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Nonsensical Readings

May 30, 2010

A short while ago, my friend Helen asked:

“What to do when the cards seem to make NO sense (to reader or seeker)? Start over? Wait a while? Give up and leave it alone?”

This is definitely not an easy question with a simple answer.  There are a lot of possibilities, and I’ll try to address a few of them.

In such cases, my first reaction is to try to delve more deeply into the cards, so let me begin with a few ways to do that.

To figure out a specific card, try one or more of these techniques:

*  What symbol or part of the card catches your eye when you first look at it? Think about what that symbol means to you (or to the seeker) and try to relate that meaning to the reading.

RWS 2.0 Three of Swords*  What message, or even just a word, popped into your head when you first looked at the card?  (You might also ask the seeker that question.)  For example, maybe when you looked at the Three of Swords you thought, “Cut to the heart of the matter.”  If something jumps into your head, say it, because it probably comes from your intuition.  Of course, this doesn’t give you license to throw tact out the window.  It just means that you shouldn’t censor things just because they sound silly or ridiculous, because that’s your conscious, ego mind working.

*  Ask the seeker to describe what’s going on in the card.  In one reading I did, the Five of Wands being in a position defined as “What’s helping you?” puzzled me until I asked the seeker to describe it to me.  He said it was a bunch of guys building something, like a house. That told me that this card said that his ability to channel chaotic energy into productive uses would help him in the situation he was asking about.RWS 2.0 Five of Wands

Those are a few ways to make some sense of a puzzling card.  (For more, try Mary K. Greer’s 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card)

But what if the whole reading itself seems a mystery — not just one or two specific cards?  Some good advice then is to try to look for patterns.  Is there a remarkable preponderance of one suit in the reading?  Perhaps this will tell you that the Tarot is talking about something different from what you thought the reading was going to be about.  Like the time a seeker asked about her finances, but the cards were all relationship-oriented, so I saw that the reading was really about her marriage. Or maybe there are a lot more Court Cards than you might expect.  This could tell you to look into personality issues in the situation at hand.

Sometimes when you lay out the cards and they don’t make any sense, the problem may be that you are tired, distracted, or out of sorts. If that’s the case, you can either stop for the day (or at least for a while), or you might see if you can deal with whatever problem you are having before you either continue or start over later.  This assumes, however, that you are having some sort of problem.

But what if you don’t feel that there is a problem with you?  What if you aren’t tired and you aren’t distracted?  In that case, try to ascertain if maybe the seeker is blocked in a similar way.  You can ask about that, but more often body language will help.  Once when I was doing readings at a party, one woman plopped herself down in the chair opposite me, crossed her arms, and asked for a reading.  The not-so-subtle message, however, was that this was more like a dare than a request, so I asked her why she wanted a reading.  We had a brief conversation, and then she got up and walked away.

More subtle are the situations where the problem may lie between you and the seeker.  Perhaps there is a subconscious issue that is blocking your communication.  Or maybe it is a karmic issue.  In those cases, you may have no way of knowing what the problem is, but if all the above lines of inquiry fail, perhaps you’ll want to assume that this is it, and just leave the reading alone. After all, you can’t be expected to be able to do a reading for everyone all the time.

PS: Do you have any questions about how to do Tarot readings? Let me know. Your question might inspire a new blog post like this one!





  1. Excellent information, James! I think this is the sort of dilemma that makes me reluctant to do “in person” readings (even if I actually had an opportunity to do them, which I don’t). I dislike that feeling of being put on the spot, which of course is made worse when the cards don’t immediately make sense! Your suggestions will be helpful with my online readings.

    • Thanks!
      Yeah, online or email readings allow you to ponder a bit more than “in person” ones do.

  2. Thanks James, I will try all this next time I draw a blank! I have learnt to at least make a note of the cards before I start over as some cards keep cropping up for the same seeker and that should be a big hint. I also just thought about asking the cards separately “What is wrong with this reading?”:-) Helen

    • Good ideas — make note of cards that come up on a second try (it’s the Tarot saying, “No really, you HAVE to pay attention to this card!” and do a separate reading to see what’s going wrong.
      Thanks for sharing those ideas.

  3. Great advice. This disconnection with the cards does happen sometimes. I do readings by email so there’s no being “on the spot.” During one reading, I laid the cards out (3 card reading) and it just didn’t make any sense to me. I wrote down the cards drawn, put the cards up, and walked away. Coming back, I laid out the cards and two of the cards reappeared. I determined that the reading was right the first time, I was just not tuning in.

    You mention the book, Mary K. Greer’s 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card. Another has recommended this book and I plan to purchase it this week. Are there any other books you would recommend? What I’m interested in is information that goes beyond the basic meanings of the cards. I’ve been reading for many years and would just like to go further and make my readings more detailed.

    • Hi Cher
      Well, of course I would recommend all of MY books. Seriously. See the “My books & decks” tab at the top of this page for links to more information about them. Briefly, though —
      * “Tarot Tells the Tale” and “Tarot: Get the Whole Story” show you ways to do readings as well as interesting spreads.
      * “Tarot Affirmations” gives you a whole new tool to use in your readings.

      A couple of other books that will help you look at the cards and readings in general from interesting perspectives are:

      Tarot For Your Self, by Mary K. Greer
      The Forest of Souls, by Rachel Pollack

      You can find links to reviews of both of those with the “Tarot Reviews” tab at the top of this page.


  4. Elinor Greenberg permalink

    3 things that sometimes help me in that situation:

    1. Look at the card on the bottom of the deck–sometimes that gives the basis of the situation, which can be helpful.

    2. Add up the numbers on all the cards with numbers (major arcana and minor arcana) and reduce that number to one or two cards (ex. 53 = 8 (Strength) and the power of the Empress (Key 3) working through the method of the Hierophant (Key 5). Or to put this in normal English: Mastery of our animal nature (Key 8) will come through creativity (Key 3) that is generated by listening internally for the voice of Divinity (Key 5).

    3. If none of this helps, I simply say that the situation right now appears to be in flux and has not yet settled into a coherent pattern yet. I then suggest that the querent look over the cards and choose the card that seems to “speak” to her/him the most. Then I ask questions, such as: what do you see in that card? How does it apply to your inner life or outer situation right now? Or any other question that seems relevant. I then let the person talk and hope that something useful for them will come out of that.

    • Thanks Elinor, good suggestions. The bottom of the deck is a great one as it can indicate the underlying situation.

  5. Again, I live something and you make a post about it. I’m starting to get a tad scared!

    I did this reading for a woman who is a professional reader herself… I wasn’t using tarot this time, but playing cards, and I couldn’t by the life of me seem to understand them completely. They seemed “blocked”, I felt like I couldn’t get the whole thing, I was missing something… I got a few messages here and there, and thought I was making a fool of myself. I even told my querent (because she was a reader and would probably understand) that I was unsure if I had got anything right, and that I apologized if it didn’t make any sense. She answered me the next day saying that it was one of the most accurate readings she ever received! It wasn’t me being crazy, but her situation that was very complicated, involving other people with hidden motives I could not see in my readings (because I don’t read regarding other people’s thoughts), but could sense them and their influence.

    Sometimes the readings don’t make sense for us, but they make sense for the querent. We think we are saying nonsensical things, but they turn out to be what the querent needed to hear.

    • Hi Marina
      Honest, I’m not psychically reading your life. 😀
      Yes, absolutely. Sometimes we say things that sound like nonsense to us, but which turn out to be spot on for the querent. That’s why I tell my students to say what pops into their heads when they look at a card, even if (or especially if!) it sounds silly or absurd (although I remind them that this doesn’t mean they should ignore tact.)
      Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. James, Thank you.

  7. I had to share this. I was beginning to lose my nerve and faith in the cards. I did the same reading a second time and drew a blank again. I decided to pull an oracle card for advice (from Louise Hay Wisdom Cards) and got this gem: “I cannot learn other people’s lessons for them. They must do the work themselves, and they will do it when they are ready.” It fits. Although the seeker is a willing party to the reading, they seem unable to change their direction at this time and I have to learn to let them be as frustrating as it is to watch a friend struggling.

    • Excellent quote, Helen.
      Thanks for sharing this story. Yes, it can be frustrating.
      This reminds me of something I always tell my students, which is that when you give a reading, you have to release any attachment you may have to the results of it.

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