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Andrea Conlon - Reflections of an Astrotherapist

In this article, I want to share some of my experiences and thoughts about using astrology within the context of psychotherapy. My background is an almost 40 year association with astrology, and about 25 with psychotherapy. So you see, I first started with astrology, but further down the road decided to become a therapist. I did that to come up with an application of astrology that worked better for me than the single session model, although a portion of my practice is doing chart readings. Perhaps some of you are also wondering if this is the right path for you. Both psychological and evolutionary astrology inform my work, and so, I’m a hybrid astrologer. I wouldn’t want to live without either of these streams in modern astrology. In a nutshell, I use astrology to help me understand my clients, while I use psychotherapy to help my clients integrate those understandings into their lives. Astrology has a profound application to therapy because it gives us insight into how and when the psyche is under development. When birth chart structures are impacted by transits and progressions, we have insight into how a person is challenged to become more conscious.

I’m going to discuss how I do and don’t use astrology in my practice, and I’ll give you case examples. It is so tricky to speak in depth about people I work with, so please regard my examples as just a taste of how astrology informs my work. Once astrology grabs you, it becomes a powerfully marking force in life. Given how astrology is viewed in our culture, we become outsiders on the fringe of the psycho-spiritual landscape. We share a common language that has a power and texture that we can feel, and it’s hard to understand that the mainstream doesn’t feel the same resonance with it that we do.

Astrology helps us make sense of our existence. It validates our lived experience, and that brings relief. It clarifies things that have been unformulated and unarticulated, making our experience more tolerable and more digestible, all the while bringing in myth, poetry, and meaning to our lives. We use astrology to help us contain and understand our own personal suffering in a way that no human being can do for us. Astrology helps us articulate the “unthought known” (1). This is a term Reflections of an Astrotherapist Andrea Conlon I’m borrowing from the analyst Christopher Bollas. It means the things we intuit but are not quite conscious of — what we have somehow always known inside of us, but never consciously thought.

One of the important values of astrology is to put into words these inchoate feelings. Astrology has an enormous capacity to mirror our existential dilemma. It gives us conscious awareness of our psychic landscape, of both our resources as well as our difficult issues, and thus it helps us live with more self-acceptance and less resistance to who we are. For me as a therapist, the chart is an empathic entry point into my client’s inner world. How often have we as astrologers experienced the relief of recognition in our clients when we put something into words that they knew about themselves, but never had anyone quite recognize, validate and articulate for them?

Astrology and psychotherapy share this common ground in trying to cultivate in our clients a capacity to accept themselves and what they are experiencing. So often what we say to our clients in so many words is “Don’t fight it,” and then we describe the energy and process they are not to fight, but are to work with consciously.

Recently, a chart client in the thick of transiting Pluto exactly square her Sun, said to me, “I’m anxious!” My response was, “If you weren’t anxious, you would either not be alive and feeling, or you’d be some kind of ascended master.” There was such a pulse of change and transformation going on for her, as well as downright ego pulverization. Does the ego like this? No, not really. I think we get anxious about a process like this. This was the larger context she needed to hear, which felt reassuring and gave her an orientation and the encouragement to face and work with this challenging cycle. As her astrologer, I could give her a context and send her on her way to work with the energy in whatever way she chooses. In contrast, if I was working with her as her therapist, I could go further. I would have the opportunity to help her midwife this death/rebirth process. It’s the difference between identifying a pattern as an astrologer, and actually working with the pattern as a therapist.

I would venture to say that many of us feel that we are in virtual psychotherapy with astrology as we live our birth charts, and as we follow our transits and progressions over a lifetime. The beauty of astrology is that it allows for this private kind of self-reflection that we cannot always do all on our own without it.

As modern astrology evolves, there are a growing number of astrologers who are also trained as therapists. This is what I want to address with you, how astrology can be used as one’s theoretical model in doing therapy, much as Jung drew on astrology in his own clinical work with patients. Jung was the first modern psychotherapist to integrate astrology into his work. We know this because he did the chart of every one of his patients. And we have several sources that corroborate this.

In fact, Liz Greene recently gave a seminar on the astrological references in the Red Book. She made the bold assertion that Jung’s whole psychology arose out of astrology, and that the Red Book proves this! The depth of Jung’s reliance on astrology is the great secret embedded in Jungian psychology – we astrologers know this, while most Jungian analysts don’t really want to acknowledge this. This is still and may always be a controversial piece of Jung’s legacy.

The mental health world is very diverse, and getting more diverse all the time. Shouldn’t there be a place for a practitioner whose theoretical model is astrology? After all, the original meaning of psychology was knowledge of the soul, and astrology resonates so beautifully with that. For example, a therapist may want to work outside of the mainstream mental health world with its emphasis on stigmatizing diagnoses. Or, an astrologer may want to work within a looser, broader frame than the one in which astrology is generally practiced. In my case, it freed me up to work in a different way than the single session model.

However, in all my years of working with the integration of astrology and psychotherapy, one of my conclusions is that in certain ways this combination doesn’t work all that well. For example, it generally doesn’t work well to teach someone astrology in the context of their ongoing therapy when the person doesn’t already know the language. Astrology and therapy are different modalities — more different than I wanted them to be. And so my initial dream and inspiration of combining astrology and therapy unraveled. But in the unraveling, I’ve come to the realization that I cannot do therapy without astrology. It is the theoretical model that I use, and it is the ultimate authority that guides how I work with people. For me, the chart provides an empathic entry point into the psychic landscape of the person I am working with.

In spite of the difficulties of combining astrology and psychotherapy, it is possible and can be very fruitful. You just have to take some care.

One of the problems in combining the two is that we astrologers think we know things about ourselves and others, and we do, but only partially, on an archetypal level. Knowing someone on an archetypal level through their chart does not tell us about someone’s particular lived experience, which is the all-important element in therapy. Here is where the shadow of astrology comes in, and it can become a kind of fundamentalist religion, where we think we know everything and it all fits so neatly into our system. And sometimes it’s our clients who push us in this direction. What a burden it is to be scripted into a role of playing god — to see all and know all — when we really don’t. Many years ago, I attended a talk by an astrologer and therapist from Colorado, who stated that one of the problems with astrology is an attempt to slay the mystery of life. I believe that he was describing the shadow of astrology and a kind of astrological hubris.

How reassuring and transforming it is to have a living experience that the universe is ensouled with meaning, and that our individual life reflects the larger cosmic order. Perhaps that is the defining philosophical orientation and common ground that we share as astrologers. I’ve already mentioned the shadow side in thinking that we know and see more than we actually do for a particular person. But an even more important issue is thinking that identifying a pattern is a substitute for the working through of that pattern.

While gaining insight about an astrological pattern in our chart can really boost our self-awareness, insight alone does not erase the difficulties in the pattern. And while we may wish for that to be the case, it is a false hope. That is work of another order and magnitude that may even be a life’s work. It is sad but true that you cannot eliminate an emotional pattern, or a complex, or whatever you want to call it, simply by disliking it, or wishing it would leave your life.

It may surprise you that many people come into therapy thinking that the therapist is going to help get rid of unwanted feeling states, when actually the work is to help them bear to get closer to these feeling states and to get underneath the defenses which prevent feeling. It is such difficult work for us to feel. We would rather get diseases than feel, it is so threatening and such a burden!  Instead, we organize our lives around not feeling painful emotions. To feel our pain and vulnerability means we are not in control. And I think that as a collective we are not very developed or evolved emotionally because we are so concerned about being in control. There is not much support in the culture to work with our emotional beings, and a lot of strong messages to go unconscious in the face of our pain and helplessness.

People come to astrologers and therapists for generally the same thing, for help with life crises, but the methods of the two are very different. There is tremendous pressure put on astrologers to know things with certainty and to have quick answers. For example, I recently did a one hour chart reading where, unbeknownst to me, I was expected to fix a complex family crisis. In this case, a teenage son was using drugs and lying about it to his parents. Afterwards, my client was unhappy with the session because I couldn’t come up with an answer — in that one hour session — that would solve the family’s problem and relieve her pain.

This is a glaring example of a common dynamic — people who have the fantasy that the knowledge of astrology will make them OK, without them having to do any work! As if I had a magic wand that could produce the result. This was an extreme example of somebody who believes there is an answer that will give them harmony without having to do any work. The fantasy goes like this: something — astrology? — will fix things so that life doesn’t bring these problems. Well it isn’t astrology or therapy, because both systems point to the fact that inner work needs to be done.

My last thought about this session is that I doubt that a therapist would be put under this same pressure. It would be unusual for someone to expect a therapist to solve this kind of problem in one session, although to be sure therapy clients also have the fantasy of getting fixed.

 

Notes: 

1. Bollas, Christopher, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, Columbia University Press, 1987

 

To be continued...