Reflections on Gestalt Psychotherapy and Hindu Astrology
by Raksha Sidhu
Hindu spirituality in India is steeped in worshipping idols, images and symbols often of a cosmic nature with rituals and prayers. I am now learning that these images and symbols are metaphors for states of consciousness and life processes and rituals are methods of altering these states. One branch of the Hindu system of understanding life processes is Jyotisha or astrology, the study of planetary positions and the forces and constraints and the effects on one’s life.
I have been living in India for the past 3 months. I previously lived in the UK for 15 years, and experienced the vagaries of life there including training and qualifying as a gestalt psychotherapist. Recently my aunty told me she had found relief and acceptance of where she was in her life upon consulting an astrologer. I was sceptical of her claim and also curious what my reading my be if I consulted. As per the pathway of referral in India, my aunty suggested I meet a priest who knew someone she knew, whose son said he knew someone who can give me a reading.
As a Gestalt psychotherapist and having studied existential philosophies, I felt sneakily excited to allow a stranger with no prior knowledge of me to narrate my life processes to me, bequeathing responsibility for my life course, to the extent he would predict. I was also preparing to dismiss anything he said. In this I noticed transference of the authority my parents held in creating a narrative for me when I was a child, one which often did not fit my experience. The astrologer was a man, a patriarch figure, who would use the authority of an ancient Hindu tradition in explaining my circumstances to me.
As requested, I gave the astrologer details of my date, time and place of birth. He set to work, drawing a chart, calculating silently, while I chatted nervously to my mother and the priest’s son who had accompanied us into this consultation. I must mention that my need for and experience of privacy is different in India than it is in the UK, due to the different meanings the concept holds for me in these different contexts. The priest’s son had introduced me to the astrologer as his cousin. While this was not true, and I nearly did what I normally do, which is to jump in with a denial of this seeming lie, I am glad I held back because I then noticed he had said it with a great degree of warmth and care, as a cousin of mine in my fantasy might do. When he thus considered me an intimate other, it seemed most natural to welcome him to join me in this consultation. As for my mother being present, well, that is just good old confluence.
What the astrologer said was disarmingly accurate. It was not a bog standard reading I have heard before such as ‘you will have sons, you will enjoy a long married life etc’, essentially what an Indian woman wants to, or ought to want to hear. He described the good, bad and the ugly to me. It was eerie, hearing him speak of processes I had been struggling with in therapy for nearly a decade, and commenting on force fields outside of me creating obstacles in my social and personal life. What I had explored in London in therapy and Gestalt training, my fear of intimacy, neediness and use of anger, racism and/or misogyny in the UK, the frequently isolative structure of society in UK, and so on and so forth all contributed to my awareness of the challenge of feeling a part of British society. And when the astrologer said what he said, simply that I had wandered and not put down roots for the past decade, I felt a burden lifting off of me, and a sense of, yes, the forces and constraints are big, bigger than the gap between UK and India, bigger than this planet, as huge as this solar system and beyond, resonating with how impenetrable and un-chewable some quandaries had felt to me.
Among other things, he bluntly and dispassionately said, ‘yours is not a superior/auspicious (hard to translate precisely) birth’. As I stepped out of the consultation, again I felt a burden lift off of me, the burden of striving for some state of perfection or an elusive sense of achievement in society, most likely arising from my heritage of being Brahmin and middle class. I no longer need to try so damn hard. But this is not new. I have heard this before in London, in therapy, in groups. But hearing this from a Brahmin astrologer felt different and helped me take off some of the burden and entitlement of being from the Brahmin caste in this society. I remember my most respected Gestalt tutor Jane Puddy say over 5 years ago in a Gestalt group, ‘……to be extraordinarily ordinary’. These words rang true now as it did then. As Carl Hodges said in workshops, I am an event, in these circumstances and under these conditions of forces and constraints. In a Gestalt group, members comment on processes in relation to each other, over time growing an awareness of the dynamic interplay of ever changing forces and constraints. The astrologer was commenting on my process in relation to the interplay of inter-planetary forces and constraints.
A counter argument to my interpretation above, and one I have used myself in the past is that in these consultations, the person receiving the reading will most likely apply their intellect to interpret anything uttered and make meaning of it. I might have done the same. After all, it is not hard for an astrologer to make observations and enunciate universal challenges, such as the need for love, intimacy, emotional fulfilment, support and getting these needs met. If this was the case, then perhaps I simply continue the work I started in the UK, around gender, identity, race, caste and so on.
The priest’s son was alarmed by some of the content of the reading and so he quoted from memory a Sanskrit sloka (verse), which he translated as meaning that particular planetary positions create conditions for us, and if one uses one’s wisdom and discrimination or Viveka, then one might not succumb to these conditions. He gave an example to illustrate. In the room we were in, there might be a 100 Rupee note on the side desk, belonging to the astrologer. A person is alone in that room. She is tempted to pocket the money as there is no witness. She might pocket this money or she can use her discretion to leave it as belonging to the astrologer. The conditions here are of the cash, being alone, and the resultant temptation. Similarly my birth planetary positions and current planetary positions have created certain conditions for me that I might behave in certain ways. However, he continued to explain, I can choose to use my discretion to act based on wisdom, and not succumb to these forces. And so in this manner, we are back to the existential question of, what do I choose to do and who do I choose to be in this particular time, place and situation?
A social scientist might comment on the process of racism in a nation and why a youth of a certain skin shade might be stopped on the street by the police x times more than a youth of another skin shade, and that this process is bigger than the boundaries of the therapy dyad/ group. Similarly, among other world traditions, the Hindu system of explaining processes based on planetary positions might be shining a light on something bigger than the boundaries of interpersonal, societal and inter-national processes. So all I ask of myself and my readers is to not dismiss outright any such system not explained in psychotherapy books as a lot of hocus pocus, just as I might ask of Indians here not to dismiss psychotherapy as a lot of hocus pocus.
Raksha Sidhu is a UKCP Registered Gestalt Psychotherapist.