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Glenn Perry - Traditional and Psychological Astrology, a Comparison and Critique

At the 2008 UAC conference in Denver there was a panel discussion titled, “From Ancient to Post-modern astrology,” the purpose of which was to compare traditional astrology with contemporary psychological models. Four participants - Rob Hand (medieval), Demetra George (Hellenistic), Keith Burk (psychological), and myself (psychological)—were asked a series of questions by moderator, Rick Levine, to determine where we stood on questions of fate versus free will, prediction and personal growth, respective strengths and weaknesses of each model, and whether there was any overlap or possibility for synthesis that might lead to a new, post-modern astrology. What follows is a transcript of my comments on that panel, along with some additional commentary that was sparked by the discussion.

Postmodernism

First, the phrase “post-modern astrology” warrants a definition. In a recent article by Rob Hand, he makes clear that he is using the term to connote a synthesis of the best of modern and pre-modern astrology.(1) In as much as modern astrology inaugurated some genuinely innovative ideas— namely a humanistic, growth-oriented perspective—yet, was a dumb downed, truncated version of its pre-modern glory, Rob maintains it is only by recovering ancient techniques and integrating them with 21st century sensibilities that a truly post-modern astrology can be born.

Conversely, I use the term “post-modern” in a manner that is consistent with philosophers of late 20th century science— namely, that postmodernism is rooted in the recognition that all knowledge is interpretive, that objective certainty is an illusion, and that ultimate reality is intrinsically dynamic, intelligent, purposive, and indeterminate, all of which implies that living systems—including and especially human beings—have both freedom and a tropism toward higher states of awareness and complexity over time.(2)

Postmodernism is chiefly concerned with the replacement of modern dualism, reductionism, and mechanism with an ecological, organismic paradigm in which the entire Universe is perceived as a living, intelligent, purposive Being—a pervasive consciousnesses that is immanent in all things and processes. In such a Being, internal relations have priority over external relations; that is, rather than depicting living systems as isolated and mechanically determined by outside forces, a post-modern view sees them as interconnected and self-determining at an internal level.

Significantly, these same perspectives are inherent in psychological astrology, which holds that the meanings we ascribe to astrological configurations are shaped by of our interpretive framework; that these meanings lack objective certainty; that the psyche is intrinsically dynamic, purposive, and indeterminate; that internal relations (free will and psychodynamics) have priority over external relations (genetic or social or astral determinism); that human consciousness is an extension of absolute consciousness; and that the drive for self-actualization implies a tropism toward higher states of awareness and connectivity over time. Accordingly, psychological astrology is post-modern at its core.

Our different uses of the term ‘post-modern astrology’ are not mutually exclusive so long as Rob acknowledges that the overly concrete, narrow, and fatalistic pronouncements of traditional astrology are precisely opposite of what postmodernism conventionally means. To be truly postmodern, the techniques of traditional astrology have to be differentiated from the uses to which they were commonly applied. The question is: can older techniques be bootstrapped for post-modern ends? Can they be applied to a growth-oriented astrology in a way that recognizes the inherent indeterminacy of chart outcomes? I’m not sure they can, but I could be wrong.

Over the years, I’ve developed some concerns about the efficacy and ethicality of traditional techniques, for such techniques seem to be operating at cross purposes with psychological values. To be specific, I question whether ancient techniques can be utilized in the service of transformation and growth, assuming practitioners are even interested in applying them to such ends. We will return to this point shortly.

Meanwhile, the questions that framed the discussion are:

What are your model’s primary values and purposes?

The model I espouse emphasizes how the chart reflects psychic structure, illuminating the basic needs and core beliefs that serve as the root causes of behavior. In this view, the chart depicts a process: how the individual attempts to satisfy needs and actualize potential. What I call content— observable behavior and events—is an outcome of process and serves as a catalyst for the further development of psyche.

In this view, content mirrors process; as within, so without. Events are important only to the extent that they 1) signify where the individual is at developmentally; and 2) provide a vehicle to spark new levels of awareness and functionality. To the extent that the practitioner can clarify the inner, psychological dimension of the horoscope, the client is empowered to resolve conflicts and change beliefs that impede potential. That, in effect, is the purpose of the work. My guiding value is to assist the client’s growth toward an optimal state of personality integration, or wholeness. My focus is on the client’s ability to express their charts at higher levels of integration over time.

What are your model’s primary strengths and weaknesses?

I think the main challenge of psychological astrology is to better articulate how psychic structure and processes are described by the chart. While this is an area in which, generally speaking, psychological astrology needs improvement, it would also be fair to say that a considerable amount of progress has already been achieved. Over the last twenty years I have been developing a model that is very structured, precise, and systematic at a psychodynamic level, while remaining flexible with regard to event outcomes. The core needs symbolized by signs are precisely defined without sacrificing their multidimensionality. Planets are explained as dynamic processes that are geared toward satisfying the needs of the signs they rule. Houses provide the situational contexts within which these processes play out. They not only constitute specific departments of life with requirements all their own; they also provide a backdrop for projections wherein parts of the self (planets) are synchronistically objectified in the people and events one encounters.

Aspects can be understood in terms of cognitive strategies and compromise formations that coordinate planetary functions toward joint goals. In the case of hard aspects, planetary interactions may involve mutually exclusive goals, maladaptive defenses, pathogenic ideas, dysfunctionality, and resultant suffering, all of which can be transformed with sufficient effort. However, hard aspects can also function in a relatively integrated, productive manner right from birth. Finally, dispositorships and house significators link signs, houses, and planets together into an unfolding sequence, thereby revealing associative chains and overall plot structure. Explicit in all these concepts is an astrological grammar that provides clear rules for interpreting planets in signs, houses, and aspect, and for understanding the linkages symbolized by significators and dispositors.

The strength of this model is threefold: 1) it elucidates psychic structure and process; 2) it shows the relationship of inner and outer realities—that is, it articulates how external events are reflective of internal factors; and 3) it provides a clear but flexible structure for discerning the meaning of event outcomes.

To appreciate this final point, psychodynamics must be differentiated from its environmental consequences. Psychodynamics means activity of soul and concerns itself with the ongoing distribution and regulation of psychic energy. Comprised of self-activating, goal directed, and interacting forces (planetary archetypes) that underlay all thoughts, feelings, and behavior, the psyche is intrinsically dynamic. It is the relation between motivation, emotion, cognition, and behavior that is the prime topic of psychodynamics.

Whereas both psychodynamics and environmental consequences are symbolized by the chart, only psychodynamics can be precisely interpreted. For example, I can know that Venus square Uranus depicts a conflict between the need for secure attachment (Taurus) and the impulse for radical change (Aquarius); however, I cannot know how this conflict will manifest until I talk to the client. Event consequences are indeterminate since outcome is at least partly contingent upon level of personality integration.

This is why astrological language must be flexible. Growth toward wholeness is an ongoing process, the pace of which varies markedly from person to person. Level of awareness and functionality cannot be discerned from the chart alone. The exteriorization of psychic process shows up as the events and people one attracts, but these outcomes subtly shift in response to psychic growth. Accordingly, in whatever does occur, its meaning can only be fully understood in the context of the psychodynamics that underlay its manifestation.

To provide another example, I can know that someone with Mars square Saturn is challenged to integrate conflicting needs for freedom and limits, autonomy versus duty, action and restraint, and so on. However, what I cannot know is whether this conflict has been resolved—or, if it has, at what level of functionality the compromise formation is operating. Like any aspect, there is a fairly wide range of possibilities that can be measured on a vertical continuum of higher and lower expression. Until I speak to the person or have an opportunity to study his or her life, I cannot assess his level of integration; yet, level makes all the difference, for it determines not only how the person thinks, feels, and behaves relative to that configuration, but also the nature of the events and experiences that are attracted.

If my Mars square Saturn client reports that he was physically abused by an angry, domineering father, and now is in constant conflict with his superiors at work, I know that his level of integration is fairly low. However, if he reports that he has healed his relationship with his father and has been promoted to director of traffic management and control for a large city, a position for which he subsequently wins awards, then I know that he’s expressing his Mars square Saturn at a high level of integration.(3)

Again, content mirrors process. Understanding this empowers clients to accept responsibility for their fate—i.e., to accept that what’s happening to them is not random but is in the service of their growth toward unity and wholeness. Clients are encouraged to change outer conditions by doing inner work—or, as I like to say, if you can alter your character, you can mutate your fate. By seeing events as derivatives of consciousness, their meaning shifts from random experiences that serve no purpose to developmental vehicles that provide a stimulus to further evolution.

Some traditional astrologers accuse me of saying that free will has no limits and that clients can do or be anything. They object that if people are completely free, then how can astrology work at all? This is a mistake and not implied by the model. While there is always freedom to grow, it occurs within the archetypal parameters defined by planetary placements. So, in a sense, there are archetypal restraints on process, but not on level of expression. Accordingly, whatever a person does or experiences will always be consistent with the symbolism involved.

The point here is that unless astrologers recognize higher and lower expressions of the same configuration, then flexibility of interpretation is sacrificed on an altar of certainty that kills hope and locks the client into believing there is only one possible outcome. Trapped in the straightjacket of such an approach, traditional astrologers are unable to point the way toward higher and more functional expressions of the chart.

How do you define ‘helping’ in the context of your work as an astrologer?

Almost invariably my sessions focus on the most difficult aspects of the client’s chart. That’s where the energy is; that’s where clients are most challenged. Rather than steer them away from these areas, as if the associated problems are permanent and irresolvable, I encourage them to go more deeply into these areas, suggesting new ways to understand and work with the difficulty at hand.(4) The act of being helpful, as I see it, is not to tell the client what works in their chart and what doesn’t, but to help them transform dysfunctionality into functionality, convert weaknesses into strengths, and demonstrate how we are all capable of being a wounded healer in precisely those areas where we are most challenged. With regard to the wounded healer archetype, I’m not talking about Pluto, or Chiron, or any specific astrological factor that allegedly pertains to this process. For woundedness can take many forms in a chart and is not limited to a particular sign, planet, house, or aspect.

In our panel discussion, it was obvious that all four participants had a common goal of helping clients attain selfrealization. How self-realization was defined, however, and how it could best be achieved with the help of astrology, differed markedly between the two camps. Traditional astrologers emphasized the client’s potential for growth and transformation to a much lesser extent than did psychological astrologers.

This has important implications for counseling. If the traditional astrologer believes that certain outcomes gleaned from charts are relatively fixed, e.g., the client will not marry—or, if they do, they will have a bad marriage, then the humane and compassionate thing to do is 1) advise the client to pursue their happiness by striving for goals that are supported by the chart, and 2) advise them to employ evasive strategies to minimize suffering in those areas of the chart that are afflicted. A related approach is to employ “magic” in the pursuit of desired outcomes. Talismans, amulets, invocations to the gods, sacrifices, yagjas, and other remedial measures allegedly strengthen the individual’s capacity to capture and possess “good” planetary qualities, while mitigating the influence of “bad” planets and aspects. There are several points worth noting here: 1) the chart is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts; 2) ‘bad’ planetary positions by sign, house, or aspect cause suffering; 3) such suffering is without purpose or value; and 4) the astrologer’s job is help the client avoid their astrologically allotted suffering. In short, helping consists of using astrology to counsel clients in how to avert distress and achieve fulfillment without having to actually change their character.

In my opinion, such an approach is predicated on a relative ignorance of the nature, value, and intrinsic morality of inner work, i.e., of the human capacity to change, heal, and empower the self through spiritual and therapeutic practices. Self-help practices do not look outside to external forces – planetary gods and goddesses – that can be petitioned to intervene on one’s behalf, but inside to the cultivation of values, attitudes, and behaviors that support the unfoldment of one’s intrinsic divinity.

At the heart of a psychological approach is faith in the client’s capacity to evolve. More specifically, it is trust that over time the client can garner sufficient insight and will to transform difficult planetary configurations into enduring strengths. It is not the ego, or personality, that receives emphasis. Support of ego-centered desires for triumph and ease are not regarded as the astrologer’s highest service. Instead, psychological astrology focuses on soul development. Pain is honored as an educative process since it can elevate the client’s awareness of pathogenic ideas that cause suffering and can incentivize behavioral changes that lead to greater fulfillment.

At one level of integration, a difficult configuration can symbolize a pathogenic belief. At a higher level, this belief is disconfirmed and converted into compassion for, and mastery of, the very challenge that previously caused distress. In other words, the same configuration can symbolize a pathogenic idea with attendant suffering or a power of soul that leads to altruism and expertise. The astrologer’s job is to facilitate a process of self-exploration that gradually leads to self-transformation. The characterological changes that result yield emergent skills that can be utilized for the greater good. In my view, this is what helping means.

 

To be continue...

Notes:

(1) Hand, Rob (2005). “Toward a Post-Modern Astrology,” an edited transcript of his talk at the 2005 Astrological Conference of the British Astrological Association in York, UK. Go to: http://www.astro.com/astrology/in_postmodern_e.htm

(2) Griffin, D.R. (1988), The reenchantment of science: Postmodern proposals, D.R. Griffin (Ed.), New York: SUNY Press.

(3) This example derives from an actual case history.

(4) If the client is already expressing these hard aspects at a high level of integration, then I may merely reinforce the existing trend. The interpretation would be more clarifying and supportive.