“The Phenomenology of Astrology” in Immanence Journal

The inaugural issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale will be published in just a few days on October 31, and I am delighted to have my article “The Phenomenology of Astrology” included in the publication! A preview of the issue, which is titled The Mythic Present, is available and includes the table of contents, featured artwork, an article by Keiron Le Grice, and the founding editor Craig Chalquist’s introduction to the journal and its contents. This new journal looks at how myth, legend, and folklore continue to saturate our contemporary lives—an inquiry into which astrology provides a particularly compelling perspective. The practice of astrology allows one to perceive archetypes, which can also be discerned in the world’s mythic traditions, manifesting in human events synchronistically correlated with the movement of the planets. My article for the Immanence journal explores how one can also experience these numinous archetypes when contemplating the celestial bodies of the night sky.

phenomenology-of-astrology

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Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, will soon be 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.

Setting Sun

To read the rest of this article please see: “Phenomenology of Astrology.”

Metamorphosis of the Unwilling

My body felt heavy, awkward. I did not actually want to dance. Staying safely curled up in the soft cushions of the chair, cocooned in a warm blanket, seemed far more appealing. So I did something I do not usually allow myself to do. When called forward to dance I asked if I could wait. To see when, or even if, my body had any desire to come out of its instinct to remain hidden and safely nestled in obscurity.

I waited. Beautiful bodies danced before me. I waited longer. I witnessed. Now? Almost. . .

Stop planning, I told myself. Stop trying to control this moment, or know what moves you think you know how to make.

I waited. The waiting turned into something else. Waiting. Ah. . .  that’s when you know you’ve somehow moved to the edge of your seat.

My feeling of inward hesitation led me to surrender all mental control of what I was supposed to do next. If I didn’t want to dance I didn’t want to plan it either. I stepped forward, not knowing what song momentarily would come to fill the swollen silence that now held me in subdued anticipation. In those brief, still moments I moved about, first contemplating a chair in the corner, then leaning against the wall, and finally just sitting with my knees tucked up on the floor. I wrapped myself in a long piece of fur. I could bring my inwardness and hesitation into the heart of this unstarted dance, holding myself in warmth and comfort even here.

Then the music began. Then the music began to move me. I had nothing to do. My body somehow knew how to follow.

With each beat one shoulder, then the other, moved a little. The fur slipped down, inch by inch. As my movement unfolded I felt I was being led, led by sound and the intelligence of my body riding those musical waves. The fur stayed with me, followed me, like it too had its own dance it wished to play out upon my body. Few thoughts arose, only points of memory-formation, tagging this moment or that for posterity. Not all stayed with me. Much of this dance is a blur that whirled away into the moments that drew the dance forth from me. Somehow I moved from the floor to the wall. My body, the fur, the music, all knew what to do. I did not. Nor did I need to.

Sensation led me forward, leaving the support of the wall. The metal pole stretching from ceiling to floor, an arboreal axis, called me forward. Giving myself the mental option never to dance with this powerful object during the course of this song allowed the desire instead to co-arise between my body and the music. As I walked toward the pole the fur dragged behind me; it left my grasp without thought the moment I no longer needed its comfort and support.

The pole calls forth spirals and swirls, a spinning energy that can only exist between flexibility and stability. I do not know how I danced, but only that my body was sending ripples of exuberance through my consciousness, a recognition that I was doing what I could not plan. I ascended the stretch of metal a foot, two, three, with a feeling like the internal inch of a caterpillar along a vertical branch. Seated above the ground I let my hands go, trusting the security of my legs, spreading my wings behind me. A caterpillar no more, I opened myself into metamorphosis, descending to the rhythm of a musical heartbeat.

Butterfly Dancer

 

 

Incarnation

Bury me in my immanence,
These bones who hold me in,
Under flesh, underground,
Beneath gravity of skin.

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Immersed in this flesh,
A mirror from below.
Songs echo from the deep
As the child learns to grow.

Each unfolding limb
A living fossil entwined:
The eye of the storm
In the whirlpools of the mind.

Stretch for the stars,
Bury your toes in the sand.
If I look in your eyes
Will you hold my hand?

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Limber laughter enmeshed
In each step we take,
From these early paces
To final footpad ache.

Walk with me sister,
Walk with me son,
Tread this careful curve
Where multitude is One.

Sing with the clouds
As they cross the sky,
Breathe out all staleness
With a synchronized sigh.

I want to tread this path,
With you always by,
When we play, flow, and dance,
Hold council and cry.

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Dance this Earth prayer
As long as we breathe,
Bury me in my immanence,
To find joy with all who grieve.

Earth and Sunrise

Co-Created Movement

The soles of my leather shoes are thin, allowing me to feel the contours of the path with each step. The thick layer of redwood leaves that slowly disintegrates into the rich canyon soil, soften the sounds of all the footsteps being taken around me. A meandering line of people are wending their quiet way along this forest path, each connected to one another, yet simultaneously enclosed in their own imagination-suffused worlds. The path bends to the right, taking a steep dive toward the clear, spring-fed creek. This is the place we cross, leaving the soft path momentarily, to leap from rock to rock, staying precariously above the chill waters below.

Photo by Matthew David Segall

Photo by Matthew David Segall

I watch as the first person in this line of individuals begins to descend. Her arms flail slightly, not reaching for an object to steady her, yet monitoring her balance nonetheless. It seems she is about to fall and a ripple of concern echoes back through the group of waiting walkers, some expressed verbally, others merely in a position of body or facial expression. No, she assures us. She often can look as though she is about to topple off her feet, but this is just how she finds her balance. She apologizes for worrying anyone, and continues to make her wavering descent.

The next person, who is walking directly before me, begins to take careful steps down the winding way, with a greater steadiness in his footfall, but still with arms out to balance his movement. No one is concerned for his safety, however. His is not a gait that inspires uncertainty.

Without thinking I begin to move next along the trail. In a state of reflective curiosity I observe my own movement, fascinated by how the way I move might differ from those ahead of me now stepping or leaping from boulder to boulder over the cold stream. My arms are relaxed by my side, and I feel my footsteps fall evenly forward, one after the other. I find my balance like a line within myself. Why do I not use my arms? What is giving me this sense of stability? I recognize that I know this path, having walked it countless times from childhood into adulthood, and wonder if that history is built into my sense of balance now. My feet, my legs, the whole length of my body knows the placement of this path before my mind has a chance to reflect on it.

What, I ask myself, is movement? One usually thinks of movement as arising from the body of a person or other being who is moving with agency through the world. The uniqueness of movement seems to arise from the body and personality of the individual. Yet in this moment, as I watch myself and others navigate the winding, steep path by the stream, I realize how all movement is really a co-creation. Movement arises not from the individual’s agency but rather in the intermediate place between the individual—with all her history, personality, unconscious material, physical qualities, and so forth—and the dynamic contours of the surrounding world. The movement itself, although I might call it mine, is rather both mine and the world’s as we press into each other with each passing moment.

Psyche in Breath

“Breathing is our very first teaching—a silent teaching—in the way of interdependency, continuity, relationship, giving and receiving. Our first teaching is one of perfect integration, harmony, non-duality. Breathing comes naturally; it is so rudimentary that it requires no action of volition, no attention or thought. But, for that very reason, the wisdom of breathing is the most difficult, and the very last to be learned.”
– David Michael Levin[1]

Do not put a butterfly in a bell jar,
She is no rose.
No still whorl of petals,
No silent standing stem
To be gazed at from without,
To be denied an inner landscape
From within.

What is this translucent glass,
This invisible barring shield?
Does it keep her safe,
Preserve her from decay?
While a rose’s petals will fall,
A butterfly’s soul
Will not stay.

A life’s breath is finite
When thus closed in.
A life’s breath is finite
When one is shut in.
When all the air’s depleted
What new may
Begin?

Each wing beat a breath,
Each breath a wing beat
In her fluttering breast.
Count each beat,
Count each rest,
Count each moment,
For Self begins in breath.

Breathe deep, wingéd soul,
Sing your heartfelt song.
Expand this element
That you are,
Expand your heart
Beyond the confines
Of this bell jar.

Two images I see
When I say “glass blown”:
A shattering crash
Of splintered glass,
As air forces through
And you fly to the
Unknown.

Or softer yet, though dangerous
Nonetheless:
A warmth, a temperance
Melts the glass from within,
Melting out, melting forth,
Melting away
Oh, begin.

Each wing beat a breath,
Each breath a wing beat
In her fluttering breast.
Count each beat,
Count each rest,
Count each moment,
Now Self begins in breath.

Butterfly in Bell Jar

Work Cited

Levin, David Michael. “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing.” Research in Phenomenology 14 (1984): 121-147.


[1] David Michael Levin, “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing,” Research in Phenomenology 14 (1984): 129.

Ellipsis . . .

. . .

            I begin letters with . . . when I want you to feel what I am feeling, when I want you to suspend for a moment who you are and make space for who I might be instead.

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.

Sunset

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.

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.