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As a long-time Tarot user, I'm kind of set in my ways when it comes to the variety of layouts I favor for reading. I primarily use the basic Three Card Spread or The Celtic Cross. However, when I want more information and clarification on a card or cards that have come up in a particular reading, I have found what I call "the card tracking technique," effective for amplifying meanings, as well as fishing for advice. I also refer to this as "the card search technique."
Suppose you have done a Celtic Cross reading to address some personal issue, and you find that the outcome card [or any other card in the reading] is ambiguous; you aren't sure what it means and how it applies to your own situation. You can ask for more information on that card by reshuffling your deck as you pose the request, "Please tell me more about how [such-and-such-a-card] applies to my outcome [or whatever]." Then, cut the cards in your normal, preferred manner, but instead of pulling the first cards from the top, turn the deck so the cards are face up to you, then thumb through the deck until you find the original card about which you are trying to learn more. Set it in front of you as the focal card, with whichever card was above it (before it in the deck sequence) to its right, and whichever card was below it (i.e. came afterward) to the left. These flanking cards will shed more light on the card in question. Among other things, the card on the left may give you information about past and unconscious matters that bear on the focal card, while the card on the right can say something about future and conscious issues affecting the focal card. Alternatively, if both of the flanking cards are "challenging," they may denote forces that are pulling in two different directions, thus creating disharmony in the situation denoted by the focal card, or, if they are more positive, they may reveal harmonizing influences. Naturally, you have to bring your intuition to the interpretation, and how you interpret the flanking cards will have a lot to do with the nature of the original question for which you drew the card you now seek to learn more about.
Here is an example of how the card tracking technique might be used: we are doing a Celtic Cross reading for an individual we'll call Tracy, who is going to night school to learn more about computers and wants to know if this will lead to a better job. In this case, the outcome card is the Ace of Wands, indicating a new phase of life and work; however, it is reversed, so her course of study might not bring the degree of opportunity and success for which she is hoping. To see what the hindrances might be, we could pose a new request of the Tarot: "Please tell us more about what the reversed Ace of Wands means for Tracy," then shuffle and locate that card. Now, the Ace of Wands is upright, and the reversed Five of Cups is on its left, while the Knight of Wands is to the right. Note that in this deck, the Knight of Wands is facing toward the left, therefore riding into the direction of the past. This could mean that changes in her inner world—perhaps a gradual re-evaluation of her personal needs—may cause Tracy to change direction, or to go back for other training.
As the card tracker technique can also be used to elicit advice, we can pose the question, "What can Tracy do to encourage a better outcome?" We reshuffle and relocate the Ace, which is again reversed, but now flanked by the reversed Queen of Pentacles and the reversed Nine of Wands. Remember, we are not looking for predictions at this point, but for suggestions for potential courses of action. The reversed Queen of Pentacles may indicate that to succeed, Tracy needs to ease off of some of her domestic responsibilities, while the reversed Nine of Wands may suggest a need to narrow her choices, perhaps becoming more specialized. As for the reversed Ace of Wands, that may be telling her that it's okay to take it easier and make a slower transition.
The card tracking technique can also be applied when you want to know more about all of the cards in a given reading, though this works best if you used a relatively small layout. After reshuffling, you just go through the deck and pull out all the cards that had been in the original reading, plus their neighbors on either side, setting them in rows. Thus, if your reading was a Three Card Spread, it is expanded into three rows of three, making a Nine Square with the original cards in the middle column. Here, you can appreciate the symmetry, and the Nine Square as a geometrical figure is prominent in the history of magic as something of a cosmogram (a model of the world).
Sometimes one of the cards you're searching for turns out to be either the first or last card in the reshuffled deck. If the card is on top, I treat it as part of a circle spectrum, using the bottom card as its right-hand neighbor (and vice versa if the card is on the bottom). If you're looking for multiple cards, two of them may come up next to each other. That's okay, because this just reinforces the interrelationship between these cards; look to the cards that flank the paired cards, and consider them all as a group. If in the process of reshuffling, some cards that were originally upright come out reversed or vice versa, that's okay, too—just consider how their meanings may be modified in their new context.
Another advantage of the card search technique is that you can track an unfolding situation over a period of time. The future is always in flux, because new factors are always arising, and when a Tarot reading warns us of problems, we tend to take action to mitigate them. Therefore, if you are anxious about the situation that a particular card denotes—whether it is something you are looking forward to or something you are hoping to avoid—you can look in on it from time to time by framing the question, "How is the situation denoted by [such-and-such-a-card] progressing?" Then shuffle, cut, and search the deck until you find that card, along with the ones that accompany it, to see how things are coming along. However, based on the old adage that a watched pot doesn't boil, I don't suggest doing this too often. It is also better to wait until you have taken some substantial action to help or prevent the situation in question from developing. In the example of "Tracy" mentioned earlier, as she sharpens her skills and continues to chart her course, she could periodically repeat her question, then locate the Ace of Wands to see if it is accompanied by cards denoting greater progress and success.
The card search technique has value as a learning tool. For example, if you are in the practice of studying one card a day to build your knowledge of the Tarot, you can frame a question such as, "How does today's card operate in my life?" Then shuffle and cut, find that card in the deck, and consider what the cards that accompany it reveal about how that particular card plays out in your life. You gain a deeper understanding of a given card when you see how it applies to you personally. However, you can place more general requests, such as, "Please tell me more about [such-and-such-a-card]," as a way of gaining additional philosophical insights.
With these principals in mind, you can also structure searches around special card themes. So, if you are wondering about two people who are in a relationship, shuffle and look for the Lovers card, because the cards that flank it will give you insight into what each person brings to the relationship; in an advice reading, it can suggest what each person ought to bring to the relationship. If you are wondering what blend of qualities are needed to achieve self-improvement or healing, look for the Temperance card. To learn how to access help from spiritual sources, or to identify helpers in Spirit, look to the Star card. Because this type of search can engage the archetypal issues that affect so many different human situations, it can shed light on many other aspects of life, while providing new revelations about individual cards.
Janina Renée is a scholar of folklore, psychology, medical anthropology, the material culture of magic, ritual studies, history, and literature. Her books include Tarot Spells, Tarot Your Everyday Guide (winner ...