the numinous and the unreal

i've never been a spiritual person, or a superstitious one, depending on how you see it.

i got into astrology in the later half of 2018, when zodiac bingo cards were exploding across instagram stories, and co-star had just launched, and astrology influencers were posting viral poetry on twitter. obviously my interest was ironic; it was fun and funny to be able to lightly jab a friend for quintessentially scorpio behavior, or read co-star's comically rude push notifications every day.

i didn't believe in it. what, that the movement and relative positions of celestial bodies can be linked to the emotions and experiences of everyone on earth? i had a lot of respect for astrologers who took their work seriously and did it well, but i never bore any serious faith in the literalness of the underpinnings of the work. the one memory i have of going to church a handful of times as an elementary school kid was wreaking minor havoc in the youth bible study group by repeatedly asking questions, skeptical about how exactly the ideology was supposed to operate. i think i was seven at the time.

despite my position on whether astrology was "real," even from the start, the memes and the jokes made it abundantly clear that it was useful. maybe that's how some people view religion. astrological signs created a language for people to talk about their emotions, their insecurities, even their negative traits, openly and without shame. if a meme is a shared cultural reference point, then all the emerging astrology memes meant that there was sufficient cultural understanding to engage in dialogue, using astrology, about certain feelings and behaviors that had previously been unmentionable.

when i said all of that to banu guler, who started co-star, she pointed out that, of course, what i'm saying is exactly what a capricorn would say. in fact, she had just spoken that day to another capricorn who had noted that she did not "believe" in astrology but thought it was a meaningful framework for communication. i learned a few days later that she was talking about amanda mull, and... fair enough, we are the same:

but that, too, is a big piece of what astrology has come to mean to me—a comfort with moving past the question of belief and toward an acceptance of outcome. there have been a lot of terrible thinkpieces about astrology; this one by julie beck isn't one of them:

To understand astrology’s appeal is to get comfortable with paradoxes. It feels simultaneously cosmic and personal; spiritual and logical; ineffable and concrete; real and unreal. It can be a relief, in a time of division, not to have to choose. It can be freeing, in a time that values black and white, ones and zeros, to look for answers in the gray. It can be meaningful to draw lines in the space between moments of time, or the space between pinpricks of light in the night sky, even if you know deep down they’re really light-years apart, and have no connection at all.

in my last semester of college, i took a course called "technology, religion, future," a seminar in the religion department, taught by a buddhist scholar. one of the units of the course was "religious experience and entheogens as religious technology"—in other words, a unit on psychedelics. this class, more than any other that i recall, generated controversy. not because anyone was scandalized that we were discussing schedule i drugs (gasp), but because we were debating whether an acid trip could qualify as an experience of the divine.

one of our readings for discussion was the 2006 study "psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance" led by roland griffiths, who now heads the johns hopkins center for psychedelic and consciousness research. that study reported that "67% of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life," and many of the written responses "judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent."

evidently this implication distressed a lot of people. i might have felt the same way if i hadn't spent the last year living in san francisco. what did it mean to have a drug-fueled experience rank in meaningfulness alongside the birth of your first child? it destabilized a worldview that relied on tangible truths, that which could be observed and explained. and yet at the same time it denied one empirical truth—the scientific fact of all the subjects who had reported these outcomes.

i've read countless accounts of psychedelic experiences now. they are remarkably consistent. alan watts described four characteristics of them in his journal article for the california law review:

  1. a concentration in the present ("one's normally compulsive concern for the future decreases, and one becomes aware of the enormous importance and interest of what is happening at the moment")

  2. an awareness of polarity ("the vivid realization that states, things, and events which we ordinarily call opposite are interdependent")

  3. an awareness of relativity ("the realization that all forms of life and being are simply variations on a single theme... that as all beings are feeling this everywhere, they are all just as much 'i' as myself")

  4. an awareness of eternal energy ("one sees quite clearly that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one's own being... at root, you are the godhead, for god is all there is")

the specifics of people's stories vary dramatically, but they tend to have some combination of these elements—the dissolution of the ego, a deep empathy (not just for others, but for the universe as a whole), a sudden grasp of immediacy. r. gordon wasson's account in the road to eleusis conveys that same numinous quality:

It permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know God. It is hardly surprising that your emotions are profoundly affected, and you feel that an indissoluble bond unites you with the others who have shared with you in the sacred agape. All that you see during this night has a pristine quality: the landscape, the edifices, the carvings, the animals—they look as though they had come straight from the Maker’s workshop. This newness of everything—it is as though the world had just dawned—overwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems to you freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum events of everyday are trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, “Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes.”

it's easy enough to say that that experience isn't real in the way that the death of a parent is real—an external and physical and verifiable event. of course it's not. but faced with the outcomes (the revelations people have had about themselves and about the nature of existence, the subsequent changes that these revelations have produced in them), what does a debate about the scientific validity of the contents of the experience achieve?

one excerpt about mood rings from the book i'm reading right now, reclaiming conversation by sherry turkle, captures the value of exploring reality through the knowingly unreal, as opposed to the authoritatively factual:

Here, the desire to wear a tracking device responds to the same impulse that had nearly everyone in my generation buying a mood ring. The difference is that even though the ring was fun, it had no authority. The new tracking devices come with substantial authority. We develop a view of ourselves (body and mind) that is tied to what measurement tells us.

when astrology startups started getting vc funding and widespread traction, a lot of people in tech (unsurprisingly, mostly white men) were outraged. dismissing the voices of marginalized groups that had found value in astrology, they panned it as unscientific, a scam preying on poorer and less educated people. they compared co-star's horoscopes to anti-vaxxer disinformation and, memorably, payday loans. implicit in this critique was the assumption that science is synonymous with truth.

but in the realm of emotional truths, how useful is science? as someone who subscribed to the cult of the quantified self, i've spent a lot of time on apps like gyroscope. the mood-tracking tools in that world are certainly "scientific," in that they'll show a numerical score based on measured and self-reported factors like mood, sleep, diet, exercise, etc. but what is the outcome? do all these data points aggregate to some meaningful truth? can a mood score guide me in exploring my thoughts and feelings more deeply? i don't think it can.

turkle expresses similar doubts, from a psychoanalytic perspective:

Instead of taking the computer as the model for a person, the quantified self goes directly to people and asks each of us to treat ourselves as though we were computational objects, subject to a printout of our ever more knowable states. The psychoanalytic self looks to history as it leaves traces in language; the algorithmic self to what it can track as data points in a time series.

astrology, and later tarot after i developed interest in it, spoke to this concept of the psychoanalytic self. if a horoscope or a tarot reading didn't ring true, so it goes. but it was rare that there wasn't at least some piece of it that struck me and made me think more about what i wanted, or why i was feeling a certain way, or whether i was making the right choice.

skeptics would argue that that's because the messages are intentionally crafted to be vague, to mask their meaninglessness with generalities. my counter would be that what they're identifying as vagueness is, in fact, universality. analyzing my life against the universal themes that arose from these mediums allowed me to explore my own psyche and uncover my own truths. even discarding a suggestion that missed the mark could be a part of the process of coming to understand a deeper truth about myself. this space for a kind of wandering, nonlinear, qualitative self-discovery, leading toward a richer self-knowledge, doesn't exist, at least yet, in the world of the quantified self.

there's a concept of unreality that emerged in 2016 out of futures think tank wunderman thompson, connecting cosmology, consciousness-altering drugs, virtual reality, surrealism, and magic in our contemporary landscape:

We live in a state of hyperreality. As we navigate through the stress and mundanity of our everyday existence and parallel online lives, we are increasingly turning to unreality as a form of escape and a way to search for other kinds of freedom, truth and meaning. What emerges is an appreciation for magic and spirituality, the knowingly unreal, and the intangible aspects of our lives that defy big data and the ultratransparency of the web.

the knowingly unreal isn't definitive; it can have no authority in and of itself. but it can express the ineffable and create space for truths that can't be described by the hyperreal. in these times, as the world around us shapes us in less and less predictable ways, i think we need that.

my horoscope

boredom transforming transcendence

you have a desire to expand your social life. this part of yourself will transform into something else. you will have to deal with your need for growth replacing your true calling to transcend the mundane. let yourself lose control. don't worry about impressing anyone else. challenge yourself to become the person you want to become. stretch, and be ready to fail.

this transformative situation will see its beginnings in friendships. keep an eye on your relationships with acquaintances and friends.

this situation will impact your resourcefulness, influence your work or relationships, and bring people back into your life. is it possible for you to be happy doing this kind of work? or does it suck your soul out in a way that doesn't leave you time to do anything else?

as a result of this situation, part of your personality will change and be replaced with something new.

identity enhancing action

it's been difficult for you to pay attention to things other than your day-to-day. you will have a bit of luck relating to your natural drive for action.

this happy coincidence will see its beginnings in significant relationships where they meet with your day-to-day. this luck might relate to a creative partnership or a shared daily routine.

this will not be a stressful situation.

communications causing disempowerment

you've been analyzing your romantic or creative life. there will be frustrations in the deepest part of your psyche. these frustrations will see their beginnings in the new ideas you've been craving along with circumstances surrounding the ways you find joy. beware of difficulties relating to a book you want to read.

these delays will force you into new modes of action—but only after several attempts to proceed in the old direction. stay determined, focus on what you want, and you will be able to keep moving forward.

my tarot reading

past: princess of swords

inquisitive, verbose, lively. sparks fly high, with a twinkle in your eye. there are a million ideas floating around in your head, and you can't wait to tell anyone and everyone about them! combusting with excitement, your creativity and brilliance cannot be contained. the princess of swords urges to put your ideas into action and to go for it. young, idealistic truth seeker, you have a gift for gab that has the ability to translate effectively to others. writing and speaking come easily to you, which will aid you when it comes time to spread your ideas and message. with a thirst to learn, you constantly ask questions and want to know the "why" of how things work. your high energy and curiosity are endless and feed off of your willingness to find the answers. with time comes experience, and the more you go after what you want, the more wisdom and experience there is to gain.

present: death

change, ending, rebirth. no, you are not going to die—that's just a common misconception of the death card. death indicates an end of an aspect of your life, which can range from a job to a relationship. death must occur in order for you to have a new beginning, shifting you forward into a transition period of rebirth and renewal. the cycle of death is quite natural, and can be seen in nature transforming throughout the different seasons. like nature, you are also going through a transformation that will be of great significance. change is coming, sweeping the past to the side so that you can embrace the opportunities of the future. clear the clutter and let go of what is not serving you in order to make room for new life. when one door closes, another one opens. there is no life without death.

future: seven of wands

attack, challenge, stand ground. "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take," said wayne gretzky. this is about going after what you want, playing both offense and defense. you've gotten this far on your own, and now it's about sustaining your success and maintaining your reputation. you may be clouded with thoughts like "am i good enough to be here" and experiencing imposter syndrome. stop it. remember who you are, review all your previous accomplishments, and know that you got to where you are for a reason. fight with integrity and honor when you face your challenges. stand your ground when necessary and don't back down. persevere through this challenge, like you have in the past. not everybody will like you, but they will respect you for standing up for yourself.

reason: three of pentacles

teamwork, collaboration, synergy. teamwork makes the dream work! the seeds of your ideas are taking root as you make the moves to grow and expand. collaboration with like-minded souls is a must for inspired success. everyone offers their different skills to the table, which makes the project even better. there is synergy among all of you, together working toward your common goal of creating amazing and meaningful work. build a team with those who have talents that would complement yours, for example, like finding an analytical person to partner with an artistic person. the yin and yang of your combined strengths and weaknesses will allow learning and growth from each other to create a trinity effect. as the beatles said, "i get by with a little help from my friends.”

potential: six of swords

transition, migration, letting go. times change with the rise of the tide, and right now you are doing your best to stay afloat! change is not always easy, but this is a necessary transition in your life. you are braving troubled waters to catch bigger fish in the sea. new and strange environments may leave you feeling adrift, especially without your core humans and the comfort of your home. just know that you can always come home to yourself when you start to feel overwhelmed. leaving home base allows you to grow and expand in unexpected ways! opportunities were limited in the past, and you ventured off to new territory to better your future. new land means a new perspective, as environment shapes us into who we are. ride the waves—it's easier to go with the flow than resist the pull.

i have no idea why i decided to write this post because i was working on another one. but here we are, a few thousand words later. can’t wait to be canceled by both astrologers and astrology skeptics. the pen wants what the pen wants?

responses are my single favorite part about sharing to this newsletter, so if anything sparks a thought for you, i would love to hear it.