The Astrologer's Soul
by Michael McLay, M.A.
Most of the material written in the field of astrology is naturally directed toward increasing our effective use of the chart as a tool for helping our clients. Although helping others is certainly an integral and satisfying part of my work, it is not my primary motivation for practicing as an astrologer.
I did not choose to study astrology. Astrology chose me. It grabbed me by the ankle one afternoon on a dusty little porch on Green Park Road in New Delhi, India, in mid-December, 1980, and it will not let me go. I was invited to join some friends on their next visit to an astrologer they had discovered. At the time, this was purely a lark, a fun thing to do for an afternoon's entertainment in New Delhi. I was much more excited about the prospects of another kamakazi ride through the crowded streets of New Delhi in a three-wheel taxi than I was about the consultation itself.
The details of that visit are unimportant. Suffice it to say that I was told all of the things a Westerner expects to hear from a jyotishi (Hindu astrologer) in India. I was told how long I would live, when I would attain enlightenment, my personal deity, the most auspicious color for me, the best gem to wear for health and happiness, whom I would marry and when, the field of work that was astrologically appropriate, etc. While I was surprised by the details discussed in the reading, at the time I considered it to be vague reassurance at best, and spiritual entertainment at worst.
What did strike me deeply about the visit to this pundit had nothing to do with anything he said to me. Beneath the battered books, the dusty porch, the funny hat, the broken English, and the chatter about my future, I sensed a soul that knew, in his bones, that there was a source of order in the universe that was accessable to him, that spoke to him. He had an assurance and depth that derived from daily contact with a structure of reality that ran beneath his visible world. This man had one foot on the archetypal ground.
The undercurrent of this visit has remained with me over the years, serving as a reminder that the study and practice of astrology is first and foremost a path for developing a familiarity with the gods and goddesses that thread their way through our lives. And perhaps much more.
Saturn, for example, is experienced as my cautious inner voice, my urge for something concrete and enduring. He is the voice of the Senex telling me that "slow and steady wins the race." Saturn is also felt in my bones and in my teeth. When my body aches in cold, damp weather, it is a reminder of my advancing years and my relationship to time, to Father Time, to Saturn. He is present in the bricks and two-by-fours of buildings, and in the hierarchies of businesses and organizations. Saturn, however, is not bones or lead or old age or rules. These are his windows into our world, and ours into his.
As we come to recognize the expressions, the epiphanies, of the god in our own psyche and in the world around us, we begin to sense a thread that permeates and winds its way through all of life, co-mingled, intertwined, with many other threads, essences of the other gods and goddesses.
At first, the god is experienced as a nebulous quality that is very much identified with us, our fears, our caution. As we begin to reflect upon the objective reality of the god, we begin to notice when he stirs in our soul. "There! That was him! Right there! I felt the brakes go on." When we catch him in the act, we gain a little more objective distance from him. Soon we can hear him speaking to us through the speed limit signs on the side of the road. We recognize him in the pillars holding up the porch of our house and in the concrete sidewalk under our feet. He becomes a living presence in our world. Our cautious inner voice, the bones in our body, and the concrete sidewalk are all expressions of his nature. Saturn is within us, and we are within him.
As we explore the essence of each planet/god/archetype and re-cognize their living presence, their autonomy, their other-ness, it slowly dawns on us that we are not these bones (Saturn), not this blood (Mars), not this liver (Jupiter). . .. We are not this intellect (Mercury), not these fluctuating feelings (Moon), not this ego center (Sun), not these actions (Mars). . .. We are not the gods or goddesses that permeate these functions and structures. Neti, neti, neti. Not this, not this, not this. What, then, is left? Do you see where this leads? The study of astrology can lead us to discover and experience our essential nature, the infinite, imaginal ground from which the gods and goddesses arise, and upon which they dance their dance. Astrology becomes a viable path leading to the re-cognition of the Infinite, the Tao, our Buddha nature, the Self.
There are very few references in our astrological literature to the spiritual/psychological value of the study and practice of astrology for the astrologer. The few that I have found come from the literature of Indian astrology (jyotish). In the context of an apparent tradition of reductive, descriptive, and predictive astrology, a very few jyotish texts refer to the possibility of seeing through the facade of the profession to its core. Some texts suggest that a lifetime of astrological study and practice can lead to the opening of the jyotish nadis, (the nadis, 72,000 in number, are the channels through which the life-force is said to flow in kundalini yoga), after which the chart becomes superfluous, and the jyotishi spontaneously knows the answer to all questions posed. "Jyotish mati pragya" is a rare phrase, perhaps descriptive of the results of the opening of the jyotish nadis, referring to the attainment, achieved through astrological study and practice, of a state of refined intelligence that knows only truth.
These obscure references from the spiritual traditions of another culture may be difficult for us to get a handle on. We can possibly understand this process in terms of our growing recognition of the gods and goddesses peopling our inner and outer landscapes. However, I suspect that the jyotishis may be referring not only to a developmental process that extends over a lifetime of practice, but also to a specific process that takes place within the astrologer during an individual consultation. I can only discuss this process in terms of my own experience with chart consultations. I do so with great trepidation, for obvious reasons.
I usually look at a chart for an hour or so the day before a consultation, to get a sense of patterns in the chart, and to let the chart sink in. I look at it until I have gained a solid sense of the whole chart. The next day, when I sit with the client, I inevitably find myself feeling as if I am starting from scratch again, knowing nothing, with no idea of how to regain yesterday`s sense of wholeness or how to capture it with words. I feel utterly at a loss, completely incompetent, a dishonor to the profession and the gods. I am not only incapable of introducing the client to his/her soul image, I can barely find my way through the rudiments of astrology. Somehow I gather up the courage to start talking, and I dive into the chart at some place that I hope will connect with the client's experience right away.
One of the most frequent comments that I hear from students of astrology is that, when faced with a new chart, they do not know where to start. They don't know how to enter the chart. I usually surprise them when I tell them that that is a wonderful experience. The chart is a symbolic representation of the seed image of the soul. It is represented in mandala form, in the form of the circle squared, a symbol of wholeness. This "not knowing where to start" is an expressiom of our soul's recognition of the wholeness that the chart represents. Entering into that seed image requires us to break the wholeness into pieces, to break the symmetry, to ritually dismember the soul image. The soul hesitates to initiate this sacrificial act.
In this context, I have yet to conceive of myself as a priest performing a ritual. I tend to feel more like a thief in the night, perhaps (at my most inflated) Prometheus stealing into the realm of the gods to bring fire to humankind. When I think of the entry into the chart in this way, I begin to imagine my "not knowing" as a dip in the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, before entering the Other World, and my fear and trembling as awe, founded in a bone-deep recognition of the sacredness of the ritual, and of my impending entry into the realm of the gods.
After I have broken into the chart, exploring first one symbol and then another, the pieces begin to fall together. I add more and more, receiving feedback from the client as I go, and the synthesis gathers momentum and begins to take on a life of its own. The momentum within me builds like a summer storm and eventually reaches a critical intensity as I approach a threshold that I can not see. Then, quite suddenly, the pieces fall into place in one still moment. This often results in a mutual and profound "Aha" experience for me and for my client, who is weathering the same storm in this process. Often at this point, I can put the whole chart, or a major complex issue in the chart, into perspective with one simple phrase or image that resonates deeply with my client. It feels as if the sky has opened up, dropping torrents of cleansing rain.
This experience strikes me as similar to the experiences reported by runners who cross a threshold of endurance and experience transcendence. (Call this zen and the art of astrological consultation.) When the chart falls into place for me in this way, I experience a state in which I know that whatever I say about a chart is true. My intellect is resolute, grounded in the truth of the soul.
I think of this experience as taking part, in some small way, in the creation process of the individual psyche, from dismemberment and projection of the seed image, to re-collection in wholeness. Now when I read about Osiris's dismembered parts being scattered, and Isis' journey to re-collect them, to reunite them, and to have Osiris' soul recalled into the reconstituted corpse, I know what this process is about psychologically. I can look back at the few hours spent with a client and delineate the dismemberment, the arduous journey of gathering the parts, putting them together again into a whole, and then the moment when the corpse came to life. The phrase or image that sums up the chart is the mantra that brought the image to life, that connected the parts to the soul.
I don't mean to suggest that this is always my experience, by any means. As often as not, I get lost in the gathering of the parts, or put the arm on where the leg goes. Or feel less like Prometheus in a cosmic drama and more like Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks' movie "Frankenstein", bumbling my way to the roof, screaming and praying for lightning to strike the apparatus to bring the creature to life. . ..
There are certainly many other areas to explore in a discussion
of the impact of astrology on the astrologer's soul. I suspect that such
a discussion is important for the profession of astrology. If more attention
is paid to how astrology can deepen our contact with our own souls, perhaps
we will then be in a better position to assist our client's in the exploration
of their's. Perhaps our endless search for one more book or piece of information
that will finally give us the edge in our desire to impress our clients
with our descriptive or predictive abilities will be recognized as the
musk ox's search for the source of its own scent. I don't write this to
offend. I write this as a reminder that the most precious gift you and
I, as astrologers, offer to our clients is our own soul.