How To Read Tarot Cards To Gain Insights About Your Life

You don’t have to be a psychic to find meaning in this magical practice. Here’s how to do your first tarot card reading and establish a self-reflective practice according to Extraordinary Tarot reader Calley Nelson.

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Can a deck of tarot cards tell the future? Well, that’s what I was convinced of when I was 10 years old, and movies like The Craft and Practical Magic filled my mind with the power of the occult. I picked up a deck of tarot cards and a guidebook on a witchcraft-themed trip to Salem, Massachusetts, and spent every evening of the following month learning how to give myself readings. It was pure childhood magic. But then, those jaded teenage years set in, and I stopped believing in pretty much everything I couldn’t literally see or feel—including tarot. My cards sat gathering dust at my dad’s house. Investing time, money, or headspace to unproven things like tarot felt absolutely foolish to me well into my twenties. Tell me you’re going to see a tarot reader, and you could expect a royal eye roll—judgmental, I know. But what could you possibly learn from a deck of cards with cryptic pictures? Apparently a lot, but gleaning anything from tarot cards requires a shift in mindset and expectations. My change of heart happened at a recent fashion launch party, where tarot card reader Calley Nelson was offering free five-minute sessions. Nelson presented tarot as “an ancient form of storytelling.” Hey, I’m a journalist—storytelling’s kind of my thing—so I immediately opened myself back up to the practice. She clued me into the fact that tarot card readings are not about predicting what’s to come, but rather tapping into insights about your life and exploring possible outcomes to problems. All of a sudden, the popularity of tarot made sense again—skepticism be damned. What’s more: Nelson’s tarot card reading definitely opened me up to new possibilities. “Small tools like tarot can help you connect and find meaning to life,” she explains. “Life isn’t fun without meaning, so why not find it in this ancient way?” Want to gain insights about your life from tarot cards? Read on to learn about choosing a deck that speaks to you, getting familiar with the meanings of major cards, and giving yourself quick readings that might just spark new ideas about living your best life.

What’s the deal with tarot cards?

With a total of 78 cards, tarot decks seem like a complicated thing to master. But the truth is, these cards actually have a lot of similarities to something that’s probably bouncing around a junk drawer in your home right now: the standard 52-card deck (the one you use for regular card games). Tarot cards have four suits, numbered ace to 10, and four face cards—all of which are part of the “minor arcana.” The remaining 22 cards are unique to tarot decks. That group is called the “major arcana” and it includes those classic tarot tropes like the Fool, the Chariot, the High Priestess, the Devil, and the Star. “Those major arcana cards have the archetypes that transcend cultures and ways of life,” explains Nelson. “They’re the topics that everyone deals with in their lives, from justice and the sun to temperance and death.”   

Finding a Tarot Card Deck That Suits You

The artwork featured on your deck will play a huge role in inspiring you during readings. But with thousands of tarot card decks on the market, ranging from a Legend of Zelda-themed deck to Celtic fairy sets, how do you find the right deck for you? Nelson says that many people start with the classic Smith-Waite tarot card deck, created in 1909 by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith. An attempt to appeal to the art world, the cards depict tarot figures in full scenes that have a timeless appeal. “This tarot card deck is the most popular. It has very bright colors and it helped Western culture embrace tarot a little bit more,” says Nelson. However, just because a tarot card deck’s been around for a while doesn’t mean you have to pick that one. Start browsing for options to see which kind of art speaks to you. “Instagram is a great place to see tarot card art. Since indie publishing has grown, designing decks has become such an art form,” explains Nelson. You should also consider the quality and size of the cards. Some people like oversized tarot decks, while others prefer cards that slip into their hands more easily. While you’re shopping for a deck, it’s also worth picking up a guidebook to help you learn the meaning of each tarot card. Nelson recommends that beginners read The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life by Jessa Crispin.

Getting Familiar With the Tarot Cards

Before you can learn how to read tarot cards, you’ll need to understand the meanings of the various archetypes. The minor arcana cards tend to symbolize things in life that you’re already connected to. The major arcana are considered “trump cards” and indicate larger events to pay attention to. Nelson has put together a brief guide to some of the most important major arcana cards and their meanings:

  • The Fool (0) is a card of infinite potential. When the Fool is drawn, ask yourself what’s holding you back, and use curiosity to propel you into unknown territories.
  • The World (XXI) embodies the completion of a journey, a union between the four suits of the minor arcana: wands (passion and creativity), swords (thought and action), cups (feeling and intuition), and coins (prosperity and security).
  • Judgment (XX) asks the player to be more decisive and act with conviction—the worst you can do is nothing.
  • The Empress (III) is the eternal mother, the embodiment of creativity and grace—she is confirmation that all ideas can be manifested physically.
  • The Star (XVII) asks players to dream big. When it’s upside down, it can mean that you are progressing, that you’ve chosen your North Star and can use it to guide you forward.
  • The Wheel of Fortune (X) can be used to manifest your own luck by steering toward the center of the spinning, ever-changing wheel. This element of chance keeps life exciting, so the Wheel asks us to embrace it instead of fearing it.
  • Death (XIII) reminds us of our own mortality, and that through our lives we experience small deaths that lead to new things. It reminds us to fearlessly embrace progress and change and to leave behind what we no longer need.
  • The Tower (XVI) is an epiphany or natural disaster. It’s an event that rocks your reality and makes you question your beliefs. The tower asks what can be built from the wreckage.
  • The Hanged Man (XII) can signal a waiting period. It encourages players to be proactive with spare time, using it for rest, observation, and self-analysis so that it doesn’t lead to stagnation.
  • The Devil (XV) should be used to analyze restrictions, like toxic relationships and outdated beliefs that keep us feeling limited. Acknowledging those shadows is tough work, but accepting them as issues that can be worked on can be so empowering.

How to Read Tarot Cards (and Gain Insights About Your Life)

Many believers visit a professional for their tarot card readings. However, the practice is easy to learn, and giving yourself readings might be the best way to tarot for the purpose of tapping into deep insights about your life. First, shuffle the tarot cards. There are no rules or traditions about how many times you should shuffle or how you should mix up the deck, says Nelson. Once you’ve shuffled your cards, ask yourself a question to guide your reading. “You can ask things like, What should I be focusing on today? What should I be looking for or working on? Try to avoid asking about other people, and keep it positive. You can ask anything you want, but tailor your questions so it’s helpful to you,” advises Nelson. Giving yourself a simple one-card tarot card reading is a great place for beginners to start. Flip over one card onto the table and take a look at the art. “What does the art on the tarot card remind you about in your current life? A guidebook can help you learn meanings, but how a card makes you feel is more important than what’s in the book,” says Nelson. If the card is flipped upside-down, it generally indicates the opposite of the traditional meaning. It’s trying to draw your attention, so give it some extra focus, says Nelson. She also recommends turning your readings into a ritual. Choose a time or day that works for you (she suggests doing it while you have your morning coffee) and journaling about your tarot card reading for a few minutes. Once you get the hang of one-card tarot readings, you can move onto more complicated spreads. “Three-card tarot readings are going to be very similar to one-card readings. Draw three cards and look at what each of them means and how they relate together,” says Nelson. “You could think of it as a timeline of things to focus on for the next three weeks, or looking at the tarot cards as a story related to your life.” The beauty of tarot is that it’s a really free-form practice you can modify to fit into what you need on any day, throughout your life. You don’t need to be a psychic to give yourself a tarot card reading—you just have to have an open mind and a willingness to dive into the intuition that’s already deep inside yourself.  

Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet’s journalistic pursuits and adventurous spirit have taken her around the globe—rafting down the Ganges, hiking the jungle of Borneo, and hot air ballooning over Cappadocia—only to land her in the most thrilling city in the world, New York. When she’s not traveling, she can be found taking yoga classes, trying out trendy spa treatments, discovering new vegan restaurants, and, of course, writing. She’s been published by National Geographic, Forbes, Thrillist, and more. Visit her site to see her latest articles.