Why Should a Modern Astrologer Use Ancient Techniques?

This post is a response to an article I was recently quoted in on Quartz, titled, “Astrology Isn’t Fake, It’s Just Been Ruined by Modern Psychology.” The article stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest inside the astrological community by repeating allegations sometimes leveled at modern astrologers by astrologers using classical methods. Allegations that contain an assumption made by both camps that isn’t entirely true; namely, that modern astrology and classical astrology don’t mix.

However, I’ve found they mix quite well, thank you very much, and I’m going to tell you why.

Classical astrology vs modern astrology

What the article gets right (and it’s worth reading through just for the tale) is that there is a genuine renaissance occurring in the world of astrology right now, and that renaissance is revealing how much we have strayed from our roots, and to our detriment. The recovery of ancient texts and techniques is causing an upheaval in the way astrologers all over the world relate to the craft, to their practice, and to their philosophy of life.

Those of us inside this small but growing community are so thrilled by the way these ancient techniques have transformed our lives that when we meet one another a big part of our conversation will be about what happened to us when we first encountered the traditions. We are obsessed with how it liberated us from old thinking and removed blinders from our eyes. We remember our first experience of it in the way some people remember where they were when Obama was elected or we landed on the moon.

However, it is not true that psychology has “ruined” astrology. Psychology is not only how astrology survived the last century, which the article nods at but doesn’t really explore, but psychology introduced something to astrology that never existed before, at least on such a scale. It introduced the worth of self-examination and compassion for the results of trauma. It introduced the value of exploring and expressing your feelings about things and the idea that while you may not be able to control things that happens to you, you might be able to control how you’re going to be about them. Maybe best of all, it carved out skill sets to help people deal with trauma that have revolutionized the astrological community.

The sad thing is that thus far these two camps frequently find themselves at odds over some basic misunderstandings, slowing the creation and development of astrological study that has only just now become possible. Counseling astrologers in particular would benefit from studying classical techniques, and our clients even more so.

So why is there such a divide between astrologers practicing modern techniques and those practicing classical ones? The larger answer to this question is complicated and frankly involves a fair amount of ego attachment to being right. Astrologers are, after all, human. I’m not even going to attempt to address those divides, which I’m far from mastering myself.

The good news is, I don’t have to. There’s actually a simple and much more compelling reason that modern and classical astrologers find themselves pitted against one another so consistently. The irony is that this divide ought not be a divide at all, but a unifying point.

Fate vs Free Will

The underlying argument between the camps is actually one astrologers have been having since the early beginnings of our profession, centuries ago, in ancient Greece. It’s the most obvious question that astrology poses, which is does fate or free will dictate the events of your life?

The modern mind is generally opposed to the notion that any portion of fate might dictate your circumstances. Our television shows are filled with characters who, like Hamlet, tragically attempt to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” The most popular shows in the past few decades all take a stab at the tragic Shakespearean hero attempting to weasel out of his fate: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Power, to name but a few. The modern definition of a tragedy isn’t that a piano falls on your head, but rather that – in an attempt to right a wrong – a hero suffers the consequences of his own self destructive actions. The underlying assumption is that if the hero just chose the right method to conquer his fate, he could.

The problem with this thinking is that following quickly on the heels of could is should. In other words, if we have absolute free will than we should be able to take arms against our troubles and by opposing end them. Arguably what tortures Walter White is not that he is a lowly chemistry teacher, but his belief that he shouldn’t be one.

This “should” is something that has no place in a counseling practice, it’s completely unhelpful to someone who has experienced a terrible trauma. Imagine telling someone whose mother died when she was six that those circumstances were, in anyway, her own creation. Any ethical counselor would be disgusted by such a thing. So why then, do so many counseling astrologers rely on techniques which are predicated on the planets being mere projections of our unconscious? Imagine instead using techniques that quickly and accurately describe the harshest facts of your client’s traumas and then using counseling skills to deepen that client’s capacity for self compassion and care.

Because absolute free will utterly contradicts how the ancient mind understood tragedy. Classical Greek tragedies are full of characters who suffer at the hands of capricious Gods and must inevitably surrender to their fates. Their tragedy isn’t that they could overcome their fates, it’s that they couldn’t. I didn’t come up with this comparison on my own, by the way. Any fan of the show The Wire will know how different that show is from other shows on television. The creator, David Simon, says the difference is that he based it on a Greek tragedy rather than a Shakespearean one.

Do the Stars Compel?

So, the essential divide in the astrological community around which techniques to use comes down to this question. Do the planets reflect the inner life of an individual or do the planets reflect the actual circumstances which befall the native? A modern astrologer, steeped mostly in a century’s worth of psychological lore might fall quite hard on the side of the former while an astrologer working with classical techniques might argue firmly for the latter, sometimes to a radical degree.

However this is a debate which has underpinned the entire astrological experiment from the start. Something English speaking astrologers miss is that the Greeks have multiple words for fate that can’t adequately be translated by one simple English word. So while the techniques the Hellenes created (horoscopic astrology sprung from the Hellenic period) often starkly describe circumstances, the actual practice of how these techniques should be used was fiercely debated by different philosophical camps who drew entirely different conclusions. In his treatise, “On Fate,” and later in “Are the Stars Causes?” the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus lays out the gist of these arguments quite well.

When I was a student at Kepler College, newly exposed to this history, our professors had us mount a debate on whether astrology proved free will or fate using only the ancient texts. Things got so heated that one of the students ended her argument by sticking out her tongue at the opposing team! I remember being on the losing side, fighting for free will and failing miserably.

I started learning traditional methods a year later, after the worst break-up of my life. I was in free fall. I’d started seeing a therapist right away, since the circumstances of the break-up so uncannily recreated the circumstances of a childhood trauma I’d thought I’d long overcome. Studying my chart using these new methods brought about one of the most radically altering episodes of my life. For the first time I saw my lived experiences reflected inside my chart. Not just my “strengths and weaknesses,” or my “potential for transformation,” but my actual, honest to the Gods, experiences. I saw the relationship with the person who hurt me most and how, I saw why I couldn’t let it go, I even saw why this had been so hard to see before!

If I could see all that, then how on earth could there be anything I could have done about it? For the first time astrology offered not just the promise of revelation, but actual revelation itself. Not only were those circumstances not my fault, but they were fated. I didn’t have to resist them, I could surrender. In fact, I had to.

Honestly, it was a relief. A burden was lifted.

It’s a common aphorism that the first stage of grief is denial and that getting through that will release you into healing. But we live in a culture that perpetuates denial. Denial of circumstance, denial of grief, denial of all things dark and unwanted. Jung called this the shadow, and nothing shows where and how those shadows linger the way classical techniques do.

This is, in my opinion, the greatest gift classical techniques offer a counseling astrologer. They allow us to cleanly and clearly state what is so about a person’s trauma and grief. Working with a willing client and using an open, compassionate heart, it is possible to slice through layers of resistance and fear and to enter a place where the drama of the soul is revealed as a sacred contract with the universe. For there is something so extremely strange, as Rob Hand says, about astrology when it is used as a predictive tool. And that strangeness is precisely the razor’s edge where all the magic happens. Why should modern astrologers deny themselves access to this magic? It is, after all, the very thing we long for.

I believe we need to get over our differences as a community and begin to honor the gifts these techniques might bestow if used in tandem. There is a new astrology waiting in the wings for us, if only we might be willing to collaborate and experiment.

Uncharted territory

You see, although I came to traditional methods by way of Kepler College, I came to astrology by way of psychological astrology. And when I started learning the traditional methods, and to understand by their rubric what a mess my chart actually was, it wasn’t classical astrology that came to my aid in the aftermath. It was counseling. It was a classmate at Kepler who explained to me what, exactly, Jung’s theory of projection meant. It was my therapist who didn’t attempt to change my circumstances, but only to help me grieve and understand myself more deeply as a result.

And in the years since as I’ve looked at my chart and many others, I’ve come to believe that few are so suited to classical astrology than counselors who simply know how to listen, and to listen wisely. This is because listening wisely requires patience and discernment. It requires knowing how much to reflect back and how much to draw out. Counseling teaches us that, and there could be no better companion for classical astrology.

Counseling teaches us how to listen for pain and how the human mind, heart, and body react to pain. It teaches us a myriad of ways to work inside those experiences to get present, have compassion, bear witness, and grieve. This is particularly suited to classical techniques because these techniques identify what those pain points are and how they originated in ways that modern astrology simply cannot.

Classical techniques assume you are a mere mortal whose hopes and fears and very body is subject to the sorts of slings and arrows that positive thinking and the law of attraction can’t do a thing about. Classical techniques describe those sorts of experiences better and more reliably than modern ones ever could. In classical astrology those slings and arrows suddenly get really clear. They’re no longer a statement of how you perceive the world about you, they describe that world in bright, vivid, unflinching detail. And it’s not your fault. It’s just what’s so. The relief of that! The idea of free will is really quite a burden if you’ve been shouldered with painful circumstances you can’t do anything about.

And psychology and counseling offer some of the very best tools to maximize whatever allotted free will may exist. We need to deploy them.

In the article I’m responding to, the author makes the point that, “astrology is a practice. It only comes alive through use.” I was very struck by this pith observation. I’ve been practicing classical methods as a modern astrologer for just over ten years now. It’s radically altered my experience of being alive in ways I’ve only just begun to solidly articulate, and it’s not because I’ve turned away from the teachings of psychology. It’s because I’ve embraced both of them together.

I invite you to do the same.

 

12 replies
  1. Robert Wilkinson
    Robert Wilkinson says:

    Hi – I started studying classical techniques 47 years ago. I started studying “free will” astrology at the same time, via the pioneer Grant Lewi. I began studying humanistic, psychological oriented astrology 44 years ago. To me, the division is bogus. I have found after doing over 10,000 chart analyses that nothing is fated except two things: a) to be born where you were, when you were, to the parents you were born to, and b) the timing on certain crucial choices that determine what follows in our lives. I explored this topic extensively in my book “Saturn: Spiritual Master, Spiritual Friend.”

    I do agree that an astrologer who wants to become expert at counseling must have a range of life experiences or they won’t know how to relate to those having those experiences. A good astrologer ideally also has an ability to understand how the causes we set into motion at a certain time determine our “destiny,” as well as when we confront larger transformational moments we may not have “caused” in the usual sense of the word.

    All experience offers us a challenge to turn unproductive patterns into productive patterns. That’s why squares and oppositions are excellent times to turn corners and/or become more aware, rather than be a passive “victim of aspects” (which means circumstances, since that’s how astrology works out in life.) Classical astrologers who believe that all squares are bad, that something in the 8th or 12th is bad, or that something conjunct a star is bad, are just superstitious, which has no place in an evolved world. Superstition is a bane of human existence.

    Using imagination and applied free will at crucial moments can turn a miserable life into a blessed one. And while anyone can use a good astrological reading with a good astrologer, it doesn’t take the place of learning, realizing, and applying our love, wisdom, and intelligence regardless of outer circumstances and predictions of whatever.

    Reply
    • Wonder Bright
      Wonder Bright says:

      Hi Robert! Thanks for your comment. I hope I didn’t leave you with the impression that I think the techniques are divisive. My intent was to explore the ways I’ve found them to be totally complementary. I’m fascinated to read that you started with classical traditions 47 years ago, my understanding was that they were not widely available until about forty years ago. I’ve only been active in the community since 2002 and didn’t begin studying traditional techniques until 2005. What I have found is that the communities using classical techniques seem to be split from those practicing humanistic and psychological, and so astrologers doing both seem to be pioneering some new hybrid independent of community. This is what interests me, and my article is really addressing that. I believe this conversation is crucial as we move forward, as there are so many more people coming into the field now due to the internet, and it’s important to be able to point them in the directions that will best serve their own proclivities, rather than being so attached to any one way as the “right” way.

      Reply
  2. Rodsmith
    Rodsmith says:

    Hi- I was beginning to think that the lunatics had taken over the asylum until I read your article. I learned astrology via a very scientific and little known technique though it was psychological astrology I learned. I then developed a fascination for Astrology’s history, which has taken me a decade or more to digest.I have come to the understanding that any “rift” which exists in astrology is like any dichotomy – fundamentally flawed because it reduces an argument to only two possible outcomes. There exists no reason on earth for the two schools of astrological thought to be at loggerheads beyond “this expert said this-and-such and I choose to interpret it that-a-way”. Really we are supposed to be above all of that. Anyway I enjoyed the read.

    Reply
    • Wonder Bright
      Wonder Bright says:

      You are NOT ALONE! :D It may sometimes feel that way, but there are definitely pockets of us out there, and every single one of us is a student of the history of astrology. Inside that context we can only hold a reverent view of our craft, no matter what lineage we follow. It may be up to us to demonstrate that collegiate regard and begin to raise the tenor of conversation in the field. I love what you say here, “any ‘rift’ which exists in astrology is like any dichotomy – fundamentally flawed because it reduces and argument to only two possible outcome.” Yes. I’m feeling this very much right now. There are going to be some growing pains for all of us as we move forward, so it’s very welcome indeed to meet other travelers on this road. Thank you for stopping by!

      Reply
  3. Gene Johnson
    Gene Johnson says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking article. I like most astrologers came into the field via some brand of psychological astrology, for me Rudhyar and Jones, then a few years ago I attended a week end presentation by Chris Brennan and eventually finished his course in Hellenistic astrology. Since then I have felt like I have finally “gotten the rest of the story”, filled in some viral missing parts of the art. It is an art, really, and so I think we make a mistake in thinking that the key to it is found in discovering the right technique or school, that is of course important. As I see it the recovery of ancient techniques has substantially added to the practice of the art, but has in no way diminished the validity of the humanistic , psychological approaches. So, I don’t see that there should be a argument between the two. I try to remind myself that even when I may have perfectly as possible delineated a person’s natal chart I actually only just ‘scratched the surface’ in understanding the true nature of the person – by ‘true nature’ I mean ‘soul nature’. On thing Dane Rudhyar emphasized in his teaching was the great importance of determining the ‘level of consciousness’ of the individual before we could provide a accurate and helpful consultation. From his perspective the delineated chart describes the environment/circumstances of a person but, that the horoscope, by itself, does no reveal the nature of soul/consciousness. Without a sense of the soul aspect of a person we really can’t be of much help, and in fact will possibly cause more harm than good, especially in our predictions.

    You mentioned Plotinus, in his Third Ennead, , the First Tractate, Fate, he writes: “To sum the results of our argument: all things and events are foreshown and brought into being by causes; but the causation is of two Kinds; there are the results originating from the Soul and the results due to other causes, those of the environment. In the action of our Souls all that is done of their own motion in the light of sound reason, is the Soul’s work, while what is done where they are hindered from their own action is not so much done as suffered. Unwisdom, then, is not due to the Soul, and, in general, – if we mean by Fate a compulsion outside ourselves – an act is fated when it is contrary to wisdom.

    The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “serenity prayer” which you have probably heard at one time or another which I think is the most concise articulation of the truth of “our situation” – “God grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things that I cannot change and the courage to change the things that should be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Reply
    • Wonder Bright
      Wonder Bright says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      I quite like this, “an act is fated when it is contrary to wisdom.” It sort of justifies the Shakespearean model of tragedy, doesn’t it?

      As someone aligned with the humanistic model perhaps you could explain something to me. I have always found Rudyhar’s exhortation to “determine the ‘level of consciousness'” of one’s clients problematic. It seems to imply the astrologer must be personally acquainted with all the levels and hence be at the top of the hierarchy. Am I reading this wrongly? Surely that invites a certain hubris in the astrologer, which is the opposite of the quality I attempt to cultivate in my work.

      I am wholly committed to listening deeply to my clients and matching my dialogue with them to theirs with me, and I hear something of that inside this notion of “levels,” however I find thinking of this from a superior/inferior positioning quite contrary to the state of listening or being of service. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the matter.

      Reply
      • Gene Johnson
        Gene Johnson says:

        This topic is endlessly interesting and disturbing and perplexing…etc. It is I think one of the basic paradoxes of existence…How can an individual’s life be both free and determined. Probably the best we can hope for is a few good nibbles around the edges. I don’t have Rudhyar’s book that expounded on the subject of levels of consciousness, and I never heard him speak on it either. I was however impressed at the time with the concept that potentially offered a “way out of the determinism” offered by conventional astrological doctrine.

        The use of the word “determined” here is problematical, as you indicate. . I don’t actually recall if that is the word used by Rudhyar, he may have used some other word. So I don’t want to saddle him with it. Now that you have pointed it out I see that it is not the right way to think about this. Of course I can’t look into a person’s soul and rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, and I don’t know anyone who actually can, but you can, and I can, intuit a sense of a person’s inner state – or call it soul, consciousness, Grudjieff I believe would have described it as “essence”. Individual essence/soul is “in the world, but not of it”, hence it is the source of freedom. I think the perspective that Rudhyar is suggesting is that how a given astrological configuration may manifest in an individual life primarily depends upon the “quality of soul” of that person. If this were not true then the Cosmos would be a gigantic infernal machine, grinding out robotic lives.

        It is true as you suggest that this idea of “determined soul levels” is ripe for abuse by astrologer’s with bad intentions. And by those who are convinced that they have “soul insight” and thus are superior and thus entitled to tell anyone within range of their voice how they should live their lives. Ego inflation is a bane in all areas of life, but it is especially pernicious in astrology because the astrologer is privy to “hidden knowledge” that only a few can access. This thought alone is enough to give a dangerous swell to the ego.

        In any spiritual school worth its salt the first initiation is designed to puncture our innate ego inflation. And the struggle persists…

        There is a Chinese saying I like which goes something like this: “The right man with the right means always has a good result, but the wrong man, even with the right means ends is disaster.”

        “What is inside eventually manifests as the outside………”

        Reply
        • Wonder Bright
          Wonder Bright says:

          Your reply is reminding why I love astrologers so much, Gene. Thank you for sharing this with me. The Grudjieff insight is very helpful. I like this notion of “essence” as being “in the world, but not of it.” My experience is when I am in touch with that inside my own self access to it in another becomes straightforward, and, as there is no time inside that space, there can be no judgement. As an astrologer the trick then is to use discernment of the mind whilst listening from that space, which, for lack of a better word, I would describe as heart.

          I realized as I was reading your comment that I was actually unaware that the idea of “levels” came directly from Rudhyar. The first time I encountered it was reading Jeffrey Wolf Green’s book on Pluto in the mid nineties. The discernment and careful consideration you outline here was missing from his explanation, hence my questions.

          I could not agree more that the capacity for abuse as an astrologer is particularly worrisome because we see things our clients cannot. Moreover, if we are lucky than the client comes to us in a certain open state, which necessarily renders them vulnerable. Our first task, it seems to me, is reflect that trust they have in us back on to them. It is not our job to negotiate the intersections of fate and free will for them, it’s our job to help them engage with that dialogue themselves.

          And, as the entirety of your response implies, we must be engaged with that struggle ourselves to begin with, for how else could we encourage it in them?

          Reply
          • Gene Johnson
            Gene Johnson says:

            Thanks for your reply, I’m pleased that you got what I was trying to communicate. Another thought I have that may give some closure to this discussion is that we can look at modern astrology and ancient astrology as complementary rather than irreconcilable, apples and oranges sort of things. As I have been on both sides of the field my observation is that modern astrology developed within the milieu of the arising of what we know as “psychology”, with Freud, Jung, and their precursors. Jung, himself, studied and discovered some of his most significant insights from his study of astrology. Hence, modern astrology, is “joined at the hip” with psychology, the union of the two disciplines has given us a powerful entry into the secrets of self and personality – insights that the ancients minimally developed. Ancient astrologers, on the other hand, were astute observers of the relation of the sky with human life and formulated the “grounds rules” of the relationship. So, as I see it, modern astrology excels in revealing the subjective aspect of life while ancient/traditional astrology excels in revealing the more objective sides.

            You may have Demetra George’s book, “Astrology and the Authentic Self, Integrating Traditional and Modern Astrology..” If not I highly recommend it to you or anyone seeking to understand the two subjects better and how they may be productively integrated. Thanks…..

          • Wonder Bright
            Wonder Bright says:

            As my post here is titled “Why Should a Modern Astrologer Use Ancient Techniques?” I hope I won’t have to convince you I share your opinion that these two schools of thought are entirely complementary. It was my intent, in fact, to explore how that might be so. And I’m delighted you’re recommending Demetra’s book. She was the professor at Kepler who first taught me traditional techniques, so when I detail those circumstances in my post, that’s the background. I was so taken with her instructions and way of communicating that I studied on my own with her after leaving Kepler. It would be impossible to overstate her influence on my thinking.

  4. Lynn Hayes
    Lynn Hayes says:

    This is the most intelligent discussion on the subject I have seen and thank you Wonder Bright for your thoughtful article.

    To me part of the problem in using ancient texts as the arbiter of astrological wisdom is not unlike using medical texts in practicing medicine today. Life in Ancient Greece was very different than it is today and humans have more choice on modern culture. So it stands to reason that we would have more spiritual and evolutionary choice.

    One mistake people make is in thinking that difficult things are always bad. I have seen case after case where a terrible crisis led to a life changing renewal. Our fate is what we bring into our incarnation as found in the chart placement. Personally I believe that this is an evolutionary choice although it’s often hard to imagine that when we are young. The free will comes in what we do with it. In your own case you had a challenging family dynamic as many of us do. That was echoed in a relationship that you chose, subconsciously, to help you to work through the personal dynamics. And then you chose to enter therapy in order to gain greater understanding.

    Not everyone exercises their free will. Many continue to act out the impulses of the chart without awareness of what they are doing but that doesn’t mean they are bound by fate.

    Reply
    • Wonder Bright
      Wonder Bright says:

      Hi Lynn! I’m glad you liked my post. Your points are well made and point to the paradox I describe in my story above where the classical techniques described my essential trauma yet it was psychology (and various spiritual practices) that granted me the grace to recover and heal. Rob Hand has described astrology as a diagnostic tool, which is something I definitely agree with. This is why I describe myself as a modern astrologer. I haven’t found classical astrology much use to me in helping clients deal with their traumas, only in identifying them.

      This is because, as you point out, we generally enjoy much greater free will, at least in the western world, than the ancients did. Modern medicine has solved many illnesses, people don’t die in child birth or childhood the way they once did, women have the right to vote, and slavery is illegal now. However, just because we’ve outlawed slavery doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist. We have changed the sixth house from the house of slaves and illness to the house of “work.” But someone who was lured from her own country and forced to work as a slave in a home in the suburbs that she never leaves is sure to have that reflected in her chart.

      Moreover, we still die, still get sick, suffer or beget violence, and live out abusive childhoods. As long as those things exist as astrologers we need a language to describe those experiences, and modern astrology has cut them out of the picture almost entirely. This means that the diagnostic tool most astrologers are currently working with is less accurate, and our diagnoses suffer as a result.

      The article I was responding to claimed this was due to psychological astrology, but the truth is it’s much more likely to do with fortune telling laws enacted against astrologers in the early 20th century. That, combined with a cultural shift towards the cult of the individual and the myth of the American Dream account for the ways in which the modern mind has attempted to shrug off the perils of being human. This has cost us something the ancients were quite aware of, which is, bad things really do happen to us. Even a century ago we buried our own dead after sitting up with them for days in our own home. Death was a natural part of life and we didn’t deny it the way we do now. Now death is a sanitized experience that we hide from the children.

      In the past ten years as I’ve been incorporating ancient techniques into my modern life I’ve really been forced to think about those areas of life in ways that modern astrology never forced me to do. It’s been a fascinating experiment and really rich in reward. It’s this intersection where the modern mind meets the ancient one that is so beguiling to me, and why I want to meet others like me working with these techniques in the modern era.

      I believe that our free will increases in direct proportion to our capacity to apprehend the true nature of reality, to take radical responsibility for our part in it, and to take action less against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and more against the torture of mindless delusion. Using traditional techniques as a modern astrologer has granted me extraordinary power in this attempt. Because of this I believe we could be on the cusp of understanding fundamental principles about the way the cosmos works and become much better participants in the co-creation of our lives.

      Reply

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