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Symbols of Tarot

Notes on the Use of Indirect Suggestion in Tarot Readings

Enrique Enriquez


Here I have copied and commented some selected quotes from a paper titled: "Indirect Forms of Suggestion", by Milton H. Erickson ( and Ernest L. Rossi ( Some of the techniques used by Erickson may be of interest in regard of the use of metaphor in readings, and specifically, to the usefulness of describing a card to a client, this is, the convenience of using a tarot card as an object of fixation, as understood in hypnotherapy, so it can elicit the relevant imagery that would lead a client towards important insights. This places the use of tarot within the idea of "magic as the intentional use of symbols to engage the mind in a process of transformation."

For starters, let’s see how Erickson (and Rossi) describe the stages of what constitutes an indirect suggestion:

(1) the fixation of attention, (2) depotentiating conscious sets and habitual frameworks, (3) unconscious search, (4) unconscious processes, and (5) hypnotic response. In essence, an indirect suggestion is regarded as one that initiates an unconscious search and facilitates unconscious processes within subjects so that they are usually somewhat surprised by their own response when they recognize it. More often than not, however, subjects do not even recognize the indirect suggestion as such and how their behavior was initiated and partially structured by it.

Now, let see at how that process can be applied to the experience of looking at a tarot card:

(1) Fixation of attention

The client is invited, either by gesture or by words, to focus on a given tarot card. The context in which the even occurs: a tarot session, and the fact that the card has been selected, either randomly or by conscious choice, gives personal relevance to this act of attention. The historical weight and long tradition tarot has ads credibility to the entire process.

(2) Depotentiating conscious sets and habitual frameworks

The tarot reader describes the card. He doesn’t interprets the card, but he simply describes what is evident: situation, position of the character, general attitude, the events taking place… The card becomes a therapeutic metaphor, a story by itself, without direct reference to the client.

(3) Unconscious search

The client search for meaning, looking for analogical connections between the image that is being described and her own personal situation. This process is helped by the reader by means of indirect associations, truism, questions, the use of time, and a set of tools we will soon describe.

(4) Unconscious processes

Realizations, insights, feelings and emotions than in other context, or following a direct comment, question, or request, wouldn’t have been accessed so easily, are elicited. The process occurs naturally and without resistance from the client’s part. Most of this process won’t be ever known by the tarot reader, It doesn’t has to be. The client must be granted the choice of withholding information. Part of this process won’t be even acknowledged by the client at a conscious level. At least, not at the precise moment of the reading.

(5) Hypnotic response.

A living metaphor evolves and expands itself with time, and takes special relevance when an specific event triggers it. In this way, each tarot card becomes a ‘cognitive talisman’ whose effect provides hints to the subconscious mind about how to respond to certain situations.


Now, allow me to expand in some of the specific strategies that help suggestions being given indirectly by quoting from Erickson and Rossi’s paper:

1. Indirect Associative Focusing. The simplest indirect form of suggestion is to raise a relevant topic without directing it in any obvious manner at the subject. Erickson likes to point out that the easiest way to help patients talk about their mothers is to talk about your own mother. A natural indirect associative process is thereby set in motion within the patients that brings up apparently spontaneous associations about their mother.

This is exactly what takes place when one describes the situation depicted on any given card. We are opening a space for the client to do a transderivational search and find "herself in the card" by means of associations. I am not talking here about describing the meaning of the card, but describe the image in the card, as if one is showing it to the client.

Since Erickson does not directly ask about the patient’s mother, the usual conscious sets and mental framewords (e.g., psychological defenses) that such a direct question might evoke are bypassed. In a similar manner, when Erickson is working in a group, he will talk to one person about the hypnotic phenomena he wants another target person to experience. As he talks about hand levitation, hallucinatory sensations, or whatever, there is a natural process of ideomotor or ideosensory response that takes place within the target subject on an autonomous or unconscious level. Erickson utilizes these spontaneous and usually unrecognized internal responses to "prime" a target subject for hypnotic experience before the subject’s resistance or limited beliefs about his or her own capacities can interfere.

An additional kind of description is the one that includes kinesthetic stimuli, as in describing the client the sensations that the character featured in the card seems to be experiencing: "having a cat scratching you ‘there’ certainly hurts, it has to make your skin sore… yet the man seems to be enjoying the breeze he feels on his face". This is, again, an indirect way of addressing sensations and emotions that may be relevant to the client at a metaphorical level.

Similarly, in therapy Erickson uses a process of indirectly focusing associations to help patients recognize a problem. He will make remarks, or tell stories about a network of topics S1, S2, S3, Sk, all of which have a common "focus" association, S 1, which Erickson hypothesizes to be a relevant aspect of the patient’s problem.

In the context of our work with tarot, every storyline and metaphor we use gets automatically contextualized as being "about the client" by means of context and expectations.

The patient sometimes wonders why Erickson is making such interesting but apparently irrelevant conversation during the therapy hour. If S 1 is in fact a relevant aspect of the patient’s problem, however, the patient will frequently find himself talking about it in a surprisingly revelatory manner. If Erickson guessed wrong and S 1 is not a relevant aspect, nothing is lost; the patient’s associative matrix simply will not add enough significant contributions to raise S 1 to a conscious and verbal level. In this case Erickson allows himself to be corrected and goes on to explore another associative matrix. This indirect associative focusing approach is the basic process in what Erickson calls the "Interspersal approach." (NOTE FROM EE: Obviously, there is nothing wrong about being wrong; but still, one can narrow down the topics into the most relevant one by asking the client to look at the cards and consciously pick one that feels relevant).”

2. Truisms Utilizing Ideodynamic Processes and Time. The basic unit of ideodynamic focusing is the truism, which is a simple statement of fact about behavior that the patient has experienced so often that it cannot be denied. In most of our case illustrations it will be found that the senior author frequently talks about certain psychophysiological processes or mental mechanisms as if he were simply describing objective facts to the patient (NOTE FROM EE: Change "psychophysiological processes" for the actions and attitudes depicted in the cards). Actually these verbal descriptions can function as indirect suggestions when they trip off ideodynamic responses from associations and learned patterns which already exist within patients as a repository of their life experience. The "generalized reality orientation" (Shor, 1959) usually maintains these subjective responses in appropriate check when we are engaged in ordinary conversation. When attention is fixed and focused in trance so that some of the limitations of the patient’s habitual mental sets are depotentiated, however, the following truisms may actually trip off a literal and concrete experience of the suggested behavior.

You already know how to experience pleasant sensations like the warmth of the sun on your skin.

Everyone has had the experience of nodding their head yes or shaking it no even without quite realizing it.

It could be said that each Tarot card illustrates some sort of truism: "You know how one can be at the top and suddenly, find oneself at the very bottom" La Rove De Fortune; "You know how much more pleasant feels to travel light" in Le Mat. Or that the situation depicted in the card can be turned into a truism: "You know how it feels to loose your ground" in La Maison Diev.

Another important form is the truism that incorporates time. Erickson would rarely make a direct suggestion for a definite behavioral response without tempering it with a time variable that the patient’s own system can define.

Sooner or later your hand is going to lift (eyes close, etc.).

Your headache (or whatever) will disappear as soon as your system is ready for it to leave.

Building on Erickson’s examples, one could ask: "I wonder how long is going to take for that water to cool down", in Temperance; or "the pain of cutting all these limbs will recede with time" in XIII.

3. Questions that Focus, Suggest, and Reinforce. Recent research (Sternberg, 1975) indicates that when questioned the human brain continues an exhaustive search throughout its entire memory system on an unconscious level even after it has found an answer that is apparently satisfactory on a conscious level. The mind scans 30 items per second even when the person is unaware that the search is continuing. This unconscious search and activation of mental processes on an unconscious or autonomous level is the essence of Erickson’s indirect approach, wherein he seeks to utilize a patient’s unrecognized potentials to evoke hypnotic phenomena and therapeutic responses.

Think here on raising the question of why a character in a card is doing what he or she is doing, on wondering aloud about what kind of feelings the character may be entertaining in that situation/position: "One wonders how may feel that woman by letting go all that water" Lestoille.

Questions are of particular value as indirect forms of suggestion when they cannot be answered by the conscious mind. Such questions tend to activate unconscious processes and initiate the autonomous responses which are the essence of trance behavior. The following are illustrations of how a series of questions can focus attention to initiate trance, reinforce comfort, and lead to hypnotic responsiveness.

Would you like to find a spot you can look at comfortably?

As you continue looking at that spot, do your eyes get tired and have a tendency to blink?

Will they close all at once or flutter a bit first as some parts of your body begin to experience the comfort so characteristic of trance?

Does that comfort deepen as those eyes remain closed so you would rather not even try to open them?

And how soon will you forget about your eyes and begin nodding your head very slowly as you dream a pleasant dream?

This series begins with a question that requires conscious choice and volition on the part of the patient and ends with a question that can only be carried out by unconscious processes. An important feature of this approach is that it is failsafe in the sense that any failure to respond can be accepted as a valid and meaningful response to a question.

Following Erickson’s example, one could describe a card like L’Empereur, by saying: "When one finds the right place, one can sit proud and relaxed… the spine feels like pulled from above, erect but relieved, so one can look at the rest of the world with gentleness, understanding and piety, since every face and every problem present to us as an epiphany." Here, we are anchoring the unconscious capacity to experience insight in the face of trouble, with the physical, tangible, sensation of sitting down with a straight back, just like L’Empereur suggests.

4. Implication. An understanding of how Erickson uses psychological implication can provide us with the clearest model of his indirect approach. Consider the following example of the multiple implications in a single sentence that seemingly states the obvious.

The very complexity of mental functioning, (A truism about psychology that initiates a "yes" or acceptance set for what follows.) you go into trance to find out (With a slight vocal emphasis on "to find out," this phrase implies the patient will go into trance and will go into trance to find something important). a whole lot of things you can do, (Implies that it is not what the therapist does but what the patient does that is important.) and they are so many more than you dreamed of. (Pause.) (The pause implies that the patient’s unconscious may now make a search to explore potentials previously undreamed of. This sets up an important expectancy for experiencing unusual or hypnotic phenomena.)

Again, if we look at La Papesse, we could say: "Your memory guards only the events that truly matters (A truism) and whatever comes to mind when you look at the past (suggest to make an act of remembrance and find something) can be transformed by you into knowledge (the person’s own capacity to learn is what counts) and used in the present. (Pause, to allow the entire suggestion to sink-in).

It is important in formulating implications to realize that the therapist only provides a stimulus; the hypnotic aspect of psychological implications is created on an unconscious level by the listener. The most effective aspect of any suggestion is that which stirs the listener’s own associations and mental processes into automatic action; it is this autonomous activity of the listener’s own mental processes that creates hypnotic experience.


Enrique EnriquezAlthough “Indirect Forms of Suggestion”* is a longer essay, these quotes and my respective comments should give you a detailed idea of the kind of work I am suggesting. The underlying idea here is that such patterns for indirect suggestion are present in all tarot readings, independently of the reader’s awareness to them. What we commonly call a ‘prediction’ may very well be just the client’s enactment of a post-session suggestion the reader implanted with or without knowing so. All readings share a common pace-and-leading structure in which the expression of a fact that is recognizable by the client automatically validates those who the client may not recognize yet but are projected into the future. While functioning in a pace-and-leading structure, the tarot becomes a tool for modeling behavior, even if we assume that we are just there to give our clients ‘hope’. A conscious understanding of these techniques should reassess our responsibility as readers when delivering information to clients. By understanding the role that suggestion plays in our work with the tarot we can help the psychological processes that are an integral part of a reading to take place in a way that can be more controlled by the reader and therefore more useful to the client.

Enrique Enriquez
New York 2007-2009

Photo credit: Tim Bowen



* For further study read ‘Hypnotic Realities: The Induction of Clinical Hypnosis and Forms of Indirect Suggestion’, by Milton H Erickson, M.D., Sheila I Rossi, Ernest L Rossi





Other suggested resources:

Milton Erickson’s Contribution To Therapy, by Stephen Lankton (

My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, M.D, by Sidney Rosen

Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., by Jay Haley


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Notes on the Use of Indirect Suggestion in Tarot Readings

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