#73 - astromagic
And the debate of free will.
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I couldn’t tell you the first time I read my horoscope. It seems I have always been a believer. Since my parents were loyal Toronto Star readers, I suspect it was at the back of the LIFE section. On the weekends, I would zip through the comics and then take a deep breath and turn to the horoscope section. I can’t recall if any of the premonitions impacted me, but I was hungry for guidance and perpetually worried about my fate.
ATN would usually be playing in the background, the television station bringing the hits straight from India for the diaspora. At some point, an older Indian man (maybe a pandit?), green-screened against a starry night would come on-screen and run through the zodiac signs in a bellowed monotonous voice. I was less interested in his guidance, which usually focused on what days of the week one should avoid making any career or investment decisions. In contrast, I was searching for clues on who I was, and who I was becoming.
The discord between astrology enthusiasts and skeptics often boils down to a few connected questions: do we have free will? what is written and what is constructed? what are we in control of? are we products of nature or nurture? These questions are followed up with deeper dives into everything from our astrology to our psyche, familial imprints, biology, social conditioning, genes, brain structure, and evolution.
Philosophers, theologians, scientists and activists share the entire range of possibilities for answers to these questions, which affirms a core tenant of being human: sharing an obsession with understanding the origin and nature of the self, and the irony of never truly knowing. There can never be a conclusive stance on free will, merely suggestions that either resonate or not. This inconclusiveness is also why different eras and places cycle through a motley of ideologies to fill in the gap of this mystery that keeps human life in a balance of being algorithmic and mystical. The western, American worldview that has prided itself on meritocracy and the belief that anyone can make something of themselves despite where they begin needs free will as one of its pillars to stand on (in addition to collective delusion). Many worry that if the concept of free will is outrightly denied or debunked, all sense of moral responsibility and accountability would be discarded, leading to disillusionment and anarchy. The assumption is that if we are not in control of our fate, we will cease to care about anything - which reads more like a consequence of the fallout of the falsehood of American ideology, happening right now, rather than a foregone conclusion of human nature.
In India, astrology runs steadily through the culture. Though there are likely contemporary rejections of practices like checking a couple’s horoscope compatibility before marriage, the tolerance for astrology is informed by principles of karma, past lives, reincarnation and soul continuity in the Hindu and Jain faiths. Growing up, my mom would often reference my rashi, a reading of your astrological chart performed at your birth, during climactic moments of conflict. ‘It said you were going to be a troublemaker!’ This was the only piece of information ever shared with me from the mysterious transcript of my life stored somewhere in India. Maybe I was destined to be a troublemaker; maybe I became it?
This past weekend, a friend and student of astrology read my natal chart which is a snapshot of the planetary positions at birth. It all happened kind of spontaneously at the cottage while we waited for our friends to prepare a luxurious brunch spread. Despite being ‘into’ astrology for over two decades, I’ve never had a full chart reading.
What has visibly changed over the past few years is a mainstreaming of a more accurate and sophisticated understanding of the science of astrology - which has been practiced in different forms across Europe, Asia and Meso-America for over 3000 years. This shift can be credited to folks like Chani Nicholas and Jessica Lanyadoo and apps like CoStar that have made the complex dimensions of astrology more accessible. Before, the idea that people born within a 30-day period could all share similar traits and fates often felt reductive of one’s inherent and lived complexity and did not always match the experience of knowing people who had birthdays close by. Newspaper horoscopes were often too general and essentialized — as surely feeling ‘heartbreak’ or ‘worry about a career move’ could apply to anyone living a whole and full adult life.
While working at the Clinton Health Access Initiative in the Delhi office back in 2011, I remember asking my colleague M what his ‘horoscope sign’ was. I have been asking people ‘what their sign is’ since I was 16 - a question that is now considered spiritually basic and culturally dull. It’s not always a great question tbh. Depending on the audience, the response can be one of enthusiastic exchange, eye roll, mutual disgust for one another’s opposing belief systems, or a defensive stance on the assumption of being judged or reduced. None of these responses have stopped me from asking, which is partly from sometimes lacking tack, but also genuinely being interested in who people are - at the root.
Anyways, M was a white dude with bright red hair from the west coast of Canada. He had studied in the US, listened to the CBC while working on TB drug models and was acutely aware of his intellect. We shared a musky room in the office with S, a Persian man who grew up in Ottawa and is easily one of the kindest souls I have ever met. M rolled his eyes at the question, dismissing it with a laugh and turning back to his laptop to communicate that this question was clearly not worth his time. Annoyed, I probed further to understand his resistance. ‘Horoscopes are bullshit,’ he finally responded. ‘My mom use to write them for the newspaper and she doesn’t know a single thing about them.’ I remember feeling crushed because there was no way to deny this first-hand account of fabrication. The conversation temporarily broke the part of me that deeply believes, feels and experiences all phenomena as interconnected.
But so much has evolved since then. The literacy of ‘rising’ and ‘moon’ signs to compliment the ‘sun’ sign as the foundational trifecta has changed the conversation about astrology, bringing more nuance, and offering more ways to relate to one another. At a workshop I attended in April in Oaxaca, the group collectively marvelled at the realization that the majority of us were Libra rising. And in Zoom introductions, people often share their astrological trifecta as part of their bio. While this interest and curiosity in astrology can probably be mapped to the self-care movement, it is also characteristic of living in a time of uncertainty and holding on to a sense of self as all other forms of security begin to shatter.
Having my chart read at 38 was an affirming experience. 20 years ago, I might have been impressionable by the information and insights offered to me. But at this age, it all made sense. My eyes widened and my spirit chuckled when E shared insights from my chart that precisely mirrored my own articulations of myself. They told me my sun sign in the 8th house meant that I was attuned to a life of ‘death and endings,’ that my relationship with money was going to be a continuous challenge and tied to deeply familial and intergenerational patterns, that I shine at noon, and my purpose is connected to being in groups, clubs and community.
Their interpretation of my chart felt like reading a map and describing both the literal and poetic features of my inner terrain. On a Red Table Talk episode, pre-Oscars, Will Smith once described his evolved parenting style as ‘gardener flower,’ after a period of being more forceful in his desires for his children. ‘The seed already is what God designed it to be,’ Smith suggested. ‘The gardener is not trying to make the seed become what the gardener wants. The gardener wants to create an environment where the seed can become what it wants to be. I am going to provide nourishment and support, I am not going to preconceive what you need to be.’ Astrology, to me, is the DNA and story of the seed. Believing in it is not compulsory; it is an option, an input and a data point amongst many stories and interpretations of who and why we are as we are.
The trouble with questions like do we have free will? is that it seeks a binary conclusion and suggests being in conflict with determinism. The work of deconstructing the self through intellectual and scientific vehicles is an endless pursuit because revealing one part of the whole through theoretical languages like astrology, psychotherapy, evolutionary biology, familial imprints, systemic barriers or cultural conditioning, will likely dim another. The work of self-discovery will never feel complete because the whole self is a composite of all of these inputs in a non-legible way. Our efforts to develop frameworks to guide the exploration are necessary and useful, but they can not hold the whole picture. It is why for many, a checkpoint on the journey of self-discovery is meeting the conscious self - which is whole in spite of the inputs, experiences and knowledge, and is met and understood through a felt embodied experience on a mystical or mysterious plane.
Astrology can give you tips on how to navigate the map, but it can’t make the journey for you. And at some point, after all the digging and reflecting and processing, it doesn’t seem to really matter what parts of our identity and experiences are written in the stars or not because it just is: here, present and undeniable and asking to be seen, confronted, allowed and embraced, whatever the origin might be. All I know is that I am going to take alllllll the support I can get, including that from the stars, moons and planets.
P.S. Drop your signs in the comments; it never gets old for me.