For a great many people, divination is the first point of contact with the world of occultism. In fact, for those with scant exposure to this landscape, occult practice itself is basically framed as playing with tarot cards and ouija boards. The ignorant don’t know about athames, wands and the other magical weapons; don’t even bother explaining the difference between evocation and invocation to such a person, because the basic concept of the magical circle in which either activity takes place is still a vague and hazy matter to them—but just about everybody knows what tarot cards are, even if their understanding may be sketchy.
The reason for this is easy enough to grasp when you take a look at human nature. In one sense, divination is a source for answers to myriad questions. When a person’s back is against the wall and all other resources have been exhausted, even the skeptical have been known to consult a fortune teller, just to see what they have to say. The querent need not place a single shred of faith in the process in order to gain insight from a divination session. Even if you believe the turn of the cards is completely random and meaningless, at the very least, a reading might present possibilities that you hadn’t yet considered. If such a possibility contains your much-needed answer, that’s worth the price of admission even if you think your reader is a quack. Along the way and despite initial preconceptions, you may be awestruck by what comes up in readings, and this alone has been enough to kick-start the magical careers of many an aspiring adept. You want answers, this mumbo-jumbo provides them, and you start thinking twice about your worldview—that’s one of the best magic tricks of all! Presto change-o! You’ve been initiated into one of divination’s mysteries: It has stepped into your life and fundamentally changed you when all you wanted was some advice.
Of course, what I’ve described above is just one possible scenario. Still, even within the magical community, peopled by practitioners who already believe in the hidden realms, divination is sometimes the tool of last resort, remembered only when other avenues have proven fruitless. Cards and runes remain on the shelf, collecting dust until a crisis emerges and a “Hail Mary” is called for. In this mode, divination is “The Fixer,” one you don’t want to call up every day because their function is reserved for dire situations or special occasions. In this view, divination is still perceived as somewhat extraordinary, and so must be the circumstances surrounding its deployment. Just look at the word itself: “Divination” can make one think of “divine intervention,” and we may be culturally conditioned to view such events as rare and exquisitely special occurrences even after stepping into the wide world of wonder that is occultism.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that approach, and there are actually good reasons that some people take it. To go in the complete opposite direction, compulsively casting cards for every common conundrum, is ill-advised, as is the tendency to do multiple readings over the same issue. I’ll admit, I’ve been there. When the storm clouds gather and uncertainty looms, to lapse into this mode is human and understandable. To remain in this mode on a continual basis is flat-out unhealthy. We all need help sometimes, but we also need to be able to make our own decisions. It’s dangerous to place too much power in the vicissitudes of divination readings even if you’re doing them for yourself, and it’s even more risky to turn over so much agency to another human being, no matter how well-meaning they may be (and some are not well-meaning in the least).
There is another path, however, that involves lots and lots of divination balanced with lots and lots of introspection and an experimental approach to life. As most who have studied divination are aware, there is far more to it than forecasting fortunes. There’s a reason that another word for a diviner is “soothsayer,” or “person who speaks the truth.” What I am talking about here is Truth with a capital T—not superficial facts, but deeper, ever-enduring verities that stand firm amid the ebb and flow of the phenomenal world. Far beyond being mere media for relating the most likely turn of events from a given point in time, virtually every system of divination that has survived the ages doubles as an initiatory system encoding teachings that illuminate us to the Mysteries. This is truly empowering; while you’re looking to solve immediate, practical problems with direct answers, you can also be learning universal lessons about how the world works that will ultimately free you from thralldom to circumstance. One day, you may ask your runes whether or not you should take a new job that you’re being offered, but if you pay attention, you will also gain the kind of insight that allows you to bypass such questions altogether. You will perhaps come to be more interested in asking why you were looking for a new job to begin with, or how you ended up in the one that you have, answering that initial question as a byproduct while gaining so much more. Digging ever-deeper to the root causes of things, each reading can bring you one step closer to fulfilling the ancient injunction, “Know Thyself.” This is more valuable than any worldly matter you might bring up in a reading. The good news, though, is that you can have the best of both worlds. I would go so far as to say that you should. It’s good to be well-rounded—reach for the sky while standing firm in your roots.
Now that I’ve droned on and on in introduction, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. How does this path look in practice? Actually, “practice” is a good word, because that’s exactly what divination becomes here: A daily practice. In a purely mechanical sense, routine repetition is the only way for one to familiarize oneself with the various symbols and associations that comprise a given system of divination, but that’s not all I’m talking about. I’m talking about doing readings as a practice in the same way a monk practices meditation. Do one reading a day, minimum, and do it for its own sake. This has to be ongoing, otherwise you’re not really carrying a dialogue. All too often, the approach to divination is discursive and periodical: Nasty stuff happens or confusion sets in, we consult an oracle, then we move on with our lives until the next time we’re in over our heads. Just as human relationships take work and a steady investment of time and attention, so does the formation of a divinatory dialogue. There is a give-and-take with no discernible end, because you are not really doing this to achieve some specific end. This is about process, not prognostication, and it’s a process that will enrich your life in countless ways.
I want to emphasize the point of doing these readings for their own sake and what that means. Although it’s fine to also do readings addressing specific issues, one of the most important keys to this process is the open-ended act of asking no question, casting your spread with an open mind, and paying attention to what comes up. That’s part of what makes this a true dialogue. When you’re having a conversation with a person, you don’t preface each and every response they give by imposing a set of constraints for them to follow first; in order to truly listen, you must be open and receptive to whatever the other person has to say as they freely speak their mind. In this way, the dialogue naturally takes its own course and goes wherever it needs to go at any given moment. In like manner, this process is about opening up and tuning into the pertinent message, whatever it may be.
To some, separating divination from the question may defeat the purpose. To others, the question is so central to the exercise that to pluck it out of the equation doesn’t even compute, and any such reading appears to drift hopelessly away from anything resembling meaning. This practice may involve such a radical departure from one’s assumptions that making a beginning seems impossible. I would advise perseverance, because the ensuing transformation of perspective is one of the very reasons for engaging the practice.
This doesn’t have to be very elaborate or time-consuming. The simplest way to begin is with a single symbol each day: Whatever system of divination you use, draw one “unit” and let that be the statement from which you work. If you’re using tarot cards, draw one card, if you’re using runes, draw one rune, if you’re using geomancy, cast one figure, etc. Freed from the limitation of having asked some question first, you may interpret this sign in any number of ways. You can interpret the sign on multiple levels, and all of them may be relevant. In this practice, the fulcrum point shifts from the question to the present moment itself, and whatever comes up is held to be an embodiment of present conditions. Take some time to reflect on it: How does the symbol apply to what’s going on in your life? Does it, in fact, seem to apply at all? Sometimes the meaning isn’t very clear when you do your reading. Sometimes you never quite “get” why a given sign comes up, but the practice of attempting to apply it still bears fruit; finally, although I said this is not about prognostication per se, the symbol may herald that which is coming down the pike and, while bewildering in the moment, may make perfect sense before the close of the day, or even much later and only in hindsight. For example, I’ve been in situations where my card of the day looks like utter gibberish, and so does the next one, and the next one, but one day a card comes up that ties them all together into something so clear and obvious, when taken as a sequence, that it’s like reading a sentence on a page. Boom.
Naturally, this becomes a great way of learning divination itself, or learning a new system that you haven’t worked with before. It’s one thing to memorize a set of correspondences but learning how those associations can manifest or translate into experiences is so much more rewarding. Now you’re not just learning about them, you’re learning from them, integrating them into your life. This is the difference between mere knowledge and true understanding.
More than this, though, you come to learn a whole lot about yourself and about the world around you. You come to learn, through direct experience and with the system as an intermediary, how yourself and the world around you are the same thing. You have invited these symbols into your life in such an intimate way that they begin to show you the folly of many of the lines that we draw between ourselves, others, and our environment. This is a process of deep integration, and one that needs time to unfold. It’s really a form of yoga.
Since there is so much emphasis on the ongoing nature of the practice, it’s a very good idea to keep a journal to record each day’s results and your thoughts about them. You may want to write twice a day—once in the morning just after casting your sign, and once at the end of the day. In this second session of journaling, you may want to expand on your earlier thoughts, or perhaps modify your interpretation. This modification is perfectly valid since the goal here is not necessarily to accurately predict something. The whole point is that our understanding is constantly growing and evolving, so to hinder that process by prohibiting such afterthought defeats the purpose.
As you become accustomed to the process, you can introduce other systems into the mix, so long as this doesn’t serve to confuse matters (and it can). This can bring many benefits, teaching you how one system compares or contrasts with another. In cases where the sign you get from one system seems dissonant or completely contradictory to the sign you get from another system, you can learn a great deal about life and its nuances; not everything is black-and-white, and sometimes seemingly opposing truths can occupy the same space. What I find more often, however, is that the addition of other systems adds dimensions to the meaning without taking anything away. You should consider each symbol separately, but also read them together as a constellation, as if they were separate cards in a single spread—even though they come from different systems. I disagree with anybody who holds that divination systems can’t be mixed this way, and I will explain why when I visit the final subject of this essay.
Journaling is key, because while a dialogue can be very meaningful in its constituent parts, it has the most meaning when taken as a whole. In order to truly appreciate the messages that any given process may impart, one must step back and behold it in its entire majesty. The only way to do this is to keep a record for the duration of the practice.
If you want, you can even go all-out and do full-blown readings every day, from a simple three-symbol spread to something more elaborate like a Celtic Cross configuration. As long as you have the time, this will deepen the experience, and you might as well. What you’re ultimately doing, over time, is composing a narrative. You’re telling a story. It’s up to you whether the depth of that story more closely matches that of a children’s book, a paperback novel or an academic thesis. Do what works for you—it’s your story.
As you progress from interpreting single symbols as the “chapter” of a given day to incorporating groups and full-on readings, also view the entire contents of your journals as a single, ongoing “reading,” one that grows in complexity every day. It’s all very “meta,” a nested hierarchy playing out on many levels at once. This will necessitate revisiting earlier chapters and reinterpreting them in light of new experiences. What else is life about, after all? We learn and grow into the world, and if we’re steadfast, the world also grows into us.
This brings up the final subject that I mentioned earlier. At first glance, one might consider it the most important consideration and wonder why I waited until the tail end of this article to address it. It’s because, in my view, it’s not actually the most important question:
Just who or what are you actually having a dialogue with?
Wow, where to begin? For starters, I think the best possible answer to this question can only come from experience and giving the process a try. I can write my answers here, and they may be comprehensible, but you will only truly understand the answers by living them. Furthermore, my answers may not be your answers. The great paradox of Truth is that it is both absolute and so completely relative, all at the same time, so who cares what I have to say on the matter? Your mileage will definitely vary, but you won’t know that until you get in your car and drive.
Secondly, I don’t trust anybody who claims to have the answer to that question, in part because my experience suggests that there’s no way to boil this down to one pat answer. Some people hold the view that when doing divination, you are consulting the system itself, which is not seen as an inanimate object, but as a living, sentient entity. I know this to be particularly true with the runes, which are said to be ancient beings that were around even before Odin, the one credited with bringing them to us; He did not fashion them, but instead received them through the process of ordeal. Not even He, God of sagely wisdom and deep insight, fully understands their nature. How could I claim to know what’s going on when I consult an oracle? Whether or not you interpret the legends surrounding any given oracle as factual, the unavoidable reality is that this is part of the answer. You can’t separate a divination system from the process of divination. At the very least, as the medium for the message, the system you employ is part of the message itself. At the same time, it’s important to remember that it is only part of the message. Divination taps something far beyond the particular vehicle of expression, and that something is approachable by multiple avenues, even at the same time. No system holds a monopoly on the process. In my view, it’s important not to get too caught up in a single system, lest one lose sight of the bigger picture.
On a deeper level, I think we are also holding a dialogue with ourselves—with the Higher Self from a spiritual standpoint, but at the very least with our deep inner self in the form of the so-called “unconscious.” This practice is thus compatible with an atheistic worldview, believe it or not.
For the spiritually-minded, though, another possibility is that of contacting “third parties” via divination, an idea especially pertinent to the use of spirit boards. One may be tapping one’s ancestors, angels or demons (if you draw a distinction between the two), or a particular God or Goddess during a divination session.
To simplify to the fullest, one can say that one is holding a dialogue with the universe, thus covering all bases. As I understand it, the reason divination works is because everything is connected, and as such, the movements of one section of the universe are reflective of, and reflect upon, the movements of other parts. Through sheer cause-and-effect, everything is woven together and it is thus possible to extrapolate the state of the whole by focusing in on a part and reading it properly. One of those parts is you yourself, your chosen system of divination is another part, and so on, but ultimately, it’s impossible to define.
So often in life, we find answers only after learning to ask the right questions. After years of wondering where these answers were coming from, I learned to look at them on their own merit. Truth is truth and the same holds true for BS—I don’t really care who’s doing the talking. It’s literally and figuratively immaterial.
Thus, what I consider to be the optimal attitude in conducting these divinations is a sort of “middle-way” between taking the reading seriously and viewing it as mere entertainment. The saying that comes to mind is, “Wear the world as a loose garment.” Cast your cards and pay close attention, give the process some reverence, but don’t forget to have fun. I’ve learned through my own dialogue to laugh at myself more often, but also to care more about myself than I once did. Take every possible interpretation seriously enough to learn lessons from but remain detached enough to discard outmoded perceptions when new knowledge supplants them. That is how we grow while staying true to ourselves. From this point of view, divination is a way of learning about what really matters.