If you are a serious student of astrology, sooner or later you have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that, if astrology works, it demonstrates that there are a lot of aspects of our lives that are beyond our ability to influence or control, and that may be pre-destined to a greater or lesser extent.
I am writing this in mid October 2016, shortly after the ISAR astrology conference where a panel of astrologers used their tools to attempt to predict the outcome of the presidential election.
If you had an accurate ephemeris, you could have drawn up the necessary charts a thousand years ago. If the predictive techniques have validity then the outcome of the election is indeed written in the stars, and has been written there for a very long time. (I picture a medieval astrologer drawing back from his charts with a look of horror on his face, as he divines the ascent of a weird hulking beast with a shock of bright orange blonde hair…)
Most of the astrologers that I know insist, strongly and loudly, that they believe in free will. Nothing in our lives is fated, our natal charts are nothing but potential, and it is up to us what we do with it. The whole notion that there might be circumstances or events that are predicted in your natal chart that are out of your control, is just not acceptable.
So they insist that we have free will – just a bit too loudly, and a bit too often.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Think about it – if it was so very certain that we have free will and can choose how we want our lives to go, why do so many modern astrologers spend so much time and energy insisting on our free will? If free will really was that much of a given then you wouldn’t need to keep insisting on it over and over.
On the other hand, most of the modern astrologers I know who recoil in horror at the notion of fate, have no problem with the concept of karma. The same astrologers who vehemently deny the notion of fate and insist on free will seem to have no problem with turning around and saying that, if something negative happened to you, it must have been your karma.
Let’s look a bit closer at that.
As far as I’ve been able to make out, here’s the difference in logic between fate and the popular conception of karma. Given the fact that something bad has happened, here is how it might be explained with the two concepts.
With the concept of fate, you might say that something bad has happened to you that is out of your control – forces and patterns larger than you affect you.
By contrast, karma (as used in modern astrology) would say that if something bad happens to you that seems to be out of your control it is your own fault, since you must have done something in a past life to deserve this.
Fate says, something bad happened and it’s out of my control. Karma in the popular sense says something bad happened and it’s out of my control – and it’s all my own fault since I must have set myself up for it.
So how is Karma more comforting or useful than the concept of Fate?
There are modern schools of astrology which teach that, if anything negative happens to you, you should ask yourself why this was drawn into your life, and that you are responsible for everything that happens to you. Either you did something wrong and are experiencing the negative blowback from that, or else this event is something you need for your next step of spiritual growth. One way or the other it is your responsibility. You set yourself up for it, and it’s for your own good.
Be very, very careful of the logic flaw there – this is the same sort of reasoning which says that, if a woman is raped, it is her own fault because she must have done something to invite it. It is the classic white male power trip of blaming the victim.
Any system that says you are personally responsible for everything that happens to you is setting you up for either a guilt trip (if it’s something bad) or an ego trip (if it is something really good).
To my mind this grossly over-inflates the importance and power of the individual human being. It ignores the complementary truth that each of us lives our lives within a larger context, and that we have only a very limited influence over what happens to us, and for almost everyone, what happens to a single person is of very limited importance.
For me this is one of the most powerful and useful lessons that can be learned from working with astrology for a long time, and looking at hundreds of charts, some of “famous” people who have been dead for a long time, that no-one knows about anymore.
The truth of the matter is, individually we’re just not all that important.
A whole lot of our lives are completely out of our control. No, it is not true that if you only try hard enough, think good positive thoughts, exercise and eat kale every day, that you can achieve anything you want.
Admitting that runs completely against the grain of a lot of our modern culture in the west, especially here in America, where we are still collectively drunk on our own sense of specialness and entitlement. We are currently near the end of a period of over a century of unprecedented material prosperity and indulgence, riding the wave of a gluttonous use of irreplaceable fossil fuels like oil – fuels that are now starting to gradually run out and grow scarcer.
So, given that we have only limited free will and choice, what is a useful and helpful way of dealing with events out of your control?
Here I want to examine stoicism, a philosophy that has a very strict concept of fate. I am drawing one of the most famous Stoic writers – Epictetus, a Roman writer from the first century AD, a former slave who had his legs deliberately fractured by his owner to ensure that he wouldn’t run away. That is not the sort of experience that would lead you to say that your life is your own potential and it is up to you what you make of it.
According to Epictetus, there are different categories of events and situations in our lives:
– those areas where we have complete control
– those areas where we have limited control
– and, those areas where we have no control.
The only part of our lives that is completely under control is our thoughts and reactions to what happens to us. Given the use of brainwashing drugs and other coercive techniques, I would even question just how absolute that control over our own minds really is. You also have diseases like Alzheimer’s and other form of dementia where there is a gradual loss of control – you can literally lose your mind – and if you lose control of that, just what do you control?
In the mental discipline of stoicism, the most useful way we can deal with anything in our lives is to focus our attention on what we can control, and let go of what we can’t control.
I want to look at a common and concrete everyday example here to illustrate what I mean.
You’re on the way home at the end of a long stressful day, and you get caught in a traffic jam where the traffic is not moving. The most common response is to get angry and upset over the situation, and spend a bunch of time swearing at the a…oles causing this mess.
According to the Stoics that is exactly the wrong response – you are spending all your energy getting upset over something you can’t control, and in the process you’ve completely given up working with the one thing you can control – that is, your response. Also, if you think of it, it really is a kind of ridiculous hubris to think you can swear at the cars in front of you to make them move more quickly.
That d..n traffic jam, where the h..l does it get off doing this to me! Don’t they know I’ve had a hard day and I deserve an easy drive and a nice rest? This isn’t fair!
The next result is that you have let the traffic jam control your mood. That really is giving away the only power you have to something that could care less about how you’re feeling.
A Stoic way of dealing with that traffic jam would be to think along these lines – okay, I’m caught in a traffic jam. I don’t like it, but I can either choose to get upset and make it worse, or I can back off a bit, and do what I can to calm down and mellow out. I can’t control when the traffic moves, but I can influence how I use my time and attention while I am waiting. (I’ve gotten in the habit of doing relaxation exercises when I’m stuck in traffic. While I’m stuck there I might as well spend the time getting rid of some of the tension and tiredness from a long day.)
You let go of the event that is out of your control, and you focus on your response which you can control. I can tell you for a fact that this method works, and it is something that you can consciously use and practice. I’ve done it and I find it to be invaluable.
I want to share a more extreme example from my own life – during the last three months while my wife Cindy was dying of cancer, I was at home taking care of her. We knew that the cancer was out of control and we could do nothing about that.
Here is the train of thought I used to deal with that, to keep myself in a functional and resourceful place during that period.
This is how I would talk to myself.
Okay, Cindy is dying. Can I do anything about that? No. What can I control? I can work on keeping myself as calm and loving as I can, so that I can be here for Cindy and help make her last days as comfortable and loving as I can. So, take a deep breath, think of how much you love Cindy, and stay focused on being here for her.
I swear I ran through that train of logic over and over, sometimes several times in a single day, to keep myself going. I did it consciously, methodically and deliberately. It takes effort but it works.
That sort of Stoic response, of paying attention to controlling your own mental state, is very functional and practical. When you are in a situation that you can influence or where things are going well, it will help to keep you in a maximally resourceful state of mind. When you are in a situation you can’t control or where things go wrong, it helps to deal with it in a calm and resourceful way.
I think I want to end this meditation by considering the widely known serenity prayer written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
I do not think this whole issue is a simple matter of fate versus free will. I think it is more fruitful to consider our lives as taking place within a larger context where much is out of our control. Within that larger context we have a certain variable amount of free choice and influence – sometimes more, sometimes less – and sometimes none at all.
I think that is where astrology can be useful – not to tell us what is fated to happen – not to constantly emphasize that we always have a choice of what happens to us – but to give us an overall context within which we can learn to choose wisely, and be at peace with whatever happens.