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Why Astrology’s Image Needs a Makeover

January 9, 2011

By Steven Forrest   

Indulge me for a few seconds . . .

People fly from far away to see me. My waiting list is a year long. Many of my clients have names you would recognize. Earnest strangers walk up to me in restaurants and say, “Aren’t you . . . ?” I have been on TV. I’ve been on the radio. I am all over the Internet. I have been interviewed more times than I can remember. I fly all over the world and speak to large audiences. I have a dozen books about my work in print, translated into many languages. Esquire magazine called one of them “truly outstanding.” Sting praises my “language that is as intelligent and cogent as it is poetic.” Robert Downey, Jr. says, “I can’t recommend him highly enough.”

All that ego-adrenalin, and yet I live with a primal fear: it is the thought that somebody’s conservative grandfather will come up to me at a party and ask that simple, ubiquitous social question, “By the way, Steve, what do you do?”  Often I say “counselor,” and try artfully to squirm away from the subject. Occasionally, and never among the Gifted and Talented, I have assumed a professorial air and intoned, “Psychological Astronomer.”

But inevitably there are times when artifice fails, and the truth comes out: I am a professional astrologer.

Perhaps it is the reflectiveness that comes with age. Perhaps it is a response to the “spokesperson” role I play from time to time. But lately I find myself thinking dark thoughts about science and history, cosmos and consciousness, truth and lies… all pivoting around one humbling self-observation: I am often embarrassed to say what I do. In random social situations, am nervous about saying that I am an astrologer.

It shouldn’t be that way, I know. I have a lot of respect for my clients. In any other area I would honor their collective judgments. By and large, the men and women whom I counsel are bright, educated, dynamic individuals, the people who shape the life of their communities. They are psychotherapists and physicians, architects, professors, novelists, lawyers and artists of every discipline. They are ministers, executive, stockbrokers, true leaders in the hard-headed world of business. Emphatically, they are not the “hapless victims of astrological charlatans” so often lamented in the anti-astrology press.

And they return to me year after year. They encourage their friends to make appointments with me. With their support, I prosper.

And, of course, I would not have their support if I didn’t give them something they value.

I value it too, despite my embarrassment. Astrology, when approached seriously, provides personal, concrete, “feel-able” proof that we inhabit a meaningful universe. Properly applied and understood, it restores to the cosmos some of the mystery and enchantment that modern life tends to sap, and it accomplishes that task without asking us to surrender our intellects. Carl Jung, the seminal psychoanalyst, called astrology the repository of all the psychological knowledge of ancient humanity. The modern bard, Robert Bly, described it as “the great intellectual triumph of the Mother civilization.”

But those voices are in the minority. Most educated people today have been programmed to put astrology in the same benighted category as human sacrifice and the fear of black cats.

Who is to blame? First on the list are astrologers themselves, at least some of us. The majesty, emotional valence, and intellectual rigor of the astrological symbolism has often been reduced to cutesy Sun Sign formulas. “Scorpios are sexy, Virgos are picky, Aquarians wear purple leotards.”

Who can take silly one-liners like that seriously? Not me. Not anyone with enough brains to brush his teeth without hurting himself.

“Well, Steve, what do you do for living?” When I hear that question, I know that I am trapped. I can lie. Or I can tell the truth—and know that what will be heard is a lie.

I am not alone in this predicament. A Harris Poll released in 2003 indicated that 31 percent of Americans said that they believed in astrology, while 51 percent actively disbelieved and 18 percent were not sure.  Every one of those believers has at least a couple of friends who are convinced that their use of astrology is evidence that they are soft in the head.

Astrology was not always so ridiculed. Pythagoras “believed in” astrology. So did Galileo and Plato. Johannes Kepler too. And Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. Throughout the lion’s share of human history, in virtually every society, the validity of some form of astrology was taken to be self-evident.

Of course, so was the idea that the Earth was flat and that God had a long white beard.

But astrology is different. Its claims are demonstrable. They are testable, at least subjectively. Isaac Newton’s servant once said of his master, “I never knew him to take any recreation or pastime either in riding out to take the air, walking, bowling, or any other exercise whatever, thinking all hours lost that were not spent in his studies.”

Newton was a Capricorn, a sign that emphasizes self-discipline and seriousness of purpose. While Newton’s attitude toward astrology is not known definitively, it is clear that he was immersed in the metaphysical and alchemical perspectives of his era. Had Newton read that his nature was playful and sociable, would he have believed it?

God’s beard is hard to study. Human nature is not; we see it everywhere. And Isaac Newton, arguably the most acute observer who ever lived, never felt moved to comment critically upon astrology, even though it is a virtual certainty that he had contact with it.

What happened? How did astrology lose its credibility? Why is there a dusty little shelf in the back corner of every bookstore labeled “Astrology, Occult, UFOs?” The story is long and winding and I explore it as thoroughly as I can in The Night Speaks, the book from which this short introductory piece is extracted.  But here it is in a single line: The tabloid press got its hands on the symbolism. That is not history exactly, but it captures the essence of the catastrophe. Popular astrology did, to a degree, in fact fall into the hands of charlatans.

Far more deeply, astrology’s current predicament is linked to a clash of paradigms—those all-embracing sets of assumptions which shape the way a culture looks at life. In astrology, the universe is purposeful and alive, and we are in active communion with it. This notion, so attractive at first glance, is actually quite subversive. It challenges the domination of our minds and spirits by the mechanistic “dis-enchanted” view of human existence that has us all watching our streaming videos, waiting for the world to end.

Since the 1960s, in the Americas and Europe, an astrological renaissance has taken place. Many factors have spurred it: the widespread return to the “old religion”—celebrating the sacredness of earth, sky, and consciousness itself; the popularization of psychotherapy as a developmental avenue for “normal” people; the spread of computers which have made astrology’s formidable mathematics less of an obstacle; the rise of genuine astrological scholarship in terms of statistical and historical astrological research; the success of small, specialized publishing enterprises, which have in five decades produced a body of technical astrological literature unrivaled in history.

I have watched it unfold. I know a lot of the personalities involved. Many of them I would call friends. In a small way, I have been part of the process. Over and over again, I have been struck by one overwhelming and dispiriting observation: hardly anyone outside the narrow walls of the technical astrological community or its committed clients even knows that the renaissance has taken place. To the person on the street, it might as well not have happened.

Why?

The answer, I think, is tied up with my embarrassment. Astrology has a terrible public relations problem. To that person on the street, it still looks dumb. Or irrelevant. Or like something “he could safely laugh at,” as Jung once put it.

It is time to address that issue. I celebrate this website, the hard work of those who envisioned it, and the support of the astrological organizations for the outreach it represents. I love the idea of a simple web address to which an intelligent “believer” could send his or her skeptical friends. I think we can demonstrate that astrology is intellectually plausible and spiritually healthy today, much as it was in Neolithic villages, among the gleaming pyramids, the Renaissance chambers where Leonardo walked.

Here, in a nutshell, is the website I pray that conservative grandfather might have visited before he buttonholes me at the party and says, “Steve, tell me… what do you do for a living?”

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