and precise question is key to a good reading. I’ve gotten great readings from strong psychics without asking a question, but in this case, I was able to see Camelia’s rule play out. It makes for a good cautionary tale: don’t mistake your desire to be psychic for actual abilities. No matter what the Wicca 101 books tell you, wanting strong clairvoyance doesn’t entitle you to it.
This last factor is a tricky one, but with some self-reflection, it can be relatively easy to fix. Some readers insist that you should only interpret what you physically see in the cards. Others claim that the card images are a jumping-off point for clairvoyance. I’m mostly in the latter camp, but I can definitely relate to the former—especially when a reader abandons the cards in favor of advice.
For example, a few years ago I was at a psychic fair trying to get clarity on a writing project. The first reader I sat down with was a great reader, and gave me a precise answer with only the briefest glance at the cards. The second reader started off all right, but the moment he learned a little more about my writing project, he forgot about the spread in front of him and started giving me advice that some relative in the publishing industry had given him. It wasn’t good advice, nor was it what I’d paid for. If you’re paying someone to read your cards, then they need to read the damn cards. A good reader will be able tell the difference between knowledge that’s coming from the reading and knowledge that’s in their own head.
So, how can you avoid a bad reading?
If you’re a client, the same rules apply as for any service. Look for reviews. Ask around. Don’t just get the cheapest reading you can find. $60-$100 for a session may seem really steep, but wouldn’t you rather pay that money up front for a solid, incisive session than pay it in installments for a string of useless ones?
If you don’t have that kind of money or if you’re shopping around for a reader, keep an eye out for psychic fairs and similar events. At the psychic fair I mentioned above, I paid $20 for two ten-minute readings. That’s how I was able to identify a reader I was willing to go back to for a full-length session, or at least a stint at the next fair.
Now, the bigger question is, how do you avoid giving a bad reading? Because unless you’re actively conning people, I’m guessing you want your readings to be genuinely useful.
Well, training is the obvious first step. Be wary of any approach to divination that claims you can skip all the hard work and start reading like an expert immediately. Read up on as many approaches to tarot as you can. Study more than one technique so that you find the one that’s best matched to your strengths. Consider different approaches and philosophies. Use different systems; if you’re used to Smith-Waite, try Thoth or Marseilles. You may not be able to find a long-term mentor, but try to take at least one class when you’re starting out. And practice, practice, practice. For awhile I worked as a free reader at Biddy Tarot; before that, I practiced by reading at low-stakes events like zine fests and craft fairs.
Secondly, make sure that you always understand your client’s question. Tarot isn’t a novelty act where you show off how psychic you are! If you’re able to glean clients’ situations intuitively, that’s great, but I’ll wager that the vast majority of readers need to actually hear (and perhaps work with the client to refine) the question in order to give an accurate and useful reading. To go back to the therapist analogy—therapy sessions in which the therapist doesn’t listen to you are the worst, and readers who don’t care about the issue you’re paying them to address are just as bad.
Finally, get feedback on your readings! In person, questions like "does this resonate with you?" are perfectly valid. A reading can be a conversation; it doesn’t have to be a monologue. If you’re working via email or want to get feedback further down the line, you can send out surveys. The survey I send clients specifically asks for constructive criticism. Happily, criticism is rare because I’ve got training, experience, and skill, but on the occasions when I do get negative feedback, I take it seriously and learn from it.
Don’t Let These Guidelines Scare You Off
I don’t want to imply that you’re only allowed to read cards after you’ve studied for years. Tarot can be a professional service; it can also be a hobby, a personal spiritual practice, a fun activity between friends, a tool for creativity, and lots more.
If you’re interested in providing a service to your community, though, or if you’re tired of paying for dud after dud, then hopefully these ideas will help.
Asa West is a sliding-scale tarot reader blending traditional witchcraft with earth-based Judaism, and her writing has appeared in Witches and Pagans Magazine, Elephant Journal, Gods and Radicals, and other outlets. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she blogs at tarotbyasa.com.