Jyotish: A Practice of Relational Ministry
by Bruce Davis M.D., M.Div, CVA Visharada
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret….
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself,
and to one another, and to God….
Work is love made visible.
--Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
My recent solar birthday has launched me on my 75th excursion around the Zodiac, and I’m beginning to hear the call of the Sanyas Ashram in my quieter moments. My natal Mercury/Ketu conjunction in my Scorpio Lagna has been enlivened by transiting Ketu’s return to Scorpio and my Mercury Mahadasha is opening just now into the Ketu Bhukti. It is a time of Dharmic reflection, and I was delighted to receive an invitation from the CVA Journal to share from my personal, spiritual, and work experience.
My life-work has varied from career to career: family physician, Unitarian minister, meditation instructor, spiritual director, and now humanistic Vedic astrologer. And yet, whatever form of counsel or conversation I am sharing with a client, I have always found that a central healing relationship emerges, shaping itself to the particular discipline I am practicing and the unique needs of the client. Career for me, and many of us, is an evolutionary process as we come closer and closer to living our Dharma authentically.
For this reflection, I am choosing the noun and verb “minister” to explore the process of relational healing. If we consider the Latin derivation of the word, we come to appreciate the minister as a servant and an attendant. In the healing connection, the minister consciously and compassionately serves the needs of the client while attending closely to their person and presence. The resulting ministry is a somewhat mysterious process that changes both parties for the better, in ways that neither party can entirely account for.
My own path to relational healing began at an early age. As a middle child in a family of eight, I found myself frequently offering solace and cheer to my siblings and my mother. The intensity of a family coping with the high expectations of a stressed, judging father (whose widely lauded law career was the central meaning of his life) left many openings for this earliest ministry. In childish ways, I brought consolation to those closest to me. It took me until my young adult years to begin to realize that I could only sustain such healing intentions for another person by attending also to my own needs for healing—a practice I must remember even now in my eighth decade.
The habits of those early years began a rhythm of Dharma that has stayed with me lifelong. As a young adult, it felt right and natural to direct my studies toward medicine. In this intensely technical field, I was drawn to family practice—self-described as “the physician who specializes in you” by the American Academy of Family Physicians. After residency and for the next twenty-five years I engaged in a busy practice built around a commitment to the whole person and centered on my personal/spiritual connection with each individual. Their ability to function in their world and their overall experience of wellbeing were as much my professional concern as were their pathological diagnoses and technical treatment plans.
I remember an older couple whom I attended once a month for many years, well into their nineties. He had end-stage heart disease, and I relied on medications to support the efficiency of his heart and to assist his electrolyte and water balance. But our consultations went beyond fine-tuning his physiology. According to his wife, each time he came for his monthly visit, his energy and function would improve for about three weeks, diminishing then in the final week before the next visit. I had done nothing to change his medication regimen. What I did do, with him and others, was take his hand in mine, check his pulse, and continue holding his hand for the next ten minutes while he talked about what was happening in his life. He was always ready with a joke. The visits were fairly brief, but he always left with a smile. After his passing, his wife continued the monthly visits as her health declined—with similar beneficial results.
During the mid-1970s, after my medical residency, and before my busy practice ensued, I took a “gap year.” Actually, it was a three-year interlude, during which I lived and worked in the Ashram community of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, based at that time in Switzerland. It was a residency in its own right, grounded in Vedic principles, and compared to the stress of medical school and residency, a God-send. Based upon this immersion in Vedic knowledge and Yoga practice, my return to the Pacific Northwest and my practice as a family physician presented frequent opportunities to teach a meditation of transcendence to my clients—for stress management, insomnia, hypertension, and general wellbeing. Through the 1980s and 1990s and continuing to the present time, my grounding in Vedic science and practice continues to expand and deepen with the guidance of Deepak Chopra, Vamadeva Shastri, Dennis Flaherty, and Suhas Krishnagar.
Learning to teach practices of deeply transcendent meditation from these mentors and following the principles of Ashtanga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras became the measure of relational work for me, setting the stage for my various careers of counseling. There is no moment I have found in working with clients that are as profound and powerful as assisting their first dive into pure consciousness.
After many demanding years of medical practice, I became aware that the field of Allopathic medicine, even the more humanistic field of family medicine, was becoming increasingly technical. Somehow the field was no longer fulfilling the Dharmic potential I had originally hoped for. Perhaps my purpose had changed over twenty-five years of medical practice, or the field of medicine itself had changed—or more likely both. Productivity standards for the medical practitioner, computer information systems to document every aspect of care, strict protocols for the diagnosis and treatment of patients, and the emergence of “defensive medicine” to ward off the risk of lawsuits changed the expectations for physicians and the environments they worked in. I longed to have more of the relational practice of healing, without the press of time and the striving for technical perfection.
I began to hear that still, small voice again, the one that drew me into family medicine in the first place. The one that says that the work must change to align with the deeper Dharma. I followed this call cautiously at first, not sure where it would lead until it suddenly opened up into an actual second career: pastoral ministry. I retired from my medical work within the year and went back to school in an ecumenical Jesuit seminary for four years. With the M.Div degree in hand, I served for the next ten years as the pastor of a Unitarian congregation, and I continue even now to see individual clients for pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. Without the demands of a burgeoning medical technology and the expectations of an increasingly regulated medical care system, I was free to put more of myself into the relational listening and personal support that the congregation so desperately needed. In a Unitarian context, I could easily translate my knowledge of Vedanta and Yoga into a language of ministry and spiritual leadership that resonated with the communities and people I served. Some of the greatest figures in the American Unitarian movement during the middle of the Nineteenth Century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, became authorities in Vedic knowledge and transcendental practice. It was the Unitarians who called together the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, where Swami Vivekananda awakened the West to Vedanta.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi first introduced me to Jyotish as a young adult. He was himself an able Vedic astrologer, and in the early 1970’s I remember many Pandits and Jyotisika gathered around him. For me, Jyotisha existed in the wider context of transcendent meditation, and I saw this “Science of Light” as a means to explore the soul and to expand awareness. As I approached retirement from my Unitarian ministry in 2012, I began to study Jyotisha under the guidance of Dennis Flaherty, with the thought that I might be able to use its symbolic tools to facilitate self-understanding with my ministry clients.
The essence of Vedic Astrology is Light itself—Jyotir. Jyotisha’s task is to apprehend the brightness, the character, and the relative positions of the sources of primary and reflected planetary and zodiacal illumination. The Light of Jyotisha is not just any light but represents the Light that imbues and animates life itself.
The Jyotisika accepts a delicate yet profound responsibility toward their clients. Studying their charts, the astrologer apprehends the influences of cosmic Light and Karmic unfoldment and invites the client to new levels of self-understanding. We endeavor to interpret with clarity and accuracy “the Light of life,” for their benefit, not for our own. Our best work in their reading comes when we can step aside from our egoic identity, allowing ourselves to become a conduit for the Light itself, to become a lens that brings the Light into focus and makes it intelligible for the client. To speak figuratively, the Light from the vertical plane corresponds to the Light in the horizontal plane between Vedic counselor and client, opening for them meaning and renewal.
I believe that our work has two essential parts; without both parts present in a reading, each supporting the other, the potential of the client’s experience may not be fully realized. The first part has to do with the technical side of the reading. We might call this the “nuts-and-bolts” of our astrological ministry. What are the characteristics of the planets? How do their aspects and transits modify them? What predominance of Karmic influence does the Dasha suggest at this time? Which fields of their life are most impacted and in what ways? This is garden-variety chart reading, and it contextualizes the narratives of the client’s past, their current choices, and their hope and fear for the future.
The second part of the reading is what I’m referring to in my own experience as relational ministry. The Light we encounter in Jyotisha between minister and client manifests in a variety of helpful ways. The client may feel encouragement to face current difficulties after a reading. They may feel excitement, having made a significant shift in how they perceive their career or their relationship. They may feel renewal, when they realize that a new era in their life is dawning. They may feel confidence in the natural unfoldment of their health or relationship. They may rediscover their Dharma, or the reading may reveal that they are at the brink of a deeper purpose.
In each of the relational ministries I have practiced, whether as a physician, a teacher, a meditation instructor, a Unitarian minister, or a Vedic astrologer I have found that I must pay attention to both of these phases of the healing encounter. The content of what is offered technically must be accurate and authentic. And the relational connection with the client brings about its own subtle but powerful quality of healing.
Because the first chapter of my life work opened with the teaching of meditation, that model has helped me to understand and develop the relational ministries in the other chapters of my career. The experience, as close as I am able to describe it, is that I hold the client gently and kindly with my full attention, while at the same time carrying out the technical work of the encounter. It is being present with them, aware of them as they are right now. Though it sounds odd, it is as if I am present to them, in the same way, I might be present to a Mantra: lightly, fully attentive, fully intending service on their behalf. The power in the relationship, as with the meditation, seems to arise from the power and the innocence of this attentiveness.
For me, the Ashtanga of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provides a valuable model and practice for developing relational ministry. Like the meditation of transcendence, we can take it in steps.
First, show up. Bring your sensorium from anything that distracts you to bear on this client in this moment. This is the essence of Pratyahara, gathering the senses in so that they may be focused.
Second, lightly pay attention to the client in all their complexity, as they present to you right now. This is not a “furrowed-brow” concentration, but a simpler and more innocent “paying attention.” This is Dharana. It is a focusing practice that must be developed because the attention will tend to stray from the client, again and again. Our other responsibilities or stresses may rise up and claim the attention constantly until the Dharana develops more fully. We might even say that the practice of Dharana would be a necessary precondition in our skilled relational ministry with clients.
Third, Dhyana then takes over. When the attention with the client can hold virtually without effort, a flow toward deeper consciousness takes place. Light and love flow through us without effort. We begin to see their great beauty and value, as they also become increasingly aware of their own beauty and value. This is the subtle power of refined perception.
Fourth, from time to time there comes a moment of silence/stillness in the relationship, a silent connection being to being. This intermittent sense of unified awareness corresponds to Samadhi.
I never knew Chakrapani Ullal personally. I had a reading with him once, as a Jyotish student, and felt he could see clear through me. He seemed to sense my authenticity as well as my pretense, and his honesty in the reading supported my clarity and my sense of life direction. From my own Jyotish teachers who were his devoted students, I learned that Chakrapani spoke often of the Siddhi’s that might develop as the Vedic astrologer deepens into the work—intuition, sixth sense, knowingness. Over the decades I have found the practice of relational ministry deepening in such ways, and I believe a further look at Patanjali may help account for this.
In the section of the Yoga Sutras on Siddhi’s we see that Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi come to one in the practice of Sanyama. We might say that Sanyama is practiced in the healing moments of relational ministry as simultaneously we attend to the client fully (Dharana), deepen into the client connection (Dhyana) and sense the unifying Presence of counselor and client. in the healing moment (Samadhi).
Siddhi is often translated as “power” or “perfection.” If a power, it is not a power that the Jyotisika holds over the client but a healing and enlightening power that imbues the relational ministry and affects both parties. It does not come from the counselor as much as it flows through both counselor and client. In a sense, the Jyotisika acts as the catalyst for a healing moment, rather than healing through a power of their own. A spiritual framework that accounts for this connection matters less than the realization of its Source in a higher Power.
I have been reminded by my teachers over the years that our clients come to us with problems, unhappiness and at times a measure of desperation. As Dennis Flaherty often explains, our clients usually don’t seek Vedic counseling when they win the lottery! In this time of pandemic, economic turbulence, political uncertainty, anti-racism and climate awareness, there is a quality of Angst or existential depression that brings people to the virtual door of our Zoom offices.
What people need who show up on my counseling schedule these days is not simple advice to do things differently. They need moral support, encouragement, healing practices and Upayas to address challenges. We need to help them reframe their immediate troubles in the light of their wider/deeper life purposes. We may find ourselves explaining, “Yes, this transit of Saturn over your birth Moon makes for a difficult and turbulent time, but amid what is being lost, what new beginning might be emerging for you?” or “Yes, this close conjunction of Saturn with a debilitated Jupiter has led to a contraction of your resources; but how does the cycle of expansion and contraction open into the potential for stable, long-term growth?” We can’t fix them or the problems they bring. But we can care for them, support them and encourage their deeper understanding and acceptance.
In my medical practice I found, more often than not, that there wasn’t a silver bullet that would resolve my client’s problem. Even absent the elegant technical solution, the patient often found their way to a deeper healing, supported (catalyzed) by the relationship between us. I’m remembering a man in his fifties, at the peak of his career as a healthcare manager. He called me one day, and I set a time for us to talk that evening, when my other patients and the staff had all gone home. We spent about an hour together, and from the depths of despair he opened into a new way of understanding and accepting his situation.
I did little for him that evening beyond listening and encouraging. Tearfully he recounted a twelve-year “battle” with cancer in the neck. Now his carotid arteries were wrapped by aggressive cancer tissue. He had “lost the battle” and his surgeon had just told him that he would soon die. He feared an agonizing death. Any further attempt at surgery would itself end his life. His despair matched the battle metaphor, and his adherence to that metaphor allowed only a future of dreadful defeat. He talked through his pain and fear. He acknowledged his powerlessness against this “enemy.” He felt he had no meaningful alternatives left.
As he acknowledged that he was without choices, he became quieter. Was this despair or something else, I thought. Something was brewing inside him, and a light came to his eyes. He realized that he still had the power to choose! Out of that came his understanding that he had his autonomy and that he could choose how he might live until such time as he would die. Like a cascade of awareness he recognized that his life was not over after all.
An authentic and thankful smile replaced the tears. Gratitude for the life he had replaced the horror of the losing battle he had feared. Still in the cascade of new awareness, he realized he had plenty of time to reestablish ties with his adult children. He longed to quit his job. He wanted to spend his life meditating on the ocean’s expanse at sunset. Within the month he retired and moved from a rainy Seattle winter to enjoy the sunset over the ocean every evening in Santa Barbara. Nine months later he died peacefully and comfortably in his sleep. The “battle” and the “acceptance” were based on the same facts, the same loss. In one case the loss brought fear. In the other, it brought a poignant beauty.
What I offered was something like compassionate presence. He had my full attention while we were together—Dharana and an open heart. A few years ago I heard a talk by the Dalai Lama about compassion. A seeker in her question declared that she couldn’t be compassionate to the suffering of others because it caused her to suffer as well. The Dalai Lama, in his light and yet serious way, said, “No, no, no. That is not compassion.” He went on to say that in the moment of compassionate connection with someone who is suffering we bring a sweet kindness. They experience this sweetness, which is the healing quality of our compassion. And we simultaneously experience that same sweetness. The suffering emotions themselves are not sweet; but the aware experience of those emotions and the transcendent witness to those emotions distill themselves to something essential that is both sweet and peaceful.
During a retreat in the Himalayan town of Ranikhet, India, Vamadeva Shastri offered a teaching one day about Rasa. There is an essence to any experience, even including the so-called negative ones that we and our clients experience. As the deepest essence or Rasa of being “happy” might be the more profound quality of joy that we call Ananda, so the deepest essence of any experience is the Rasa of that experience. In Sanskrit, the word “Rasa” means” juice, sap, essence or taste.” The quality of Rasa is itself nearly transcendent and is therefore imbued by the Light of pure consciousness. True compassionate listening, as part of relational ministry, brings both client and counselor to the appreciation of the sweet essence of what is going on. It is no less the gift of the client to the minister than it is the gift of the minister to the client.
Jyotir is the Light of awareness. That Light, when it connects us to each other, is Love. When our work is authentic and powerful, that Love within us becomes visible, to our clients and ourselves. Our attention rises to the essence of things, the beauty and the Rasa of the client’s life—of Life itself. Those of us who have the honor to serve become beacons of that Light. When we attend deeply to the life of the client, then we truly enter into relational ministry. As servant and attendant we are minister.