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.
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.