In his inspirational book The War of Art, writer Steven Pressfield describes the moment he stopped running away:
“I washed up in New York a few decades ago making twenty bucks a night driving a cab and running away full-time from doing my work. One night, alone in my $110-a-month sublet, I hit bottom in terms of having diverted myself into so many phoney channels so many times that I couldn’t rationalize it for one more evening. I dragged out my ancient Smith Corona, dreading the experience as pointless, fruitless, meaningless, not to say the most painful exercise I could think of. For two hours I made myself sit there…”
Now, the reader, primed here by the aphoristic style that Steven has developed in his self-help books (ostensibly books about how to write, but actually books about how to live) thinks this is a lead-in to the story of how he created his great work. But no…
“I made myself sit there, torturing out some trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan. That was enough.”
A depressing situation perhaps: I can certainly imagine some inner voice arising: “all this time and all you finally produce when you actually try is rubbish!” – a voice that if listened to would confirm all at once the very worst fears about oneself. Isn’t this very crisis why so many of us never try at all?
If we do not take the risk of our greater life to overcome that shameful inner voice (a composite of all the times that parents, teachers and so-called friends rubbished us – with an extra kicker of self-hate blended in) we will never have to lean forward and peer over at our failure. Maybe it’s best to pretend some things are not important so that our lives cannot be judged upon them and found wanting.
Yet Pressfield finds himself energised and he goes into the kitchen where ten days of dirty dishes lie – and he finds himself washing up. The water is warm on his hands. He feels good piling up the clean plates. To his surprise he realises that he is whistling!
“It hit me that I turned a corner.
I was okay.
I would be okay from here on.
Do you understand? I hadn’t written anything good. It might be years before I would, if I ever did at all. That didn’t matter. What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”
Sitting Down with Astrology’s Complexity
Many people who study astrology struggle at this initiatory juncture. Some earnest students who work incredibly hard on their studies experience a dizzying kind of vertigo when they encounter the spacious nature of the subject. Like untrained birds, their fear of flying plunges them towards a chasm of self-doubt that stops them in their tracks. They would rather ground all flights than risk an accident.
Others fear not succeeding just as they are driven by the fear of failure. So to create a manageable container, they develop a ‘thing,’ an area of the vast and inexhaustible subject matter of astrology over which they can have dominion. They push all their subconscious anxiety about their flimsy foundation in the field, or in themselves, into defending the ground of this ‘thing’. Everything else is potentially deridable. Every-one else is seen as the first source of fault, because looking within would risk the exposure of the core insecurity.
In this world everybody not into astrology is seen as “just stupid.” Everyone not into “my kind of astrology” is stupid too. Everyone into my kind of astrology who does not see my point exactly as I do is stupid. Everyone who is into my kind of astrology exactly the same way as me who sees something else differently…etc. You can substitute the words politics, spirituality, psychotherapy or art as you wish.
Truth is the Way
You see, in Pressfield’s story it really is crucial that the first thing he writes (after seven years of running, an endless variety of low paid jobs, the loss of his first marriage, people calling him crazy every time he leaves work to give writing another go) is ‘shitcanned.’ His epiphany is of the ‘turning toward’ kind, rather than the ‘arriving’ kind. It is the admission of his own truth which turns him toward his own true life that matters – not the immediate creation of the great American novel.
The turning toward the true thing is valuable in itself. To turn to what really does anchor one’s life and enlivens the will creates a more solid foundation and empowers that will to act in the world. In fact, we are at the critical foundation of the life of the spirit at this point; unfashionable as it may be intellectually and politically in some quarters of the modern mind-set.
The truth really is valuable in and of itself. It is valuable despite “outcome.” In fact it is the foundation of all real value – even as its expression arises through the complexity of myriad and infinite forms. Perhaps even because of those infinite expressions.
When we study astrology can we marvel at the infinite complexity of its expression without spiralling into our own self-doubt in the face of ‘the everything’? Can we develop our own meaningful approach to the subject with patience and tolerance of ourselves and for those around us who are doing the same? Can we do this recognising that we have to start somewhere?
In fact we can be more particular in adapting Pema Chodron’s quote “start where you are,” and say that we can only start at the ‘somewhere’ where we already are! Even if this place is early on in our journey and some of what we do may be canned (now, or a little later as our understanding grows).
Can we turn toward our own truth? Can we validate our own path through uncovering that truth through action? After we work, can we walk to the kitchen and do our chores, whistling as we go?