How the Tarot Works

* The following article has been published with the author’s approval. The original article can be found at


Recently I have participated in a collective project where 5 Tarot readers have been asked to answer one question about how the tarot works. Shelly Ruelle of Sparrow Tarot has curated it. I offer here my own contribution, but I recommend that, for interesting variation, you read the whole report: 5 Tarot Experts Explain how the Tarot Works.

The Question

What source, if any, do you attribute as the force behind the specific cards that are turned over in a reading/the answers that emerge from the cards? Ie, what or who “causes” those particular cards to emerge, and how do you explain the cards’ unique ability to answer each question accurately?

I’ll answer this question by making reference to two perceptions and positions we adopt when we approach the cards, either as readers or as seekers ourselves.

The first is related to dual perception and the second to nondual perception.


From the perspective of duality there’s the idea – physical and metaphysical – that there’s polarity in the world: The Sun and the Moon, Man and Woman, the above and the below. Much of what we call cartomancy comes from our concerns with planetary movements and the desire to read our fate in the stars: ‘Will she love me tonight?’ Fair enough.

In this perspective, if the cards ‘work’ precisely, that is to say they answer whatever question we might pose to them accurately, then they do so because we approach the cards from the position of ‘all things being equal’. If I get a divorce, when she stops loving me, then I want to know how I can equalize my losses, both emotional and financial. I want to know how I get inspiration from the stars, as it were, so that I may overcome the mess.

When the cards answer my question precisely, they do it because they address both the form of our concern and content. Most people, however, don’t make that distinction, and a lot leave the tarot parlor thinking that the cards have managed to address their particular concern at content level only. ‘This is really me the cards have spoken to’ many would swear, while thanking the reader profusely for her psychic insights. But I don’t get excited.

On my part as a reader, I can see just how the cards address a frame of unity not a fantasy of separation: me against my ex, me against the world, or me against my boss. If the cards give a clear answer related to any of our concerns, it’s because they go beyond such mechanisms of identification with identity and whatever clinging to identity brings along. The cards speak accurately not because they are identity-centered but because they are event-centered.


This brings me to my second point, the nondual perception, the perception that holds the idea that ‘all things being equal’ is not about fixing polarity and conflict as part of our efforts, but rather it’s about seeing what we call causality as part of unity and presence: I’m getting a divorce not because this other thing happened, but because divorce itself happens.

Most querents will have a hard time admitting to the reality that things happen simply because they happen and not because something else causes them to happen, and they will cling to making all sorts of identifications that have nothing to do with things happening.

In order to get this, you need to completely suspend your idea of the cards being about you and your situation, and see them more as being about events.

Incidentally, however, without these identifications with our conditions and situations – I’m in love, I got dumped, my boss hates me – the fortuneteller would be out of a job, but when we talk about the cards addressing our issues precisely, we must allow ourselves a second to contemplate the possibility that the reason why the cards are accurate is not because they have anything to do with us, but because they have a lot to do with us in context, with us framed by a series of ever changing events.

In this sense we never get to predict the future, as there are no temporal divisions beyond our own constructions and cultural labeling: past, present, and future. What we do when we predict, and what the cards respond to, is operate with an enlarged field of vision ruled by unity not separation.

The cards in this sense speak the truth accurately because they point to this enlarged field of vision. They are part of it already. The fortuneteller doesn’t look into the future; she looks into the expanded field of vision that encompasses the querent’s own blind spots, her question, and the reader’s interpretation, all happening at the same time.

‘But you predicted three months ago that this would happen, and it did happen,’ I have clients say to me in awe – which is nice – but I always insist that what I operate with is not belief that this or that will happen, but discovery of how I see this or that happen; we conveniently call this ‘the future’.

Belief and Discovery

I find the force behind the cards precisely in this distinction between belief and discovery. Many people come to the fortuneteller and think that either they want to or must believe in the cards in order for the cards to ‘work’. All the while the cards work because people discover them. People get a glimpse into their own truths, awareness, and expanded fields of vision when they discover the cards in situ, and that is why the cards work.

The cards work because they are not separate from the questions asked to them. Nor are they separate from the reader interpreting them. The cards work simply because they happen to us. They happen to us exactly at the same time things happen to us.

When we go nodding in approval of what we see, the consistency of what we see as it aligns with our situations, what we nod at is this recognition that things happen to us. When we sit with the cards, we’re beyond language and mental constructs. We’re in eternity.

The following two tabs change content below.
Position: Author, Contributor City: Thy, Denmark Age: 48 Beliefs/System: Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) Domains of interest: Tarot, Cartomancy, Zen, Buddhist philosophy Website: | | Read more>

Latest posts by Camelia Elias (see all)