The Peer Group Process
A Human Dimension to the Profession of Astrology
(Published in the July 2011 edition of The Mountain Astrologer)
I came back from the seventh OPA retreat in Asilomar, California hopeful. The first reason for my optimism was that I experienced the community of astrologers in a different light. Professionals and amateurs alike were truly interacting in meaningful ways; it was not solely about delivering a presentation and then going back to one’s own personal business. Rather, it was a very creative mode of learning where astrological knowledge was presented through multiple mediums. Workshops included creative writing, spiritual development, and counseling training. But more than anything, despite the large numbers, it felt like family, warm and intimate. Of all Astrology organizations, it seemed OPA had a very unique message and truly unique programs.
I first met Bob Mulligan, the founder of OPA, around 2003 when I was very much a newbie to the American astrology community. During our brief occasional exchanges, I gathered that he was leading the organization and though I was really appreciative of the person himself, his generous character, and beautiful vision, belonging to any group was the last thing on my mind. My Aries MC was perfectly happy going solo and enjoying its creative freedom. So when Bob asked me to lead a group during one of the OPA retreats, my response was to politely decline.
Among other activities, leading a group at OPA retreats also means that the astrologer participates in an additional retreat with group leaders only, where interactive work is conducted. In these preliminary retreats, professionals meet to discuss the profession of astrology, and in this context, they also explore each other’s methods of work and approaches to provide feedback. To me, the idea of having someone comment on my work felt like an intellectual intrusion—generally, I was weary of other people’s judgments or having to justify my odd points of view, and so my instinctive inclination was to shy away from being “analyzed”…Bob must have a well polished Mars, because he kept trying me…or was it that I was too polite in my refusal? It took a few years, he caught me at the right moment and I agreed to do it. Since I have in recent years become more focused on strengthening community consciousness, it seemed that my defensive approach was losing relevance and I felt it would be a good challenge either way to defy my fear of having “critical eyes” “analyze” my work.
The retreat among group leaders took place in June 2010 in the spacious house of another OPA group leader Arlan Wise, located in the beautiful setting of Martha’s Vineyard. Other participants knew each other well from previous gatherings and I was the only newcomer. Ten of us were to spend about five days together and explore the intimate reality of our personal “behind the scenes” life as professional astrologers.
Following the day of arrival, our first meeting took place where everyone was introduced and welcomed. Sharing began about the current reality of astrology as a profession, our experiences, and general state of affair. Clearly, we all came from different worlds and had distinct experiences; nevertheless the group exchange explicitly reinforced that we were there to support each other and promote astrology as a profession. Bob spoke of the vision of OPA as an organization, describing how he began his professional path feeling a tremendous lack of support and he established this organization to correct that. OPA was created to help astrologers enhance their practice, and to raise the overall quality of their work, with a focus on improving the counselor to client interaction.
During the course of the retreat we split into groups of three and four for peer supervision work. Each one was to analyze the chart of another group member, and then each one was invited to share an episode where they had experienced a challenge of some sort with a client. The smaller group size had for purpose to strengthen the intimacy and confidentiality of the exchange. I suddenly realized that I had not had my chart read by another professional for years. It was both a treat and revelatory: seeing how someone else reads the symbols and configurations that were so familiar to me in quite a different, and yet absolutely pertinent way.
The reading I provided was well received and drew compliments—the exercise was obviously not about criticism of each other’s way, but about learning about our work, about astrology, in an experiential way. Subsequently delving into the challenges of our personal practice by sharing difficulties encountered with clients was yet another step in this direction. We closed the retreat with a reflection and discussion of our future goals and business plans. The space created allowed us to share our vision in a spirit of brotherhood, encouraged in our individual path.
I returned to my life after a boat, car, and plane ride and reflected on the impact the retreat: group association was not that dangerous. It emphasized what I was increasingly realizing in my own reality that community is vital, particularly in a world where support systems are an endangered species. Individual initiatives such as Bob’s vision of creating OPA counterbalance growing cynicism and isolation. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, I was inspired!
The second leg of the retreat took place in October 2010 in Asilomar, on the north coast of California—another beautiful setting bordering a different ocean this time and populated by the most amazing Cyprus trees. During this section, group leaders would actually meet their groups. Ten workshops were offered to participants who had pre-registered in a specific one. The themes of the workshops were widely varied, from practical chart delineation to creative expression: for example Forecasting with Sandra Leigh Serio, or How to Develop a Successful Practice with Bob Mulligan, Creative Writing by Arlan Wise, and Mundane Astrology with Chris McRae. Among the ten groups, a beginner’s workshop was also offered by Ani Bettati who had the significant task to introduce newcomers to the rich world of astrology.
The Asilomar retreat differed in format; following introductions and welcoming messages by OPA’s president Alexandra Karacostas, a panel of five astrologers, led by Monica Dimino, were invited to discuss the concept: “Fate, the Elephant in the Room,” in the context of astrology and beyond. Myself, Monica, Glenn Perry, Sandra Leigh Serio, and Bob Mulligan interacted (as civilly as possible) along with the audience that reflected and responded to the emerging perspectives.
“Is a Scorpio fated to act as a Scorpio?” proposed Monica. Truly, I never thought about it that way; usually we think of fate as predestined events directing us in a particular way in life, but this question (or rather insight, since yes, I can confirm that a Scorpio is fated to act as a Scorpio!) brought another layer to the experience of fate—we are fated to live by our chart. Astrologers with a more growth-oriented approach, myself included, were quick to insert the polarity of free-will to the equation…For this purpose, I screened the chart of a famous figure without revealing his identity and asked people to analyze the chart configurations: The person had a Mars-Venus conjunction in Scorpio in the first house opposing Pluto and Jupiter in Taurus in the seventh house. Among other signatures, this angular configuration clearly described a fiercely defensive attitude, consumed by existential insecurities, and therefore well inclined to power-struggles in relationships and beyond—the chart described a person with potential rage who was prone to reactive outbursts, ruptures, or even violence. I later revealed that this was Mohandas Gandhi‘s chart (October 2nd 1869, 7:11am Porbander, India). The obvious point of this exercise was to demonstrate that despite our fated association with chart patterns, it seems we have the choice, or free-will, to manifest the potential of the chart on higher or lower levels of expression. In the abovementioned example, Gandhi’s higher evolutionary consciousness allowed him to use the rage and confrontational qualities reflected in his chart signature toward the noble cause of activism, change, and revolution rather than manifest a negative potential. Another argument to counterbalance fate was made in displaying the January 2010 Time magazine cover titled: “Why isn’t DNA your destiny?” This article was describing how DNA can be altered after birth, thus showing that our fate (DNA coding) is not invariably set in stone.
The conversation and exchange was fascinating; it was discussed in intelligent ways and while “fate enthusiasts” polarized “free-will enthusiasts”, we were able to go deep and come up with new realizations. One that remains with me is that, “when it all comes down to truth, fate is joy!”
Short Talks and Workshop Tracks
During the following three days, the mornings began with everyone meeting in the main conference room and hearing three consecutive short presentations about different astrology related topics: in “Technology and Astrology,” by Ron Archer discussed the benefits of internet use to promote astrological services. Ron was concise and provided accessible tools for setting up a website. Glenn Perry discussed the limitations intrinsic to dignities and debilities in astrology, offering a more growth oriented approach to planetary placements and reminding us of the problematic effects of determinism when associating configurations with systematic “dignity” or “detriment” attributes. Arlan Wise spoke of dating on the internet…unexpected and fun…astrology on the lighter side.
Immersed by then into astrological consciousness, participants were subsequently invited to join their chosen group and begin the more intensive learning process. Group size varied from two to ten students. These different tracks allowed for more in-depth learning in a more intimate setting. Five hours of study a day for three days guaranteed each one would come out with more than just tidbits. The underlying motivation of each track was not only to share knowledge and train students, but also to support aspiring astrologers to raise their standards of practice and gain tools to eventually establish and or expand their practice. Along with the material covered, time was also dedicated to chart analysis and counselor/client dynamics. Some groups also got into the intricacies of the business of astrology, what it requires, and how to solidify it.
The theme of my track was “The Spiritual Dimension of a Chart,” exploring the spiritual principles behind astrological configurations—in other words, how the mundane and casual expression of our chart actually relies on deeper truth and timeless concepts. For example, if we refer to Virgo as the sign representing ‘work,’ we would explore the spiritual meaning of work, and how beyond the mundane application of having a job, work actually means that all beings must actively participate in the process of life and work on themselves—divine providence is not to be taken for granted and nothing is truly free from labor in existence.
What was very unique to OPA was that group leaders would meet after sessions to discuss the unfolding of the workshops together. Each one was sharing experiences, needs, and concerns, and suggestions were made by everyone. For example, a discussion arose around the fact that a participant wanted to leave a group and change tracks. This brought thoughts about the established notion that given the intimate atmosphere created by each group, it was not encouraged to have people join other group in the middle of course. Could compromises and exceptions be made? Group leaders felt included in the decision-making process, rendering OPA’s leadership more democratic and the overall experience more communal and inclusive.
The following days, the morning short talks covered: Astrology and Yoga, Psychology and Astrology, Introduction to Evolutionary Astrology, The Transiting Nodes, and a highly inspiring Astrology’s Vision of the Future by none other than Aquarian Chris McRae.
Once charged with new insight, connections, and the confidence to take astrology forward, everyone gathered in the main conference room where each group in turn took to the stage to share their personal retreat experiences. The festive atmosphere was heart-warming—it seems that the retreat provided a space for everyone to go through a process and emerged renewed, for the vast majority clearly richer than before. The 2010 OPA retreat was a definite success and a highlight.
Perhaps the need for stronger peer work and community exchange is not exclusive to the field of astrology, but my previous experience is that the astrology world is often in particular shortage. Delving into the mysteries of the stars and cosmic patterns inevitably draws individuals who are seekers by nature—astrologers do not settle for the material dimension only; they usually have a spiritual edge of some kind or another. Yet, the field of astrology is vast and often abstract, and its richness is not always well handled. Creative thinking engenders individuality, giving birth to a wide variety of approaches and interpretations. In short, astrologers can easily be divided, and while division exists in practically every field of practice, perhaps because we are delving into a higher consciousness dimension with astrology, we also have the opportunity to act in more enlightened ways, and make more significant effort to see beyond the immediacy of our cherished points of view—that is, without losing our individuality or giving in to fanciful and ungrounded methods of practice. In other words, we have the potential to aspire as astrologers to create a more cooperative and supportive community.
I was inspired because OPA moved in that direction and invited cooperation among professionals and amateurs. Its format inevitably broke through our defenses and did so in ways that were safe and respectful. I saw a similar effort in the 2007Blast conference organized in Sedona by Moses Siregar, where a very focused effort was made to bring the east, west, north, and south of astrology orientations together—practically all disciplines were represented, and what made it unique was that it was a one track presentation format, so everyone was exposed to what others had to say. At first, every group kept to themselves, forming little group of “traditionals,” “vedics,” or “evolutionists” just like stars grouping to form constellations, but dialogue ensued and the division became less.
Another OPA retreat virtue is the different format of learning, moving from a larger gathering to more intimate groups, short sessions versus intensive group immersion, panels versus lecture formats. I personally see the combination of approaches as essential to the learning process and when I came myself to organize an astrology conference, The River of Stars, in January 2011, I emphasized the multi-dimensional learning process: from academic presentations, to movement-based experiential learning, including direct experience of star gazing. What is inspiring is to see astrology growing to new heights not only in content and new discoveries, but also on a human level. These new conference formats reflect where we should all go as humans: a place of support, creativity, and multi-dimensionality, without compromise on rigor and quality. Looking forward to the November 2011 OPA retreat in South Carolina, I reiterate, I am hopeful!