The Poetry Of Everyday Life &
The Archetypal Rhizome That Connects Us All
originally published in Kosmos, Spring, 1996
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In the 1920s, Carl Jung coined the term "synchronicity" to describe his observation that many of life's most meaningful events could not be explained by the scientific principle of causality. Instead, there seemed to be a simultaneous or "coincidental" occurrence of inner and outer phenomena that intuitively suggested a connection, despite the absence of a discernible trail of cause and effect. A thunderstorm would commence just as a tribal medicine man did a ceremony to appease the anger of the gods. Or a woman in New York would dream of her brother's death at the exact moment of its occurrence in San Francisco. Or the phone would ring, just as the recipient of the call was thinking of the caller. All of us have had similar experiences which somehow seem meaningful, despite our inability to explain them.
As astrologers, we also have the opportunity to experience the wonder of synchronicity on a daily basis. The fact that the life of a human being can be reflected in a map of the heavens at the time of birth is a profound demonstration of synchronicity at work. It is, in fact, the fundamental premise on which our work as astrologers is based - a premise summed up by alchemists in their well-known axiom, "as above, so below." If a meaningful "coincidence" connecting heaven and earth did not exist, we would be out of a job.
Yet, how many of us, I wonder, fully appreciate the acausal logic that gives our craft its power, or indeed, that makes it possible at all? Most of us have shied away from considering the placement of the planets to be the actual cause of the personality traits, or behavioral patterns, or events with which they are associated. Most of us would probably claim to prefer a worldview where individual choice permits a wide range of possible responses to any given planetary configuration. Yet how many of us continue to interpret a birthchart as though it were capable of revealing something in and of itself, apart from whatever choices the individual to whom it refers has made? How many of us assume instead that we know what is happening, on the basis of our knowledge of astrology alone, without even bothering to listen to our client's story?
Certainly this is the underlying assumption behind all sun sign astrology, all astrological calendars or forecasts made for generic consumption, all computer-generated readings, and all readings done at a distance without any input from the client. I also suspect this is the basis of many readings done face to face, where the astrologer assumes the mantle of authority by virtue of his/her access to information to which the client is not privy.
Regardless of the depth of insight brought to bear through these venues, they all fail to honor the power of the individual to choose their own level of response to the astrological patterns described by their birthcharts. They assume a causal relationship between a particular astrological configuration and a particular set of behaviors, which are predictable on the basis of astrology alone, without regard to personal experience.
This is like saying that given a road map of the United States, one can predict the route its user would take to get from San Diego, California to Bangor, Maine. Obviously, unless one knew something about the person using the map, his/her motivation for taking the journey, and the choices s/he made along the way, one would be wrong in nearly every single instance.
This, of course, is just an analogy. But if these limitations hold true for a terrestrial map, how much more true must they be for a map which purports to describe the territory linking the terrestrial to the celestial. Unlike the causal approach to astrology, which assumes that our knowledge of astrology alone will describe the nature of this link; the synchronistic approach merely postulates that there is a link, and invites the observer to see for him/herself what the actual connection might be.
If the validity of astrology is based upon a synchronistic connection between heaven and earth, then by definition, the meaning of astrological symbolism cannot be derived from the study of a birthchart alone. This would essentially be a study of heaven, without any reference to earth. Instead, the map of the heavens must be constantly referred to the real life experiences of the person behind the chart, and the stories through which the various patterns in the birthchart reveal themselves. In this way, heaven is connected to earth, and the synchronicity between them is revealed.
As astrologers, we are conditioned to think that we must do all the talking, that the person sitting before us is paying us to tell them something they don't already know. The truth is that every person who comes to us has a story to tell, and in that story are the very words and images they need to absorb in order to reconnect with their own strength and wisdom. Beyond whatever words we may want to attach to the astrological symbols with which we are so familiar, the poetry of everyday life often carries a power that transcends anything we could possibly say. Sometimes, in order to draw the poetry out of a birthchart, and make the synchronistic connections that are there to be made, it is simply a matter of listening to the person behind the chart tell their story.
Years ago, I had an eye-opening experience of the power of this kind of poetry. I had been studying Native American ceremonial practices, including the medicine wheel, and knew intellectually that east referred to the mind, south to heart, west to body, and north to spirit. On some level, this made sense to me, but it had always failed to move me. While I would nod my head politely whenever these correspondences were mentioned, inside I would say, "So what?"
Then one day, I was sitting around a talking circle, listening to various people describe their experience of the medicine wheel, when a non-descript, unassuming Eskimo woman whom I had not previously noticed, quietly said, "To me, the north is the place where the mist of the ocean touches the shore." Suddenly, something inside of me melted, and I knew, in a way merely logical words could never convey, what north meant. I knew that this woman had been to the north, and her description of the place took me there.
The interesting thing about this image was the fact that it could have very easily been taken literally. It is not unlikely that somewhere in this woman's ancestral heritage, if not in her own actual experience, was the memory of real ocean mist touching a real shore. And yet, this image was somehow not just personal to her. It also had the power to trigger an understanding in me that ran more deeply than merely intellectual knowledge. It evoked a recognition of what I already knew, on a non-verbal level, and conveyed the essence of north without losing the power of the symbol.
All too often when we translate symbols, which by their nature are larger than life, into concepts our conscious mind can grasp, something gets lost in the translation. If we can, instead, maintain a poetic connection to the essence of the symbol, as this Eskimo woman did in her understanding of north, the symbols we use - astrological or otherwise - are more likely to maintain their potency.
What this experience and others I have had since have taught me is that the most potent symbols are those which are rooted in actual experience, and that the living essence of any life is sheer poetry in motion. This realization is, of course, paradoxical - how, after all can something as mundane as real life be poetic? Yet, it was precisely because this woman's understanding of north was rooted in actual experience, that it had the power to convey meaning beyond the words that she used to describe it. This, to me, is the essence of both poetry and the art of synchronistic astrology.
Once a student of mine, whom I will call Curtis, wrote to me and said, "I've read that Pluto square Mercury is one of the most difficult of aspects. Can you suggest ways for me to handle this energy?"
If I were going to interpret this aspect in the standard causal fashion, I might have responded something like this: "You are both blessed and cursed with the powers of persuasion. You have strong ideas and opinions, and tend to feel it to be important to convince others of your point of view. Others may often feel you are trying to impose your point of view upon them, and resent being told what to think. The lesson here for you is to learn how to listen, and to allow other people their opinions, so that you might experience more give and take in your communications with them."
Knowing something about Curtis, I know that in many ways, this interpretation fits. Curtis is a person who holds very strong opinions, and makes no bones about letting other people know how he feels. Because he tends to approach people with great intensity, however, he has also found himself rebuffed on occasion, and over time, has learned the hard way, the cost of his overbearing idealism. Despite the fact, that many of Curtis' ideas are not all that unreasonable, Curtis lives a rather solitary life, and has few close friends. For all intents and purposes, then, my interpretation of this aspect of his chart would seem to be reasonable advice.
Perhaps. But without the story that reveals the synchronicity at work in Curtis' life, my interpretation remains devoid of poetry and power, and actually means very little. Curtis may well recognize himself in my description of his Pluto-Mercury square, but he is not going to suddenly decide to communicate differently because of it. There is nothing within this interpretation to move him toward change, despite the fact that he is not happy with the way things are now. If, however, we listen to the story that is connected to this aspect in his chart, we begin to feel our way into that place of poetry where the mist of the ocean touches the shore, and energy begins to move.
At birth, Curtis' Pluto and Mercury were separated from an exact square by 6 degrees. When I asked Curtis what happened at age 4 when the exact square was formed, Curtis told me this story: "I was hanging upside down from a bar by the crooks of my knees. Out of curiosity I wanted to see what would happen if I let go. Well, what happened was I cracked the back of my skull, and was unconscious for days."
Here, in this story of Curtis' actual experience, we have a poetic rendering of Pluto square Mercury that is much more powerful than any words I could have used, looking at his chart alone. For Curtis, Pluto square Mercury is about hanging upside down, letting go, and falling into the unconscious abyss. It is about having the lights go out, and plunging into darkness. There is wounding, trauma, and danger connected with this aspect that only comes to the fore when it is interpreted in light of the real life story that is connected to it.
This image of Curtis hanging upside down is powerful for four primary reasons: 1) it describes the actual nature of the synchronicity between an astrological event and Curtis' experience; 2) it takes the interpretation of Curtis' Pluto-Mercury square out of the realm of abstract, generic speculation, and makes it tangible and intimately personal to him; 3) it is capable of evoking an immediate feeling response, not just in Curtis, but also in the astrologer interpreting his chart; and 4) because the image is associated with the movement of Curtis' life energy, it has the power to effect change in Curtis' life.
This image also tells us something about Curtis, and about why he might cling to his opinions with such tenacity. Consider the possibility, for example, that this bar on which he hangs symbolically represents Curtis' idealism. If this correlation can be made, then the image conveys quite clearly the price to be paid for letting go, and allowing others their contrary views. Looking at his experience in this way, we begin to glimpse a deeper source of motivation for Curtis' fervor in putting forth ideas, and a possible clue as to why he seems powerless to modify this pattern, despite its adverse consequences for his social life, and his ability to function within the world.
This powerlessness is obviously not a rational handicap, but neither is hanging upside down on a bar and letting go, a rational experience. On the unconscious level reflected by this image, Curtis sees the world as a dark and dangerous place, into which he is afraid of falling. Consequently, at age 41, Curtis has yet to take a meaningful place within the world, instead scraping by on minimum wage temporary jobs that afford him the meager sanctuary of his rented apartment, and a schedule with plenty of free time to contemplate his predicament. All of this despite the keen, penetrating intelligence and the ability to articulate, persuade, and argue convincingly that are normally associated with Pluto square Mercury.
Meanwhile, Curtis works overtime to keep the darkness at bay, by seeking an intense level of personal purification bordering on what most people would consider asceticism, and vehemently rejecting everything the dark world represents. To keep the light from going out again, Curtis clings upside down to the rigid bar of his own world view, captured succinctly in a thousand quotes culled from all the light bearers of the world. He refuses to entertain negative thoughts, although they crowd his every waking moment, and in rejecting the world, such as it is, he himself feels rejected.
If we were to simply stop here, it should not be difficult to feel the difference between the synchronistic and the causal approaches to chart interpretation. When the effort is made to correlate astrological phenomenon with real life experience, a level of depth and nuance emerges that is just not possible when we simply impose interpretations upon our clients. However astute our causally-based presuppositions might be, they will not come alive with the same vitality as synchronistic observations rooted in the real life memories that clients have in relation to astrological events.
The real power inherent in the synchronistic approach, however, lies not just in the fact that interpretations are more connected to the client's actual experience. More crucial than this is the paradoxical truth that the closer we come to a personal understanding of synchronicity, the more deeply we tap into the archetypal rhizome that connects us all. A synchronistic experience feels so meaningful to us precisely because beyond the particulars of the experience itself, there are intuitive connections to the collective unconscious out of which a shared sense of meaning springs. While the everyday level on which Pluto square Mercury plays itself out is intensely personal to Curtis, the energy that moves through this experience carries a much more universal message.
This message can be seen reflected in the tarot card image of the Hanged Man, which uncannily mirrors Curtis' experience of hanging upside down on the bar at age 4. Through this intuitively obvious association, which again is inherent in the real life poetry of Curtis' story, Curtis' Pluto-Mercury square acquires another dimension of meaning.
About the Hanged Man, one writer says this (1):
The Hanged Man is the one who must deal with being in a state of "liminality," of being in-between. (The limen is the sill of the door, that place between places.) This is a place of not-knowing, yet being content with this lack of knowledge. Note the face of the Hanged Man. There is in his countenance a look of acceptance and peace with this state; the paradox being that not knowing, and accepting that experience is the ultimate contentment.... His legs form the figure four, completeness. His supports are sturdy trees, free of bough or ornament, perhaps indicating that this suspension of knowing is a more "pure" state of being than is knowing.
Given this understanding of the Hanged Man, we might postulate that while Curtis consciously clings to answers which keep him in the light, and the darkness of the world at bay, his Pluto-Mercury square constantly moves him to a deeper place, where there ultimately are no answers. This is the place where one question begets another question, and each question in turn, leads more deeply into the unfathomable riddle of the Self.
On this level, Curtis' Pluto-Mercury square becomes symbolic, not only of some of the most persistent difficulties in his personal life, but also of the spiritual quest that lies before him. Dropping from the bar into the coma was in fact the rite of passage that propelled Curtis onto his spiritual path, because it was at this crucial moment, according to his own account, that he began disengaging from the world around him and turning within.
As difficult, and as fraught with danger as it is, the spiritual challenge encoded in this aspect of Curtis' chart is for him to let go all that he thinks he knows, so that a much deeper wisdom might emerge. This wisdom is one that will be born, not of having definitive answers, but rather of being willing to live with questions that cannot be answered. Out of this shift in perspective, can come a powerful humility, a profound sense of compassion for the struggle of others to find their own answers, an openness to truth in whatever shape it happens to come, and access to the very core of Life's deepest mysteries.
This was the path chosen, in fact, by a symbolic cousin of the Hanged Man, and another embodiment of Pluto square Mercury - Odin, the Teutonic god of wind, trickery, changeability, poetic inspiration, and communication (all Mercury's domain); and hidden wisdom, the roots of power, and death (reflecting his Plutonian side). It was in fact, by hanging upside down on Yggdrasil, the world tree, that Odin performed the rite of shamanic initiation, which enabled him to realize in a single instant of inspiration, the entire runic alphabet (2). Since the word, "rune," means "secret," the implication here is that by hanging upside down, and presumably by allowing his conscious mind to empty of content, Odin was granted access to hidden wisdom. This is the same wisdom, of course, that a synchronistic approach to astrology is capable of revealing.
In a direct, real life parallel to Odin's self-initiation, Curtis now finds himself immersed in an all-consuming study of astrology, just as transiting Pluto conjuncts his natal Mercury. The danger, of course, is that Curtis will cling to this symbolic language as another set of definitive answers with which to keep the darkness of the world from closing in around him. The opportunity that comes with this danger is for Curtis to realize that the great variety of points of view, ways of being, and shades of gray between light and dark (reflected astrologically by the multiplicity of symbolic combinations that are possible) is what makes the world go round.
I feel certain that Curtis will eventually come to this place. A recent letter from him told a hopeful story, in which he found himself driving around in the pouring rain on a temp job with a guy named Joe. Joe was a beer-drinking ex-vet, now a passionate Republican, adamantly opposed to gun-control - a real " 'Joe American' (sorry no pun intended)" as Curtis put it - while Curtis is a strict vegetarian, pacifist, and self-proclaimed devotee of Ralph Waldo Emerson. While Curtis obviously had his share of judgments about this man, he also realized a certain commonality that went deeper than the differences of opinion that separated them. This surprised him, even as it moved him to inquire about Joe's birth data. When he discovered that he and Joe shared a Sun-Saturn conjunction, his comment was, "Wow! Just like me... well, almost."
This is ultimately the power of Pluto square Mercury at work in Curtis' life, not in a causal sense, where Curtis is doomed to play out a generic interpretation carved in stone, but in a synchronistic sense, where Curtis has room to make choices that permit him to grow, and to take the energy of Pluto square Mercury up the evolutionary spiral with him.
In the end, Curtis' dilemma is one each of us must face. As astrologers, are we going to cling to the certainty that a causal approach to astrology affords us? Or are we willing to hang upside down, empty out what we think we know, and look with fresh eyes at each new reading, to see what the unforeseeable synchronistic connections are that bring astrology alive in each individual case?
Perhaps it is because astrologers are especially sensitive to public opinion, and eager for acceptance within the professional community, that we tend to lean more toward the rational, causal end of the spectrum in the practice of our craft. Since the prevailing paradigm in our society is the scientific world view, it may be natural for us to want to attempt to justify what we do by molding ourselves in the image of this paradigm. Cause and effect relationships, statistical probability, and the ability to accurately predict the future are all recognized paths to credibility in the eyes of the world.
At its best, however, astrology is capable of offering a non-scientific worldview that can both balance and transcend the limitations imposed by science, provided we are strong enough not to succumb to the cultural pressure to justify astrology on causal grounds. We have seen how the synchronistic approach is capable of connecting the experiences of one man, not only with Pluto square Mercury, but with the Hanged Man, Odin, and a universal dilemma faced by all astrologers. The richness of the archetypal rhizome which connects all these and other yet-to-be-discovered facts of inner and outer life, simply does not reveal itself when a causal approach to astrology is our perceptual filter.
To understand and embrace the possibility that meaning comes not from cause and effect relationships alone, but also and perhaps primarily from synchronistic correlations which are not predetermined, however, means to change both the way we approach the art of interpretation, and the way we present ourselves to the world.
As Dane Rudhyar pointed out in his profound philosophical manifesto, The Astrology of Personality, "astrology is to all the empirical sciences dealing with the formation, growth, behavior and disintegration of organic wholes (i.e., physiology, biology, medicine, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.) what mathematics is to physics and in general to sciences of inanimate objects" (3).
As visionary as this possibility is, what this actually means, in terms of our day to day work as astrologers, is that an astrological birthchart, in and of itself, is "only a set of algebraic symbols on a wheel" (4). It is we, who live the lives that are symbolized by the charts, that bring content (and consciousness) to the algebraic equation. Once we fully realize this in the way we practice astrology, astrology will become the synchronistic gateway to the realm of hidden wisdom within each soul that makes it worth exploring.
1) Dick Prosapio, Intuitive Tarot, Morgan & Morgan, 1990, p. 28.
2) Kveldulf Gundarsson, Teutonic Magic, Llewellyn Publications, 1990, p. 24.
3) Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality, Doubleday, 1970, p. 48.
4) Ibid, p. 50.
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