Over the years, I’ve read the cards for a lot of my friends. Sometimes this has been because they’ve been keen, other times I’ve had my desire to practice, try out a new deck or way of reading, sweetly indulged. One friend had their first reading in the spirit of humouring me, but then became intrigued by the history of tarot, and how it works. We recently had a conversation about whether or not the tarot is intrinsically spiritual, which wasn’t something I’d thought much about for a while, so I thought I would explore it here, in my first post for Compass Tarot.
I think it’s important to start by clarifying what I mean by ‘spiritual’. A quick google reveals two possible interpretations for the word spiritual, when used as an adjective:
1. relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
2. relating to religion or religious belief.
If we understand the word spiritual to mean religious, or related to a specific dogma, then for me, the tarot isn’t intrinsically spiritual, although I’m aware that it can be, for some people.
I’m more interested in that first definition, although I would tweak it slightly. I’m not convinced that it is possible to entirely separate our physical concerns from our spiritual needs, assuming that we are lucky enough to have our immediate physical requirements met - i.e. enough food, clean water, a roof over our heads, a degree of safety, secure employment or other means of paying for those things, and so on. Once those basic material needs are met, we enter more complex territory, where emotional, social, political and spiritual needs begin to assert themselves, and I see the boundaries between these as porous and ever shifting.
For example, our need to love and be loved is clearly an emotional one, but it’s easy to see that it is, by it’s nature, also a social one. Talk to any straight feminist woman, renegotiating the gender roles in her relationship with her male partner, or to the parents of black teenage sons beginning to take their first independent steps in a world that is at all times potentially hostile, and it becomes obvious that love is political too. Love, as a verb rather than an adjective, can also bring with it transcendent, spiritual experiences too. I see our physical, emotional, social, political and spiritual concerns as being more accurately categorised in a Venn diagram, than a table.
For my purposes here, the word spiritual refers to our search for meaning, purpose and connection and to our experience of the numinous. Most of the readings I do are practical, looking at the what and how of things that are in our power, rather than the existential why (and I avoid the predictive when or who). This means that my focus during most of the readings I do isn’t on the spiritual at all.
That said, there are a few things I’d like to unpack here. Firstly, there are cards within the tarot that can speak directly to our spiritual experience - and how could it be otherwise, given that for the tarot to be useful, it needs to reflect the full spectrum of the human condition? Depending on the context of these cards, the subject of the reading and the client I’m reading for (more of which below), an initially practical reading can unexpectedly take a spiritual turn, based on the cards drawn.
Secondly, with clients, part of my job is to provide a container, and it’s up to them what they put in it, so if they bring the spiritual to their reading, then it’s there, and if they don’t, then it mostly isn’t. For example, one practising Christian might be more comfortable taking a spiritual issue to their religious practice and community, than to a tarot reader, but another might see things in the cards that reflect back to them aspects of their religious faith. And occasionally, a client asks for a reading that relates to their spiritual life. The point is, that bringing in spiritual elements might be helpful and appropriate for one person, and the opposite for another, and it is possible to provide a useful reading either way.
Thirdly, if I were to make the question specific to the readings I do for myself, I would say that yes, they often have a spiritual thread running through them, although rarely in the content of the reading. For me, the spiritual element is my experience of the reading, and what follows from it: the cosmic kicks up the arse, where the cards cut right to the heart of what I’ve been successfully avoiding, but most deeply need to address. The moment of brilliant clarity, when they point to a dynamic that I’ve been completely unaware of, but which is key to unravelling a tricksy situation. Even when readings like this have brought up something challenging, or made me realise that I have to do *a difficult thing*, they have also given me an uplifting sense of ease and connection with the world around me - a numinous experience I more readily associate with being in nature, prayer, love and deep friendships.
Ultimately though, I don’t think it matters whether or not the tarot is spiritual. As human beings, we make sense of the world by categorising things, labelling them and sometimes that’s helpful, necessary even, but our desire for things to be either this or that is also reductive. For some, if they can think of tarot as spiritual, that enables them to trust it, without the need to understand it, or how it works. This is often fine, but it can also lead to the suspension of critical thought, or the surrendering of agency to a tarot reader and that is detrimental - something I’ll write about another day soon. For others, seeing tarot as spiritual forces them to dismiss it and assume that it holds no relevance for them - whether it does or not.
A more important question is whether or not tarot is useful, and believing it to be that, is why I am a tarot reader!