Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.

Prologue: Cosmos in Ellipsis

As I climb higher up the gray switchback staircase of rickety wooden boards my body tenses with the increasing height, even as my mind knows I am safe, that the stairs beneath my feet will support me. Already present is that indescribable bodily sense, that physical intuition that seems only able to be captured wordlessly, by something as unarticulated as an ellipsis . . . I step out onto the gravel of the roof to be met by the sight of the flaming orb of the setting Sun. This closest of stars burns the clarity from the landscape, blurring the features of the horizon line being pulled toward it: hill, forest, and stretch of ocean I can only perceive in memory as the deepening gold of sunset shatters my sight into uncountable, undifferentiable monads of color.

Sitting on the wide ledge of the roof my body settles into an accustomed level of comfort at this new height. But if I lean closer to the edge, to glance below at the street, then this indescribable bodily sense flares up once again, a seeming leap of my heart into my throat that signifies danger or delight I cannot tell. Why is it that looking down four stories at unforgiving concrete gives the same bodily sensation as looking deeply into the eyes of one I love? Wherein lies the truth of this . . .

Looking away from the Sun I turn to my left to see the Moon seated aloft in a soft indigo sky. The reverberating green echo of the Sun’s shape slowly fades from my vision as the Moon’s gentler light fills my gaze instead. The relationship of these two celestial bodies feels familiar . . . and my body knows it before I do . . . Ah yes, I stood upon a mountain exactly a month ago today, positioned as a third body between these two heavenly beings, seeing them in this same triangular relationship once again. I feel this, sense this, intuit this, I . . . this, my body . . . this: this relationship, this interaction.

Whenever I behold a celestial body ablaze in the night sky it stops me in my tracks, without fail. My body is commanded to stop, to wonder, to worship these orbs. My breath catches. It feels not unlike falling in love . . . over and over and over, with each wandering star I witness. The same as looking down from some great height, but rather it is looking up . . . No it is looking out, a looking out into the depths of space. To behold the Sun, the Moon, a thousand stars is to look up, to look out, and to look down into the greatest depths all at once. No wonder we lose our balance, no wonder our bodies react, they catch us and remind us that gravity is real.

I have seen countless sunsets but no one is the same, no one is ever worth looking away from before it has made its perfected exit. I never say to myself, “Not this time, I have seen this before.” It now becomes impossible to look away as the ocean swallows the flaming disc of molten gold. In these final moments of a day I will never see again I feel my heart pulled, as though by an emotion-laden gravitational force, toward the Sun. My heart strains within my chest to follow the Sun beyond the crashing purple waves.

Wash over me, oh descending night . . . let me drown once more in your celestial waters.

Introduction: An Experiential Astrology

“The stars are like letters which inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky . . . . Everything in the world is full of signs. . . . All events are coordinated. . . . All things depend on each other; as has been said, ‘Everything breathes together.’” – Plotinus

Go outside on a clear night. Gaze up into the sky, let the points of light that have been traveling for minutes or millennia enter into you through your eyes. I ask not what do you see, but rather, what does it feel like? Your eyes are drawn to one particular body blazing like a white flame in the western sky. A wandering planet, visible at a different height above the horizon with each passing night—only to disappear into the overwhelming light of the Sun for an extended period of time, to once again be found shining in the indigo skies preceding dawn. Your body quivers in response to this gem-like orb, truly like a bright diamond set among a net of precious stones. Beauty. How can this not be an experience of Beauty, an archetypal vision burning forth in the physical realm? You watch Venus slowly sink beyond the blackened waves of the Earth’s greatest sea, a trail of Venus-shine tracing a path directly from the planet to where your feet stand on a grassy cliff’s edge. A geometrical relationship exists between your body and the body of Venus, but you also feel a psychic connection as well: beauty shines forth from this planet, a beauty which you cannot help but feel resonating internally as well. Distill all of this moment to its essence, to Beauty.

In the ancient world astronomy and astrology were a single science, to be practiced as a unified discipline of contemplating what Plato called the “moving image of eternity”[1] that is the night sky. With the rise of modernity, astronomy and astrology diverged, astronomy to become a science solely of mathematical physics and celestial mechanics, while astrology was relegated to the realm of superstition and pseudoscience. Contemporary research on astrology, however, has come to affirm “a highly significant––indeed a pervasive––correspondence between planetary movements and human affairs.”[2] This correspondence is perceptible in the position of the planets at the time of one’s birth, as well as in the transiting movement of the planets in relation to the birth chart throughout one’s life, and the continuously changing dynamics of the planets’ relational positions to each other. The correlated expression is of an archetypal nature: the character or energy of the planets is expressed in a multivalence of ways both by human individuals and in collective cultural and natural events.

An astrological chart is a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional solar system, shown from a geocentric perspective but using heliocentric calculations to predict the specific locations of the planets (Figure 1). Sometimes in the practice of astrology it can be easy to become absorbed in the planetary archetypes as symbols, as they are manifested in the human psyche. Just as astronomy has forgotten it was once completed by astrology, perhaps sometimes astrology too can forget to look back out into the starry sky to gain greater understanding, and not just to the multidimensional manifestations of the archetypes in human events. If phenomenology is meant to bring us, as Husserl said, “back to the things themselves,” perhaps a phenomenological approach to astrology may be in order, to experience at all levels the archetypal energies pulsating through all dimensions of the cosmos.

The Sun

Why is it we are so compelled to watch the sunset? On clear days the Sun is visible all through the daylight hours, yet it is usually only when the Sun is near the horizon at dusk and dawn that the desire to suspend whatever we might be doing simply to watch overcomes us. The Sun is most accessible to the naked eye at this time. The explosion of color—of rose, vermillion, gold, magenta, orange, crimson, indigo—as the sunlight passes through the greatest density of Earth’s atmosphere is like watching a cosmic painter improvise with an infinite watercolor set on living canvas. How could we look away?

The Sun in the birth chart represents the conscious self, what one identifies as, what we name ourselves, how we shine in the world, the will to be, to exist. The Sun illuminates, focuses, radiates, integrates. It is the autonomous self, the ego, the part of ourselves that says “I am.” When I gaze at the horizon illuminated by the setting Sun, the “I” that I call myself—the “I” whose personality is reflected in the position of the Sun in my birth chart, the location at which the actual Sun appeared to be from my situated position on a moving Earth—is gazing out at the Sun that contains all “I”s. Every birth chart contains a Sun, every person has a self whose personality is reflected in the planetary and zodiacal relationships to that Sun. Yet it is all the same Sun. Each one of us has a personal relationship to this celestial body that gives life to the Earth, gives movement to the solar system. When we look at the Sun, not only do we see our self reflected, we see all selves reflected back to us. No wonder it is so hard to look away.

Yet when the Sun sets the starry sky can begin to shine forth. When the self steps aside, all the other persons of our being are able to come forth and shine with their own archetypal colors.

The Moon

A few nights ago I was walking down a busy city street at night, cars passing back and forth, people hurrying in every direction, home from work, onto buses, into subway stations. Stepping around the corner of a tall building and looking up through the maze of power lines blocking a dark, almost star-less sky, I was struck by the sight of the Moon, barely a crescent of light showing on its face, yet in its darkness still visible all the way around. The dark orb appeared to be hanging so close to the Earth, a haunting reminder that not all the world is contained in the narrow field of our bustling urban lives. Yet I was amazed to see no one else stopped to stare at this fantastic apparition far more beautiful than any of the hurried activity occurring down at the street level.

The Moon astrologically represents our relational self, the emotions, feelings, the body. It is the mother-child relationship, that which cares and nurtures, and that which desires to be cared for and nurtured. The Moon is the matrix of being, the family, the home, the past, our most intimate selves. It is what our conscious self is unconscious of, sometimes invisible in its intimacy. We can become so accustomed to seeing the Moon night after night, or as a pale sphere in the daytime sky, that we forget its presence if we are too wrapped up in the overly focused narrowness of our ego-driven lives. It does not demand attention. Yet the Moon is always present, the closest celestial body to Earth, affecting the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, mirroring the ebb and flow of our changing emotions and bodily sensations.

From Earth we always see the same face of the Moon; the Moon’s rotation on its axis and its orbit about the Earth take the same amount of time. This physical characteristic gives the impression that the Moon does not rotate at all, which contributed to the long-held belief that the Earth was the stationary center of the cosmos. The maternal nature of the Lunar archetype seems to be symbolically expressed in this physical positioning; the Moon cradling the young human species in an Earth-centered universe for far longer than if the Moon had rotated on its axis.

Sun Trine Moon

I am standing on the precipice of a mountain gazing westward, into the molten fire of the setting Sun. One hundred and twenty degrees to my left, an angle my body can hold within itself as I gaze in both directions, the waxing Moon rises over the further arches of a vermillion and rose stained ridge. I can feel the relationship of Sun and Moon within my body, somehow feeling my heart as the third point in this harmonious triangle. “We grasp external space through our bodily situation,”[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes. Standing between rising Moon and setting Sun I know their relationship because my body is in relationship to each of them. “We also find” Merleau-Ponty continues, “that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective—our body.”[4]

I am a full participant in this moment. My body is in relationship with these two powerful celestial bodies that light up our world, that pull all of the existence I know forward along its spiraling path. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions,” the phenomenologist says.[5] This seems to hold true not only for my own body, but each body I am able to witness: the flaming Sun, the pregnant Moon, blazing Venus as it becomes visible in the cooling hues of the sky, the point of light that is Saturn that appears not long after Venus makes her debut, and the solidity of the Earth beneath my feet. Each are bodies giving visible form to their intentions.

I turn to my companions standing next to me and say, “This is a transit. Can you feel it?

Jupiter

A couple years ago I was out walking through Golden Gate Park in the later evening. In the darkness of the park I saw through a gap in the trees the shining, soft orange light of Jupiter. It was the only light in the sky, dazzling between dappled purple clouds. I left the path to stand in the darkness of the trees, to focus all my attention upon this planetary body, this planetary being.

As I gazed with openness and curiosity upon Jupiter it appeared to grow brighter, and I almost felt as though a communion was arising between us. As dark clouds passed over the planet it still managed to shine through radiantly. I was suddenly reminded of the moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King when Sam looks up at the smog covering the desolation of Mordor:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach[6]

It suddenly dawned on me that part of the archetypal nature of Jupiter is Hope. I had the sense I was looking directly at the Divine and feeling Hope, an uplifting and elevation of spirit, a buoyancy and joy I could not explain. The Shadow of our times, the great devastation of our Earth, will also pass in the end. There is always Hope.

Encountering The Archetypes

Sometimes the planets want to speak to us. This is the only way I can describe what such a connection feels like. Once, in a meditative state, I closed my eyes and gazed upward towards the heavens and could feel that all the planets were so excited I finally was listening that they each were telling me who they are all at once. It was an overwhelming deluge of colors, emotions, images, sensations, processes; it was far too much to take in. I begged them, please come one at a time.

One by one, beginning with the Sun, each planet introduced itself, revealing how their multidimensional and multivalent appearances in the incarnated realm were really all unified into single archetypes in the transcendent realm. With each planet I encountered qualities I had learned of before, and yet other qualities which were new to me. The Sun, radiant presence, gold, singularity of vision, shone through me, through everything; nothing else existed in that light. The Moon, cradling and being cradled, softness, a silver sheen of lavender comfort, holding in warmth, fullness and settled contentment. Mercury, a quickening pace as my thoughts raced to catch up, a rapid quill spelling, articulating, word, glance, taste, touch, sound, senses singing. Venus, a verdant green of flowering beauty, vines growing in curls that turn into exquisite art, the silver sparkling of dew under leaves, mirroring a reciprocity of love and heart-warming presence, the shiver of pleasure and desire. Mars, a flaming red heat burning through me with energy, action, anger, force, violence, blood, rushing in a hiss of fiery passion. Jupiter, uplifting to a panoramic sweep of glory and triumph, images of great civilizations flourishing in their crowning moments, a spiraling climb to the grand arches of the Kingdom of Heaven, laughing, just laughing, releasing into giggles, soft joy, lips kissed by a smile.

The smile faded into a serious fixed gaze as Saturn entered my field, making me sit straighter, feeling the structural strength of my bones, my skeleton, holding me erect and steady, the stability of age-old institutions weathering through time, weathered away by time—Time who eats his children—feeling my body slowly decay in death, yet somehow feeling reassured by this, again and again in repetition, that all things must come to an end, and with that final acceptance at last can come wisdom.

Lightning quick Uranus burst through, not settling into a single color or image, always overturning, breaking out, breaking through, a pace impossible to follow as sparks of genius flew off of every new idea to explode in firecrackers opening up ever unexplored future horizons.

All dissolved, and no sense of myself remained as the oceanic azure oneness of Neptune washed over all that had come before, containing everything in its synchronous holism, a peaceful oblivion of floating in a flowing celestial realm of watery image, ethereal spirit, imaginal soul, transcending all boundaries.

And with a rendering tear the ocean ripped apart as a volcanic chasm, Pluto, gaped open swallowing all in titanic destruction, a violence so deep it was beyond fear, rather a pulsing of life impulse to survive or perish, pushed and pressured by the unbounded force of desire, teeth, torn flesh, corpses, pushing through the excrement, massive desolation laying waste, decomposing, turning over, evolving through pain, passing through the white hot burning fire and from the dead ashes reborn . . .

Then white light. All the colors melted together, every image unified. Only light.

Such an encounter with the archetypes I felt at every level of my being. It is like hearing the story of the entire world all at once. It is a distillation of everything into the passing of but a few breaths, a bracketing of everything, to be able to fully experience everything. An archetype is a phenomenological reduction of experience, a reduction that distills being down to its essence. Return to the things themselves. Look to the night sky, the planets want to tell you who they are—who you are.

When the starry night passes, so comes the dawn. The self is reborn from the multitudinous matrix of being. Yet as day shines forth, one can still feel the stars radiating behind the blue sky.

Works Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY:             Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

[1] Plato, Timaeus, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1241, 37d.

[2] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), 68-69.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 5.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954), 901.

Setting Sun

The Phenomenon of Painting

“In a forest, I have felt so many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.”     – André Marchand[1]

When does a painter cease her painting? Who determines when a painting is complete? The very word painting, as both a noun and a verb, implies action. A painting never ceases creating and being created by the very nature of the word humanity has assigned to describe it. Or perhaps that word was never assigned, it simply emerged from  the phenomenon of painting, just as the imagery of a painting seems to emerge not solely from the artist or the canvas, but rather from a mysterious intermediate ground between the two. Yet what is that ground? How can we contemplate that which emerges from ambiguity?

Light Iris

Merleau-Ponty writes, “From the writer and philosopher. . . we want opinions and advice. We will not allow them to hold the world suspended. . . . Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees.”[2] Even to sit here and write of painting, as I am doing in this moment, brings a literal concreteness to the ambiguity I am attempting to describe, that which can only emerge between world, artist, and art. When one looks at a painting, or even more so when one looks at a painting that is in the process of being created—perhaps even by the artistry of one’s own hand—there is a presence that exists within it that is beyond the intention of the artist, no matter how controlled the artist may try to be in her execution of the artwork. A painting has a life of its own, perhaps even before the artist ever conceived of it. Merleau-Ponty continues,

I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at. For I do not look at it as I do at a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, or with it, than that I see it.[3]

One sees according to the painting, almost as if the painting had its own will, a will separate from the will of the artist. This returns our thought to the question of how a painter knows when a painting is complete, especially if there is an internally active quality to the very existence of a painting even, or perhaps especially, in its completeness. It is as though the painting already existed before ever a brush was set to paper, and the painting is only complete when the already existent painting and the actions of the painter meet in the middle.

“I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe,” Marchand writes, “and not want to penetrate it.”[4] A painter, it seems, is a vessel of the world, a receptacle that births the form with which matter is pregnant.[5] “So many painters have said that things look at them,”[6] Merleau-Ponty writes, almost as though those things wish to be born through new media.

The eye sees the world, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees—on the palette—the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies.[7]

The painting itself, in this quote, seems to call forth the very existence of the painting. The colors are ‘awaited’ by the painting, the painting itself ‘answers.’ When is a painting complete? Perhaps when it wills it to be so.

 

Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.


[1] André Marchand, qtd. in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 167.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 161.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 164.

[4] Marchand, qtd. in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 167.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 12.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 165.

The Horizon of Imagination

My body sits nestled in the tall grass, my feet dangling precariously close to the rough-hewn edge of the cliff. The wind off the sea blows salt mist into the tangles of my hair, while the waves crash below, their sound drowning all others except that of the wind and the pulse of blood in my skull. “Matter is ‘pregnant’ with its form,” the phenomenologist writes, “which is to say that in the final analysis every perception takes place within a certain horizon and ultimately in the ‘world.’”[1] In this moment I try to understand, through my intellect, what his words mean. I realize I cannot grasp it. So I attempt the process again, not based upon my intellectual experience, but rather from the beginning, from the primordial seat of awareness, from a place of perception. There… can you feel it? The cliff, the waves, the sea wind—each pregnant with its own form, impressing itself on my beingingness in this moment. I cannot explain this. But sit beside me on this cliff and perhaps your body will know.

Still at the cliff’s edge, I close my eyes. The sounds of salt and wave, crumbling rock and rushing air currents remain, but much else is now gone. Color collapses to the dark behind my eyelids. Yet something else emerges. Even the sounds begin to fade as I descend deeper into this realm. Although my body remains still nestled in the tall grasses that I twist between my fingers, as I attempt to hold a tight physical grip upon this material present, nearly all my awareness begins to lift away from the Earth’s surface. Darkness surrounds me, broken only by the crystalline lamps of distant stars. I wheel past familiar planets, although some part of me realizes they have never been familiar to me at so close a range. Suddenly I am upon the edge of our solar system. How did I get here? How do I know what this looks like?

Perception is thus paradoxical. The perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself. As Berkeley said, if I attempt to imagine some place in the world which has never been seen, the very fact that I can imagine it makes me present at that place.[2]

I am present at the edge of our solar system. I am present at the edge of our solar system? Within less than an instant I am present at the edge of the cosmos. My imagination knows this can exist even if physical reality cannot confirm it from our Earth-bound perspective. What then is the phenomenological stance of imagination, if it can so quickly leap beyond the bounds of the situated horizon?

When I open my eyes I see the gray rain curtain that veils the white line of the Pacific Ocean’s horizon. I close my eyes, and I leap beyond all horizons.

Edge of the Solar System

 

Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

 


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 12.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 16.

Saturating Words with Image

A text means nothing to me until it is suffused with image. As I sit with book in hand, the slightly rough texture of the pages meeting the pads of my fingers with a soft sound, I am somehow more aware of the breathing presence of the room around me, of the book’s scent, rather than the black ink words upon the page. Reading a line takes me out of the space in which I sit. Reading another takes me further out, yet also pulls me further into the text. Yet not until the first sentence of the third paragraph does the text ground itself in an image, something I can grasp beyond, or perhaps before, my intellect can take hold of it. The sentence is “The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind.”[1] Reading that line, I cannot doubt my own incarnation. As is written just three pages later, “Before our undivided existence the world is true; it exists. The unity, the articulations of both are intermingled.”[2] I can feel that I myself exist, not because I think, but because I can perceive myself: perceiving my breathing, perceiving touch, feeling, sensuality, this textured book in my grasp.

Sunset Moonrise
Photo by Matthew Segall

I am standing on the precipice of a mountain gazing westward, into the molten fire of the setting Sun. One hundred and twenty degrees to my left, an angle my body can hold within itself as I gaze in both directions, the waxing Moon rises over the further arches of a vermillion and rose stained ridge. I can feel the relationship of Sun and Moon within my body, somehow feeling my heart as the third point in this harmonious triangle. “We grasp external space through our bodily situation.”[3] Standing between rising Moon and setting Sun I know their relationship because my body is in relationship to each of them. “We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective—our body.”[4] As I read each page of Merleau-Ponty’s words they gain meaning only as much as the image of these cosmic luminaries are able to saturate the words.

I am a full participant in this moment. My body is in relationship with these two powerful celestial bodies that light up our world, that pull all of the existence I know forward along its spiraling path. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions.”[5] This seems to hold true not only for my own body, but each body I am able to witness: the flaming Sun, the pregnant Moon, blazing Venus as it becomes visible in the cooling hues of the sky, the point of light that is Saturn that appears not long after Venus makes her debut, and the solidity of the Earth beneath my feet. Each are bodies giving visible form to their intentions.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 3.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 6.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.