OPA Retreats: A Human Dimension to the Study of Astrology
by Maurice Fernandez
I came back from the seventh Organization for Professional Astrology (OPA) retreat in Asilomar, California with a hopeful outlook. One 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 media. Workshops included creative writing, spiritual development, and counseling training. But more than anything, the retreat — despite the large number of attendees — felt like being with family: warm and intimate.
I first met Bob Mulligan, the founder of OPA, in 2003, when I was very much a newbie to the American astrology community. During our occasional brief exchanges, I gathered that he was leading the organization, and though I was really appreciative of the person himself, his generous character, and his beautiful vision, the last thing on my mind was the thought of belonging to any group. My Aries Midheaven 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 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 approaches and methods of work, to provide feedback. To me, the idea of having someone comment on my work felt like an intellectual intrusion — generally, I was wary of other people’s judgments and having to justify my odd points of view, so my instinctive inclination was to shy away from being “analyzed.” Bob must have a well-polished Mars, because he continued to ask me to join the retreat … or was it that I was too polite in my refusal? It took a few years, but he caught me at the right moment, and I agreed to do it. Since I have recently become more focused on strengthening community consciousness, it seemed that my defensive approach was losing relevance, and I felt that it would be a good challenge to confront 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.
After everyone arrived, we were introduced and welcomed at the first meeting. We shared our impressions about the current reality of astrology and our experiences as working astrologers. 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 to promote astrology as a profession. Bob spoke of the vision of OPA as an organization; he mentioned that he had started out on his professional path feeling a tremendous lack of support, and had established this organization to address that. OPA was created to help astrologers enhance their practice and raise the overall quality of their work, with a focus on improving the counselor-to-client interaction. During the course of this retreat, we split into groups of three and four for peer supervision work. Each participant was to analyze the chart of another group member, and then each was invited to share an episode where they had experienced a challenge of some sort with a client. The purpose of having a smaller group size was 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 a revelation: seeing how someone else reads the symbols and configurations that were so familiar to me in a quite different and yet absolutely pertinent way.
The reading that I provided was well received and drew compliments — the exercise was obviously not meant for us to criticize each other’s approach, but to learn about our work, about astrology, in an experiential way. Another step in that direction was taken when we delved into the challenges of our personal practice by sharing difficulties we had encountered with clients. We closed the retreat with a 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 daily life after a boat, car, and plane ride and reflected on the main impact of the retreat: Group association was not that dangerous. It emphasized what I was increasingly recognizing 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 central coast of California — another beautiful setting bordering a different ocean this time and surrounded by the most amazing cypress trees. At Asilomar, the group leaders actually worked with their groups for the first time. Participants had pre-registered for a specific workshop among the ten offered. The themes of the workshops varied widely, from practical chart delineation to creative expression, including, for example: “Forecasting,” with Sandra Leigh Serio; “How to Develop a Successful Practice,” with Bob Mulligan; “Creative Writing,” with Arlan Wise; and “Mundane Astrology,” with Chris McRae. Among the ten groups, a beginner’s workshop was also presented by Ani Bettati, who had the significant task of introducing newcomers to the rich world of astrology.
The Asilomar retreat differed in format from the preliminary retreat for group leaders; following introductions and welcoming messages by OPA’s president, Alexandra Karacostas, a panel of five astrologers, led by Monica Dimino, discussed 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) with each other and with the audience, which reflected and responded to the emerging perspectives.
“Is a Scorpio fated to act as a Scorpio?” asked Monica. Truly, I had never looked at 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!) added 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 into the equation. For this purpose, I put up onscreen 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 1st house opposing Pluto and Jupiter in Taurus in the 7th. Among other signatures, this angular configuration clearly indicated a fiercely defensive attitude, someone 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 2, 1869, 7:11 a.m. in Porbander, India). The obvious point of this exercise was to demonstrate that, despite our chart’s fated influence on our existence, it seems that 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 toward the noble cause of activism, change, and revolution, rather than manifest a negative potential. Another argument to counterbalance fate was made by displaying the January 18, 2010 Time magazine cover titled: “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny.” This article described how DNA can be altered after birth, thus showing that our fate (DNA coding) is not set in stone.
The conversation and exchange were fascinating; the subject was discussed in intelligent ways, and though “fate enthusiasts” argued with “free-will enthusiasts,” we were able to go deep and come up with new realizations. One that remains with me is: “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,” Ron Archer discussed the benefits of Internet use to promote astrological services. Ron was concise and provided accessible tools for setting up a Web site. 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 Internet dating; this was 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 sizes varied from two to ten students. These different tracks allowed for more in-depth learning in a more intimate setting. Five hours of study per day for three days guaranteed that each participant 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 in raising their standards of practice and gaining tools to eventually establish and/or expand their practice. Besides 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,” looking for the spiritual principles behind astrological configurations — in other words, how the mundane, 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 in existence is truly free from labor.
What was very unique to OPA was that group leaders would meet after sessions to discuss the unfolding of the workshops together. Each leader shared experiences, needs, and concerns, and everyone made suggestions. For example, a discussion arose around the fact that a participant wanted to leave a group and change tracks. This brought up thoughts about the established notion that, given the intimate atmosphere created by each group, it was not encouraged to have people join another group in the middle of the course. Could compromises and exceptions be made? Group leaders felt included in the still ongoing decision-making process, rendering OPA’s leadership more democratic and the overall experience more communal and inclusive. Over 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 presentation, “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 heartwarming; it seems that the retreat provided a space for everyone to go through a process and emerge renewed — for the vast majority, clearly richer than before. The 2010 OPA retreat was a definite success.
The Astrology Community
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 in particular lacks these support systems. 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. Yet, the field of astrology is vast and often abstract, and its complexity 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. Of course, division exists in practically every field of practice, but perhaps because we are exploring a higherconsciousness dimension with astrology, we also have the opportunity to act in more enlightened ways. We can make a greater effort to see beyond the immediacy of our cherished points of view — without losing our individuality or giving in to fanciful and ungrounded methods of practice. In other words, we as astrologers have the potential 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 2007 Blast conference organized by Moses Siregar in Sedona, Arizona, where a very focused effort was made to bring every astrology orientation together — practically all disciplines were represented. What made this unique was that it was a onetrack presentation format, so everyone was exposed to what others had to say. At first, every group kept to themselves, forming little clusters of “traditionals,” “Vedics,” or “evolutionists,” just like stars grouping to form constellations, but dialogue ensued and the division was reduced. Another OPA retreat virtue is the varying format of learning, moving from a larger gathering to more intimate groups, short sessions versus intensive group immersion, panel discussions versus lectures. I personally see the combination of approaches as essential to the learning process, and when I myself organized an astrology conference, The River of Stars, in January 2011, I emphasized the multidimensional learning process: from academic presentations to movement-based experiential learning, including direct experience of stargazing. It is inspiring 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 multidimensionality, without compromising on rigor and quality. Looking forward to the November 2011 OPA retreat in South Carolina, I reiterate: I am hopeful!
© 2011 Maurice Fernandez – all rights reserved