Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Astrology, Psychotherapy and Ritual Space

Astrology, in my view, is essentially divinatory. It is not a ‘science’ in the sense of its statements being reducible to testable rules. The rules - the chart itself and its formal meanings -  provide a framework for this other thing that we do. They even carry a bit of the magic of the divinatory process; something has rubbed off on them over the centuries. But only a bit. Push the 'rules' too far, subject them to too much statistical testing, and they tend to break down.

The ‘rules’ are essentially ceremony, the forms that guide the astrologer into the liminal space where real astrology, divination, takes place. We’ve probably all experienced this at the start of a reading: the astrologer is running through the formal meanings of some of the planets in their signs and aspects, but already the divination is there in the form of which part of the chart the astrologer has homed in on. Or in which of the wide range of possible meanings the astrologer is applying.

You get ceremony at the start of any magical, divinatory or healing process. Psychotherapy is magical healing half-masked as science. The procedures around it are a sort of ritual – meeting at the same time, sitting opposite one another in chairs, and the personal ‘boundary’ that the therapist maintains, which is there in order to be a vessel for the spirits, like a priest running a service, or a high priestess invoking Isis. (This role can be enhanced by the sense of lineage and transmission going back to the founders of psychotherapy - it's something you get in many religions.)

That is what Freud was really doing when he had his patients on a couch, unable to even see him: it was powerful magic, rather than the attempt at scientific ‘objectivity’ that it would seem to be. 

Unfortunately, that impersonal magical ‘boundary’ has resulted in personal disclosure on the part of the therapist becoming a taboo  – I really mean a taboo – so that even when it would be highly appropriate, the psychotherapist is often reluctant to bring in personal experience. And I think this taboo has arisen through the cultural need to appear ‘scientific’ - or maybe 'professional' -  which as I say obscures the real meaning of the magical boundary.

All the same, I think that liminal space, in which the ordinary social rules are relaxed, allowing something ‘other’ to come in, is common to both astrology and psychotherapy at their best. The ceremonies are different, but the divinatory principle is the same. I could argue that the astrological ceremonies are more developed and efficacious than those of psychotherapy, which to some extent likes to imagine itself a science, and so can be reluctant to admit, let alone develop, its ritualistic aspect. But even astrologers are on the defensive about their own magical roots, and some like to imagine there is some scientific, testable basis to their craft, despite the firm evidence to the contrary. (See ‘The Moment of Astrology’ by Geoffrey Cornelius)

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That ‘liminal space’, you could argue, takes place at the border between the Conscious and Unconscious minds. I think we all have an ability to go there. The ‘Unconscious’ feeds us: another word for it is simply ‘life’. And if you are functioning as some sort of healer or mentor, then you have a gift – that usually requires training – for going to that place. Ordinary life often requires that our gaze is directed outwards, and indeed that is often where people feel most comfortable.

And so that other natural function, of consulting life within, can get projected onto healers and therapists as a special gift – which they may well have – but the point is we all have it, it is natural. And it involves the principle of finding our own answers in a culture that too readily supplies them. And an important function of the healer/therapist/astrologer is to motivate that sort of enquiry. When people want ‘a reading’ from me, I sometimes do a double-take, because of the way it can be couched. Almost as through the other person wants mainly to listen to what I have to say about their chart. I have occasionally had this sort of flavour even when experienced astrologers have asked me for ‘a reading’. Whereas I like to see ‘a reading’ mainly as a platform for the other person’s self-enquiry, actively promoted by myself, and with hopefully a measure of insight from myself, particularly as the reading progresses.

I think there is an issue around the cultural baggage that astrology carries. You go to an astrologer for answers, particularly about the future: that is the sort of archetype that is in the culture, and that as astrologers we need to be aware of and to resist. The function of the oracle at Delphi was to help people to live well, and I think that also needs to be our function. I think astrology has probably taken a few wrong turns down the centuries, but we are fortunate enough to live in a time when tradition can be questioned. Mistakes can be old and venerable.

Back to liminality. In our culture, alcohol has this function on a social level. We are allowed to be and to behave in ways that are normally proscribed, but even this relaxation has its rules. Parties and celebrations, which usually involve alcohol, also have this liminal function. And in this place we are allowing more of life in. 

Amongst the Chippewa-Cree Indians, human consciousness is seen as a tiny thing within the context of the vast consciousness of the universe. How, by implication, with our tiny minds, can we understand more than a sliver of all-that-is?

And it is the same principle, but modernised, with the idea of the Conscious and the Unconscious (in the broader, Jungian sense). The conscious mind is likened to the tip of the iceberg above the surface of the ocean, with the great majority being underwater. But even that does not do it justice, for the conscious, individual mind is finite, whereas the Unconscious is infinite. So in that liminal space as healer/astrologer, we go the boundary of finite Consciousness and infinite Unconscious, and hopefully the other person is there too, and we listen to what that infinite ocean has to say.

Our modern, scientific worldview often denies this much bigger source: the hubris of science is that the human mind is God, it can understand all. And so life itself gets pushed out. But, because life cannot be truly pushed out, it returns in another form. In our quest to understand the cosmos, we have arrived at the point where, over the last 20 years or so, the universe is seen as being made up of 95% dark energy and dark matter: ‘stuff’ that has to be there for theoretical reasons but which is undetectable! So again we are back to the principle of the tiny human mind and the vast unknowable universe – except in this case, there is a degree of demonization, in that the universe is seen as largely cold and indifferent rather than life enhancing.

And it is interesting that the internet also seems to be taking on this mythological, asymmetrical polarity: the web most of us know is very small compared to the so-called 'deep web'. So that even sat at our computer, the new ‘reality’, there is something much much bigger behind it. And again, there is a degree of demonization: the deep web is not just mountains of academic papers, but a vast culture of harmful activity - the 'dark web' -  largely beyond cultural control.

And you could argue that computerised reality shuts out important aspects of life – particularly real engagement with real people, and easily becomes a way of shutting ourselves down. And, thinking mythologically, that throws up a shadow, the dark web.

I think this liminal, divinatory space is where we are most human: it requires all our faculties of awareness, both of ourselves and of the people around us, but also of the source of life within that is, in a way, beyond analysis. There has always been a human tendency, hubris, to think we know more than we do. Wisahitsa, a character in some of the American Indian stories, is always running into trouble because he thinks he knows more than he does. The ancient Greeks were aware of it through the idea of hubris, thinking you are a god. And the modern dazzling success of science and technology and economic prosperity has caused perhaps an unprecedented level of thinking-we-know-it. 

But that awareness of an ocean that is inherently beyond us and that nourishes us, the Pisces principle, is never far away. Perhaps that is one of the main things astrology has to offer nowadays. We get too easily caught up in trying to defend our craft on a technical level. Protesting to the media, for example, that there are really only 12 signs and not 13, gives the public the impression that there is something real and literal about these signs. I say OK, respect the tradition, ceremonial forms matter, they give power. But really astrology is about using those forms to go to a place within where life is and where wisdom is and where also we find the limits of what we can understand. It is a magical place within that has been forgotten and, in my view, that is what astrology is really about. Rather like alchemy. 

Astrology shouldn't be mistaken for its outward forms  - in a way, people are right to laugh at them if they are presented as literally true. I think that on a popular level astrology needs to be reinvented as essentially an inner tradition.


beithann said...

Thanks Barry, this is a really interesting article. I have been arguing for years that Astrology isn't a science but an interpretive art, thet it is about an inner conversation and not a fated process. that idea of the liminal space that both Astrologer and client enter is a great one and well discribed
food for thought

Sara said...

The reason science exists is to explain itself and its existence. If something can't be weighed, measured, touched, held, calculated - whatever - it doesn't exist, hence the desperate need to calculate the existence of dark energy and dark matter. Science still has a lot to explain about itself.

I don't think science really likes creativity or wild imagination, because those things can't be calculated or explained or controlled, no matter how many Freudian theories there are about them. I think science is afraid of 'the wild', the possibility of what might really be on the other side of C. S. Lewis's garden gate, and the mere idea that some things that happen have no rational explanation.

It may be the reasoning, if you want to call it that, behind the development of artificial intelligence. It breaks everything down into binary code which takes away the possibility of imaginary states of existence like ghosts and goblins and things that go bumpp in the night.

John D Grove said...

This really rings true, Barry, with the crucible that is the consulting room with ritual magic defining the inner quest toward individuation.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You are going to lose me as a reader. I was actually quite shocked. Surely we have evolved as a society from 500 years ago to form laws that decide what is that age of consent and what constitutes abuse. Who are you exactly to question it? Just don't hide behind a 'society' that should question it. How can that be compared to adults having consensual sex albeit in relationships of power or not? You also seem to be implying that if something happened decades ago no longer matters to the victims? Issues are black and white at least in the eyes of the law. That's why we have laws. You are all for what? A free for all? Let's question everything? It is all free, free, should not be judged, except you then end on your personal views on others' sexuality. How does that work? I don't want to know, by the way.