Tarot and Dreams: Illumination and Explication by Diane Wilkes

Tarot and dream explication have a lot in common. The pictures on tarot cards and the images you see in your dreams offer you visual metaphors that echo and illustrate the deepest chords of your subconscious. Both dreams and the tarot also provide material that allows you to explore and illuminate various aspects of your life on many levels. 

In fact, we can use the four suits/elements of the tarot as a grid for the ways in which we can gain understanding into ourselves using dreams (and the tarot): 

Fire/Wands – Looking at a reading or a dream for its spiritual message, or as a way to understand what truly “fires” your soul

Water/Cups – Looking at a reading or a dream for its emotional content, so that you can explore all of your feelings. Often we have conflicting sentiments, or our feelings and beliefs conflict with one another. Dreams and tarot spreads have a way of addressing these multifold emotions

Air/Swords – Looking at a reading or a dream for its intellectual or analytical properties, in order to determine how it reflects your thoughts and beliefs on an issue

Earth/Disks – Looking at a reading or a dream for its divinational (magickal) or predictive messages. Assuming you make no behavioral changes, is the dream/spread offering you a physical depiction of the future? Change and free will are always available to you, but we can get a literal glimpse of what is to be via dreams and card readings

There are many ways to combine tarot with dreamwork (or dreamplay). An easy one is to  program your dreams with a particular tarot card that has the qualities you seek to explore in your nocturnal reveries. Choose a card that reflects what you wish to dream about by going through your deck and selecting an image that speaks to that in some way. If, for example, you want to dream about a potential lover, you could choose The Lovers card, or a member of the Court Cards that has the qualities you seek in a partner. The Ace or Two of Cups are other card possibilities. Meditate on the card before you go to sleep and say aloud what you wish to dream about, incorporating your thoughts on the card into your statement. Put the card under your pillow and go to sleep with it being the last image in your psyche. You may wish to do this for several nights, perhaps “charging” a series of dreams to more fully explore all the elements of your question. 

If you want to examine your career goals, you might choose a card that depicts the kind of work you’re exploring. Be creative here. While there may not be a card that identically illustrates your question, you can flexibly utilize the elemental correspondences for a close-enough fit. The Three and the Eight of Pentacles both show different aspects of work, and can be used if nothing else seems to fit. Do you see one as the master craftsperson and the other as an apprentice? Choose the card that fits your needs. 

If you’re considering taking a part-time job as a bartender, the Seven of Cups might aid you in making a decision. Or perhaps you’d like some help in detaching from the mental stresses of your job? The Queen of Swords can probably offer some pointed suggestions. While I offer some specific possibilities, I urge you to trust your perception of your particular deck’s imagery. What resonates with your psyche is most important when it comes to dreamwork.

Because dreams are so image-oriented, it’s important that you have at least one tarot deck with which you connect on an aesthetic level. If your present deck doesn’t do it for you, there are hundreds of other decks from which to choose. You may have one deck for dreams that have to do with spiritual issues and another for health concerns. Examining and ingesting various artists’ vision of a particular archetype can only enrich your understanding of it.

There are numerous dream dictionaries that offer you interpretations for the various symbols that appear in your dreams. My favorite book on dreams is Betty Bethards’ The Dream Book: Symbols for Self Understanding, which not only contains a spiritually-oriented dictionary, but also has some excellent suggestions on how to interpret and work with your dreams. Of course, creating your own symbolic dictionary adds vitality and relevance to your dreamwork and supersedes any other interpretational source. Bethards suggests apples are a “healthful influence,” but if you once got drunk on Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and retched for three hours straight, your subconscious likely perceives apples quite differently.    

Gail Fairfield offers a simple and effective way of using the tarot to interpret a dream in her classic work, Everyday Tarot: A Choice-Centered Book.  She recommends you break down and number your dream into simple sentences (“1. I walk in the door and a monster awaits. 2. He is huge and wears a Superman uniform that is too tight for his oversized green body. 3. He screams, “I have been waiting for you to bring the Kryptonite for days!”). You then select a card for each numbered portion of your dream and use it to bring insight into its meaning for you. Let’s say you pulled the Two of Pentacles for the first sentence and look at it from the four element grid shown above. On a Wands level, you could feel like you are on spiritual overload, possibly from discovering a new path or a recent initiation (“I walk in the door”). From a Cups perspective, you could feel overwhelmed by your “monstrous” schedule, a schedule you can’t seem to balance. Using the Swords approach, it could mean that you think you are cruising for an intellectual bruising. On the Earth/Disks level, you could perceive a new responsibility is going to be more daunting than you originally believed.

Of course, you don’t have to approach each card from every level. Gleaning an insight from each card is often enough to provide some guidance. And even a one-card pull to understand your dream as a whole will often give you sufficient direction which you can expand upon at a later date, if you so choose. 

Buddhism teaches that all dharma is dreams, so if you view your life as a living dream, you can use Gail Fairfield’s method to explore daily incidences that impact you. Perceiving the experiences as dreams helps you to avoid attaching yourself overmuch to outcome. If you do this exercise interchangeably for both waking and sleeping dreams, it will increase your ability to detach from outcome. Petty personal annoyances are shown as the temporal ephemera they are, allowing you to prioritize and focus on what really matters to you.

Interpretation is a word that is often used in terms of both dreams and tarot, but don’t let that word limit you. Often, there is no one “correct” interpretation, but a range of insights that you can glean from a dream and/or a tarot reading. Words like illumination, exploration, and explication are all valid words that allow you to seek multiple revelations.

You can combine tarot with your dreamwork as simply or as in as much depth as you’d like. Here’s a rather lengthy process I devised, inspired by a psychology book that stressed the importance of dreams. 

The Process:

1. Record your dream, using as much detail as you can remember. 

2. Make three lists: one, the people who appeared in your dream (including yourself), the items that appeared in your dream (a house, a car, a bed, etc.), and the actions/occurences (going to the park, flying, etc.).

3. Separate your deck into two sections: Court Cards and the Major and Minor Arcana

4. Pull a card from the first section of the deck (Court Cards) for each of the people who appeared in your dream; pull a card from the remainder of the deck for the other two lists. Any Major Arcana cards that appear indicate that the item or action is thematically emphasized and deserve special attention.

5. Write up what you think each card means in relation to the components of your dream.

6.  Go through the deck with conscious intent and find the card that most defines your feelings about the dream. Record this card and a brief explanation of what it means to you in this context.

7.  Go through the deck with conscious intent and select the card that most defines what you think the dream means. Record this card and a brief explanation of what it means to you in this context.

8.  Go through the deck with conscious intent and select the card that suggests an action you might take to “make your dream come true” (if desired) or to ameliorate any negative behaviors you feel the dream indicates to you. Record this card, as well as the necessary action and when you plan to do said action.

9.  Return all the cards to the deck, shuffle, and choose one card (face down). This card indicates the secret, unexplained part of the dream. If the card you turn up is one that has already been a part of this process, it indicates that, while you have a very good handle on your dream, this particular card has special meaning and perhaps, even more suggestions, interpretations, and solutions to offer you. You may wish to carry the card with you for the day, in order to glean additional insights.

But tarot and dreamwork doesn’t have to be so time-consuming. One thing that does take a bit of time is writing down and dating your dream upon awakening, but once you establish it as a regular morning practice, it is no more overwhelming than brushing your teeth. You can always return to the dream later, but if you don’t write it down as soon as you get up, you are likely to omit and/or forget something important when you try to recall it later in the day.

Years ago I actually dreamed a tarot spread. I was feeling negatively about someone I had considered a friend who was spending the night. I dreamed that I did a reading about her that clarified my discomfort with her. When I awakened, I wrote down the spread as I remembered it, and have found it helpful to use when I am feeling conflicting emotions about someone. You don’t have to specifically dream about a spread in order to use it as the basic of a layout, though. If the dream is similar to a story, you can break the dream down into parts. Using the three sentence sample dream I used above, I created the following spread:

Card One – What’s behind the door? (the door)

Card Two – What do I fear is behind the door? (the monster)

Card Three – What overwhelms me? (the size of the monster)

Card Four – What constricts me? (the fit of the monster’s attire)

Card Five – What would allow me to grow? (the color green)

Card Six —  What unpaid debt do I owe (the overdue Kryptonite)

I should mention that, while I made up this dream off the top of my head to illustrate a specific method, the spread I created is overwhelmingly on target for me personally. I will take it for a test-drive as soon as I finish this article…which is overdue! But the implicit, greater teaching of this story is that our subconscious is a rich resource for exploring what we can’t or don’t always access in other ways. Dreams and tarot can be used as tools that bridge the subconscious and the conscious, and, like the Hermit’s lantern, shed illumination so that we can walk a path of enlightened awareness.