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Understanding Astrology

Experiencing a Psychological Cosmology

Any discussion of astrology must take into immediate consideration the baggage of popular opinion, for it is often regarded as not much more than a primitive pseudoscience, or an amusingly sentimental superstition. This is far from what was intended by those who have looked deep into human nature by looking deep into the heavens that embrace it. Throughout history— and in every civilization so far— consistent attempts have been made to find the meaning of life by exploring and mapping its relationship to the mystery of the cosmos.

The popular attitude towards astrology is typical of the common attempt to reduce the rich ambiguity of the human condition to routines of comfort, convenience and entertainment; for the neurotic ego, with its compromised sense of self-esteem, lives in fear of becoming overwhelmed by the larger issues of life— such as its ultimate meaning and purpose. As a result, it would choose to live a distracted and vicarious life, composed solely of smaller interests and activities that it can measure and contain, and over which it would have complete control.

The tragedy of this attitude is that psychological healing must include addressing issues that lie beyond our conscious stance in life— especially the archetypal issues that inhabit the wilderness of cosmos, as a variety of Archimedean points that are intended to leverage the whole-making of the psyche. Cosmos, opposite to a random chaos, is that harmonious and orderly system which remains beyond rational understanding, and can only be apprehended by an intuitive discipline of the mind such as astrology offers. "Reaching out to embrace something larger," said the poet, "we are embraced in Something Larger."

The horoscope, furthermore, is generally misunderstood as a limited categorization of people into one of twelve different types, according to the "sun sign". This mistaken idea reflects the fundamental problem of typing in general, which is better understood as the holistic description of one's dynamic relationship to the entire pantheon of archetypes rather than as a reductive, mechanistic and literal classification in terms of one particular stereotype or another. Stereotyping in fact can only reinforce the problems that mapping against an accumulated sense of cosmic order is intended to help resolve. Stated simply, healing (as a whole-making process) would amplify human experience to the vitality of the archetype, rather than diminish it to the banality of a stereotype.

The relevance of astrology, as the discipline that explores and the language that describes our experience of a cosmic order, comes from its evolution in pace with the development of the human condition itself. The cycles that we sense moving within ourselves have been measured for thousands of years in terms of cycles of celestial activity, within skies that were built up by an accumulation of images projected from an evolving humanity.

Sadly, these images have become obliterated now by the pollution and lights of our modern cities, and these cycles are hostage to an arbitrary gerrymandering by our calendars and medications. This loss of an indigenous experience of order in the cosmos has produced an increased need to reduce the things of life to something more manageable— more manageable, but less meaningful, and with great loss of healing context.

Imagining the Signs of the Zodiac

While the twelve signs of the zodiac may have varied to some extent from culture to culture, their basic consistency indicates archetypal qualities common to humanity everywhere. The integrity of this structural consistency can be explained by the rhythmic repetition of the four fundamental elements (fire, earth, air and water) in three modes of expression (cardinal, fixed and mutable) and two contrasting polarities (active and receptive), all giving rise to the dynamics found in one complete cycle of the zodiac.

Assembled and arranged in various permutations, these polarities, modes and elements each contribute certain qualities to the signs, with meanings derived from their rhythmic interplay. For this reason, each sign of the zodiac is one piece of a sequential spectrum that fully surrounds the birth, providing the context that invests that birth with meaning and giving to it certain gifts— as fairy godmothers might when they gather about the royal cradle of a nursery tale.

There is a tradition that associates the four elements with four ways of breathing. These breaths, together with the visualization and contemplation of images derived from the three modes of the four elements, might be used to help identify your personal associations for each sign. Try sitting comfortably, breathing as indicated in the following passages for a few moments, and contemplate the images provided. Notice how your body feels, physically, in each case; be aware of the emotional states that seem to be evoked, and the mental associations that come with them.

Aries: breathe the Fire breath, in the mouth and out the nostrils, and visualize the image of an igniting Spark— perhaps in the form of a bolt of lightening, or as a brief electrical shock.

Taurus: breathe the Earth breath, in and out the mouth, and visualize an image of earthen Soil— perhaps in the form of a newly plowed field, or hands "dirty" from gardening.

Gemini: breathe the Air breath, in and out the nostrils, and visualize an image of moving Air— perhaps as a breeze, or breath itself.

Cancer: breathe the Water breath, in the nostrils and out the mouth, and visualize an image of flowing Water— perhaps in the form of a river, or a refreshing glass of water.

Leo: returning to the Fire breath, visualize the image of a glowing Ember— perhaps in the form of hot charcoal, or the sun as it rises in the morning.

Virgo: returning to the Earth breath, visualize an image of fine Sand— perhaps in the form of a desert, a beach, or the grains of sand in an hourglass.

Libra: returning to the Air breath, visualize an image of radiating Light— perhaps in the form of a brilliant flash, or a gentle rainbow.

Scorpio: with the Water breath, visualize an image of frozen Ice— perhaps in the form of a gradually moving glacier, or a cube of ice in a cold drink.

Sagittarius: with the Fire breath, visualize the image of a dancing Flame— perhaps in the form of a burning candle, or a racing prairie fire.

Capricorn: with the Earth breath, visualize an image of hard Rock— perhaps in the form of a mountain of granite, or a humble cobblestone.

Aquarius: with the Air breath, visualize an image of open Space— perhaps in the form of a blank page, or the deeper reaches of an infinite universe.

Pisces: with the Water breath, visualize an image of vaporous Mist— perhaps in the form of the fogs that drift in from the sea, or the way your breath might cloud a pane of glass.

As you follow these images, allow them to determine the nature of the animals that circle your zodiac, as totems that would animate your life. Next we will explore the meanings of the planets.

Psyche's Pantheon

The planets are the primary actors upon the stage provided by the natal horoscope. Taking on the qualities of the signs in which they are located, the planets name specific parts of human nature, or particular subpersonalities within the psyche.

The "Lights" of the horoscope, the Sun and Moon, establish the sense of identity:
The Sun represents conscious individuality as the rational, literal aspect of identity, sometimes associated with the ego. I think of it as representing the left (analytic, exclusive) side of the brain, rather than a particularly "masculine" quality.
The Moon, on the other hand, represents the irrational, associative aspect of identity, and is sometimes connected with the subconscious instinct for relatedness. It represents the right (emotional, inclusive) side of the brain, rather than a "feminine" quality.

The three inner planets constitute the three parts of personality:
Mercury represents the mind, especially as objective perception (gathering data through the five senses), reason (the thinking process as a detached analysis), and communication by an explicit written or spoken expression.
Venus represents the heart, especially as subjective perception, the inner process of valuing, empathy, and comprehension in an implicit, involved sense of relatedness.
Mars represents the body, especially its affect and behavior; it also represents advocacy, activity and assertiveness— particularly towards those things desired.

The two great "gas giants" that lie beyond combine to establish character:
Jupiter represents the extroverted aspect of the psyche: aspiration, and the urge to expand into the outer world in a fulfillment of one's inner potential. It also represents the altruistic sense of social consciousness, justice, and committment.

Saturn, on the other hand, represents the introverted aspect of the psyche: conscience and integrity. It is often represented as the superego, or the personal sense of social obligation and responsibility.

The three modern "transpersonal" planets constitute the three stages of developing a sense of selfhood:

Uranus represents the genius for hearing a "different drummer". Generally mistaken for rebellion against social norms at first, this aspect of the psyche will eventually recognize— and provide— a potentially unique contribution to society.

Neptune represents devotion, the mystic whose vision initiates a personal transformation. It can at first seem overwhelmingly confused and hypersensitive, with a tendency to denial or indulgence often the result.

Pluto is the embodiment of a fundamental purpose in life, that part of the psyche farthest removed from the central ego and therefore its ultimate container— the self-realized soul.

I've found guided imagery useful in exploring the ways in which the planets are at work in a particular birthchart. Imagine, for example, that you are holding a party and have invited ten people, each of the planets in your horoscope, possessing the qualities given it by the sign of the zodiac in which it is located. Welcome each guest, guiding it to a special place in your home, and introduce it to the others. Notice the way they interact; are there any areas of ease, or stress? are there interventions you seem called upon to provide?

Establish a page in a notebook for each planet, and gradually— as you get to know them— fill each page with your thoughts and feelings, perhaps with pictures, favorite quotes, or affirmations. Dialogues with the planets, or conversations you have overheard among them can also be written out, as you continue to accumulate personal associations with your horoscope over time.

Entering the Houses of the Horoscope

Far from the superficial description of personality presented however entertainingly by the media— and farther yet from the reductive prescriptions for living a better life according to the "readings" provided by modern astrologers— your horoscope is the map of an imaginal realm that you will have to enter, if it is to be at all useful.

Newspaper horoscopes are like picture postcards from interesting places— they tease, but they do not really inform. And, like a tour guide, a professional astrologer may be able to show you the sights, but his experience cannot, ought not, replace your own. What I have presented here is not meant as a foreign phrase book, but rather as an invitation to learn to speak the native language— and to learn to think they way they do— for yourself. More than a map of that realm, in fact, your horoscope is a passport that allows you to enter.

The imaginal realm is not an imaginary world, but one made of numenous images that stand behind and generate the conceptual reality that we are more accustomed to. This is the Platonic world of archetypes, and the source of the ten thousand things spoken of in the Tao Te Ching.

What we think is real is really only the surface that often obscures what is really happening. And if we are intelligent enough to stop asking about the causes of our pain, it is here that a purpose for our condition can be discovered, and a direction can be taken out of confusion and addiction. In a sense, the horoscope is a mirror that shows a growing, changing image as you work with it, and as you learn to inhabit that realm with increasing ease and pleasure.

We will now turn our attention to the twelve houses of the horoscope, the twelve segments of the horoscope that can be seen when first looking into the birthchart, appearing much like the segments of an orange. The houses represent twelve particular sets of human experience, twelve specific challenges to become actively present as a responsible human being upon the planet.

In listing these twelve challenges, it must be emphasized that what is written is intended to prompt your own personal responses, rather than to stand as explicit, literal and definitive statements. Rather than make the quick reply that may seem required, let these twelve questions inaugurate some rumination and deliberate thought instead.

The First House asks "who am I?", challenging us to know ourselves as individuals. This would involve a consciousness of individuality itself, and the establishment of an identity as the central feature of the ego.

The Second House asks "what do I have?", asks us to take inventory of our resources and to take responsibility for our characteristics as the steward of our personality.

In the Third House we are confronted with the existential question "where am I?", with the need to find and contextualize ourselves, and to explore our relationship with our immediate environment.

The challenge posed by the Fourth House is to establish a sense of groundedness, or belonging. The question asked here is "what sustains me?", which includes focus upon the body and its needs as well as upon the sense of place (traditionally thought of as home).

The task of the Fifth House is, paradoxically, to play— to be spontaneously creative and self-expressive. Here the question "what chances am I willing to take to be myself?" is asked.

In the Sixth House we are challenged to answer the question "how do I work?" with a focus upon what we do and how well we do it, wellness meaning a healthy collaboration with our environment.

In the Seventh House (originally the House of Marriage) we respond to the question "who am I with?", turning our attention upon the need for relationship to others, especially the Significant Other, in order to know ourselves better in that mirror.

Originally known as the House of Death, the Eighth House asks "how do I let go?", challenging us to connect with Something Larger, and to experience the ecstasy of a global, mystical sort of transcendence.

The Ninth House asks "what do I understand?", challenging us to comprehend what had taken place in the Eighth House, and to harness that inspiration in the development of a personal philosophy that can account for it.

In the Tenth House we are asked "what can I amount to?" This is the house of vocation, ranging from the various jobs we take up early in life to the acceptance of a public persona as some form of calling.

The challenge posed by the Eleventh House is to consider "what is my community?", and to immerse ourselves in the human condition as a member of society, taking an active part in the planning and development of its potential.

The task of the Twelfth House is to let go of the material world, not in a denial of it as in the Eighth House but in an affirmation of its imaginal purpose, developing an operative personal Selfhood that answers the question "what can I become?"

Astrology suffers from the popular belief that the problems of life may be explained away. The resolution of these problems lies instead in the experience of them. Healing does not lie in the analysis of experience— that would be only a diagnosis, a naming of the problem (which often perpetuates it)— but in the direct, responsible participation with the experience, and its requirement that we either grow or decay.

This article was adapted from material that had appeared originally in Who Am I? (Robert Frager, editor;
Tarcher/Putnam, 1994), and was subsequently serialized in my quarterly newsletter The Listener.

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