What Challenging and Supportive Aspects Really Mean
by Hank Friedman
In modern Western natal and predictive astrology, the aspect of one planet upon another is often seen as primarily positive or negative. But this reductionistic approach misses the real meanings of such interconnections, and that’s what I’d like to explore in this article.
To start off, however, I’d like to focus on two important ancient principles that have fallen out of use in modern Western astrology. The first is that the planet forming the aspect (seeing the other planet) is more important in defining the effect of an aspect than the type of aspect itself. In other words, the aspects from a classical malefic planet, like Mars or Saturn, are going to be more challenging (even the trines) than the aspects from benefics like Jupiter or Venus.
The second principle from classical Western and Vedic astrologies is that the quality and intensity of the effect of an aspect depends upon which two planets are aspecting each other.
Charles Carter, in his classical book “The Astrological Aspects”, states very clearly, “[The Sun and Saturn] are antithetic in nature, and even harmonious aspects between them are not always in the strict sense beneficent...
As Vedic astrology points out, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn are friendly with each other (because they all rule signs that are trinal to each other) and the Sun, Moon, Mars, and Jupiter are friendly with each other (for the same reason), and so aspects between planets from the two camps are the most challenging (e.g. Venus with Mars, or Sun with Saturn).
What this means in real life is that if you have a Mercury aspected by Saturn, you will definitely have to work through issues around negative thinking, doubt, fear, or inhibited speech, but the degree of challenge will be less than if you are born with Sun aspected by Saturn, where your basic self-expression and sense of being is inhibited by self-judgments, withholding love from oneself, etc.
Having said all of this, I’d like to return to the subject at hand: what are deeper meanings to both positive and negative aspects.
First of all, conjunctions in birth charts often have both positive and negative effects. The conjunctions of inner planets with the outer planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) are often quite intense, and indicate both powerful transformative challenges in the person’s life and extraordinary abilities given to the inner planet by the outer one. Conjunctions by Saturn are both restrictive and inhibiting on the down side, and focusing and disciplining on the high side.
Conjunctions by Mars can increase the blinding effects of heat, speed, and passion and/or energize the planet near Mars. Combustion (i.e. a planet conjunct the Sun) has paradoxical effects: the inner qualities of the planet (e.g. generosity and wisdom for Jupiter, artistic and creative gifts for Venus, etc.) are illuminated and enhanced, but the combust planet’s expression often becomes less visible to others (i.e. the person gets less credit or recognition for their talents) and, even more so, the themes of the houses ruled by the combust planet often become quite challenged. E.g. a person is likely to have some difficulties with children if their 5th house lord is combust, but this can manifest as no children, one of the children having difficulties in their own life, or tension between oneself and a child.
[Note: as I have said elsewhere, I believe that the reason why Western astrology seldom emphasizes house rulership, and conversely, house rulership is central to Vedic astrology, is because rulership is more accurately reckoned using the Sidereal Zodiac and traditional rulers.]
What I’ve delineated above leaves a bit to be desired because it doesn’t directly address the issue at hand: what are the fuller meanings of challenging and supportive aspects.
Supportive aspects as commonly defined by modern Western astrology are planets in trine or sextile, or conjunctions if with benefics (the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter). Traditional supportive aspects are all aspects by benefics.
Challenging aspects as commonly defined by modern Western astrology are planets in square, opposition, semi or ses-squares, or conjunctions if with malefics (Mars and Saturn). Traditional challenging aspects are all aspects by Mars and Saturn, plus conjunctions with and trines by either Lunar Node.
The positive themes of the supportive aspects are a natural flow of talent, harmony, acceptance, peacefulness, spontaneity, openness, and contentment. However, too much of a good thing can result in indolence, narcissism, indulgence, coasting, complacency, a lack of motivation, becoming “spoiled”, and a marked lack of empathy with those with more challenging lives. i.e. people who have things come to them too easily.
The positive themes of the challenging aspects include motivation, strength, action, appropriate confrontations, initiative, transformation (and transformative events ), facing one’s shadow and working through it, and growing awareness and the release of ego through challenging events. The negative sides of these challenging aspects include belligerence, tightness, closed-ness, pessimism, rigidity, abdication or resignation in the face of life’s trials, a pattern of struggling, seeing life as problematic, and compulsive defensiveness and/or insecurity.
We are placed here on Earth to wake up (a role of the challenging aspects) and to embrace gratitude (a role of the supportive aspects). To dig deep, climb high, meet life’s tests head on, and to develop ourselves (all via challenging aspects), but also to flourish, love, learn to easily express ourselves, to flow with life, and become supportive to others (all via supportive aspects).
The Sufi proverb, “a hand that is always closed is as out of balance as a hand that is always open” recapitulates this well.
The proverb, “you’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar” represents the philosophy of the supportive aspects, while the proverb “no pain, no gain” is the perfect challenging aspect proverb.
I could write much more on this theme, but I hope that I have opened the door to your liberation from the simplistic good/bad aspect polarity, and help you to see the value and the challenges that aspects represent in a person’s life.
Rubin Carter started off life very angry and rebellious. He was arrested at the age of 14 for assault and robbery, was sent to a reformatory, escaped, joined the army and was court-martialed four times. Upon returning to New Jersey, he committed a series of muggings and was imprisoned for four years. Upon his release, he became renowned as a middleweight boxer. In the mid-60's, he was falsely arrested for a triple murder and received a life sentence in prison.
While in prison, his life profoundly changed. He dealt with his anger, and entered both deep self-reflection and a course of study. He was finally released decades later and became a champion of the falsely accused, and a motivational speaker. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's life was portrayed incredibly well by Denzel Washington in the movie "The Hurricane".
In the charts shown above, there are clear indications of a life checkered by intensity and change, ups and downs.
In his Western chart, shown above on the left, he has Uranus square his Ascendant and Pluto Square his Midheaven, both of which can indicate a life with profound and deep shifts at major times. Surprisingly, I have found the aspect of Pluto opposite Jupiter in the charts of violent men before, and so was not surprised to find this as an exact aspect in his chart. In addition, the Taurus (Uranus, Sun) square Leo (Ascendant) aspect often indicates a volcanic temper.
However, keeping to the context of this article, the "smile" of Jupiter upon Pluto is quite relevant (in other words, let's not get lost in focusing only on hard or soft aspects). Benefic Jupiter's glance upon Pluto indicates the capacity to learn from the profound changes that occur, even the 12th house imprisonment.
And also in keeping with the teachings herein, the Mars trine Saturn might very well be one of the indicators of his early unresolved anger (since Mars and Saturn to not cooperate well, and prefer not to be in contact, even by trine). This is especially true because both of them aspect Pluto (and in this case, it places Pluto near the Mars/Saturn midpoint), further indicating that trines are not always benefic.
[This actually brings to the fore an amazing insight: since Grand Trines composed of very tightly connected planets place all three points at the midpoints of the other pair of planets, a tight Grand Trine composed of malefics is likely to be very problematic!]
Similarly, the tight semisquare between "mortal enemies" the Sun and Saturn is a very clear indicator of the karma he would have to "burn" with authority figures, but would, if he grew enough, enable him to command authority wisely.
A Western astrologer with "trine-itis" might have looked at all of the trines and the Grand Trine in Mr. Carter's chart and predicted an easy and talented life, and they would have been sorely mistaken. It is only with experience that one can take enough factors into account to get a true reading of the chart and the person's life.
His Vedic chart is similarly illustrative. The ruler of his Ascendant is the Moon, who is in the Eighth House, which is a clear indication of anger issues. Additionally, the Moon occupies one of the "burning pair" nakshatras, and in fact the unbridled one: Purva Bhadrapada. Those who have prominent placements (e.g. the Ascendant or Ruler of the Ascendant) in Purva Bhadrapada will wrestle with the intensity of their emotions and desires, and have to work hard to surmount the obstacles that life places in their path.
(For those unfamiliar with nakshatras -- aka Lunar Mansions -- these are the core elements of a chart. They were used by astrologers over a thousand years before the 12 signs! Nakshatras represent the deepest and most constant themes in a person's chart.)
To evaluate whether a planet in a specific nakshatra will manifest its themes primarily positively or negatively, one looks at the strength of the planet (the Moon is dark and waning, making it weak and unsupported), it's house placement (e.g. Moon in the 8th: deep challenges abound), whether the planet is happy or unhappy occupying the sign it is in (Moon in one of the signs of Saturn: unhappy) and whether the planet in a specific nakshatra is aspected by benefics or malefics (Moon only aspected by malefic Mars, who is doubly strong and therefore really amps up the anger issues incredibly).
So Rubin was fated to be angry, immolated, and ultimately became transformed because he was able to stay the course. (His progress is represented in part by Jupiter's aspect on his Ascendant -- please note that Jupiter exchanges signs with Saturn and is therefore not as weak as one might initially think).
The strength of Mr. Carter's Sun (exalted and with directional strength) in his Vedic chart also shows his capacity to persevere, as does the will and tenacity of the Sun/Uranus conjunction in Taurus in his Western chart.
One should always look at the talents and benefits offered within a person's chart, and see the challenges portrayed, however great, within this context. So here is a man who had chosen a very powerful life journey, and who would be radically changed, and dare I say freed, by it.
One of the greatest misuses of astrology is fearmongering. I’ve known both students of astrology and professional astrologers who promulgate fear in others (and become lost in fear themselves) when delineating challenging natal aspects or anticipating upcoming challenging transits. Negative delineations can evoke depression, paralysis, and withdrawal, and totally shut down strategic thinking.
In point of fact, most of the events that one might fear will never actually occur. Dread can lead to projecting old fears and wounds onto the future, which is counterproductive at best. I’m saying simply that it is cruel to use astrology harmfully (or as a weapon), and irresponsible as well.
This is especially true in the light of the above teachings, i.e. that one often grows the most through life’s challenging events, and that we all need wake-up calls now and again. Accepting adversity, aligning to the current energetics, and understanding that we are guided in our lives (and that there is a higher purpose to even the harshest experiences) are among the best approaches that I have come to know.
If you are prone to negatively exaggerate and fear the factors in your birth chart or in upcoming astrological events, realize that you are actually making things worse (and disempowering yourself, to boot). Learn to accept your lot in life, trust in the wisdom in your destiny, and navigate the rapids of life with equanimity, or at least compassion and support for yourself; and you will truly flourish.
As the great Sufi Attar said, “gratitude is necessary at every step of the spiritual path.” And dread, resentment, distrust, and bemoaning are the antithesis of gratitude.
I will finish with a short Sufi story:
Three Sufi masters were studying with their more advanced teacher, and he said to them, “in order to get to where I am, you will have to climb mountains of howling winds and treacherous ice, traverse oceans of fire, and endure countless other travails.” His students looked at each other and said, one after the other, “I haven’t experienced anything that difficult; Maybe I’ve had a hint of one of those experiences; and I must not have progressed very far yet.”
Then God spoke to the group and said, “actually, each of you has already experienced what your teacher has just described, but you just took what happened in stride.”
I would again like to thank my Vedic guru, Hart de Fouw, for igniting my understanding of Jyotish and making it possible to write this article.