Often you will see Tarot readers knocking on their Tarot cards. Or bathing them under the light of a full moon. Or letting some kind of herbal smoke pass over them. These are all techniques for “cleansing” your Tarot cards. But that begs the question: should you cleanse your Tarot cards? Is it even necessary?
In this post, I will explain why I do not find it necessary to cleanse my Tarot cards.
Before I get started, I need to make some points of clarification.
First, do whatever works for you.
If cleansing your Tarot cards is something you feel compelled to do, or if it makes you happy, then I have zero desire to tell you you’re doing things wrong.
I am only going to be sharing my own practice and my beliefs about my own practice.
With that said, if cleansing your Tarot cards is something you feel you do need to do, there are good and bad ways of doing that.
Unless you are Native American or have been initiated into a tradition by Native Americans, then “smudging” with sage or other herbs held sacred by First Nations people and under grave environmental threat by capitalistic exploitation of colonizers is probably a bad idea.
There are plenty of alternative ways to cleanse your cards besides “smudging” with sage. In fact, you can more or less do the same exact thing and call it “smoke cleansing” while using different herbs.
Sage is not somehow inherently more magical than any other herb. However, it is sacred within the specific cultural context of Native American spiritual practice and thus we should be cautious about over-extracting it and supporting profiteers who are exploiting Native traditions to make money.
Let me also say that as a white person it is not my job to police the boundaries of cultural appropriation.
I do not get to decide what is or isn’t cultural appropriation.
Too often in the occult/esoteric community, overly concerned white liberals will be quick to say certain practices are “closed” without even doing the necessary research into what that community truly believes (e.g. see my discussion of the false claim that Tarot is a closed practice.)
With that said, it is important to recognize there is diversity within marginalized communities and I don’t claim to speak for any oppressed group. However, there seems to be enough of a consensus that “smudging” with white sage is a harmful, exploitative practice and should be avoided if you care at all about decolonization.
Alternatives to “smudging” with sage
An incredibly convenient and equally effective method of smoke cleansing without sage is incense.
Advantages of incense include:
- Easy to find
- Can buy in bulk
- Not culturally insensitive
- Not overextracted
- Easy to use in ritual contexts
- Many people already have incense burners
- Not a fire hazard
Another option would be to use kitchen herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, etc.
Using these kinds of culinary herbs is not only (1) useful for cooking but also (2) native to many Northern European pagan practices, making them ideal from the perspective of cultural sensitivity (if you are white.)
Caution: if you are going to smoke cleanse with loose, dry kitchen herbs, be extremely careful about starting an open fire. It is better to bundle them tightly and burn them in a controlled altar vessel.
Why I don’t cleanse my Tarot cards
So with those caveats out of the way, I can now explain why I do not cleanse my own Tarot cards.
It is more important for me to cleanse my mind, not my cards
If I am doing a Tarot reading and something feels “off” then my first conclusion is not that there’s something wrong with my Tarot cards.
Rather, my first impulse is that there’s something wrong with my mental state and I need to do something to ease my mind.
This is why having a meditation practice is essential to being an adept Tarot reader.
I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect about having a regular meditation practice. It’s something I need to work on. I am by no means some enlightened Zen master.
But over the years I have put in a lot of hours in learning essential skills like mindfulness, breath technique, and posture.
Have you ever been late to an important event and you suddenly find yourself stuck in a traffic jam?
If so you might be familiar with those signs of anger and anxiety. Your jaw will be tense. You might lash out in anger and curse under your breath. You might even engage in road rage.
In a word, you are stressed. In these kinds of situations, your cortisol levels are spiking like crazy.
This is the sort of mental-physical state that will take years off your life. Stress is a literal killer.
Accordingly, the skills of mindfulness and meditation are perhaps the greatest tools we have for dealing with these kinds of situations.
We might do well to remember the Serenity prayer:
O Higher Power/Self, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is the essence of Stoic philosophy and it ties into meditation perfectly because it is through breath control and mindfulness that we can learn to be serene in situations where we feel powerless and out of control.
When you’re sitting in that traffic jam, and you feel those angry, anxious thoughts pass through your head, simply observe them and let them pass by. Act as if you are an anthropologist in your own mind, objectively observing the negative (and positive) thoughts as if they were objects of study.
As you observe your thoughts, the stance of objectivity will work to bring your cortisol levels and eventually the thoughts will pass, like all mental states do.
Meditation to cleanse your Tarot cards
Many people do in fact use meditation as a method to cleanse their Tarot cards.
But for me, personally, I do not think of it as my Tarot cards that I am cleansing. Instead, I am cleansing the anxiety and negativity within my own mind.
In order to achieve the serenity of Stoicism, it is necessary to know how to breathe. If you don’t know how to breathe then you stand no chance at staying calm in the modern world.
It sounds ridiculous. Doesn’t everyone know how to breathe?
Well, not quite.
Many people do not understand the importance of belly breathing through their noses.
Nor have they developed the skills to pause, breathe, and cease what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” a metaphor of the mind that imagines our anxious and ceaseless thoughts bouncing around our mind like a gang of monkeys swinging through the treetops.
Learning to calm the monkey mind is a critical skill for Tarot readers, especially if you want to feel as if your mind is “clean.”
You can do all the smoke cleansing you want but if you don’t have the proper meditative skills in your cognitive toolbox your cards will never truly feel clean.
Secular vs non-secular Approaches to Cleansing Tarot Cards
It should be apparent by now that I am demarcating a possible “secular” or psycho-analytic approach to the Tarot that does not rest upon any metaphysical supposition about Tarot cards having intrinsic capabilities of harboring negative energy such that they need to be periodically cleansed.
I am not saying this is the “rational” or “true” approach. I am not even saying I believe it myself. I am technically agnostic about the deeper metaphysical questions. I neither believe nor disbelieve.
But what I am saying is that if you take a more psychological or “analytic” approach to the Tarot then cleansing your cards becomes a matter of cleaning the mirror of your own mind.
After all, the most popular secular metaphor for Tarot is that it is a tool for reflection and introspection, a mirror composed out of 78 little stories.
Sometimes that mirror can become occluded from the hustle and bustle of life, and the psycho-dynamic complexities of human existence.
The Tarot often attracts people who have highly attuned imaginative and introspective lives. It is not a surprise that a need for cleansing might arise for such folks. And I sympathize with this need.
It’s just that personally, for me, I am much more interested in my own psychic cleanliness than I am the cleanliness of my Tarot cards.
But my goal is not to make fun of or dismiss non-secular approaches to the Tarot so long as they are not harmful to either yourself or others.
When might you need to cleanse your mind?
BiddyTarot gives the following situations as examples of “when you will most likely feel compelled to cleanse your Tarot cards“:
- “Other people have touched your cards
- You’ve bought a new or second hand Tarot deck
- You’ve done a particularly draining Tarot reading
- Your Tarot cards have been sitting dormant or unused for quite some time
- You or your Tarot cards have been exposed to a lot of negative energy (for example, a particularly negative client, or a challenging situation in your own personal life)
- Your Tarot readings are beginning to feel unclear, disconnected or ‘stuck’
- Your cards have fallen all over the floor or had some other sort of accident
- You simply want to reconnect with your cards”
From the perspective of my own practice, I am going to give interpretations of why each of these situations might require cleansing the mind, not the cards.
Again my point is not to say approach these situations from the perspective of trying to prove that wanting to cleanse your cards is wrong; I’m merely providing my own alternative perspective on why I personally don’t feel compelled to cleanse my cards during these situations.
“Other people have touched your cards”
This is probably the biggest reason why people might feel the need to cleanse their cards. And that’s perfectly valid. However, for myself, if I am going to personify my cards at all, I see them as an object that is capable of absorbing energy and cleansing themselves.
After all, if I shake hands with a stranger, I do not feel compelled to go wash my hands. I feel my Tarot cards are the same way. They can handle it. In fact, exposure to different “germs” can strengthen our psychic immune system.
The only reason I would be concerned with people touching my cards is if they physically damaged them in some way, by not handling them carefully.
“You’ve bought a new or second hand Tarot deck”
While I understand some people might be superstitious about negative energy from this scenario, it comes down to whether you believe in the possibility of residual negative energy in inanimate objects.
For me, I would ask myself: what is it I am scared of? Is my own mind uneasy at the prospect of associating with this object? In that case, it comes back to the question of calming myself, and removing my own mind of any kind of anxiety.
Often in the occult world, people are scared of negative forces and there is a lot of talk about “psychic self-defense” from demons or people out to get you. However, from my perspective, I believe that my mind is safe so long as I maintain the attitude of Stoicism and good mental/physical discipline.
If I am of sound mind, if I am eating well, sleeping well, taking my meds, then nothing can harm me (except that which is out of my control anyway.)
Going back to the serenity prayer, it’s about focusing on the things I can control, and having serenity about everything else.
“You’ve done a particularly draining Tarot reading”
For me personally, this is a good reason to either meditate, or take a bath, listen to music, go for a walk, read a book, or even just escape by watching Tik Tok or something.
Now, granted, for some people, these sorts of activities are a form of card-cleansing, but personally, I see this, again, as cleansing my mind, not my cards. It is me who is drained. Not the cards. It is me who needs to be recharged, not my cards.
“Your Tarot cards have been sitting dormant or unused for quite some time”
For me, if my Tarot cards do not “feel right” after I have not used them for a long time, it is not anything intrinsic to the cards themselves, but rather, because my own mind and unconscious have lost the sense of familiarity. It is my mind who needs to be reacquainted with the cards, not the cards reacquainted with me, if that makes sense.
Building a relationship with a deck is like learning to read a language. At first, everything is just strange symbols. But eventually, things make sense. But this familiarity can be lost if you do not continue speaking the language. But this is not the card’s fault.
“You or your Tarot cards have been exposed to a lot of negative energy (for example, a particularly negative client, or a challenging situation in your own personal life)”
Again, I see this as a matter of clearing my own mind of negative energy, not cleansing the deck.
“Your Tarot readings are beginning to feel unclear, disconnected or ‘stuck’”
As I will discuss below, rituals can reconnect us with our own unconscious intuition. But it is myself who is stuck, not the cards.
“Your cards have fallen all over the floor or had some other sort of accident”
I do not see the need to cleanse anything simply because I have been clumsy.
“You simply want to reconnect with your cards”
This is a perfectly good reason to do a cleansing ritual. But I would wager it is myself who benefits from the ritual, not the cards. Again, this is a matter of cleansing my mind, not my cards. Ritual can help with this.
My goal here is not to disparage anyone if they feel compelled to cleanse their cards in these kinds of situations. If that works for you, fantastic. I am merely explaining my own approach, one where I do not feel compelled to cleanse the Tarot.
The Importance of Cleansing Rituals
With that said, I do not want to dismiss the potency of cleansing rituals altogether. I believe they can be powerful.
But where I differ from many Tarot readers is the reason why I do the ritual.
I do not perform a cleansing ritual with the purpose of cleansing the cards. The cards are fine. I perform a cleansing ritual to cleanse my mind, my soul, my heart.
In my practice, the cards cannot accumulate spiritual grime, but my own heart and soul can. It is for this reason I meditate, take baths, or seek solace in a quiet, dark room with music humming, candles lit, and incense burning.
Ritual is so important because it provides a mechanism for our consciousness to reach outside of itself.
While I am agnostic on the metaphysics of how this happens, I am inclined to believe it is a process of going from the surface of consciousness and plunging down into the depths of the unconscious, the realm of the gods, spirits, and ancient archetypes that hold so much wisdom.
Ritual gives me a method of connecting with these Sources.
Accordingly, cleansing rituals offer a powerful method of diving down so deep so as to have the weight of the ocean above me scrub my soul clean, such that when I float back to the surface I am calm, relaxed, and ready to reengage with the joys of Tarot.