Published in Astrology Considerations, February 2006
All of us who read charts have at some point been spooked by transits of Mars. It is perhaps the most closely watched and most cursorily interpreted planet in transit astrology. Not known for subtlety, Mars’ transits can be a revelation when they trigger more inscrutable underlying chart patterns, because with Mars something usually happens; something that we can point to. But considered alone, the very obviousness of Mars tempts us to remain on the level of symptom rather than meaning.Mars’ deeper significance is as available as any other planet’s; but with Mars it is easier to miss. More likely than any other celestial indicator to coincide with actual events, Mars is notorious for setting off happenings and signifying outside forces. The stage set for Mars’ action is often material reality, where most of our attention is focused most of the time. Mars appeals to our identification with the earth-plane, teaching its lessons through occurrences that appear to be directed at us rather than from us. I believe this has something to do with why Mars is the planet for which we are the least likely to take personal and spiritual responsibility.
The trouble is, without committing ourselves to the fuller meaning of transiting Mars, we will miss what he is trying to teach.
For most of us, outer events have a very different quality than inner events. They seem more real. I find this is so even in the case of astrologers whose take on planetary symbolism otherwise disdains the literal. Outer events, unlike inner events, are easier for us to chalk up to forces that can be disavowed.
Throughout the last couple of millennia, during which astrology has been used more often for fortune-telling than as a consciousness tool, the goal in mapping transits of Mars has been to avoid “malefic” events; to outwit the planet as if it was cooking up a fiendish plot against us, which advance notice would allow us to thwart. These days, transits are increasingly understood in terms of psychic projection, and the planet-as-malevolent-god school of interpretation is losing ground. And yet, by and large, Mars is still seen as an outside agitator in “traditional” astrology. ((I apply quotation marks here because, as in the case of the phrase “traditional medicine”, what is called traditional depends upon which tradition one is referring to, and how far back historically one is willing to look. There have always been astrological Mystery Schools, wherein initiates used celestial cycles to understand the nature of the self and the divine, rather than to play chicken with a seemingly arbitrary Fate. The spiritual use of astrology, which dates back much earlier than the medieval superstition-based models by which astrology is largely known today, may have been underground during much of recorded history, but it was never extinguished. Today’s humanistic astrology is an outgrowth of this tradition.))
The view of a Mars transit as something nasty to outmanoever is based on the assumption that the internal and the external realms of life are separate and, sometimes, mutually antagonistic. If we encounter a reckless driver on the highway under a Mars transit, we tend to see it as an unlucky event that has little to do with us: mean old Mars just made it happen by passing over our chart. On the face of things, it is easier to see it this way. Certainly the prevailing societal worldview would encourage us to see it this way. As the bumper stickers say, Shit happens.
But if, as astrologers, we value theoretical consistency, we would do well to consider what our fundamental beliefs are about how transits work, and whether we are applying these principles in some instances and not in others. Though one hears again and again that “there is no such thing as an accident”, particularly from aficionados of astrology, transits of Mars seem to strain the faith. Somehow Mars is felt to be the exception to the I-create-my-own-reality rule.
It is not surprising that this would be so, given the assumptions of mechanistic materialism which we have, as Westerners, absorbed through schooling and cultural paradigm. An unquestioned axiom of the non-metaphysical model of reality is that the recipient of an “accident” has no agency at all in the event. We who read charts use the principle of synchronicity to explain transits to non-astrologers, but we have been trained, like everybody else, to perceive existence in terms of Newtonian law; and though we aspire to venture beyond causality, cultural assumptions die hard. So it is that at first glance, accidents, illnesses and arguments look like effects of which Mars seems to be the cause; and the native is still stuck in the role of hapless victim.
In the case of disasters like earthquakes or criminal attacks (where we expect to see other chart factors active, notably the outer planets; not just Mars), positing that the native is a participant in the action becomes especially problematic. For an astrologer to chalk up traumas like these to the native’s agency is to leave herself open to the charge of blaming-the-victim. Surely, it is argued, such phenomena are totally unrelated to the volition of the native. To suggest that anyone would have or could have “chosen” an incident involving terrible harm to the self seems an outrageous insult to the native’s injury.
Choice or Fate?
The confusion here has to do with the limitations of language, as well as a lack of shared assumptions between the conventional and metaphysical ways of understanding volition. The question is: Which level of self is being seen as doing the “choosing”? As Jung postulated, each of us has a self (a conscious ego-identity); and a Self (a spiritual trans-egoic identity), which is not conscious, and not even unconscious, but Superconscious. Most modern astrologers maintain that this Self, which we could call the soul identity, has its own mysterious karmic purposes, and can indeed be said to “choose” whatever happens to it.
The stumbling block for many in accepting this view seems to be the notion of blame. I believe an unconscious logic is at work here, by which we falsely reason that the repugnant event must be either the planets’ fault or our own fault; the less painful being to confer upon the planets the role of villain. But at these levels of inquiry, there is no such thing as blame. The Higher Self does not punish us; the planets, mere timing devices, do not punish us. Blame is a human conceit.
From a karmic point of view, passing a Mars event off as the caprice of Fate stymies growth because it denies our soul’s intention to learn something from the transit. From a pragmatic point of view, it increases the likelihood that we will have an unpleasant experience.
The psychospiritual approach to astrology would explain the association of Mars with fights, accidents and illnesses by proposing that sometimes the native attracts these events by building up inner agitation, suppressing volatile feelings or incompletely expressing his or her individuality. Of Mars square natal Uranus, Rob Hand writes: “An accident can be the result of frustrated ego energies transmuted into destructive powers.” ((Planets in Transit, ParaResearch 1976, p.248))
If we have been letting off steam appropriately throughout the previous phases of the Mars cycle, we’re going to have an easier time of it. And even if we have not, by cultivating a serious awareness of the transit we can and will change our experience of it. If a Mars event– for example, an encounter with an aggressive person– is viewed as an extension of our own Will, which wants to give us a chance to find out how we use our force, and how authentically we assert ourselves, then we will probably view the challenge as a case of the environment playing along with us, offering up a fair and timely test of our courage and directness.
Mars crossing the Descendant, for example, is especially likely to coincide with an opponent coming forward, but only because it is time for the native to work on how to meet opposition. A person who is afraid of conflict is more likely to fear such a confrontation, and thus to overreact or underreact, either of which will probably provoke more conflict (at the time, or when Mars makes its next hard aspect).
Contrast this with the person encountering the transit without fear of conflict. He or she would meet the antagonist with the understanding that it is time to refine her/his skills of self-assertion. Not only would this get the native closer to the true teaching the higher self had intended, but as a perk, it would bestow upon the encounter a more constructive result. Recognizing the external as a mirror of the internal, we are more able to creatively respond, rather than react, even to situations that are tense and alarming.
The whole point of reading one’s transits, of course, is to know about the lesson ahead of time, so as to be able to ready oneself with a posture or an activity that creatively suits the symbolism. If we were to schedule a game of tennis, for example, to coincide with that Mars/Descendant conjunction, the requisite opposition could be taken care of while having fun at the same time.
Simply put, transits happen because it is time for us to learn something. If a man literally passes through your life on the dates marked by the transit, it is to allow you to interface with whatever qualities you perceive to be masculine. The lesson may be about what to cultivate or what to avoid in the playing out of masculine energies. If you come across a snarling dog on the day the transit is peaking, consider the symbolism. Either by role modeling or default, Mars coming at you from the outside world is there to reflect something back to you about the state of your own animus. If we see it this way, we keep the power with ourselves. If we see the Mars event as the whimsy of the gods, we give the power away.
Each of the planets has its own way of waking us up to ourselves, targeting whatever part of our psychic musculature needs flexing. All planet-timed lessons are generated by the soul-identified Self in order to show something to the ego-identified self, so that we may get to know who we really are. The thing that makes Mars such a scene-stealer among transits must be that the red planet, immediate as a whack on the head, is just that much better at getting our attention. And as with a headache, we can either race around trying to find a pill to make the feeling go away, or we can ask ourselves where the pain is coming from, and why it is happening now.