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The existential lure of astrology

Author Chani Nicholas discusses astrology’s connection to social change and our desire to be seen.

Astrologer and author Chani Nicholas in Sydney, Australia on September 9, 2019.
Jeremy Piper Photography / Newspix via Getty Images

Astrology is often synonymous with mystery and fate. But popular astrologer Chani Nicholas uses words like “access” and “agency” to describe her approach, which is more akin to that of an activist organizing for social change than a clairvoyant inviting you into a curtained room.

Nicholas, whose first book, You Were Born for This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance, was released on January 7, has been working in astrology for over 20 years, amassing over 300,000 followers on Instagram, including superstars like Lizzo and Me Too founder Tarana Burke. Last year, she was commissioned by Spotify to create monthly astrology playlists, and she’s currently the head astrologer at O Magazine.

You Were Born for This, now a New York Times bestseller, functions as a sort of toolkit for self-discovery. Nicholas explains what she calls the “three keys” of your birth chart: your sun, your moon, and your ascendant or rising sign. At the end of various sections, she prompts you to “choose your own adventure,” and many of her descriptions of the planets, the signs, and their significance end with prompts for deeper self-reflection.

As Nicholas sees it, the more we accept ourselves for who we are, the more we can show up and effect positive social change, both in our immediate relationships and our communities. Astrology is one tool, she argues, for getting to know ourselves, what drives us, and how we can be of use in the world. In her book, she draws on the rich lives of Frida Kahlo and Maya Angelou, and it’s exciting to see how such remarkable women’s stories line up with their birth charts. It’s also comforting to know that they, too, faced obstacles that, while unpleasant, shaped them into the unique women we now admire.

Astrology has seen renewed interest in recent years, thanks in no small part to clever astrology memes and witty tweets. But Nicholas’s popularity points to how contemporary astrology connects with our larger need for meaning and hope while living in very uncertain times.

I sat down with Nicholas during a lunar eclipse to discuss her beliefs about healing, why we’re so drawn to astrology, and why we also need therapy. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

Nayomi Reghay

I enjoyed reading about your childhood encounters with astrology. You talk about “being witnessed” and astrology helping you to feel seen. Is that why people are so drawn to astrology? Why do people find so much comfort in astrology?

Chani Nicholas

I think we’re dying to be seen. Every selfie is us being like, “Do I see myself? Am I here? Where am I? Who am I?” We’re obsessed with ourselves. We’re completely narcissistic.

But also, there’s a deep need for self-actualization, and a deep need to know that we’re worthy of that. When we self-actualize, we’re much less interested in all the outer things and we’re much more interested in the quality of the moments of our life. That’s actually where the soul is yearning to go.

I think we’re really lonely. I think we are really afraid. I think that we live in a world that feels increasingly less stable and less known. And I think we need to know ourselves as a counter to being in this place. We need to deepen our relationship to knowing who we are, and astrology is one way to do that.

chani nichols you were born for this HarperOne

Nayomi Reghay

In your book you disclose that you’ve had a lot of therapy. How does that influence your approach to astrology?

Chani Nicholas

Astrology and therapy can intersect in ways that can be really supportive. Astrology has helped me to accept some of the most challenging parts of myself. I can bring them into therapy and be like, “This is how my bitchy self showed up this week! This is where I really messed up and I can see it in my chart.” But now, I need to talk about it with a professional who is going to hold me accountable in a really loving and compassionate way, but not let me off the hook. Astrology doesn’t hold me accountable in the same way. If I’m working with an astrologer, they might be able to reflect. But if they’re not also a trained therapist, then it’s not the same work.

Nayomi Reghay

It does seem like a lot of people assume there’s this false binary where if you’re really into astrology, you must be substituting it for other things that are scientific.

Chani Nicholas

The line that is given is, “Well, it’s a pseudoscience. Anybody that believes it is completely untethered from reality.” Astrologers are humans so we run the gamut. But, in my experience, astrologers are super nerdy, deeply into science, and probably going to be much more loud about the climate crisis and everything that we face that is scientific in nature than an average group of humans.

Science and astrology don’t cancel each other out. We can believe that nature is speaking to us in some kind of way — which is what astrology is — and we can also believe in ice caps melting and needing to work out our greed, our consumption, and our severe imbalance with nature.

Nayomi Reghay

Right now, in the mainstream, people appear to be more open to things like astrology that are traditionally considered more feminine and kind of taboo. Why do you think that is?

Chani Nicholas

I think what’s happening is everything that the patriarchy has tried to kill and withhold from us, we are reclaiming. White supremacist colonial patriarchy says that there’s only two genders and there’s only one science. There’s only one way to have sex and there’s only one way to be in a relationship. It’s stripped us all culturally and personally of the richness and the diversity of life. And I think we’re just sick and tired of it. We know it’s a lie, and the devastation that those systems have caused is showing its ass.

Because who the hell fits into those fake, made-up systems? Nobody. They don’t represent us. Everything that the white supremacist patriarchy has tried to hold back is now coming forward and being like, “I don’t think so. I get to dig up my own space.” And astrology is part of that. All liberation movements are parts of that. From everything like being able to see body hair and stretch marks and acne — these very simple things are just so human.

Nayomi Reghay

You share an anecdote where an astrologer you respected looked at your chart and said, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to let anyone love you.” You say you chose to believe that you could heal. Do you have a philosophy of healing or growth that guides you when you are trying to teach people to use astrology to help themselves, rather than to create more fear?

Chani Nicholas

I know through my own experience that healing is possible. Given the right circumstances, given the right environment, humans can do incredible things. So I think we need to ask, “What is healing justice? What does it look like for us all to have access to spaces where we can heal?”

Because the human capacity to heal is limitless, really. But that doesn’t mean that we have to get over anything. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t forever scarred by something. But it does mean that we can learn how to work with and hold those scars or those broken places in new ways, and that is echoed throughout every great text and every great poem and every great religion or spiritual tradition, the world over.

I believe it’s really important that as we each individually get the possibility to heal, that we then turn around and say, “Well, how can we create more of these spaces? How can more people have access to what they need — not just what I needed, but what they need?” Because we desperately need more healing on the planet right now. We need to be able to show up as grown-up people that are able to hold our own anxiety, hold our own feelings, and say, “What is the creative solution to these incredible problems that we are all too familiar with? And how can I do that in very little ways and maybe even in big ways?” We desperately need each other to be modeling what maturity looks like.

Nayomi Reghay

You’ve said in previous interviews that astrology isn’t having a “moment,” it’s having an “internet.” The internet shares information so rapidly. Are there any misconceptions about astrology that are currently flourishing?

Chani Nicholas

Yeah. I hear people blaming everything on a sign. I wrote the book because I want to shift the focus. Astrology is actually about planets. It’s about how the sky looks when you were born. It’s about the quality of the light that each planet had or didn’t have. It was visible or invisible. All those things mean something.

So I hear people say, “Well, it’s because I’m a Taurus.” But that thing they said has nothing to do with the sign Taurus! We start to use the signs as this repository to put everything in, and then it becomes a mishmash, and then there’s no clarity and then there’s no specificity and then the real art of the craft is lost.

Nayomi Reghay

I want to ask you about skeptics.

Chani Nicholas

I don’t care!

Nayomi Reghay

You don’t care about skeptics?

Chani Nicholas

I don’t — I love them! I don’t think everyone should believe in astrology. I don’t think everyone should use astrology. I think humans are diverse and we should have diverse ways of seeing ourselves and knowing ourselves. And God forbid everyone’s on one thing!

I don’t want everybody. I just want the people that want to be here and let’s go. And if you don’t, great! I want to know what works for you. Tell me something new, like how are you healing? How are you feeling good in the world? Where are you getting that rich, deep connection? Tell me about it. I’m so interested. Why would I want us all to do the same thing?

Nayomi Reghay is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers women, wellness, and technology. She writes about how social media impacts our relationships in her advice column, Swipe This! You can follow her on Twitter.

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