When it comes to tarot spreads, I am a great believer in keeping it very, very, very simple. As is true for many readers, my first real experience with tarot spreads was the Celtic Cross, that hoary old standby with its spooky, spell-like phrasing: What covers you....what crosses you...what lies behind you, etc. etc. I enjoyed the incantatory rhythm of the Celtic Cross, and the way it invited long, pondering insights from both client and reader.
CLIENT: Should I act on my crush?
With its 10 talkative cards, the Celtic Cross offers a huge holistic download of information. Sometimes that can be an excuse for not really answering the question—either because we're not sure we can, or because we don't think it's a constructive question, or because we feel it ought to be re-framed in a more affirming light. These are all valid motivations. We want to help the people we're reading for, and we want them to experience the reading as positive. We don't want a starkly phrased question to lead to melodrama and angst. On the other hand, as the late, great Rachel Pollack once said to me, "Who am I to say whether the question is good or bad?"
The Celtic Cross always offers depth, and sometimes offers clarity, but what I so often found was that the person sitting with me wanted answers. And over the years I found that sometimes the best way to get them is JUST TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.
If I want to know whether it's a good idea to quit my job and try something new, I don't necessarily need to know everything about how my insecurities get in the way, or how my friends and family influence my decision, what could possibly go wrong and whether that is likely happen, and so forth.
Honestly, all I really need is two cards. Card One: Suppose I stay at my job. Card Two: Suppose I try something new. And while weaving in and out of the labyrinth of connections in a big spread may make me feel fully seen and heard by the forces of the cosmos, it also might help me put off any kind of actual decision.
Over the years, the two-card reading has become the little black dress of my tarot wardrobe. And there is one two-card reading in particular that I absolutely, positively cannot do without. I use it for myself, I use it for friends, I use it for strangers—and I hope you will use it too. Let's call it the World's Smallest Problem Solver Spread—or maybe just The Problem Solver. Because, as I've been trying to hint, life is short.
The Problem-Solver Tarot Spread
Card #1: The Problem.
One of the core principles I teach in my new book, The Living Tarot, is this: Everything in life is in tarot. Rather than looking at the card—which forces you to extrapolate from the keyword in the little white book ("Energy! Authority! Balance!" Huh?)—look around you. Your rollerball pen is not a tarot card. But if it were, what would it be? The Ace of Wands? Close enough! This is what I call, "Tarot Backwards" (Chapter 2): we start with the thing itself, and then we figure out where it lands in tarot.
So, using our tarot Backwards technique, let's ask: What's the problem? Is it romantic disappointment? Work drama? Writer's block? Whatever it is, choose a card to describe it—and don't be too fussy. The 8 of Swords may not be a flawless portrait of your inability to finish your novel, but today, it's close enough!
Here are a few suggestions for cards and the problems they might represent. Of course, there are no wrong ways to do this, so feel free to come up with your own:
I recently gave this spread a spin with my online Living Tarot class. The results were fascinating. For example, Bette had the brilliant idea to use the 7 of Cups to represent her journey with ADHD, with which she'd been diagnosed at age 57. With its beclouded, phantasmagoric display of distractions, the 7 of Cups seemed like an apt representation for a mind pulled in too many directions. Her solution card? The 4 of Swords! Looking at the symbolism of the cards, it was easy to imagine the chaos of the 7 of Cups slipping into a contained "frame" in the stained glass corner window of the 4 of Swords.
Bette told us how the "Power of the Pause" (a concept used in ADHD coaching) had transformed her mental landscape, helping her to slow down and process; how a practice of "inner sensing" helped her find her "transcendent point" on the way to regaining focus. As always, I was struck by how simply and elegantly tarot spoke both to the challenge and its resolution.
Another reader, Tina, chose the 3 of Swords to represent the heartbreak she'd been going through with her younger sister. We talked about the visual parallels between the two figures on the cards in her deck, the Rose Tarot. We used astrological correspondences to consider the Saturnine remoteness of the 3 of Swords (Saturn in Libra) versus the solar immediacy of the Strength card (corresponding with Sun-ruled Leo). We talked about the contrast between rain and sun in the Rider-Waite-Smith versions. And we talked about the way maintaining a positive and heart-centered yet also strong and non-deferential posture might produce healing for both Tina and her sister.
As is always the case with tarot, there is no single right method for interpreting even a single card. Some may look first at the images themselves, at symbols and the body language of the figures on the card. For others, the cards might be a personal window that opens onto past memories and dreams. For others, the meaning comes to life through keywords and esoteric correspondences.
With time, the same spread with the same cards can evolve, yielding different meanings as our circumstances change. This, I believe, is because tarot is an infinitely flexible language, but the story it tells is always the story of our own lives. As we grow and change, so do our cards—and there is no better companion on our lifelong journey than the living, breathing tarot.
Once you've completed your Problem-Solution card, take a moment to stand back and appreciate it. You may "get it" instantly, or it might take a little while. Even if the answer seems obvious, don't dismiss it too quickly. You can take a picture on your phone (maybe even set it as your wallpaper for a couple days). You can carry the cards around in your wallet, or put them under your pillow. You can write a spell. For as long as the problem remains a live issue in your life, make sure you have easy access to the reading and allow its layers to unfold. When the issue resolves, the spread's work is done.
I share lots of simple techniques like this one in The Living Tarot: Connecting the Cards to Everyday Life for Better Readings. Whether you're a veteran reader with decades of client work under your belt, or you just bought your first deck yesterday, I hope you'll find many ways to strengthen and refresh your practice in its pages!
T. Susan Chang is the author of Tarot Correspondences and 36 Secrets as well as the co-author of Tarot Deciphered. A tarot reader for nearly thirty years, Chang has taught Atlas Obscura's Secrets of Tarot online class and ...