Symbolism, Synchronicity, and the Astrological World View
"The universe is composed of stories, not atoms."---Muriel Rukeyser, "The Speed of Darkness"
Recently, I met with a client whose horoscope displayed an especially prominent Mars, positioned exactly on the 4th-house cusp (the segment of the horoscope relating to home and domesticity). During the course of our conversation, this young man mentioned a curious event that occurred at the time of his birth: exactly as his mother was at the hospital during the final stages of labor, a small fire broke out back at the family home, causing extensive damage to one of several bedrooms. A curious synchronicity, it seemed, considering the "fiery" pattern in his chart at that moment--and considering the ongoing pattern of domestic turbulence this individual also described as occurring throughout his life.
Over years of researching different aspects of symbolism and synchronicity, I've encountered many such stories, from my discussions with clients, and from a variety of historical sources as well. In many Native American cultures, for example, it is well known that special attention was traditionally paid to signs or symbols occurring in the environment at the moment of a child's birth. Consequently, if a child was born at the moment a deer happened to run by, that child might be named Running Deer, in the belief that this personality would grow up to express qualities of swiftness or gracefulness.
Or, in the Tibetan tradition, if a great earthquake occurred at the moment of a child's birth, this might be taken as a sign that this individual would somehow have a great or unusual destiny, and might likewise "shake the world." Western classical history tells us of similar symbols or omens that accompanied the births of figures like Alexander the Great, Socrates, and Plato. Indeed, there are few traditional cultures which did not place great emphasis on such symbols or "coincidences" around the births of all men and women.
As in astrology, such signs have traditionally been thought to reflect the destinies or characters of the individuals involved, with or without added consideration of the celestial configurations of the moment. Applying this approach to my client's case, any esotericist would have immediately recognized an important insight into this person's life simply from looking at the symbols in the environment during his birth, in this case "Martian" symbols. Though the starry sky offers a profound map into the soul and destiny of an individual, it is by no means the only map available within the symbolic landscape of our environment.
Such examples, I believe, open a window into an important, though often overlooked, dimension of astrology, and invite us to reconsider a very old question: How does astrology work? If there is indeed a connection between the celestial bodies and the lives of beings upon the Earth, what specifically is the mechanism involved? Through the millennia a variety of different theories have been proposed to explain astrology's deeper workings, though these can, in simple terms, be classified into one of two primary groups: causal, or force, explanations, and acausal, or synchronistic, explanations.
According to the causal model, humans are influenced by means of an energy or force transmitted from celestial bodies to beings on Earth. For some, this is linked to an already known force like electromagnetism or gravity. Astrophysicist Percy Seymour, for example, writes of the complex way the Solar System interacts with the Earth's geomagnetic fields: "The whole solar system is playing a symphony on the magnetic field of the Earth...We are all genetically 'tuned' to receiving a different set of melodies from the symphony." For others, this causal force consists of some energy in nature yet undiscovered by science, perhaps of a paranormal or occult nature, as was believed by Rennaissance magical philosophers like Cornelius Agrippa. In either case, both scientific and magical theories hold that celestial forces act upon humans by means of a classical cause-and-effect mechanism.
The acausal or synchronistic explanation, on the other hand, believes that the secret of astrological influence will never be found completely in any mechanistic theories of cause-and-effect, but only in conjunction with a more holistic worldview which views all phenomena as embedded in a deeper network of interconnectedness. According to writers like Dane Rudhyar and H.P. Blavatsky, the planetary patterns at one's moment of birth do not cause particular traits or tendencies so much as reflect them. The simultaneity of celestial and earthly events are, using Carl Jung's terminology, a "meaningful coincidence," with the position of the planets and the life of the individual representing joint expressions of the same underlying pattern of meaningfulness.
In this article, we will look more closely at the idea that astrology is indeed synchronistic--but with a twist. The "mechanism" of astrology might, more accurately, be described as symbolism, whereby celestial events not only connect acausally with earthly happenings, but incorporate dimensions of symbolism and meaning beyond their surface appearances.
As evidence for this point, consider the fact that of the myriad techniques and theories employed by astrologers, the vast majority of these are entirely symbolic in nature, with little or no basis in empirical, ěconcrete" reality. The following are only a few examples of this drawn from mainstream astrological thought:
• The complex network of hidden correspondences believed by astrologers to link the diverse areas of our lives, in ways that are profoundly metaphorical and archetypal in quality.
• The otherwise perplexing division of both houses and zodiacs specifically into twelve segments, suggesting an archetypal rather than practical basis (why not eight? six? or, more "logically," four?).
• The method of classic progressions, based on a day-for-a-year movement of the planets from their position at the time of birth.
• The art of horary astrology, whereby horoscopes are cast for such seemingly intangible things as questions or even ideas.
• Astrology's employment of planets positioned below the horizon in casting horoscopes. In any purely force--based model, such subtle influences (all the more minimized with distant planets like Pluto or Neptune) would logically seem blocked out by the sheer mass of the Earth, whereas in the symbolic model, such factors simply assume more hidden dimensions of meaning.
• The vast array of abstract points and "parts" employed in Arabic, Vedic, and certain Western schools of astrology, arrived at through mathematical/symbolic, rather than observational, means.
As one final example of this symbolist dimension of astrology, let us look at the widely-used astrological theory of retrogradation. For instance, a planet like Mercury is said to be "retrograde" when its skyward path relative to the Earth appears to reverse itself. In actuality, of course, Mercury is traveling in its orbit around the Sun, just as the Earth is. However, in the same way that a train overtaken by a faster train will appear to be moving backward, when in fact it is still moving forward along its own path at a steady rate of speed, the reversal of Mercury is a perceptual illusion caused by its position relative to the Earth's slower orbital path.
When Mercury's motion seems to reverse for several weeks at a time, business contracts begun at this time often seem to develop complications, communications may stall, and technical difficulties arise. Of course, most contemporary astrologers also allow for the possibility of more positive effects to accompany these same periods as well, though these are generally seen as involving more psychological or spiritual levels of experience.
Though the effects of a Mercury retrograde are observable and borne out by personal experience, the cause-and-effect, or force, model cannot possibly account for them. Clearly, it is nonsensical to speculate about "backing up" rays or emanations coming from the planet itself, since the retrograde phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with the objective status of Mercury. Rather, the astronomical "reversal" of Mercury is more effectively understood as a metaphor for conditions taking place for humans, existing only in relation to the phenomenological dynamics of observers on Earth.
Astrology, then, as Shelly Trimmer suggested, is best defined as astronomy, symbolically interpreted. Astrology uses the same essential facts as astronomy, but infuses these with a symbolic or qualitative dimension absent for the conventional scientist. As seen by astronomers, Jupiter, for example, is simply a large gaseous planet with certain measurable properties, traveling at a particular speed and in a particular orbital path. For astrologers, however, Jupiter symbolizes a particular set of qualities: expansiveness, joviality, excess, exploration, spiritual learning. This interpretation cannot be understood strictly through experimental, scientific means. Were one to travel to this planet and take samples of its gasses or measure its energy fields, one would still not be able to isolate the symbolic meaning associated with the planet by astrologers. Astrological interpretation requires a perceptual shift, a kind of metaphoric knowing.
Yet we need take this one vital step further. The worldview underlying astrology regards not only the planets but all of reality as symbolic and meaning-laden. To the symbolist, the heavenly bodies are only threads within a far greater tapestry of affinities. As Emerson wrote, "Secret analogies tie together the remotest parts of Nature, as the atmosphere of a summer morning is filled with innumerable gossamer threads running in every direction, revealed by the beams of the rising sun!" Thus, when a child is born, the symbolist can find important clues pointing toward the child's character and destiny everywhere--in the flight of birds, the movement of clouds, and other natural signs and omens; in coincidences and events in the lives of the parents and their community; in political and social happenings; as well as in the position of the stars and planets at the moment of birth.
The mystical Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, who is often misinterpreted as being critical of astrology, echoes this understanding. In Ennead II.3, his primary essay on this subject, Plotinus criticizes the simplistic understanding of astrological mechanism, which holds that the stars "cause" things to happen on Earth. Rather, Plotinus argues that astrological influence is based on a philosophy of cosmic unity. Since all things emanate from the One, the Divine Source, all things are intricately coordinated or "enchained" with one another and are therefore "signifiers" of each other within a supremely regulated design--the stars no less so than birds or any other phenomena. "The wise man is the man who in any one thing can read another," Plotinus wrote. In other words, the stars and planets are meaningful, just as every other object or event is meaningful, as all things are equally intertwined within a grander, universal order. As Plotinus remarks elsewhere, one would have to be far removed from the awareness of Divine Unity to think that anything is truly accidental or the result of chance.
Given this philosophical framework, questions of "mechanism" seem inappropriate. Does a Native shaman who names a child "Swift Eagle," because of the great bird circling the village during the birth, ask what manner of force emanated from the eagle towards the child, influencing its personality, biology, and destiny? Or by what means this force is transmitted, or its precise speed? More useful than such inquires is an appreciation of the wonder of a universe in which such synchronicities occur, and in which meaning expresses itself in such manifold and multi-dimensional ways--through not only planets and people, but animals, weather, colors, landscapes, in short, every perceivable thing, large and small. As Plotinus wrote, "All things must be enchained, and the sympathy and correspondence obtaining in any one closely knit organism must exist, first, within the All." Asking what influence the planets have on human beings, therefore, conceals a fundamental misconception, since the planets themselves are only aspects of a larger picture in which each element interlocks with the other in a mutually arising symphony of meaning.
One final analogy may help make the point clearer. Let us imagine a play in which the lead character finally awakens to a truth he has long hidden from himself. As the playwright has written the scene, the moment of his breakthrough is accompanied by the image of a rising Sun depicted off at the back of the stage---a dramatic device complementing the change of heart experienced by the lead character.
Now, how should we understand the relationship between the sunrise and the psychological change of character? Are there secret rays emanating from the mock Sun to the character, such as a scientist could measure? Is there an energy field set up among the characters acting on stage, or among the objects and props which comprise the stage setting? Clearly, there is not. Nonetheless, there is a connection between the character's psychological shift and the lighting change--but a symbolic rather than causal one. Each element in the story unfolds within a larger framework of meaning and is interpretable only in relation to a transcendent, or "implicate" ground of reference--the dramatic design conceived in the mind of the playwright.
Here, as in astrology, meaning can be accessed only through the lens of symbolic understanding. Each person's experience is a unique and highly personalized context of meaning. The seemingly unrelated events of a life, which include, among other things, the positions of the stars and planets in the sky, are best understood as mutually arising elements in a greater field of significance--the archetypal script of a life and consciousness, as reflected in the horoscope.
The astrological worldview is, therefore, one in which each person's life is recognized as a living book of symbols, to be unlocked through the key of metaphoric knowing. Like a kind of "waking dream," each person's world is an archetypal drama, containing multiple levels of resonance and interconnectedness, encoding information about the past, present, and future.
Thus, the astrological cosmos is indeed, using Muriel Rukeyser's wonderful phrase, one of stories rather than atoms, better understood through the eye of the poet than the instruments of science. Like solar systems in stately procession around a vast galaxy, so all personal stories are nested within greater stories, broader contexts of meaning, each level providing a deeper and broader perspective on the meaning of the personal dream, the personal horoscope. Like Ezekiel's "wheels within wheels," the astrological cosmos is a vast web of ascending hierarchies, each increasingly objective vantage point yielding a more complex worldview, which is apt and true for that level. "A subtle chain of countless rings," wrote Emerson," the next unto the farthest brings..." Perhaps, as mystics have suggested, all personal dramas converge on an ultimate hub of meaningfulness, variously called the Tao, Brahma, the Cosmic Dreamer, the Ground of Being, or, simply, the Absolute. At this still center point, a great consciousness holds the enchanted cosmos in balance. As the German philosopher Schopenhauer expressed it over a century ago:
It is a vast dream, dreamed by single being; but in such a way that all the dream characters dream too. Hence, everything interlocks and harmonizes with everything else.