They may seem a little woo-woo, but the tarot is steeped in ancient tradition—and can offer a little insight into your own well-being.
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There's no question that meditation has been having a moment for some time now—there are tons of new studios and apps devoted to the practice. But if you scroll through your Insta feed, odds are you've seen a few mystical-looking decks of cards added to the mix now—along with pretty shots of healing crystals. To the uninitiated, these are known as tarot decks, and no, you don't need to be a psychic to use them.
In fact, during the last year or so, I've taught myself some tarot card skills—and have spoken with experts in the field. I've found the hobby has become my own form of (Instagram-friendly) mindful meditation. Here's what you need to know about how you can actually use tarot cards to improve your mental health.
The Tarot Card Basics
Not just your standard deck of 52 playing cards, the tarot actually consists of 78 different cards. Tarot is pretty OG, with ties back to the 15th century in Europe, where most decks were used to play a card game akin to bridge. According to experts, tarot cards were first used for divination purposes in the 18th century, but it wasn't until 1977 that Americans showed interest in tarot reading with the release of Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling.
A tarot deck can be broken down as such: The major arcana are the trump cards numbered 0 through 22 and are each representative of a different stage in life; the minor arcana, on the other hand, are often representative of day-to-day matters, according to Ruby Warrington, editor of The Numinous and author of Material Girl, Mystical World. These cards are separated into four suits—cups, swords, wands, and pentacles—which run from ace to 10 along with a court consisting of a page, knight, queen, and king each. Every single card has a different meaning and a slew of individual interpretations depending on the reader, the other cards drawn, and the questions asked, says Warrington. And while reading tarot cards yourself may seem like an out-there activity best left for psychics and the like, you don't actually need to be clairvoyant to use tarot cards to your benefit. (BTW, here's what energy workers really do.)
How to Read Tarot Cards
While you could spend years learning how to read tarot cards, it's important to first establish what you're using the cards for. "I find the tarot is a really great tool to help me tap into my own intuition," says Warrington. "It helps me reaffirm things that I often already know, essentially giving me that extra knowledge of approval or 'yes' from the universe. That my gut is telling me it's the right decision."
Each of the 78 cards has their own individual imagery, meaning, and story. Each of the four suits represents different elements of the human psyche, personality characteristics, or external situations. Warrington suggests reading the guidebook that's usually sold with a tarot deck.
What's most important, says Warrington, is to make sure whatever you ask of the deck is not a life or death issue—nor a yes or no question. "Instead of asking if your marriage is over, you could ask questions such as, 'Is my current relationship fulfilling me on every level?' Ask more subtle questions about those bigger life decisions that might help you make a decision that feels the most in alignment," she says. (Related: 10 Woo-Woo Things You Can Do to Feel One With Nature)
I've often pulled a card a day, for example, just to give myself a critical lens with which to view my present, past, and future—Warrington recommends this method of starting simple—plus the people, issues, and circumstances that are germane to each card's individual meaning. "Read one card a day and your question every day could simply be, 'What opportunities might be available for me today?' If you want to get fancy, you can check out what are known as tarot spreads. Some are as simple as two cards, while the most traditional and famous of spreads—the Celtic Cross—calls for ten cards.
Many tarot experts also use illustrated oracle cards in tandem with tarot cards because they believe they provide a simpler, clearer sense of actionable advice after a tarot reading. The oracle cards' messages aren't shrouded in interpretation, and many readers will pull an oracle card after they pull and interpret a tarot card spread in order to best give next steps and advice. (Related: I Meditated Every Day for a Month and Only Sobbed Once)
How to Use Tarot Cards for Meditation
While playing with cards may seem like merely a fun activity, reading tarot actually can help boost your mental health and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. While it seems counter-intuitive, think about it: When you're introspective, you have a heightened awareness and sense of self, thus clearing your mind and potentially mitigating negative thoughts. A 2017 meta-analysis in the journal Nature found that self-reflection can have therapeutic effects.
To get started, Warrington recommends pulling one card per day from a deck you feel naturally drawn to in order to get into the habit. "It's really about finding your own language with which to work with Tarot cards," she says. "Because the cards will begin to speak to you in a language you can understand—no textbook can truly teach you that." I find the process of setting up a tarot card reading—15 or 20 minutes to cleanse my deck with the smoke of palo santo, settle into my surroundings with healing crystals, maybe do a few Vinyasa flows—to be meditational itself, as is the reading of the card(s) thereafter.
What's more, those who need an extra shot of self-esteem can benefit from the practice, as well. Because you're encouraged to use—and more so, trust—your own intuition and gut instincts while interpreting a reading, you'll become a stronger, more concrete decision maker. (Here are three more tips to make better decisions.)
Here's how I might use tarot readings for meditation: I pull the Fool card, which is often associated with the beginning of new journeys, a blank slate—one with a free spirit, and purity and innocence, not unlike that of a child. What I consider to be a life journey might be different from someone else's, further emphasizing the individual nature of reading and analyzing a card's meaning. Then, I might spend about 10 minutes journaling about each card—writing what I see, what I felt when I saw it, situations in my life I think it could relate to—and there lies even deeper mental health benefits. Meditating on the card's meaning and pertinence to my own life by free journaling means I'm not only practicing mindfulness but working on trusting my inner self, too. (Related: How Mindful Running Can Help You Get Past Mental Roadblocks)
After free journaling about the Fool and my upcoming journeys, I can turn to my deck of Crystal Angels Oracle Cards and might pull the card of Clear Quartz. The advice reads "Let yourself feel all your emotions. Your entire rainbow spectrum of feelings is sending you important messages and guidance." Fittingly, the message from Clear Quartz is meditative itself, too.
The good thing is, whether or not you buy into all of the tarot and oracle cards' many meanings, everyone can benefit from the slow, deep breathing and meditative thinking the practice requires. With busy schedules and to-do lists whizzing around all the time, it's likely that you don't have much time to stop and just think, or just write, or just be. Reading tarot cards may be the first (fun) step in a more relaxed direction.