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Sunday, February 25, 2024

How Do You Practice Responsible Astrology?

Astrology is a predictive art. And though many astrologers twist themselves into intellectual knots in an attempt to legitimize astrology within a scientific materialist paradigm—thereby creating a boundary between astrology and less-reputable “fortune-telling,” and avoiding guilt-by-association proximity with swindling “psychics”—there is no mechanistic explanation for how it works. Empirical astrological data, while extant, fails to satisfy the craving for clearly replicable quantitative results. The massively subjective nature of astrological interpretation doesn’t help: Two astrologers can look at the same planetary configuration and come to decidedly different conclusions, and sometimes, they’re both right.

Still, rulers of nations and empires have a long history of relying on astrologers as part of the growth and maintenance of power; there’s just as long a history of astrologers being imprisoned (or worse). The ability to predict is precisely what makes astrology so potent, and exactly what brings risk into astrological practice.

No human is omniscient, and as seen in other prediction-oriented fields, being wrong is inevitable. Yet astrology, unlike other predictive fields, often involves extremely personal conversations, intimate life insights, and a more or less obvious infusion of the numinous; as such, it carries its own moral and ethical concerns.

Whether or not you “believe” in astrology—I personally don’t “believe” in astrology; I practice it—let’s consider that its multiple millennia of history points to something valuable and meaningful within it. I’ve witnessed astrology and its predictions massively improve countless situations in my own life, in my friends’ lives, and in my students’ and clients’ lives. Fraught as prediction may be, when well-wielded, its usefulness is infinite. Given that astrology has been used to predict for all of its history, the question becomes: What is responsible astrological prediction?

“Prediction” can be a loaded word within the professional astrological industry. Its etymology is simple: to pre-dict is to say before, to articulate what has not yet come to pass. Despite this broad definition, the connotation that often surrounds “prediction” implies one particular variant: concretely delineating a specific future event, ideally with precise timing. Throughout the pandemic, some astrologers have been trying to predict the wax and wane of cases; during election years, efforts are made to predict winners of political races; attempts to wield astrological prediction toward profitable ends have a long history, and it’s now being applied to crypto too.

More controversially, astrology can be used to predict decidedly unhappy events. For example, astrological history includes length-of-life techniques, essentially calculating one’s death. Many contemporary astrologers consider death prediction the ultimate in unethical practice, a horrifying and psychologically damaging application of interpretive skills. But as astrological historian, Hellenistic astrology expert, and podcast host Chris Brennan shares, the ancient perspective held that “you don’t want to predict really great things for a person who won’t live to see those things.” A similar perspective continues in some strands of contemporary Vedic astrological practice; within a particular cultural and astrological framework, withholding negative information, including length-of-life assessments, out of fear of frightening the client is robbing them of crucial information that may impact how they choose to live.

However, the modern “Western" context has a very different relationship with life and death than ancient Alexandria or contemporary India. “We live in a death-denying, death-avoidant culture,” points out astrologer and writer Pallas K. Augustine. “Until we repair our relationship with death, I don’t think most [contemporary astrologers] can practice length-of-life techniques with any coherent ethical responsibility.” Beyond that, modern medicine is capable of intervening in what would have been mortal injuries and illnesses in the first century CE, adding confounding factors to a predictive approach developed when the looming specter of death often hovered much closer. (The continuous practice of Vedic astrology means their techniques have kept up with modern medicine; “Western” astrology, impeded by both religious and post-Enlightenment disdain, lacks the benefits of unbroken lineages.)

All the astrologers I spoke with emphasized confounding factors as one key reason astrological prediction is never, ever 100 percent certain. “People have misconceptions that the astrologer is looking into a crystal ball and seeing the future perfectly depicted,” says Brennan, “but that’s not actually what astrology is.”

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This is where prediction turns into many astrologers’ preferred future-oriented word: forecasting. Astrological forecasting tends to describe the future more thematically or archetypically than concretely, and the vast majority of astrological prediction today falls into this category. Forecasting has more room for varied possible outcomes and allows for human error within interpretation. Horoscopes work this way, as do year-ahead and planetary ingress forecasts, and it’s often exactly what happens inside of one-to-one consultations between astrologers and their clients.

As Sam Reynolds, an astrologer who started out as a skeptic and has served on the board for the international astrology organization ISAR, points out, even character analysis via the natal chart is essentially a form of thematic forecasting: “By virtue of looking at your character, [astrology] can bespeak what is likely to manifest, what we’re likely dealing with,” an extension of Heraclitus’s dictum that “character is destiny.” Character influences how we navigate the circumstances life throws at us. “Fate has two arms: one of them is yours,” he says. “Astrology is about learning how to work the arm that you can work.”

Working the workable arm of fate is what astrologer, teacher, and CUSP app cofounder Kirah Tabourn does for herself and for her clients. A planning-focused astrologer, Tabourn considers prediction to provide “more grounding in the present by having some idea of the patterning of the future,” including the precious gift of organizing one’s life. “[Astrological timing] helps people feel like there’s some structure, an order to things,” she says. “It helps people make decisions.”

If astrology can help with ascertaining “the right time” to make decisions, it follows that astrology can also help us with discerning “the wrong time,” too. Forewarned is forearmed, as the old adage goes, and astrology’s cyclicity is uniquely situated to provide forearming. “When we’re investigating historical and autobiographical astrological cycles, it’s important to see where the repetition happens,” says writer-astrologer Pallas Augustine. This can include cyclic reoccurrences of rhyming difficulties, such as mental or physical health relapses, tender topics that require deft compassion whenever they arise in client sessions. Astrological prediction, wielded gently and skillfully, can help to “spot the meaning and the movement [going forward] by looking to what is different,” Augustine continues.

However, knowing that people make choices based on astrology comes with an imperative to be as ethical as possible when translating celestial movements for clients. “Our clients and content consumers are often in a space of putting a lot of weight into what [astrologers] say,” adds Tabourn. “Being really mindful of that power dynamic is super important.”

The downside to the immense meaning-making potential of astrology? It renders the practice vulnerable to misuse by uncareful types with dubious commitment to honorable behavior. An astrologer more concerned with being right or being (in)famous than they are with being helpful runs the very real risk of chasing sensationalism at the expense of integrity. This results in people who use astrology as an excuse to be an ambulance chaser or to create viral, fear-mongering social media content. Astrologers without deliberate training in counseling skills or trauma-informed practice, even those with the very best intentions, run the risk of inadvertently distressing their clients rather than supporting them. Some professional astrological organizations attempt to address these issues through codes of ethics, but because there’s no governing body dictating who can and cannot call themselves an astrologer, such codes are limited in their capacity to reign in practitioners behaving irresponsibly. Additionally, those codes, by their very nature, cannot fully address ethical differences across cultures or generational divides.

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At the same time, even information given with utmost intention and care can sometimes be received negatively. As Brennan says, “sometimes people are just going to take things in wildly different ways. You can try to be really, really careful, but there’s still some instances where something you say is going to hit the client in a way that might be wildly different from what you intend.” Clients come into sessions and consumers engage with content from a multitude of perspectives and with a host of expectations and anxieties, many of which can directly interfere with accurate listening. Reynolds puts it this way: “People misquote us all the time.” Recordings of live client sessions can help somewhat, but as “you can’t dictate how someone receives what you’re saying. The only thing you can be responsible for is your intention.”

For people without solid structures of existential certainty, the predictable nature of the interlocking cosmic clocks of astrology can provide a scaffold upon which to build meaning, purpose, and focus. “Our clients are facing major issues in the 21st century, from extinction rates to virtual reality,” says Augustine. “[These issues] demand more from our conceptions of time, and astrology offers connected, cyclic, and even magical perspectives. The ability to wind the clock forward or backward from the point of inception, to see what was and connect it to what will be, is revelatory, especially in an uncertain world of 24/7 social media cataloguing the ever-increasing catastrophes.”

For me, the astrologers I spoke with for this article, and a majority of those I consider to be colleagues, responsible astrological prediction has several key factors: it is either helpful, compassionate, or (preferably) both, and it repeatedly re-emphasizes the inherent and unavoidable uncertainty of any prediction. By deliberately trying to be helpful and humble, the harms and hubris that are possible within astrological prediction are immediately minimized. There’s responsibility here, sure, but there’s also relief—by making room for what can be considered chance, we leave the door open for what some call fate.


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