I came across this video clip on the interwebs. It seems to be from one of those rational skeptic shows, one called “The Bulls**t Detective” (Series 1, Episode 4), meant to debunk “pseudoscience and . . . new age nonsense.” By the accent of the show’s host, Alasdair Jeffery, I’m assuming it hails from the UK. Not so sure of the language of the subtitles. If you’re a tarot reader, I strongly recommend that you watch this and, I hope, read my assessment of it below.
Three tarot readers are showcased: Paul Hughes-Barlow, professional tarot reader for over 20 years; Laura Boyle, professional psychic and tarot reader; and Andy Cook, a professional tarot reader with 7 years of tarot reading experience. The three practitioners (per my view) are named in the order of tarot mastery. That assumption of mine comes mainly from my high respect for Hughes-Barlow and his work and, at the end of the video, how Cook kind of loses his cool as the TV show host Jeffery quite deliberately goads him on.
The first reading to be featured is from Laura Boyle. You can learn more about her work at lauraboyle.com. It looks like she’s using the 1971 Rider Waite deck by U.S. Games. She has Jeffery cut the cards once and then uses a 7 card V-shaped spread. It doesn’t look like she’s reading with reversals. That or all seven cards in Jeffery’s spread came out upright. To help you follow along, here are the cards drawn (RWS-based):
Boyle starts by touching on the same issue I would have touched upon had I seen that long train of Cups– the emotional plane, which in more practical terms often translates into romantic relationships. So she’s asking him about a woman who might be in his life that’s having a substantial emotional effect on him as of late. To explore that issue, she starts naming off character traits, which is what I often do when I see court cards. I’m assuming she’s looking at the Page of Swords when she’s talking about a girl who has “red hair, blonde hair, someone with blue, green, maybe even sort of gray eyes.”
And before we can hear Boyle clarify her point, on cue, she’s cut off and we don’t get the rest of her explanation. Jeffery by voiceover now tells us that “the most common trick that tarot readers use is fishing.”
“This man over here has either very, very light hair, or very, very dark.” We hear the clip of Boyle saying that as if that’s to prove the host’s previous point on fishing.
Now, you tarot readers can see from the spread what Boyle is doing, right? She’s comparing and contrasting the King of Wands and Knight of Cups and trying to explore the significance of the two cards. And again, that’s all we hear. The show cuts her off and we hear Jeffery’s voiceover again mocking that one statement, which I can bet you is now taken out of context.
We don’t get to hear how Boyle interprets the rest of the spread before we move on to the next
victim tarot professional. Now we go to Andy Cook, who you can read more about at andycook.com. He approaches tarot as transpersonal counseling, which the TV show host does not mention to you. This point about Cook’s background as a tarot reader is highly relevant, as we are about to see.
Cook uses a fan approach to spread out the cards and has Jeffery select cards from the fan. At first, it looks like only a few cards are selected, but then later we cut to the above screen shot and we see a whole ton of cards all over the place, and it looks like Cook is reading with reversals. I’m not familiar with this approach, which doesn’t mean much– every tarot practitioner has his or her own approach to reading. Like Boyle, Cook uses the RWS tradition. From the card back, it looks like one of the more recent editions of the Rider-Waite-Smith.
Just as Boyle touched upon, we hear Cook start by asking about a woman, a past romantic relationship that is still having an emotional impact on the querent. Cook follows his assertion with, “Does that make any sense to you?” I do that a lot, too, by the way. And I don’t see it as fishing. But the host disagrees with me. Right after Cook asks that question, the camera focuses in on Jeffery’s skeptical facial expression. Then the voiceover: “Annnnd… he goes fishing, too.”
To assuage the awkward silence that has now come over the room thanks to Jeffery being a jerk to Cook, Cook continues to ask questions to get the host to explore his feelings and thoughts.
The host calls that fishing. I call that counseling. Remember: Cook’s approach to tarot is as a form of counseling. That’s why his style is to ask a lot of questions! It’s to get you to start thinking and reflecting on your life. Then through the tarot, Cook will help you establish the significance and meaning of those events or people and help you understand any points of tension that require resolution. He’s not fishing. He’s counseling. And he happens to be doing that with a deck of tarot cards.
The host then addresses another point at the audience: What [heterosexual] man his age wouldn’t have a “woman from his past that still has an emotional impact”?
Cook immediately tries to clarify. “No, it’s not just that, but this is about someone who is sort of undermining your current emotional development.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
The host has his arms crossed in front of him, he’s making faces at Cook, rubbing his face with his hands as if in pointed exasperation, and generally making passive aggressive jabs at Cook during the reading session.
Look. Unless you’ve been doing some serious grounding meditation and have an energetic protective mechanism around you thicker than the Great Wall of China, that kind of hostility coming from the other side is going to have an adverse effect on your ability to tap into that intuitive spiritual plane you need to be at for readings.
Finally, the host tries to crack Paul Hughes-Barlow. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check out his site at paulhughesbarlow.com. He is the author of The Tarot and the Magus (Aeon Books, 2004) and, with Catherine Chapman, Beyond the Celtic Cross (Aeon Books, 2009). He’s renowned for his work with the Opening of the Key. I’ve read both of his books and love both. Highly recommend.
Hughes-Barlow is the only one of the three readers to not use the RWS. He’s using the Thoth. Like Boyle, he has the seeker cut the cards once. We don’t hear much from the content of the reading, interestingly enough. We only hear the end thesis.
“Basically, you need to do less thinking and more doing,” says Hughes-Barlow. The host repeats the statement as a question back to Hughes-Barlow, who nods in the affirmative. Then we go to voiceover as Jeffery refers to Hughes-Barlow’s statement as a “vague self-help cliche.”
As you watch the clip, observe how Hughes-Barlow has his arms folded protectively over his front and the way he is sitting is quite grounded and solid (I don’t know how else to describe it) while the host is leaning in, brows furrowed. The trained eye here can see who commands the power in this dynamic. It’s Hughes-Barlow, not the host.
Tarot practitioners: are you paying attention? Study this video and study how these three card readers approach a reading with a complete asswipe. Learn something here.
Putting It All Together
As the episode progresses, Jeffery focuses mainly on Boyle and Cook, and much less on Hughes-Barlow. Why is that? Because Jeffery isn’t getting anything “entertaining” out of Hughes-Barlow. I hate to call it like this, but Boyle and Cook sort of fall into the host’s trap a bit during the reading sessions, whereas Hughes-Barlow does not. Since Boyle and Cook were easier prey, the show focuses on them to make Jeffery’s point that tarot reading is bullshit. Meanwhile Hughes-Barlow seems to have his shit together, so he’s much less interesting from an entertainment perspective.
Toward the end, we see clips of Jeffery asking all three of them the same question. Basically, he wants to know whether anyone can buy a deck of tarot cards, learn the card meanings, pull them out onto the table, and read cards for someone else. And, the host notes, those readings are going to resonate with at least some of the people that this person reads for? And this person can then become a professional tarot reader and charge for the readings?
Boyle and Hughes-Barlow answer yes to the host. We hear from Boyle: “Well, you’re essentially paying for the reader’s time.”
There’s a silent beat, intentional, to get you the audience watching this to agree with the unspoken conclusion that Boyle’s statement is incredulously stupid.
Well it’s not stupid, though Boyle should have added more to her statement.
You’re not just paying for the reader’s time, you’re also paying for her experience and her ability to see the synchronistic patterns in the cards and point out to you what those synchronistic patterns mean for you. You’re not just paying for a reader’s time and experience, you’re also paying for her ability to facilitate connections between what might otherwise seem like disparate events or people in your life and to help you see the bigger picture created by those events and people and what that bigger picture has to say about your life path. That’s what you’re paying for, Mr. TV show host. You’re paying for someone’s ability to bridge the consciousness with not only your personal unconscious, but into the collective unconscious, and–competently–interpret information from that collective unconscious that is most relevant to you at this time because that tarot practitioner has achieved a level of mastery at translating the signs and symbols of tarot.
You can pick up Rosetta Stone and learn enough basic Mandarin to navigate your way around China like a tourist, reading enough signs to not get lost. That doesn’t mean you’re now ready to serve as an English-Chinese court translator during a trial. That’s what distinguishes the tarot professional from someone who has a deck of cards, a book of card meanings, and can do a reading for you with a three card spread.
Lastly, the host cuts to Cook and the voiceover says something about how Cook was asserting his own psychic powers (or something like that). I can’t comment further because I did not see enough of the exchange, which is exactly what the TV show wants. The host’s statements about Cook were conclusory, and we the audience didn’t really get to see for ourselves what Cook had to say, in his own words. Jeffery does end by telling us that Cook’s reading was 200 pounds, which is about $300 U.S. dollars. He tells you that to get you to agree with him that tarot is bullshit.
* * *
You have to start your discovery of tarot with skepticism. You have to. However, like in any experiment or study, if you’re going in with a preconceived conclusion, then your experiment or study is tainted. Another huge problem here stems from the definition of fortune-telling. Jeffery is expecting these readers to tell him the exact number of children he has, what his female friend looks like, and what will happen–with particularity–tomorrow, and the day after, and next year, and in three years. That’s not how I approach tarot. Tarot isn’t about the physical world. Tarot is about the metaphysical counterpart to the physical world. It’s about understanding that metaphysical counterpart so you can make better sense of your physical world.
Tarot professionals can learn from this video, though, so I recommend watching it, and then watching it again, the second time, observing like a student how each one of these tarot practitioners respond to a would-be seeker/client like Jeffery. Compare that to how you would have probably responded to someone like Jeffery and how, if you ever do encounter someone like him in a future professional reading, how you will handle the situation.