“Should I ask you my question or just keep it to myself?”
First-time clients often wonder whether they should be direct and say exactly what’s on their mind or wait and see if it comes up on its own. It’s not uncommon for folks to think that speaking too much will “taint” the reading by swaying the reader. Sometimes we worry about “bias” in readings, brought on by knowing too much.*
If tarot is a magical device that communicates messages from an external source (like a god, a spirit, an angel, or a guide of some kind), then it can make sense to hold your question and commentary and expect relevant insight to come forth. If the response comes from an outside, mystical force, then the tarot reader becomes a vehicle for communication rather than the source itself. Theoretically she wouldn’t need much (if any) information in order to tell you exactly what you needed to hear, depending on how powerful those external forces were.
If tarot is a spooky, mysterious device with powers inherent in the cards themselves (or unspecified powers controlling the cards), then you also wouldn’t want to give information away, because the results (if they were accurate) would simply be less titillating, much in the way that a Ouija board is less scary if you know your asshole friend Rachel is always moving the damn planchette. It stops being impressive if you can chock things up to a wily reader asking leading questions or sourcing information beforehand.
If tarot is a therapeutic tool rooted in contemporary understandings of psychology (whether well-informed or not), then one of two things might be feasible: (1) Keep silent or vague and attribute accurate, meaningful responses to a collective unconscious, the universality of a human experience, or empathy or (2) be forthright with information under the pretense that a reading functions like a counseling session and the more direct we both are, the better.
The thing is, tarot is all of these things (and more) depending on who you’re talking to. The cards have been used for gambling games, New Age counseling, party tricks, talking to spirits, and scaring the shit out of kids at sleepovers since there have been tarot cards readily available to the public (and some things, quite a bit longer).
It’s hubris (and just historically inaccurate) to insist that the cards are one thing to the exclusion of others.
So when you’re going for a reading (or performing them), what is it that you want to achieve? Do you want to be spooked? Do you want a pragmatic answer to an ongoing question? Do you want evidence that the spirit world is real?
What you want will determine what sort of reader you need to seek out and how (or if) you should ask your question.
I don’t give much credence to angel guides or any inherent power in the cards themselves, for example. My cards are special (because I love them) and imbued with whatever witchiness I might choose to put I them (which I don’t, so none), but ultimately they’re just cardboard. I don’t believe that they store energy beyond the psychological associations I ascribe to them (“I hate that guy who touched my cards, and now I think of him every time I shuffle them.”) and I don’t use them to talk to any mystical beings. So I may not be the best choice for someone who wants to receive a message from their spirit guides. It’s cool if that’s what you want, but I don’t have the fluency to support you in the way that you probably need. Fortunately, there are a million other readers who would be excellent choices (and I’m always happy to point you to a more appropriate reader!).
I know enough about people, reading body language, and making assumptions based on visual cues that I’m pretty confident that I could mystify someone at a carnival. I also know a couple of basic card tricks, so pulling off the spooky sleepover or Halloween party would be relatively easy. Some other readers find this sort of thing offensive. Again, it’s a matter of desired outcome and choosing the right person for the job (again, there are choices better than me). This is almost never the sort of reading you should expect if you visit a shop that offers tarot readings or if you book something with a reader online. Most of the folks who describe themselves as “professional” readers (“professional” as a descriptor of decorum, not only in the sense that they earn money reading) won’t give you the magic-trick-spooky-scare-yourself type of experience.
My own approach to tarot is varied, and it tends toward something of a combination of the things above, more or less depending on the setting. I don’t consider my cards to be a magical tool, though I am both a witch and a magician. That’s a personal choice. I believe in gods and spirit communication, but I have other preferred devices for that sort of thing. If something has ever come through the cards, it’s never been in a client setting. I don’t subscribe to a collective unconscious or a universal human experience, so I tend to avoid that sort of language. I do, however, experience patterns in human demographics and am comfortable asserting that people tend to have similar problems, similar ways to deal with them, and similar sources for comfort. Put simple, people aren’t snowflakes. There’s definitely psychology at work, though I don’t have any formal training as a counselor. When I have intuitive responses to cards, these are rooted in empathy (a basic human quality and not a magical power), subconscious impressions (which is still empathy), and educated guesswork (i.e. a keen sense of observation). It’s not particularly mystical, but it is very effective. Ultimately, my goal is pragmatism. I look for concrete tasks in a reading and work to end sessions with tangible advice based on the spread and the cards.
And at any given point, some of the above may be in conflict, more or less true, and always in flux (because I’m human).
My experience has been that tarot is accurate and useful regardless of how much the client speaks or how direct the question because people have a knack for bringing up the things they want to think and talk about. It’s just what we do naturally. If you are mentally set on your love life and that’s all you care about in the moment, then it doesn’t matter if I draw a bunch of pentacles and The Hierophant next to The Hermit (or whatever). We’ll end up talking about your love life, or you’ll make the connections in your head on your own. If we end up talking about something else entirely, it’s likely because your love life isn’t as central as you think it is (I’ve been in enough therapy to know that when we’re worried and focused on one thing, that thing can often be a mask for something else more pressing). In this setting (which is mostly where I operate), a good reading depends on a reader being able to engage conversationally and communicate clearly. The client has to be comfortable and there needs to be some trust in place. Having some life experience helps, too.
The thing to remember is that it’s not a dichotomy between spilling your whole life story and sitting masked in stony silence. Either is fine, but there’s plenty of middle ground. I’ve had some clients who will ask very general, vague questions (“There’s some stuff going on with my kids and I’m not sure how I feel,” or “Where do I go next?”). I’ve had others give me topical information (“I want to talk about career stuff,” or “It’s about my love life.”). Sometimes, clients sit back and see what comes up in the first card or two and then interject with information that narrows things down and guides the conversation.
Whatever you choose is okay, but it pays to seek out the most appropriate reader for the job.
*This is related to the dilemma of whether or not you can read for yourself or read for close friends. I’ve already addressed the former, and will write about the latter another time, as it deserves its own post.