A Jungian Approach To Astrological Counseling
by Michael McLay, M.A.
(This is a transcript of a presentation made at a conference some years ago. So it reads rather informally. It was published in the Mountain Astrologer and in Glenn Perry's Journal of AstroPsychology.)
Let me tell you a bit about what has come out of my own struggles to integrate astrology and psychology. What I do or try to do during a consultation...
It's one thing for a therapist to use the chart as an adjunct tool that informs their ongoing therapy with a client. I know therapists who do this, and I admire their work. But it's another thing altogether to try to do something therapeutic within the confines of a traditional "chart reading."
Assuming that I will see a client once (which is often the case) for an hour and a half or two hours, how do I fulfill their expectations, give them a thorough introduction to the chart, and lead them to a greater understanding of themselves, all in a manner that is in keeping with my own ideals of soul-work? Or, more succinctly, how can I take someone on a journey through their soul image in an hour and a half? And how do we enter into the image together, rather than having the client stay at arm's length, waiting for me to explain it to them? An even greater challenge will be trying to tell you how I attempt to do this in the limited time we have.
Let me begin with a quote from James Hillman's book, We've Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse. Hillman writes, "if at the soul's core we are images, then we must define life as the actualization over time... of that originating seed image, what Michelangelo called...the image in the heart, and that image--not the time that actualized it--is the primary determinant of your life." He goes on to say, "I am not caused by my history--my parents, my childhood and development. These are mirrors in which I may catch glimpses of my image" (Hillman 1992, p. 63).
Obviously, I am now going to tell you that the birth chart is a reflection of the seed image of the soul. Think of the birth chart as a picture of the heavens taken at the exact time and place of your birth. A freeze frame of the heavens. This freeze frame shows us "what's in the air" at the time you were born. "What's in the air" literally, in terms of the planets and their geometric relationships, and "what's in the air" imaginatively, in terms of the gods and goddesses above and their interactions. As above, so below. The seed image of the individual soul is a reflection of a frozen moment in the history of the World Soul that surrounds it. Like a seed dropped from a tree.
The birth chart is a blueprint of the seed image of the soul, an archetypal map of the psyche. If we understand the chart to be a map of the archetypal patterns hard-wired into the soul at birth, then we have a sense of the potential of the chart as an imaginative tool, allowing us access into the foundations of our psychic structure.
In his discussion of complexes, Carl Jung made an important distinction between the archetypes that constitute the basic building blocks of the psyche and the network of personal associations that surround them. An archetype forms the core of a complex, and our personal associations form the shell that surround these cores. I think that this concept is a very important one for astrology. It suggests to me that the birth chart offers us direct access to the impersonal archetypal cores in symbolic form, but not to the personal material, the memories, feelings, experiences, etc., that surround these cores.
Understanding this relieved me of the tremendous burden
of trying to live up to the fantasy of the omniscient astrologer. I really
didn't have to be the expert on the details of my client's life. I couldn't
be. Understanding this distinction between the shell and core of a complex,
and its implications for astrology, was the entry point for me into therapeutic
I finally understood the possibility of using the chart as a symbolic tool, much like a dream, or a mandala drawing. It is generally understood that the ultimate authority on a dream is the dreamer. Simply interpreting a dream for a client is counter-productive therapeutically. It disempowers the client and places the therapist in the role of expert, in the role of guru. The analyst and dreamer collaboratively seek to find meaning in the symbols of the dream. The analyst is the expert in the symbolic language of the dream and has the ability to fit the symbolic meaning of a dream image into the context of the dreamer's life experience.
With this model in mind, it should follow that the astrological client is the ultimate expert on his or her own soul image, and the astrologer is simply the expert in the symbolic language of astrology. The astrologer, like the analyst, is both scientist and artist. The science of astrology is the astrologer's understanding of the complex symbolic language and its infinite possibilities for expression in human life. The art of astrology is the astrologer's ability to connect the client's everyday experiences to this symbolic language in a meaningful way. The astrologer, like the analyst, can act as mid-wife to the unfolding personality.
I send every client a letter before I see them. In this letter I tell them that my area of expertise is limited to the symbolic language of astrology. And I remind them that they are the experts in their own life experiences. In the letter, I also describe my process for exploring the chart with them. I tell them that I will suggest a range of possible manifestations for each archetypal core or archetypal pattern in their chart, and then ask them to share their personal experiences related to that core. As they share their personal experiences in the area of a particular archetypal pattern, they are fleshing out for me the otherwise impersonal symbols of the chart. They are explaining their chart to me, rather than the other way around. In the process, I am connecting their daily experiences to the symbolic, archetypal realm via the symbols in the chart. We each contribute to the story, and by the end of our discussion, we both have a sense of how the symbols live and breathe in the client's life. Interweaving their history and experience with the trans-historical (archetypal) brings a little more depth, a little more richness, a little more meaning, and perhaps a new perspective to their daily experience.
I generally begin a consultation with an exploration of the parental images in the chart. If the birth chart reflects "what's in the air" at the time we were born, then we can conceivably view the chart as a reflection of the atmosphere of the home at the time of birth.
If you are familiar with Arnold Mindell's work, I think of the chart initially as a representation of the dreambody of the parental relationship. The chart shows us the psychological disposition of the mother and the father, both individually and collectively as a couple, at the time of the client's birth. The masculine planets offer us some insight into the father`s experience, and the feminine planets offer us some insight into the mother's experience. The flowing aspects to the masculine planets represent those aspects of the father's personality that he was comfortable with, that were well integrated. The stressful aspects represent those areas of his life that were in conflict, that were not integrated. The same is true for the feminine planets and the mother. (I'm sure this is not new to most of you.)
When you look at many charts in this way, you begin to see that the chart represents the parents' psychological legacy. Whatever they have actualized, individually, and together, is passed down to us as a gift, something that works easily for us. Whatever they haven't actualized is passed down as our life's work. I like Jung's statement about parental influence in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He said, "I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished" (Jung 1965, p. 233).
While it is true that our parents create us, biologically and psychologically, it is also not true. There are a number of esoteric traditions (Plato, etc.) that suggest that we choose the time, and place, and circumstances of our birth. We choose our parents to reflect, to act out for us, to imprint upon us, the complexities of our individual destiny.
I like this idea. Whether we believe in past lives as literal events in time or not, it allows us to place our family experience very much in the realm of the archetypes, in the realm of divine play. We can imagine our parents as messengers, conveying the character and flavor of the gods, in the form of a complex drama, acted out for our benefit.
I realize this is very abstract and theoretical, so let me give you an example from the chart of someone you are probably all familiar with. I want to give you a sense of the parents as divine messengers, acting out for us, dramatizing for us, the complex archetypal energies that comprise our soul image. I am intentionally using the chart of someone that most of you know well. I don't intend to give you any new astrological information. My intention is to show you how I use the material that is already fairly familiar to most of us.
In Carl Jung's birth chart, he has the Sun square Neptune. The Sun represents the father, the Old King in alchemy, and Neptune represents the oceanic, the ecstatic, the realm of Dionysus, the irrational, the imaginal. The square between these planets suggests the father's unsuccessful integration of Neptune's realm.
Because we are looking at Jung's inner image of the father via his chart, this aspect also suggests Jung's awareness of his father's failure to integrate Neptune's realm. The primary image of the father will be one characterized by the negative expression of Neptune. He will experience the father as weak, as wounded, as disappointing, as suffering. We know that the Sun square Neptune can be experienced as the alcoholic father, the father who drowns his sorrows in spirits, or a sick father, or the idealized father who eventually falls off the pedestal, or an absent father we can't remember clearly, whose image is fuzzy, nebulous. The essential image is the father who embodies an ego with a hole opening inward and downward into the irrational, which he is fearful to explore.
We know from Jung's autobiography that this is true of his father. (I should pause and mention that Jung's father was a minister, a "poor country pastor" in Jung's words.) Jung writes, "it was clear to me that something quite specific was tormenting him and I suspected that it had something to do with his faith. From a number of hints he let fall I was convinced that he suffered from religious doubts. This, it seemed, to me, was bound to be the case, if the necessary experience had not come to him" (Jung 1965, p. 92). And later, "I was seized with the most vehement pity for my father. All at once I understood the tragedy of his profession and his life" (Jung 1965, p. 55). "I was disillusioned and even indignant, and once more filled with pity for my father, who had fallen victim to this mumbo-jumbo" (Jung 1965, p. 59). This is all very much the language of Neptune. Pity, tragedy, disillusioned, victim...
Now imaginatively, archetypally, this wounded father is the Fisher King, the guardian of the holy Grail, himself a priest, passing on the necessity of the spiritual quest to the next generation. A young (Jung?) knight, a Parsival, is needed to restore both the Fisher King and the kingdom, which has become a waste land.
Jung himself referred to his father as Amfortas. He recognized the Grail King in his father. He said, "my memory of my father is of a sufferer stricken with an Amfortas wound, a `fisher king' whose wound would not heal" (Jung 1965, p. 215). Jung's father's religious doubts also had a very personal focus. Jung says of his father, "his marriage was not all he had imagined it to be... These difficulties understandably enough, later shattered my father's faith" ( Jung 1965, p. 91). The impression you get from Jung's autobiography is that his father assumed that if he was really on good terms with God, then he should have had a wonderful, successful marriage. The fact that he didn't was interpreted as a religious failure of some kind. The Sun in Jung's chart, representing the father, the old King, is in the 7th house, the house of marriage. So we have an indication from the chart about this personal focus of the father's sense of failure. Neptune squares the 7th house Sun.
Let me add one other aspect to our discussion. I don't intend to do a complete profile of Jung, just give you a few brief examples. But the feminine plays an important role in the Grail myth. The Fisher King is wounded in the thigh, or sometimes actually castrated, suggesting a wounded sexuality, or a wounded relationship to the feminine, to nature, to the instinctual. The Sun in Jung's chart, representing the father, is square, in conflict with, the Moon, representing the mother.
Jung's mother was the embodiment of the instinctual. In Jung's chart, the Moon, representing the mother, is in the earthy sign of Taurus, conjunct the planet Pluto, the lord of the underworld. Jung described his mother as "somehow rooted in the deep invisible ground, though it never appeared to me as confidence in the Christian faith. For me it was somehow connected with animals, trees, meadows, and running water, all of which contrasted most strangely with her Christian faith... it never occurred to me how "pagan" this foundation was" (Jung 1965, p. 90). "By day she was a loving mother, but at night she seemed uncanny. Then she was like one of those seers who is at the same time a strange animal, like a priestess in a bear's cave. Archaic and ruthless, ruthless as truth and nature" (Jung 1965, p. 50). So the mother image is that of the sorceress, Kali, Circe, the dark mother, the embodiment of soul. She embodied all of the characteristics that the father needed desperately to integrate.
I'll come back to Jung's parents again in a moment. What I want you to get a sense of is how Jung experienced all the elements of the Grail myth walking around in his house. He was in the myth. And he had his own part to play in it. The stage was set at the time of his birth.
It is obviously easy to look at someone's chart in retrospect, but what I would like you to consider is how you might have used the chart if Jung had come to you at age 20, for example, to talk about his relationship with his father. Many people with this Sun-Neptune aspect tell me they have been in therapy for years trying to understand their father. We know from the chart that their inner image of the father is by nature nebulous, hard to grasp, imbedded in the insubstantial. We can refer them to the Grail myth here, where Parsival spends his life in search of the illusive Grail castle where the Grail King lives. We can also mention the figure of Proteus, or other oceanic figures portrayed as shape-shifters, to give the client some sense of this elusiveness.
We can also suggest that the starting point for understanding the father may not be through attempts to make his image concrete. It may be more useful to accept and inhabit the image as it is given by the psyche. Stick to the image, as Jung said. They have to enter Neptune's realm to come to the father. They have to enter the realm of Dionysus, the irrational. As you know, Jung did this rather well.
Let's consider another aspect in Jung's chart briefly. Jung had the Moon aspected by Pluto, Saturn, and Uranus. It's a very complex combination. But you don't even need to know what sign they are in or what house they are in to have some sense of the mother image in his psyche. Pluto is a volcano, spewing up hot material from down below. Saturn is a cap on the volcano. And Uranus is the unpredictable on and off switch that controls the cap. These are certainly over-simplified images, but you don't really need to know any more astrology than that to frame a question about the mother image.
If Jung came to you as a young man, he may not be very comfortable talking about the crap that floats to the surface (an appropriate image since Pluto rules elimination, sewage, etc.) when his usually blocked (Saturn) emotions (Moon) suddenly burst (Uranus) through the dam. I'm thinking of his dream of the turd falling on the church and his "bad" thoughts about God, etc. He didn't write about some of these experiences until he was 60 or so.
But what if, armed with a little information from his birth chart, you asked him about his mother? If you asked him if she had something deep and dark that occasionally erupted out of her, I would guess that he would know exactly what you are talking about. If you remember the quotes I read earlier about his mother, he spoke of his mother as having two natures, "one innocuous and human, the other uncanny. This other emerged only now and then, but each time it was unexpected and frightening" (Jung 1965, p. 48). So he would know what that energy is. He has looked it in the face. It's probably going to be easier for us to approach the Pluto, Saturn, and Uranus aspects to Jung's Moon through his image of the mother rather than beginning directly with his daily emotional experience. This might lead us to a discussion of Jung's own experience of a personality number one and personality number two.
When you relate his experience of Pluto, or Uranus, or Neptune, etc., to his experience of his mother, or his father, you objectify it for him. He can now imagine the archetypes walking around, speaking through someone. I suspect that this is why Homer always portrayed the gods and goddesses disguised in human form when they visited the characters in his stories. We rarely meet the gods in blinding visions. We meet them through the personalities of our parents, through our friends, through our spouses.
Starting a consultation with an exploration of the parental image is valuable in a number of ways. It gives us an objective, and therefore safer, more comfortable entry point into the client's story. We are not talking about them yet. Clients come to see me with all kinds of interesting expectations. I must already know all kinds of stuff about them. I can probably read their minds. Maybe something horrible is going to happen to them in the future, and I'm going to tell them about it. Or even worse, I might know something horrible that is going to happen to them, and I'm not telling them. They expect to come in and sit down and cross their arms and be amazed by the revelations I have for them. And the first thing that I do is ask them about their parents. And we drink our tea and talk about their parents for quite a while.
Talking about the parents also connects the client to
their psychological heritage, to the family history that precedes them.
But it is important to remember that we are not on an archeological dig,
we are not looking for the causes of their problems in their relationships
with their parents. We are on an archetypal dig. We want to look back at
their history and then through it. I want to try to place the family experience
in the archetypal realm, in the realm of the imagination, in the realm
of divine play.
Imagine a client with the Sun square Neptune. They have just met me for the first time, and have an hour and a half or two hours to spend with me looking at their chart. They have come to "have a reading." How quickly can I get at the core experience of this Sun square Neptune if I don't look at the parents? How subtle and diplomatic will I have to be to get the client comfortable with opening up about their most intimate experience of the self? More importantly, how long will it take?
I can ask them about their intuition and their creativity, of course. That's fairly comfortable. However, when I start into their sensitivity, their vulnerable feelings, a core issue, how far will I get? Jung refers often to his overwhelming sense of inferiority when he was young. If the Sun represents the central sense of identity, the ego, and the oceanic Neptune is plugged into it, what would that feel like? "What's it feel like to have your ego on a slip-n-slide, by the way? Do you ever have a fleeting fear of drowning? Or feel like you are standing in quicksand?" I'm being painfully direct for effect. But I'm sure you can hear the psychic doors slamming shut. "No, not really. That doesn't sound like me at all."
In fact, I can, and do, ask some of these very blunt questions, in the same words, an hour into a consultation, after first exploring the father's wound. We have brought the wound into the room, we both know what it is. And yes, it is familiar. Yes, it is in me, too. Yes, I know what that feels like. It's easier to see it out there first in some objective form. And the parents are a bridge between the objective and the subjective worlds. They are somebody else, but they are our flesh and blood.
After exploring (in this case) the father's wound, and exploring the nature of Neptune as an archetype, we have the ingredients to reframe the client's experience of inferiority into a meaningful, archetypal context. The father has passed on the hole in his soul that opens inward and downward. It is not a comfortable legacy. In fact, it is by nature very confusing and painful. This sense of inferiority, this deeply felt sense of not being real, of having no self, of being in the world but not of it, is tied to the inner image of the father, which in turn is tied to the archetype of Neptune. Do you see how the reframe can just happen by itself? The archetype of Christ crucified is conveyed through the father's wound. Or the Fisher King. It's the father's fault we have one foot in the ocean. Dionysus is your father. There are many ways to approach it.
Our current experience can be tied to our history, and then moved beyond history. We not only validate the current experience, but also give the client a new perspective on both their current experience and their history.
The one point that I haven't really emphasized yet that needs to be emphasized before I finish is that, regardless of how familiar you are with the planetary symbols, you can't know the specifics of an individual's experience of the mother or father. They will always surprise you with the details of a unique expression of an archetypal configuration. You may know that the father was spiritually wounded if we see the Sun square Neptune, for example. And you could hazard an educated guess about the nature of his wound based on the signs and houses involved. But that places you in the expert mode, in the mode of the diviner, the fortune teller. When we make impressing our clients more important than helping them to heal, we are doing them a disservice. The point is not to try to tell the client about their mother or father, but to ask them questions that open the conversation in the direction indicated by the symbols of the chart.
There are so many implications that I haven't had time to discuss and material that I have covered far too quickly. I certainly haven't done justice to Jung's chart in this brief discussion. However, if you have a sense that the seeds of Jung's archetypal destiny were transmitted to him through his parents, and that the flavor of this inheritance can be accessed through the symbolic language of astrology, then I have been successful.
Let me sum up by saying that looking at the actual parents
via the symbols of the birth chart provides us with an objective, living,
familiar model for reflecting upon the subtle and complex archetypal world
that lies within us. This approach sees through the prevailing attitude
that suggests that we grow despite our parental influence; that if we could
only overcome our poor parenting, we may possibly become whole again. We
become whole not despite our parent's wounds, but because of them, through
them. Archetypal psychologists tell us that we meet the gods through our
own wounds, but our wounds are part of an inheritance. We stand on the
shoulders of (wounded) giants.
Hillman, J. Archetypal Psychology. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1985.
Hillman, J. We've Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World Is Getting Worse. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York, NY:
Vintage Books, 1965.