Best Served Cold

“Two Ways to Ask the Question:

The first way of proceeding is to let the Seeker state his question aloud. In this case I feel that the Reader may be influenced in his interpretation by the knowledge of what he has been asked, and is therefore less likely to give an impartial reading.

The second way is for the Seeker to keep his question to himself until the reading is over. Then, if he wishes, he may tell it.”

Eden Gray, Mastering the Tarot, Crown Publishers, 1971

Gray’s alternate approach has been the “star I steer by” since 1972. It is a restatement of the instruction from Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, “Tell the Querent why he has come,” after the First Operation of the Opening of the Key, the assumption being that the consultant won’t know in advance why the seeker wants a reading. Crowley felt that the cards would sniff out exactly what was on the client’s mind, and if he didn’t get it right after a couple of tries he abandoned the reading. I won’t go quite that far, preferring Eden Gray’s additional advice (itself a recapitulation of Joseph Maxwell’s recommendation in his 1938 book, The Tarot) :

“If the Reader has missed the mark, they (Reader and Seeker) can go over the layout together and see where the Reader went off the track.”

As I travel the online tarot forums, blogs and Facebook pages, I encounter an increasing number of readers who don’t want to know the specific question up-front, simply letting the cards “speak their piece” and trusting the client to sort it out as I have done for so long. One said she likes to do her readings “cold;” that is, without knowing anything about the question or the querent’s appearance, dress, manner and background – all things that now constitute the debunkers’ “cold reading,” in which fraudulent psychics claim mystical knowledge of things they glean from physical observations in a face-to-face setting. This reader’s definition of “cold” matches my own; I seldom look at the person across the table anyway, focusing mainly on what’s going on among the cards of the spread. However, she also said she only reads online, which makes the current definition of “cold reading” moot.

Critics of this approach say it takes too long, is too complicated, or both. They want to cut right to the chase and give the sitter a quick, no-frills answer with laser precision. I like to take my time and explore the nuances of the reading with my “captive audience,” perhaps flexing my storytelling muscles to the extent that time permits and the sitter’s reactions encourage me to expound. It may seem selfish, but I seek “entertainment value” of my own in the act of reading the cards, meaning that I do it as much for fun as for enlightenment, and I do my best to translate that pleasure into the sitter’s experience in addition to “just answering the question.”

When reading for online clients (if it isn’t feasible to have them pull their own cards), the most I like to know is the topic area of interest to the seeker. Although I have all the time I need to put together the narrative, I want to minimize the post-reading back-and-forth if my interpretation of the cards pulled is completely at odds with the querent’s apprehension of the issue. It doesn’t do much good to say that the cards can answer a question the person didn’t consciously pose, because the range of possible subjects is too great to take on “cold” and I don’t want to flail around aimlessly after inspiration (an often fruitless quest I consider nothing more than “intuitive guesswork”). If given a fair chance, any card can be related to almost any topic in a way that provides useful insights, but the degree of difficulty will vary and setting boundaries on the scope of the effort is advisable.

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