Tarot Fortune-Telling, Divination, and Life Coaching (Part I)

Whether fortune-telling with the tarot is okay or not okay is this weird hill that people are hell-bent on dying on. At the end of the day, whether a tarot reading is fortune-telling, divination, psychology-based, or some form of life coaching is just a difference in style, I think. We’re all doing the same thing. We just prefer different terminology because we’re trying to craft a particular image of ourselves.

Recently in online tarot social media, the topic of fortune-telling and whether this is something we want to encourage or discourage came up in discussion. It reminded me of a recent personal event.

Back in July I was visiting my parents in upstate New York. Mom, Dad, me, and the Hubby walked into a Chinese restaurant where my parents are friends with the owner. The owner came over to chat and asked us how we’ve been, and in particular, what I’ve been up to. They’re all speaking Mandarin Chinese.

Mom said to the owner, “My daughter is a fortune-teller.” (For those who speak Mandarin, she said, Ta hui bang ni suan ming. And yeah, I get it, my pin yin is probably all wrong there.)

I’m sure my face scrunched up into a grimace. “Ma, no, that is not what I do,” I replied in English.

“All right. Fine. Then you tell Auntie what it is that you do,” said Mom.

I took a moment to gather my thoughts. “There’s a physical world and a spirit world,” I started to explain, speaking Chinese. “I’m interested in studying different methods of communicating with and understanding that spirit world so that we can make our physical world better.”

My answer was met with an awkward silence from everyone. The restaurant owner clutched her crossed-arms, like she had goosebumps. Her eyes widened. “So what can you see?” She asked me. “Can you see spirits?”

“It’s like being on the telephone with someone. You can’t see them, but you’re communicating with them all the same, and you definitely know they’re there. Sometimes you’re talking to a stranger and from the voice and the messages, you have to guess who you’re talking to. Other times, you know exactly who you’re talking to. Everything is different wavelengths, and spirits aren’t part of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, so they’re not visible through our physical eyesight. But they’re a frequency you can sense all the same. And sometimes maybe your psychic eye can pick up on vague forms, but then you get confused and you think it’s your physical eyesight. Also, there’s the issue of translations. Mastering how to translate what they say is a skill all on its own.”

What I hadn’t anticipated was Auntie being unnerved by my long-winded explanation. On the car ride back home, Mom said to me about my explanation, “Hmph. You don’t think your Ma knows all that already? I know that’s what it is. I know that’s not exactly the same as fortune-telling. But your explanation confuses people. It’s too many words. Too many ideas. You’re talking about too many things that most ordinary people know absolutely nothing about. So just tell people you are a fortune-teller.”

It was then that I remembered why for so many years I simply said that what I did with the tarot was psychology-based.

It wasn’t really psychology-based. But back then I surrounded myself with mostly non-woo folks, and knew intuitively I couldn’t give them the answer I had given Auntie. So out of convenience, I’d talk out of my ass about psychology.

As you get older, you give less fucks, or something like that, so you stop sugarcoating yourself just to be more palatable for others. You shoot straight and those who don’t want to get on board with you fall to your wayside. I think that’s why I gave the answer that I did to Auntie.

And yet here was Mom, even older, much wiser, and telling me my approach was wrong. Either step clearly to the side of fortune-telling or step clearly over to the side of psychology-based tarot. Because it’s not actually about me; it’s about making things convenient for others, so other people can more easily label and categorize me. When I give the long-winded explanation that I gave Auntie, people don’t know what to do with it.

I still can’t and don’t call myself a fortune-teller, though if I’m being honest, I like “tarot life coach” even less than “fortune-teller.” And calling myself a diviner just sounds pretentious.

It’s the same with the term “psychic.” A while back, a friend of mine asked me why I don’t call myself a psychic. She has known me for over a decade and I’ve done countless readings for her over the years. She’s been to see professional psychics, says she compared what they do to what I do, and isn’t quite sure what I do that’s different, causing me to shirk from that title. “Why aren’t you a psychic?” She’s asked me on more than one occasion.

Here’s what I think it is for me. To call one a psychic is an extraordinary claim, and to make an extraordinary claim, you need extraordinary proof. And I don’t have that, not for myself at least. In my philosophy of life, I would rather under-sell.

When fellow tarot readers say they’re against fortune-telling, I think what they’re really saying is they don’t want to be associated with the mainstream stereotypes people attribute with those who call themselves fortune-tellers. They’re not actually against fortune-telling or fortune-tellers. They’re just put off by the bad PR.

“Life coaching” is just the shiny, catchy title du jour, and there seems to be enough overlap between what life coaches do and what New Age tarot readers do, so many of us hijacked the title and started using it in our professional circles.

Yet I do consider it different and distinct from a fortune-telling approach to the cards, and I distinguish fortune-telling from divination.

Yes, I believe we are all doing the same thing, but it’s that style of what we’re doing that’s different. And the style we prefer (along with the styles that repel us) have a lot more to do with our personalities and our humanity than it does anything at all to do with the Spirit we’re all tapping in to.

This is Part 1 of 2 blog post ruminations on the topic. Part 2 will be coming soon. In the second part of this rumination, I’ll talk about what I see as the stylistic differences between fortune-telling, divination, psychology-based approaches, and life coaching with the tarot.

Read Part 2

20 thoughts on “Tarot Fortune-Telling, Divination, and Life Coaching (Part I)

  1. Yes!!!!! I completely agree. There’s no “good” term, title, or explanation for non-woo people. I am unfortunately still at the stage of not having many woo people in my life, so I just stay hushed. Looking forward to part 2!

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  2. Haha you’re absolutely right there. I loathe the term life coaching, and enjoy coming up with new words and terms to define myself and what I do (metametaphysicist, metalinguist, metalkimyst, psychi-o! Doing “that thing that I do”). I joking call myself a super psionic psychic, much in the same tongue-in-cheek satyrist manner as I do when I call myself the Antichrist and Messiah incarnate, because words are absurd. People put far too much emphasis on the perceptions of what they think they heard or observed, and far too little faith in themselves and what they know or have felt.
    Literally anything can be “a sign from the divine” if you think or see it to be so. Because thoughts manifest reality, or at least manipulates our perception of it anyway. Whether or not any of it is real, I don’t know. I’d like it to be so, but how to know if I’m just lying to myself? So long as its for the positive growth and development of our being, what is the harm in dabbling with the beautiful lies of our minds eyes? Life is a game and I am a terrible strategist, but I like to participate.

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  3. This! Exactly why I prefer being introduced as *hobby artist & wirdo as in my part of the world people(including my mom!x,x) freak out at word Tarot!x,x it’s like they start turning around to see where portal to hell just opened & step back away from me at mention the word!^^ & I Awoid direct mediumship messages at All!^^ lol

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  4. I love the anecdote with the ayi!

    I guess it’s like going to a doctor or taking the car to a mechanic. They can tell you their diagnosis, whether or not you really understand the finer points of the mechanics or biology.

    I think it’s good that people are hashing out what it means to tell Tarot. Even if we don’t reach consensus, the fact that the discussion is being had in the open is helpful.

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  5. I’ve experimented with so many labels. I just don’t give two fucks anymore. But I am post-50 and it is true: the older we get the less we care about the opinion’s of others. My daughter was particularly squeamish about my “hoodoo voodoo juju woo” as she calls it. Now all of her millennials teacher friends are like get her to read for me and I need crystal advice! So what I’m saying is I just don’t care. Fortune teller is fine with me. It’s antiquated and kind of cute. Psychic I feel much like you about so I shun using the term for me, but others do and I do t ruffle so much anymore. I tried on life coach but yeah. So bland and vanilla. I really prefer intuitive therapist frankly. But at this point I’m embracing fortune teller. Like your mom said, people get it and it’s less words. I realize most of the time I’m the one who hung up on the label and not other people. Plus I’m starting to think it’s just kind of magical and fun. Looking forward to part two of course. I’ve read your breakdown before in classes of the difference between divination and fortune-telling and it’s endlessly fascinating to me.

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  6. Trying to concisely communicate sucks 😆

    I had a coworker, who had recently started working as a product manager for the first time, lament to me about how difficult it was to write a brief mission statement. It was only 3 sentences! He couldn’t understand why it was so difficult to write just three sentences.

    But, that concise mission statement is a huge bitch to draft. How do you winnow down your idea to 3 sentences? There is no way to convey it all, so some part of the information must get lost. How do you identify the chaff of your concept to a razor thin margin?

    The art of effective concise communication is much like the art of compressing video and audio. This is why hold music sounds so terrible: the compression required for sending the tonal range of music is different than what is needed to effectively transmit voice. A full rip of a movie can be terabytes, yet, this priate, Yiff, used to be able to commonly get videos down to 700mb without compromising the ability for emersive enjoyment of the film. Yiff had an art for winnowing the wheat from the chaff of audio video information. It’s a craft, much like how concise communication via mere words is a craft.

    It can be quite anguishing. It’s almost like the meaning of words can shift right under our feet, like a pool of water ebbing under a sheet of ice. It can be disorienting and fucking frustrating because it’s so hard to nail down. So difficult to convey a high res impression through massive compression. As humans, we hate this fuzziness of ambiguity and creeping change, and so we have this urge to grasp hold and force it to be still and defined. But everything will eventually erode away, regardless of our efforts.

    I have no reasonable way to end this rambling of thoughts 🤷‍♀️ So. The End.

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  7. Great article!. Some people when they come to me, they come to the fortune teller, some to the life-coach, some just for a nice chat – it is their decision. When I feel I can help, I just let them think I am a fortune-teller/psychic/life coach/shaman etc. … you know the image they project on me. I usually say that I work with cards…. the vaguer the better:) .. I mean the name or title or label I offer. As a self-definition….. I gave them up, all of them, maybe because am almost 50 and I do not believe in the usefulness of self-definitions and I do not care much what other people think about me having card conversations . This is actually the last title I used for my activity:). People needed fortune-tellers earlier, as they need now life coaches or urban shamans:), telling them what they already know – plus the experience of the extraordinary and the magical. I accept this historically proven role, what I do on the other hand is the sincere attempt to help. Letting my personality play to the extent only that is useful and helping.

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  8. I can’t wait for Part Two.

    This is like the third time recently that I’m hearing – it’s not about the messenger it’s about the message. Get out of your own way. I’m happier with Fortune Teller at the moment. Life coach seems to up beat a phrase.

    As an aside, I wrote a whole blog post on Fortune Telling and Divination, the conclusion I came to was, ‘The distinction between Fortune Telling and Divination is the difference between being given a warning and being inspired.’

    The full post is here:

    https://jonesdavyslocker.com/essay/fortune-telling-telling-a-future-vs-divination-asking-for-divine-guidance/

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  9. Sophia Hope Heilig

    I fully understand, I usually use the psychological explanation and am fully aware that’s not actually fully it but I’m also more around “non-woo” people and don’t want to scare them off or invite discussions every time. Discussion is of course fine but not in small talk with random people. So I bent myself a bit to fit in but I have incredible respect for those that dare to be fully authentic always

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  10. Natalia

    I was told almost exactly this: “Hmph. You don’t think your Ma knows all that already? I know that’s what it is. I know that’s not exactly the same as fortune-telling. But your explanation confuses people. It’s too many words. Too many ideas. You’re talking about too many things that most ordinary people know absolutely nothing about. So just tell people you are a fortune-teller.” Except from my husband and in a different situation. Goodness. This happened some days ago so it is still fresh in my mind, and I can’t stop thinking about it. About the labels we use, why we use them, and well how much should I make my label manageable for others or just leave it as is. Categories are such tricky things, and I myself don’t really have a problem being called a fortune teller, bad rep or not. But when it comes to spiritual practice, and how we label ourselves and how we do so with or for others is not so easy to disentangle.

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  11. Ted

    I like a lot of what tarotlenormandcards wrote up there in the comments.

    A bit of a ramble…

    There’s an odd thing that happens when we ask someone what they do: the answer is usually a job title or a the name of a role. “I’m a corporate lawyer / business consultant / neurobiologist / fortuneteller / plumber / used car salesman / homemaker / stay-at-home Mom”.

    None of which say anything about what they actually do. (Except, maybe, used car salesman.)

    And then the person hearing that has to figure out what the person does, and it may well become a clumsy guessing game full of assumptions. “Fortune-teller…so crystal ball, neon sign, scam artist?”

    But why not say what we do? Why do people come to card workers? What are they seeking? How do we help them? What do we provide? What do they go away with?

    I really like the work of Tad Hargrave for helping people to figure out how to say what they do. He’s at Marketting for Hippies dot com. No affiliations; I just like how he explains things and helps you work to the core of what’s the message you want to deliver.

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  12. I suppose this is why I don’t tell my family what I am doing. I do have to say something however, as I am inbetween jobs and do tarot readings once a week in a shop. To my customers I just tell them that I do card readings. I don’t like to label myself as psychic, because it’s not a very precise term.

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  13. Pingback: The Hit List - Never In Love - The Tarot Lady

  14. Dave

    Interesting blog, thank You.

    My non-Woo-Woo friends and family (including my wonderfully supportive wife) are comforted by the idea of the Tarot being a psychological tool – it allows them to understand what I do without worrying. Those that are more interested and discuss it with me find out more of the “extra” spiritual/intuitive/psychic dimension at that point. They humour me I guess. Those who are then interested enough to get a reading find out how I really work. As my aim is always to help my querent I do tend to make the comfortable for them in how i present their message. Some like the Woo Woo, some want it to be like a management coaching session. I don’t mind, I just want them to be helped by the reading.

    I badge myself an Intuitive Tarot Reader. It suggests a bit more than psychology whilst not frightening away the nervous.

    Looking forward to part 2.

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  15. Agreed. I never liked the various labels people associate with those who read the tarot. Mostly because it’s awkward to explain what it is I do, so i’ve been quiet about my “hobby”. Lately, I have taken to calling myself a “professional tarot consultant” mostly because it’s what my teacher uses and recommends. It also feels more “worldly” as opposed to being weird. It also makes marketing myself a little easier.

    Great post, btw. I look forward to part 2! 🙂

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