How Could It Possibly Work?

How Could It Possibly Work?

I’VE BEEN HEARING this question a lot lately: “Do you really believe in astrology?”

I spend a lot of time writing horoscope columns in cafes, and a laptop screen is easy to see. When I’m working, there’s a big horoscope chart displayed on one side, and the list of signs on the other, and I’m typing away filling in the blanks; it’s fairly obvious what’s going on.

Since most people have never met a horoscope writer, I become the place they can unload the burning question.

Of course, there are the people who start a discussion by telling me their mother is an astrologer (just an amateur, but for 20 years; I hear this about once a week), or asking “What’s up for Sagittariuis right now?” I go through quite a lot of business cards this way, and anyone I meet in a cafe or at a party gets a comp subscription to Planet Waves Weekly, if they’re vaguely interested.

For the skeptics who finally get to ask the thing they’ve always been wondering, I have two typical answers, one more polite than the other. It depends on their attitude. One is, “Do you really mean, am I a fraud, lying to people about their lives?” The other is, “That’s a strange question. Would you walk up to a carpenter and ask him if he believes in his hammer?”

Belief is pretty flimsy, and it can change in a moment, but unfortunately, it has a lot of power. Yet just like a painter does not quite “believe in” his or her paintbrushes, I don’t believe in astrology; but I use it, as effectively as I can. Of course belief is operating on some level of my mind, but that belief would not be there had I not seen astrology demonstrated so effectively, and began my studies as inquiry as to how it works, not whether it works. In the years I was wondering, I never bothered with the stuff, or used it as metaphors in poems. When it became too obvious to deny, I began my investigation.

Anyway, most people, enjoying a rare bit of philosophical discourse, will then refine the question. They will say something like, “When you write horoscope columns, are you just making it up?”

Followed by, “What I mean is, how can one horoscope be true for one-twelfth of the population?”

Better questions. But two very different questions.

My answer to the first is yes, I just make them up. This is because all writing is just made up; writing is a made-up impression conveyed by one person to another. In the Planet Waves Terms of Service, I describe astrology as form of “personally applicable mythical fiction.” Does that sound like a wiseass statement? It’s as basic and clear as I can sum it up.

Most horoscope columns, including my own, are based on data. This data comes from astrological charts and the planetary ephemeris. All horoscope columns are also interpretive; that is, there’s no definitive explanation for an astrological aspect, but rather, each astrologer sees different meaning in the data, expresses it their own way, and puts it to work for their readers.

What most people don’t recognize that any statement made from data is interpretive, particularly when we state what any data means. The weather report is a great example; it’s an interpretation, and it’s speculative; we watch the weather and hope for the best (no, I don’t believe in the weather report). When medical science says a drug is safe, that’s an interpretation; the word “safe” has a specific meaning, with conditions that we usually don’t know. In this respect, astrology is no different than any other kind of statistical interpretation.

Many astrologers draw from similar traditions, and we educate one another, and we do notice that certain aspects seem to have certain qualities. This helps explain why all horoscope columns are different, but also why they sometimes touch on similar themes the same day (always fun). Writers are different as well, and each will develop style, a philosophy and a readership that relates to what they say and how they say it. This is a social phenomenon, not necessarily so mystical.

I like the second question better, specifically because I can use the topic to completely unravel anyone’s belief in astrology, and hopefully get the discussion onto more solid footing. “How can one horoscope be true for one-twelfth of the population?”

Let’s presume that astrology does not work. That is, that it doesn’t matter to Libras that Venus is passing through their sign, or that there’s an eclipse coming up; it’s just a planet going by. Saturn in Leo is the same as Saturn in Cancer, it’s just a little further to the left and that does not mean anything to people, or their cats or dogs. Let’s pretend there’s no effect on the human or critter realms, just like official skeptics claim. Forget the fact that people get wiggy around the Full Moon, or that more earthquakes happen, or that our bodies are affected by gravitational forces or that every bit of energy or matter affects every other, as quantum physicists know well. Let’s forget that there’s plenty we don’t know about how lots of things work.

Let’s look at astrology as strictly a social construction. The stuff has been around for a long time, and most people have noticed its existence. Most people know their astrological sign (called the Sun sign), and have a relationship to it; they will either identify with the traits or not; most people who can read have done some investigating, even if it was for 45 seconds in a book shop, or in The New York Post.

Independently of the planets and whatever effect they may have, astrology exists as a bunch of ideas that we share and exchange.

The first thing I ever knew about astrology was that my little brother Justin was born under the sign of Leo, the Lion. I remember my grandmother saying that with authority, and my brother repeating it, with the approximate tone of, Leo, the Lion. Got it? He may have been born under the sign Leo, and that may mean something from a cosmic perspective, but he was told this, and he got some ideas about what it meant. It’s difficult to miss the symbolism of a lion.

And by the way, they told me I was a Pisces. That’s a fish, or two fish. Nobody really seemed to know what that meant, and it was clearly less important than Leo the Lion, and for some reason I did not like going in the water, and when I was a kid, I had this idea that I could not swim. That was not very fish-like. It was not something I could brag about, or let out a big roar and pull some rank. I was never in charge of all the little kids in the neighborhood, like my Leo Sun/Moon brother. So I was not outwardly demonstrating my sign’s characteristics.

But my aunt was a Pisces and we seemed to have a lot in common. We had the same sense of humor and were both a little odd. (We all hear the stories of the families where every woman is a Sagittarius, half of them have the same birthday, and all the guys seem to be Taurus.)

In this way, many people are indoctrinated into astrology even in places where nobody really believes in the stuff, or cares about it. Astrology is just there. That is a fact; whatever it is, it’s there, like Shakespeare on the bookshelf and the big tree out in the garden and the airport down the expressway. But it’s much more intimately related to our inner lives because it’s supposed to be about us, whether we like it or not. This completely gets around the whole issue of belief; it’s a phenomenon, and one that nobody can really explain, but there it is.

As people become adults, they tend, to a greater or lesser degree, to relate (or not relate to) the properties of their sign. Some will view themselves atypical of their sign but still know that heart they’re truly an Aquarius at heart — so the meaning is often deeply personal, and part of one’s personal myth. Some will notice that famous people they relate to are born under one sign or another. None of this requires the involvement of planets or anything celestial. It’s completely cultural, and involves the relationship of people to the symbols in the world around us. (But why your friend Judy has had seven Scorpio boyfriends before marrying the eighth is always a mystery.)

Along come astrologers. They study books and charts and mostly humanity, and some start to make sense of the whole phenomenon on a level that may make no sense to anyone else. They use and develop this weird language for what they see, they scribble in hieroglyphics in their notebook and appointment diary, and start to sort things out a little. And when they write their columns, they are writing directly into a pre-existing set of ideas that people have about who they are and how they relate to their astrological sign. Some are better writers than others; some writers are good at presenting ideas that people can relate to or identify with. This is true of all kinds of writing.

I think of a horoscope column as a meeting place. It’s a space where I share an idea and a certain number of people show up intentionally looking for that idea. That each entry only addresses one-twelfth off the population is pretty refined. What else do you know of that’s divided by 12? A bowling alley? We tend to divide things into twos in our culture — men or women; gay or straight; adult or child; educated or not; rich or poor; smart or dumb; fancy or plain; party or chill; Coke or Pepsi; night or day. As my friend Be’jamin says, there are two kinds of people — those who drink water, and those who don’t.

Based on the alleged 12 basic personality types, or soul types (as you prefer), horoscope astrologers make their statements. And then people come there in good faith, or just a little curious, looking for a message that might help them or make them feel better or explain why their day is going the way it is. If it works, it works. If not, most people move on. But often what happens is a relationship develops between a reader and a writer. That, too, is a social construction. People who identify themselves as a particular sign will keep looking at what they find under that sign’s horoscope, and a subtle kind of trust is built; an understanding.

Maybe one day the writer will say something that’s reassuring, and it will just happen to work out “by coincidence” that the reader needs to hear that in a specific way that the writer touched upon. Maybe there will be a mention of something earlier in the week that manifests later in the week. Maybe a theme in the column will match someone’s experience of life. That keeps people coming back, and they do keep coming back. Maybe what the writer says just seems to make sense, or seems intelligent, and that’s enough.

Most people will take what they read and apply it creatively to their personal situation — which is exactly what most horoscope writers are hoping you’ll do. Just like they are interpreting something, the intention is that you then take that interpretation and apply it to your life. In the end, horoscope columns work because you say they do. They are meaningful because you say they are meaningful.

A good Sun-sign horoscope presents the reader with enough specifics to connect with reference points in life, but is also open-ended enough to allow an individual to apply it. Everyone brings different experiences and material to reading the ideas in the horoscope. This is not so strange; we do this with everything we encounter, from a ball game to an opera to a person. Personal meaning is a personal matter. Nobody else can make something meaningful for you. In this respect, it does not matter whether astrology works; what matters is whether you find what you read in an astrology column to be personally relevant.

I’m suggesting here that what we call reality is not so hard-and-fast as we might think, but is comprised of a multitude of symbols, which are subject to interpretation. Your boss, your lover, the clothes you wear, what you think about your kids, what you think of when you see the hot dog guy on Fifth Avenue, all of these things are symbolic and interpretive in nature. What we live with from day-to-day is more about the interpretation than the reality. Horoscopes present us another way of looking at life, no more “true” or “false” in the objective sense than any other way of looking at life. Of course, when you get the feeling that a horoscope writer is tapping your phone, that is interesting.

If horoscope columns were a complete failure, the discussion about how they work, or whether they work, would not happen. You don’t see people debating whether pigs can fly. Horoscopes would cease to be meaningful, or even cease to exist, if they did not work. That so many millions of people find them in some way entertaining or useful, and that nearly everything in print has one, is a comment. Maybe it’s a comment on how clueless we are.

But none of this has anything to do with they are scientifically or objectively true. It’s only recently that science came along and plastered the idea of provable objective truth onto our minds, be it about astrology or anything else. Very few astrologers care about objective truth in their work; most are happy to be subjective, a little opinionated, and to keep it personal. And like a carpenter, they pick up their tools and work with them every day. If you like what astrologers build with their tools, you’re invited to share in their craft.

That’s not so mysterious, is it? ++


Planet Waves by Eric Francis
Aug. 26, 2005 — Weekly Horoscope 573

Happy Birthday, Virgo!

YOU RUN THE RISK of missing the point of how good your life is if you don’t step firmly into your own existence. This is not as hard as it seems, if you’ll only unplug the various denial mechanisms that so often overwhelm you. Please, identify them and know when they are talking, and ask different voices to guide your way through the this lifetime on the Earth.

Virgo (among other things) is the sign of the Perfect World Incarnate; it’s also the archetype of the Goddess (you might say human perfection, in one of its forms). When that energy is turned inward, the result can be a mighty struggle with self-criticism, as neither humans nor the world we live in are perfect. Indeed, we all live in a fairly well chaotic experience much of the time, and the world around us is struggling for any sense of reason or order.

Yet there is something perfect about your life right now, if you will perceive it that way — and you can. Maybe you have perfect potential or maybe it’s a perfect opportunity; maybe it’s just the resources you need, or maybe it’s an idea. Maybe it’s the way you’ve turned so many corners you’re nowhere near your old, difficult neighborhoods and you can finally be a little more free.

Perhaps it’s that you’re starting to identify yourself as pure energy, not a bunch of ideas, or worse, conflicting ideas. In any case, there is something very right going on; you are in possession of something, and I think you know it; and if you will shift your identity to that something, that quality, that sense of growing inner reality, you will begin to relate to that more than anything else; and this, my friend, would be very helpful. You will be happier.

Because so far as I can tell, all your struggles with self-judgment really got you nowhere, and did not win anyone’s approval, much less your own.

Approving of yourself is about just that. And if you can do that, you will see that the resources you have are yours to apply to your life, to your objectives, to your personal affairs, and to the world around you.

Once you’ve made sure your own needs are taken care of, and by that, I mean emotional needs, basic comfort, sane work, and taking care of your health, you can take another step. You can acknowledge yourself by offering who and what you are as a gift to the people with whom you’re most intimate. You just do it; don’t wait for permission, and don’t expect approval. You would simply live as if life is yours to live, and give from yourself as if what you have is truly your own. This is a presumption, and I am encouraging you to make that presumption. If you don’t, you may never know what you have to offer. And when you find out you will have a rather big clue to who you are.

What happens, or what can happen, this year is something rather different than the past two or three. Your energy then was set up such that you needed a lot of stimulus from the outside, which arrived in the form of people and situations designed to wake you up, shake you up, and set an example of what was possible. And you got it. You may, at first, have resented the shocks to your orderly system of arranging the linens, not realizing that what was really being taken apart was your orderly system of thinking of yourself as something other than a free being.

Having endured more than two years of high-voltage energy input, you have accumulated some of your own, of an entirely new variety than you’ve ever been used to. More than any other result, you are able to admit some authentic love for yourself. As I have said before, in our demented world love is is based on trust, and the trust for yourself that you’ve gained is no small thing — rather it is the heart of the matter, and the greatest gift you have to offer yourself and the world.

Aries (March 20-April 19)
It is true that some people are a lot more in touch with themselves than you are with yourself. But you don’t need to feel left out over that, when you can commit yourself to learning from the rather influential and high-vibration people around you. The deep growth and learning associated with this time of your life in no way needs to obscure the pleasure and sense of freedom you are encountering at the same time. In fact, they are part of the same process, because what you need to learn the most is to allow yourself the pleasure and fulfillment you’ve needed for so long.

Taurus (April 19-May 20)
The high drama being played out in your life is a struggle between the mental and the physical. You seem able to escape neither, though if you feel carefully, you will notice that all you’re experiencing would be entirely meaningless and indeed impossible without a body. That should settle the discussion, but I doubt it will be so simple. Therefore, the best you can do is let yourself be moved by that which moves you. This is to say, allow yourself to be taken over by whatever influence is most compelling, and don’t hold yourself back. You have nothing to deny, or to deny yourself.

Gemini (May 20-June 21)
The past is not nearly as compelling a force as you may have believed, and this includes all the injustices, errors and unfulfilled promises that have influenced you for so long. The difference between living in the present and living in a bunch of ideas about your life, all of which have their origins in the past, is all the difference in the galaxy. So put your feet on the Earth and start this next, deeply meaningful quest for life, love and freedom exactly where you are right now. If you look, you’ll see — you’ve got everything you need and a lot more.

Cancer (June 21-July 22)
The great virtue of your life is your sense of place; it’s the wellspring of all your resources. This has become so refined that you can hardly be in the wrong place and you can make the most of wherever you are. What happens next will prove to you beyond any doubt that your life is indeed blessed. This is true in the current moment and in the current place. The particular challenge is making the most of where you’re at from an opportunistic standpoint, but without sacrificing a drop of the pleasure that life is affording you. Such would be a bold personal success, but you’re more than ready.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23)
You seem to be the beneficiary of experience and wisdom far beyond your years. This would count even if you were 112. Put this experience and wisdom to work, please, because planetary alignments like the one that you have now don’t show up very often. The “missing piece,” if there is one, really isn’t so missing at all: it’s the political skill to create your life in a way that will benefit both you and everyone else as if there were no distinction. This is the ultimate spiritual lesson; that interests are not separate, and that what is truly good is good for all. All your natural inclinations go this way. Finally the world is ready.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22)
There is no sign of the zodiac with a more self-critical energy than Virgo, in any form that it takes. What you may not realize is the extent to which this shapes your entire experience of life; the extent to which it constructs the world in which you live. You have no reason whatever to be critical of yourself right now, and your mental environment has rarely been more permissive of forgiving yourself for anything and everything. By all rights there should be very little in your life for which you need to blame anyone at all. The moment you open up and let the love out of your heart, it will start to come back in. Please, forget the idea of this, and just try it.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23)
The more open to good fortune you are, the more it will rush into your life, even as you watch in amazement. Most of this involves you coming to a true and vivid realization that you exist for little reason other than to share love, wisdom and blessing, and to receive all the benefits from doing that. If you feel trapped by doing so, search your mind and history carefully for the source of that trap. There may indeed be some event or belief that leads you to think you are not safe being your most beautiful self, and if you can feel that belief working, you can also let it go.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22)
I dare to say that the experience of cosmic love is obscured by people wondering what kind of car they’re going to buy next, or how they’re going to pay the electric bill, or the grievances they hold against people. You have walked all those roads. You have seen how pointless they are. In these days, you are being summoned to a truly higher calling: to demonstrate to people that there is more to life and more to love than they ever considered. There are truly no limits to your ability to spread this message, to give this gift, and in so doing, to provide fresh water for a very thirsty world.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22)
Events of the coming few days will have a surreal quality, and are likely to challenge every negative belief you ever held about life. Not that there were many. More accurately, you’re likely to have two things confirmed: one is the exact, even fussy precision with which you’ve set your priorities, intentions and desires. The other is your insistence on optimism regarding how they will develop, even against all odds. What may surprise you is the source of the results, but there’s nothing weird about karma. What you put out, you get back, sometimes in grand style.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20)
Move swiftly to expand the benefits of what you’re about to receive to as many people as possible; the message must be clear that when your life improves, that is good for everyone. You are the one who needs to hear that message most clearly of all. This is true whether the gifts have come in the form of love, of work, of opportunity. We in Western civilization are far beyond the time when ambition or aspiration can be considered as an individual matter. Either life gets better for all of us, or it does not get better at all. And make no mistake: you’ve got something truly special going on.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19)
Creative breakthroughs happen, and it would appear that one is happening to you. This will hold true whether you’re a tap dancer or software tester. But I suggest you push the extraordinarily beautiful quality of the moment into the aspects of your life where you want and need it the most; the places that have been the most lacking in recent years; the places you thought were impossible. I speak in the plural; there is no shortage of love, of passion, ideas, creative juju or erotic energy, so I suggest you direct any/all of them exactly where you desire. Just know your desires and don’t leave any out.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20)
As a former guilt-riddled Pisces, I can empathize with how difficult the feeling of deserving anything really is. Pisces’ usual trip of “wanting it all” is just a thin cover for feeling like nothing is really yours. All you need to do to disprove this whole philosophy is to place yourself in a position to receive, and where you will approve of yourself for doing so. I remind you that by your gain, nobody loses. I remind you of all the times in the past when a slight revision of your state of mind, or shift in viewpoint, made an enormous difference, and the natural abundance of life rained down on you. Such is the story of your life now, if you say so.

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