The Alchemical Gap:

The Domain of the Shadow

originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, January, 1996


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When looking at a birth chart, often little attention is paid to large empty spaces between planets, the natural assumption being that emptiness implies a lack of meaningful activity. It has been my experience, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, it is emptiness that ultimately defines the shape and function of the chart.

In symbolic terms, I interpret emptiness as the domain of the unknown. The empty space in a chart represents that aspect of reality that an individual has yet to explore. It shows where the native is still relatively unconscious, and charts the course of a process of self-discovery that will unfold throughout a lifetime. Through my work with students in my correspondence course, I have also come to associate this empty space with the shadow, and have named it the alchemical gap, to describe the nature of the work to be done in its domain. Alchemy, as I am defining it here, is the process by which we translate the base metal of self-rejection into the gold of self-acceptance. An alchemical relationship between two planets is one that holds the key to the actualization of this process. It requires us to deal with and reclaim all those parts of ourselves rejected in childhood as being unacceptable, unlovable, inappropriate, or unworthy, according to whatever judgments, real or imagined, we were subject to early in life.

The alchemical gap is by nature somewhat inscrutable to the one whose chart contains it, because like the shadow that dwells there, what happens in the gap is largely unconscious. The shadow and the alchemical gap are both born of the pain of rejection, and to anesthetize that pain, there is a numbing of consciousness around the issues that the gap represents. A false self is usually adopted to mask the shame that the individual feels around the rejected part of the self, and to protect the individual from further rejection. For those with the courage to do so, it is possible to consciously explore the false self, the rejected self, and the issues that revolve around the shadow using the concept of the alchemical gap as a point of departure.

The nature of the shadow dance that takes place inside the alchemical gap can be understood in terms of the relationship between the two planets on either side. Whether or not these planets form a traditional aspect to each other, they often function like a conjunction that is straining to form across empty space. Unlike a regular conjunction where the proximity of the two planets facilitates a blending of energies, the distance between the two planets on either side of the alchemical gap symbolizes a longing of the soul that is difficult to attain because of the pain that was experienced when these two energies were last together.

Compounding this difficulty is the fact that one of the two planets bordering the gap is usually much weaker than the other. Thus, bridging the gap is a bit like clapping two hands together where one hand is paralyzed or atrophied. You might get a clap, of sorts, if you bring the good hand over to the bad one, but you won't get a real clap until you strengthen the bad hand to be able to meet the good hand half way, and release the tension in the good hand caused by overcompensation. The bad hand, or weaker planet, can be considered to represent the rejected part of the self, while the good hand, or stronger planet represents the false self that is adopted to mask the shadow's shame and protect it from further pain.

While the arc size of empty space that is necessary to constitute an alchemical gap is perhaps subject to experimentation and further debate, in general, I would say that a gap is formed when two planets are at least a square, but no more than an opposition apart, and there are no other planets between them. Where the gap is less than a square, I suspect the separation between two planets is insufficient to constitute an alchemical challenge, as described above. Where the gap is more than an opposition, I would imagine a different dynamic takes place, in which the two outermost planets are pulled together not through empty space, but through the concentration of planets between them. These are points, however, which could easily bear further scrutiny.

Not every chart will have a gap, and it is conceivable that a chart could have more than one. In the case of a bucket pattern, for example, where a cluster of planets is opposed by a singleton planet, the singleton could form a gap with the two outermost planets on either side of the cluster. In this case, it is likely the singleton planet would be pulled in two directions at once, and there would be a battle for dominance between the two planets on the outer edges of the cluster.

Often themes that are emphasized by the dynamic between the two planets forming the alchemical gap are reiterated by other factors in the birthchart. In and of themselves, however, these other factors would not necessarily be associated with the shadow, and it is their connection to the gap, either by rulership, or by aspect to one of the planets forming the gap, that draws them into the shadow's dance. Where these additional factors play a part in the examples given below, they will be noted. The reader is then referred to the appropriate charts for further study.

Harriett, for example, has an alchemical gap in her chart formed between Neptune just above the horizon in the 12th house, and Mars just past the nadir in the 4th. While many astrologers would characterize the relationship between these two planets as a square of wide orb, I believe there is another level of understanding to be gained by considering the fact that these two planets also border an alchemical gap essentially defined by the 1st quadrant.

Since the 1st quadrant is where an internal sense of identity is cultivated, the fact that Harriett's 1st quadrant is an alchemical gap would indicate that the process by which her most basic sense of self is formed is likely to be distorted by a shadow dance between Neptune and Mars. It is likely, given the theory outlined above, that one of these planets represents the rejected self, while the other represents the false self adopted to avoid future pain.

As a child, Harriett was encouraged in the development of Neptunian qualities, and discouraged in the expression of her Mars. Her early efforts at self-assertion were interpreted by her mother as selfishness (Moon in Aries (ruled by Mars)), and she was constantly admonished to put her own needs aside in order to meet the needs of others (Neptune conjunct Libra Ascendant). In order to avoid being wounded further by her mother's judgments, she learned to define herself in terms of the extent to which she made other people feel good (Neptune conjunct Libra Ascendant), and developed a Neptunian pattern of self-sacrifice and accommodation.

Meanwhile, she was taught by her father that it was ok to equivocate (Saturn in Gemini trine Neptune), to tell other people what they wanted to hear in order to maintain a superficial harmony, the tacit implication being that maintaining superficial harmony was her job, even if it meant spinning a web of illusion in order to do so. Harriett's unequivocal and forthright Mars in Capricorn went underground (where it in fact sits at the very bottom of her chart), while Neptune in Libra rose (as it does just above the horizon in her chart) to present an acceptable face to the world.

In school, where she very much wanted to express herself - to sing, to play the lead in the school play, to take charge and assume a leadership role - she was ignored, passed over, and encouraged to fake it, so as not to disrupt the harmony of the group (Saturn/Uranus trine Neptune in Libra). When her Mars in Capricorn moved her to strong expression, she was stifled and repressed - forced to be quiet in detention after acting out, forced to lie in bed when she wasn't tired, forced to ignore and deny her natural instincts in favor of a facade that would maintain the peace and meet the expectations of others (Saturn/Uranus trine Neptune in Libra). Neptune was deemed an acceptable outlet, while Mars was discouraged, and eventually began to atrophy. Thus, in Harriett's case, the alchemical gap constitutes a dilemma in which the Neptunian hand is ready to clap, but Mars is not quite up to the challenge.

In my work with Harriett, we eventually identified five ways in which this shadow dance manifested in her life: 1) in situations where she had no control over outcomes, she felt powerless; 2) wherever she was expected to perform, she felt awkward; 3) in relationship with people where there were unresolved feelings, she felt anxious and inhibited; 4) wherever her own needs conflicted with someone else's, she would make a sacrifice and then feel tension in her body; and 5) if she felt anger, or some other uncomfortable emotion, she would either repress it and censor herself, then experience a headache, a sore throat, hemorrhoids, or some other physical symptom, or express it in an irrational, and exaggerated form.

Although superficially, these issues appear to be unrelated to each other, the central task in all of them is to strengthen Mars and relax Neptune. Because Mars was discouraged from developing naturally in childhood, it became much more tentative than it is by nature, although as can be seen from the patterns involved, it does not simply disappear. What should have been a strong natural momentum toward leadership by virtue of personal example (Mars in Capricorn in the 4th house) is instead experienced as powerlessness, awkwardness, anxiety, inhibition, tension, occasional outbursts of irrational anger, and toxicity.

At the same time, because Neptune was over-encouraged, it became an exaggerated compensating mechanism. What should have been a natural, graceful psychic sensitivity to the feelings of others, and a strong sense of interconnectedness, balance, and harmony (Neptune in Libra rising) was instead distorted to become a chameleon-like self-repression in order to accommodate others.

Healing the shadow in Harriett's case is largely a matter of encouraging the strong, commanding, assertive personality of Mars to find a larger, more conscious and deliberate outlet, and reassuring Neptune that it need not step in and self-sacrifice in order to survive. Inevitably, Harriett has learned over the years to actualize her Mars and find a more appropriate and balanced outlet for her Neptune, but because the relationship between Mars and Neptune is an alchemical one, the task has not been easy, nor even very clearly defined, and there is a long trail of unsatisfactory relationships, awkward moments, and intractable health problems behind her. Knowing that these problems are related to the imbalance of energies between Mars and Neptune gives Harriett new tools she can work with in reclaiming the shadow, and bridging the alchemical gap in which these problems arise.

There is probably no place in life where shadows dance more regularly or with greater difficulty than in relationship, and so it cannot be surprising when the charts of two people who are drawn together exhibit similar alchemical gaps. Take the case of Lance and Portia, as they begin a new relationship. Both have alchemical gaps between Jupiter and the Moon, albeit in different signs and houses, and spanning different areas of empty space.

Portia's alchemical gap stretches from the Moon in Scorpio in the 5th house to Jupiter in Aries in the 10th. Encouraged by a family of professionals to aspire toward lofty goals, Portia chose to practice law, a respectable career path which afforded her all the outer trappings of success (Jupiter in Aries in the 10th), but left the secret desires of her wilder, more playful, passionate, and creative inner being (Moon in Scorpio in the 5th) deeply unfulfilled. Because her alchemical gap spans an empty 3rd quadrant, it can come as no surprise that she was attracted to Lance, among other reasons, precisely because he represented the unactualized energy of her undeveloped Moon.

Meanwhile Lance's alchemical gap stretches from the Moon in Gemini in the 6th house to Jupiter in Aquarius in the 2nd, and is naturally imbalanced in the opposite direction. As a multi-talented individual, Lance has multiple outlets for his versatile creativity (Moon in Gemini in the 6th), but despite his many talents has been unable to take his place in society or achieve the level of material success that his creativity deserves (Saturn (ruler of 2nd) square Moon in Gemini in 6th), and has all his life, been something of a rebel and an outcast (Jupiter in Aquarius in the 2nd). Because his alchemical gap spans an empty space around the nadir of his chart, Lance's shadow dance plays itself out more internally than Portia's, as brooding self-doubt (t-square: Saturn square Moon opposed Mercury square Saturn), low energy (t-square: Saturn square Sun opposed Moon square Saturn), and restless dissatisfaction (Jupiter inconjunct Uranus). Even though Jupiter rules Lance's chart, because it is the weak planet of an alchemical gap, when the shadow is engaged, it is hard for him to lift himself above the internal weather patterns of his Moon. Beyond the other strong connections between their natal charts, which I won't go into here, part of Lance's attraction to Portia is her Jupiterian enthusiasm, drive, can-do attitude, and will to succeed, qualities which because of his relatively weak Jupiter, remain fairly undeveloped in him.

Lance and Portia can help each other in this relationship by modeling the respective strengths of their developed planets to each other. To the extent they attempt to lean on each other for strengths which they do not possess as individuals, they will enter the nether regions of the alchemical gap, and struggle with the unreality of their shadow projections. If, for example, Portia uses her relationship with Lance as an excuse not to get in touch with her own deepest desires and dreams, choosing instead to vicariously live this part of herself through him, she will inevitably wind up feeling claustrophobic in the relationship and blaming Lance for trying to control her. Lance, will in fact, be doing no such thing, but to the extent that Portia has projected the shadow of her unlived inner life onto him, he will become the target of her blame. If instead, Portia allows herself to be inspired by Lance's example, to develop and explore her own inner life, both will benefit from her reclaimed connection to the deepest, most passionate, most intensely alive part of herself.

At the same time, to the extent that Lance allows himself to rely on Portia to lift him out of his psychological black hole, or to provide a material foundation for his ongoing creative explorations, he will become emotionally dependent, and unconsciously hold her responsible for his well-being. If, on the other hand, he learns from Portia, how to maintain his own positive attitude in the face of adversity, and finds a way to translate his talents and abilities into a more viable career path, he will then free both of them to pursue lives that are more meaningful and deeply fulfilling.

The fact that Lance and Portia face an alchemical challenge posed by the same two planets, in which the polarity of their strengths and weaknesses have been reversed makes it easy for them to lean on each other, but also compounds the challenges posed by any tendencies either of them might have toward co-dependency and dysfunction. It also provides them with an opportunity to do some powerful alchemical work reclaiming their shadows, and attaining a more integrated level of wholeness as individuals.

Knowledge of the alchemical gap can also be useful in providing a timetable by which issues related to the shadow are likely to manifest. From an astrological perspective, there will be activity within the gap while a planet progresses or transits through the empty space marked by the gap. This activity is likely to be especially noticeable as a progressed or transiting planet contacts one of the planets bordering the gap. Knowing this, it then becomes possible, not only to describe the nature of the shadow dance likely to be played out, but also to chart the potential course of that dance over a lifetime.

The son of another student of mine, for example, has an alchemical gap between Chiron in Gemini in the 1st house and Pluto in Scorpio in the 6th. Since Thomas is not yet 7, it is perhaps too early to assess which will be the strong planet and which will be the weaker of this pair, although it would not be very far fetched to suggest that his struggle to reclaim the shadow will involve balancing the energies of these two planets. His father reports that Thomas is obviously an old soul, wise beyond his years, already a teacher (Chiron opposed Saturn (ruler of 9th house)). Yet, because of the existence of the alchemical gap between Chiron and Pluto in Thomas' chart, I would have to suspect that there is a deeper wounding (perhaps suffered in some other lifetime) within Thomas that has not yet made its way to the surface, and that inevitably he will struggle with issues related to the right use of power in his attempts to heal those wounds.

Thomas' progressed Moon entered the gap by conjunction to Chiron at age 2, at which time, his parents divorced, and his father moved to another part of the country. While his father has made his best effort to stay in touch and maintain a relationship, it is not unlikely that the separation of his parents constitutes a wounding of some kind, worthy of Chiron's role as guardian of one side of his gap. In the meantime, Thomas is likely to be shadow-dancing with his mother until he is 15-16, when Thomas' progressed Moon will conjunct Pluto and then leave the gap.

One year later, progressed Venus will conjunct Chiron and enter the gap. Around this time, as Thomas moves through the rites of puberty, and enters the age of dawning interest in relationship, I would not be surprised if these deeper wounds hinted at by the existence of the gap in his chart, or perhaps the pain experienced at his parents' separation began to bear visible consequences. Since Venus is the planet most often associated with relationships, there is a strong sense of synchronicity about this impending shadow dance between the ages of 15-17, just as his attention will naturally turn to relationships.

Around age 35, progressed Venus turns retrograde, and begins moving back toward Chiron, at which point, we might expect to see some pivotal turning point in Thomas' life with regard to the psychological task imposed by the alchemical gap. Around age 53, Venus again encounters Chiron on the return journey, and exits the gap. Again, we would expect to see some rite of passage related to his experience in the gap, at this juncture.

Of course, while a planet is progressing through or transiting the gap, it will form additional aspects to other planets in the birthchart, and life will undoubtedly encompass a broader range of issues than can be encompassed by the gap alone. Nonetheless, while these progressed and transiting planets move through the gap, these additional aspects that are formed can also be interpreted within the context of the shadow dance of the alchemical gap, which will in turn provide a psychological undertone to everything else that is happening. Obviously the intensity of this undertone will be more noticeable during an outer planet transit of the gap or any progression than say, a lunar transit, but each in its own way, will bring the shadow dance of the gap into heightened awareness, however subtle this call to awareness might be. I would also suspect that when the midpoint of the gap was being progressed or transited, it could precipitate some noticeable event related to the issues being worked out in the gap, although this will obviously not be the case in every instance.

What will actually happen at these points in Thomas' life, of course, remains to be seen, but using the model of the alchemical gap as a guide, it is not out of the question to begin now helping Thomas to understand and strengthen the planets on both sides - dealing with the woundedness of Chiron, perhaps in relation to his parents' separation; balancing the power that comes from Pluto with an understanding of the responsibility that must accompany the actualization of that power, especially in his relationships. There is an immense potential to be actualized here, but also the necessity for balancing difficult energies in order to mitigate the potential for commensurate suffering.

In closing, I would like to encourage other astrologers to explore the concept of the alchemical gap with their clients, friends and family. Far from being empty, the empty space of an alchemical gap will reveal pockets of untapped potential buried beneath unexpressed pain. While the issues posed in a consideration of the gap will undoubtedly surface as themes that are repeated in different ways throughout the chart, looking directly into the heart of this empty space can give the unnamed shadow a much more scrutable face.


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