Sensory Cues and Intuition

In both of my recent tarot challenges and in a handful of recent readings, I’ve used sensory cues in tandem with the tarot. Since not everyone is familiar with the concept of sensory cues or why anyone would bother using them, I want to give a brief overview of how I use them and why I think they can pair beautifully with the tarot.

Most people have probably experienced the phenomenon of smelling a scent and being transported back to a vividly remembered time and place. It’s a common instance of (unintended) sensory cueing, presumably because scent and memory share some neural pathways. The ease with which we can time travel along scents is a bit of everyday “magic” explained by science, and we can use that to help us set up intentional cues. Just this morning I read of a woman using a certain scent on her pillow while she uses temporary sleeping aids so that her brain will associate the scent, which she would continue to use, with that peaceful sleepy state induced by sleep aids, which she will stop using in the near future.

The way I’ve used sensory cues in my tarot challenges is a little different, and it comes from metacognitive (thinking about thinking) strategies to help you remember messages from the tarot based on certain “signs” in the environment triggered, perhaps, by your intuition. I say “perhaps” because I don’t quite know how intuition works, and I don’t want to assume that it’s your intuition that is being activated. But if it’s not, it’s something intuition-adjacent. Let me break it down a bit with an actual example.


For Day 4 of my Moon Dreamer challenge, I drew three tarot cards to help me know when would be a good time to dive deep into my unconscious, when I would have confidence to explore what could be potentially dark and scary. Since exploring the unconscious realm isn’t a one-time activity and I couldn’t predict timing perfectly for one instance anyway, I wanted to set up a system in myself to allow my intuition to trigger a system that would remind me that I was capable of doing the difficult work when it was appropriate to do. (I should note that this assumes a lot of things about one’s intuition—that it’s capable of knowing when it’s time to do that work, that it can activate in special ways, that it can be trained—but I think all of them are well within the realm of what’s reasonable to assume about intuition if you even believe in intuition in the first place.) So I pulled three cards and studied them. I wasn’t concerned about their meanings on the surface, and I looked beneath that surface to then imagine myself going into the scenes and experiencing them. I asked myself what I would see, hear, smell, feel, taste, or otherwise sense in these scenes, and as I sensed each of them, I tried to remember them clearly and associate them with this message: “I am ready and able to do this deep diving work.”

For those who saw the post and the update to the post, I was cued that same night with one of the more specific and unlikely sounds I’d experienced when in the world of the reversed Five of Swords, glass breaking. I was lying in bed wondering whether I would have any significant dreams that night—it was the Moon Dreamer Challenge after all—when I heard someone out in the courtyard of my building drop a wine glass (or three by the sound of it). It was a convenient reminder of the work that I’d done with these cards and the challenge earlier in the day: I would benefit from diving deep, despite my fears of dark water that filled my imagination. The activity was meant to be a confidence builder, and it was. I don’t actually remember what I dreamed about that night (I think I remembered in the morning, but it wasn’t interesting to remember two weeks later), but I felt ready to engage with whatever I dreamed about, and it spurred me on to some interesting readings over the next few days as I completed the ten-day challenge.

In some ways, this practice of looking for sensory cues is a lot like visualizations. You might find yourself more drawn to feelings or physical sensations rather than visual elements or scents and sounds. Don’t feel like you have to hear breaking glass when you see glass. You might look at a card with a lake and hear a goose honking just beyond the frame. Or you might see a dove in the card and hear a crow caw. What sensory cues are triggered by cards is far less important than having sensory cues that will help you remember or reflect on some message you need to receive.

Forcing yourself to enter into the scene helps you remember it, and it’s a useful practice for reinforcing messages within the cards. But since I’m all about reflections and trying to recall messages from past readings, I find sensory cues to be a handy way to use your less-well-understood perceptive powers to trigger important reminders in you. To me, it’s a nice way of letting your subconscious mind interact with your conscious mind by noticing specific things that exist in the waking world. If you have Guides or angels who help you attend to special messages with triggers like magical numbers (or similar), then this should fit well within your practice, and you can think of noticing details from the cards as being driven by those Guides or angels much like noticing magical numbers may be.

If you’ve never tried it and you don’t want to try out the Moon Dreamer Challenge as practice, here’s a little exercise for you to try with a tarot deck (and if you don’t have a tarot deck, then maybe just grab a magazine or catalog or something else with a lot of images):

  • Prepare yourself and/or your space and/or your deck for a tarot card drawing as normal.

  • Breathe to center yourself. Feel where your body is in space in relation to things (e.g., feet on the floor, arms in sleeves, butt on a chair).

  • Ask yourself/your deck/your Guides/Spirit, “What message do I need to hear this month?” Then draw a card (or blindly point to a picture or even a pull quote in the magazine or whatever).

  • Interpret that message and hold it in your mind.

  • Keeping the message in mind, ask yourself/your deck/your Guides/Spirit, “What is a card (image) that will help me notice cues in the world around me to remind me of this message?” Then draw a card (or blindly point to a picture—but probably not a pull quote this time—in the magazine or whatever).

  • Spend 1–2 minutes studying the image and imagining being in the scene it depicts. Listen for sounds, notice smells, feel sensations, and see what sticks out in your imagination of the scene (rather than just the literal image). Pay attention to anything that sparks within you. It could be that you hear something unrelated or you focus on some detail that is in the image and can’t help but “see” it. Those are fine; they’ll work. Embrace them and remember them. Hear and see and smell and sense them all again to help embed them in your memory so that you’ll know to pick up on those cues when you’re out and about and in need of receiving that message again.

The cards depicted here are from the Fountain Tarot, created by Jonathan Saiz, Jason Gruhl, and Andi Todaro and published by Roost Books, © 2017.