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Whatever comes up: Associations and creativity
Index of The Sceptic's Tarot articles on creativity (Updated 4 June 2020)

Brainstorming with tarot cards

Brainstorming with Tarot cards is a remarkably effective technique to think up ideas and solutions. It takes advantage of the evocative quality of the cards—not only the images and symbols, but also the layers of meaning that have accumulated around the cards.

Brainstorming is about creating a list of ideas, not solving a problem by analysing causes, circumstances and consequences. Brainstorming can be used on its own, or as part of a more comprehensive problem-solving exercise. On its own, brainstorming can help you, for example, when you need creative ideas for a birthday present, a theme party, or ways to improve the sales of a product.

Brainstorming is a group technique popularized by Alex Osborn in the 1950s. The key to effective brainstorming is to record ideas with no regard for whether the idea is practical. Wild, improbable and crazy ideas can later be evaluated, sorted, modified, combined or rejected. The aim of a brainstorming session is to generate as many ideas as possible, which widens the pool of possibilities for the evaluation phase, and makes finding an effective solution more likely.

Technically, the word “brainstorming” refers only to the group technique as designed by Alex Osborn. In general, the word refers to any variation on the technique, and even to problem solving as a whole.

Research suggests that classic (group) brainstorming may not be as effective as its variations or individual brainstorming techniques. Some variations on classic brainstorming use stimuli to trigger ideas—these include random words, phrases, and images. These stimuli can be randomized in various ways, such as picking words from a dictionary or other book, or using a computer to generate random words, phrases, or images.

Tarot cards offer an additional way to draw random stimuli. The cards are traditionally shuffled and cut before a reading—a ritual which can be used in creative thinking to not only randomize images, but also provide random words and phrases.

As you try these brainstorming techniques, you will notice that each has its own “flavour.” Whereas the first is intense and fast, the second is more contemplative. The third variation works with symbols, while the fourth concentrates on words and phrases. The fifth is a fun variation that can incorporate any of the first four techniques, then adds a twist.

Variation 1: 78 ideas

The first strategy is to go through the deck, drawing one card at a time, and noting down the first idea the card inspires. (This technique is also discussed in Mark McElroy’s Putting the Tarot to work.) Move through the deck rapidly, but don’t feel rushed. The idea is to prevent your brain from evaluating the ideas. The value of using all the cards in the deck—or at least a set number of cards—is that brainstorming sessionyour brain is forced to produce an idea per card. They might not all seem to be “good” ideas, but you will have much to work with when, at the end of the brainstorming session, you look at your list of ideas.

It is feasible to go through all 78 cards in a deck, but you can limit yourself to, say, 20 cards, or a subset of the cards. If you feel the full deck of cards would be too much, use the 2s to 10s—these are usually the more evocative cards.

You may find surprising thoughts popping up: jokes, silly ideas, things your mother used to say, admonitions to yourself, snatches of songs, clichés, metaphors, memories. If you use all or most cards, you will also find repetition—the same or similar thoughts cropping up. That’s okay, these will all be helpful to you. Repetitions could be important. These thoughts or ideas are “at the top of your mind,” even if you are not (yet) aware of them.

If you find it hard to come up with an idea per card, think of what the card could be “saying” to you; what advice would it give?

Watch out for thoughts that spark a resistance in your mind: why are you reluctant to think them? Why would an idea be frightening, or repulsive?

For this brainstorming exercise, you can ignore the keywords associated with a card, but if they form part of the associations evoked by the card, use whatever comes to mind.

If you have never done this kind of brainstorming before, you may struggle initially, but the more you do it, the easier the ideas will flow.

Variation 2: Several ideas from one card

Fbrainstorming sessionor this variation, you draw only one card and, using the image as inspiration, generate as many ideas as possible from this card.

While looking at the image on the card, write down all the associations that come to mind. Note any ideas or thoughts that pop into your head when you look at the image. You can ignore the keywords usually associated with the card, but if they form part of your associations with the card, use them.

You may find that the card brings up memories, emotions, or thoughts—make a note of these, even if they seem to have nothing to do with the problem at hand.

Now take those associations one by one, apply them to the problem, and let them inspire ideas.

Variation 3: Symbols and objects

brainstorming sessionThis variation plays with the symbols, colours, objects and number on the card.

Draw a card at random, then make a list of everything that catches your eye. You can make the list as short or as long as you want. Look at the details on the card—Tarot cards often have symbols and details that are not quite hidden, but reveal themselves when you look carefully at the image.

You can include suit, court card figures, colours and numbers, as these are also symbols.

Now use every item you have listed to give you some ideas about solving your problem.

Variation 4: Keywords and descriptions

Through the centuries, Tarot cards have accumulated meanings and associations, layer upon layer, adding to their usefulness in creative thinking.

As Tarot became associated with various systems (including the Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, and numerology), the meanings ascribed to the individual cards expanded. Some Tarotists shifted the traditional interpretations to match their themes or chosen systems, while others gathered the often disparate interpretations in one comprehensive list. This meant that the cards were brainstorming sessiongiven meanings that diverged considerably from one another, and even contradicted one another. For divination, this may be a problem, needing considerable intuitive skills to apply the correct meaning to a situation; for creative thinking, more is an advantage.

For this variation on brainstorming with Tarot cards, you list keywords and descriptive phrases associated with the card you have drawn. These are then used as stimuli.

These keywords and phrases can be taken from any—even several—of the books on Tarot that contains card meanings. You can also use the LWB (little white book, or pamphlet) that came with your chosen deck, although these usually contain very brief descriptions. Many decks come with accompanying books; these would be good to use. Pick phrases from the longer card descriptions to use as trigger.

Mary K Greer's Tarot for your self is an excellent source of card meanings; her lists of card meanings contain both traditional and less common meanings. Sandra Thomson's Pictures from the heart: A Tarot dictionary is a wonderful source of card meanings; she includes a discussion of each card, giving examples from various decks. Paul Huson (Mystical origins of the Tarot), Jana Riley (Tarot dictionary and compendium) and Bill Butler (Dictionary of the Tarot) offer compilations of interpretations taken from various sources (from Etteilla, to the early 20th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Arthur Edward Waite, to various modern authors).

Symbol associations

You can expand your list of triggers by including the common associations of the symbols on the card—objects, colours, numbers, the suit symbol, court card figures—to the meaning of the card. Some books that discuss the cards in depth will also discuss the symbols on the cards, but these are few. You can use a dictionary of symbols (such as Cirlot’s A dictionary of symbols or Jack Tressider’s The Watkins dictionary of symbols) to gain an understanding of the general associations of each symbol.

An excellent book to consult for number, suit and court card symbology is Mary K Greer’s 21 ways to read a Tarot card. It is not only an outstanding book on interpreting the cards in general, but also lists associations for each number, suit, and types of court card (kings, queens, knights and pages).

Sandra Thomson’s Pictures from the heart is one of my favourite sources of information on the symbols often found on Tarot cards (not specific to the Rider-Waiter deck). She also includes myths and mythical figures associated with the cards, all of which add layers of meaning to the cards.

Variation 5: Reverse brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a technique to help you view a problem from a different angle.

The essence of reverse brainstorming is reversal—it is an upside-down and back-to-front way of looking at a problem which, while focusing on what you don’t want, helps you generate ideas for solving the problem. Reverse brainstorming can also help you pinpoint the causes of the problem.

In reverse brainstorming, your problem statement contains the opposite of what you want to achieve. Examples:

How could I cause this problem?

How can I make it worse?

You can also reverse the problem statement, then use straightforward brainstorming techniques to compile a list of ideas.

An example:

Problem statement: Sales of WidgetX is decreasing. How can we revive customers’ interest in this product?

Reverse statement: How can we discourage customers from buying WidgetX?

Once you have your list of ideas, go through each of them for inspiration.

An example using the above problem statement:

Hide the buttons so the customer finds it difficult to switch it on.

From here, possible solutions could be

  • Making the buttons even easier to find, perhaps by using a different colour.
  • Doing user testing by selecting people with various size hands to test the product (men, women, children).
  • Making it easier to see what the various buttons do.
  • Add raised symbols to the buttons that can be felt with the fingertips.
  • Making sure a salesperson is available to answer questions (by providing a bell or button to call for help).

Reverse brainstorming is a fun way to look at what has gone wrong, and to find solutions. The technique is particularly useful when your other attempts at solving the problem have failed, or produced unsatisfactory ideas.

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