The Sixth House
by Dana Gerhardt

Anna Lee was one of my first clients. I gasped when I saw her chart. She had five planets in the 6th house: the Sun, Venus, Mercury, Pluto and Uranus. What’s more, they were all in Virgo, the natural sign of this house. To my novice mind this information jumped from the page with exclamation points. But what did it mean? At the time, I had no idea. I looked forward to the day when I could look at charts and instantly "know." But frankly, that day has never arrived.

FiveI'm alternately envious and suspicious of those who can make instant analyses of a chart with no knowledge of the person who’s living it. But there's enough disagreement about the right and wrong ways to practice astrology. I don't want to add to that here. I'll just make a confession: I'm lousy with maps. I have to touch into the territory before the map becomes sensible. Even something apparently simple, like a cluster of planets in the same house and sign, will keep me guessing. For some individuals it does indeed mean an intense and focused life. For others, like Anna Lee, the stellium acts more like a confusing tangle of wires, criss-crossing, by way of rulership, the entire chart. I remember thinking if anyone could teach me about 6th house mysteries, it would be Anna Lee. Saturn was about to oppose her 6th house Sun. I watched the effects of this transit with interest.

Work or health problems often appear during transits to the 6th. It was a good bet that for Anna Lee, one or both areas would be affected. What actually happened, in the months of Saturn's applying orb, was that Anna Lee's boss Jerry suffered work and health problems. He was asked to leave the company and had a heart bypass operation. Sometimes close associates will do our transits for us, but rarely do we escape untouched. Anna Lee was concerned about her boss' health. But his leaving the firm turned her own world upside-down. She was afraid of two possibilities: upper management would ask her to leave next, or possibly worse, to stay and take his place.

Over the next few months, at Saturn's grueling pace, Anna Lee struggled with her situation. Initially she panicked. Then she interviewed. She got two offers and turned both down. When rumors surfaced that she was leaving, she went straight to the company president and made it clear that she wasn't. It took her boss Jerry months to find a new position, and the company even longer to name his replacement. But as the Saturn opposition became exact, Jerry finally left, and an archenemy was put in his place. Anna Lee was miserable.

" So why didn't you leave?"

shoesHer eyes flickered. She took a breath, "I don't know, I guess I like it there." Moments earlier she'd described her workplace as an intense time-pressured environment that rarely gave her a full lunch hour; upper management never appreciated how hard she, her boss, the whole department worked. She considered her department the nerve center of the company. On the days when Jerry was out, she felt she was holding the whole company together. A Saturn transit sometimes rewards past efforts and brings a promotion: "So why didn't you apply for your boss's position?"

" Oh, I don't think I could do it. It's a lot of pressure..." Her voice trailed off. Her eyes moved to a spot in the distance, then came back. "I just like to work. I don't mind working hard. But I don't want to run things. I'm not ambitious, really."

Victimization, insecurity, a loss of options, plus the willingness to work like a steamroller—I checked these qualities against other 6th house Suns that I knew. There was a similarity in their stories. Not all 6th house Suns are hard-working insecure victims. Yet often enough their voices have the same tentative tone when discussing their jobs or their futures. It’s not unusual to hear them complain about being overworked or under appreciated. Their resident inner 6th house critic doesn't help. "Do better, work harder" are common 6th house strategies. But they don’t always make the best life solutions. Perhaps this is the downside to the 6th’s upside of service—6th house Suns tend to wait on others. When the others don't come through, these Suns are stuck.

Ancient astrologers considered the 6th a malefic house—not a happy place for a planet to be. John Frawley, a contemporary practitioner of traditional principles, writes about the 6th: “This is the house of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: of all the things that the harsh, cruel world and that odd bunch of people who inhabit it conspire to inflict upon us.”1 Planets in this house are weakened and can harm the other houses that they rule. This is not the house of health, Frawley contends, but the house of illness. The 1st house indicates one’s health or vitality; the 6th describes what undermines it. Nor is it the house of work or service, says Frawley. This is a modern invention, loosely based on the 6th ruling servants and tradespeople—those who work for us. Our own work is still described by the 10th. Contemporary interpretations of the 6th, says Frawley, are simply wrong. They derive from the happy-talk tendency of modern astrologers to whitewash any bad celestial news.

Frawley’s views sound harsh to anyone raised on modern interpretations. Yet they fill in a missing note: planets here are often mysteriously under stress. If you’re a counseling astrologer, however, it’s pretty unproductive to tell someone “You’re screwed.” Perhaps more useful is Dane Rudhyar’s perspective. He describes the 6th as territory in crisis—requiring reorientation and adjustment. Following the 5th house of creativity, children, and romance, the 6th describes what happens when our 5th house dreams collide with the real world. We realize our creative expressions don’t sing with immortality. We notice our romantic life has lost its radiance. Despite our best efforts, our children grumble and disappoint. In the 6th we notice life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We can drown in our failure. Or we can do something about it. We can change our approach, acquire new techniques. We can either suffer or grow.

“ Because the sixth house represents fundamentally everything that deals with personal crises and the way to meet them,” writes Rudhyar, “it shows, more than any other factor in the whole of the astrological field, how an individual can grow and become transformed.”2 To a traditional astrologer, this might sound like happy talk. It depends on whether you side more with fate or free will. Where traditionalists and moderns can agree is that the 6th often brings the test of suffering. Planets here require patience, endurance, faith, and above all, the effort to learn from one’s experience. Anyone with an emphasized natal 6th house, says Rudhyar, cannot escape the call to transform.

As Mars was crossing Anna Lee's 6th house cusp, I received a surprising phone message. Anna Lee had accepted a new position with another company. I was thrilled about the burst of confidence that had brought this change. As I listened to her news, I couldn’t help but note the ironies. She was taking a management position—the very thing she’d resisted before. She would be heading a whole new department, in fact, building it from the ground up. It was funny she was leaving now, she related, because she'd discovered that her new boss at the old company was much better than she'd feared. Upper management was finally making the positive changes she’d longed for.

WorkingI wondered at her leaving the old company just as things were finally getting better. But I remembered the 6th house’s association with illness. As Frawley reminds, illness is a temporary crisis meant to restore one’s system to balance. Anna Lee’s unhappiness with her work was perhaps a useful fever. It allowed her to burn through her passivity and meet life at a higher level. Once this fever passed, she was free to move on. The ancients linked the 6th with alchemy. Perhaps this supports Rudhyar’s view that the 6th is a transformational house, where one is meant to turn life’s lead into gold. As for Anna Lee, the last I heard she was doing very well.

Both ancient and modern astrologers agree that the planet which naturally rules the 6th is Mercury. Mercury is associated with the mind, in particular the ability to reason. If the 6th brings crises, it’s the logic of Mercury that helps us respond appropriately. Through Mercury we analyze and organize our experience. We divide our time into useful units of activity. We conjure proactive strategies to keep both crises and illness at bay. Sometimes astrologers talk about the 6th as though they were nagging mothers, reminding us to make our beds and hang up our clothes. When this house is emphasized by transit, progression or solar return, modern astrologers advise: "Eat your vegetables, take your vitamins, exercise, quit smoking; streamline work routines, reduce your stress, get organized."

A few astrologers speak of the 6th in metaphysically trendier terms, a nod perhaps to its alchemical roots. They advise activities like “spiritual centering,” “sacred ritual,” “discovering magic in mundane details.” An emphasized 6th house by transit might prompt a need to bind the sacred to the ordinary. No doubt such statements would make Frawley squirm. But they do address a common 6th house problem. Mercury rules machines. In the 6th, we often act like one. When my progressed Moon entered the 6th, I suffered no monumental crises. My life revolved around work; my days were dull. If I suffered from anything, it was a lack of imagination. I hungered for a more magical perception of my days.

The 6th refers to daily time and how we spend it. Here most of us defer to the cultural norm—which is to do time mechanically. We fill it with productive activity: We work. Most of us have no choice. This could indeed be the “bad fortune” the ancients were talking about! However, most of us would admit that working is not entirely bad. There is something in us that likes a regular structure in our days. Studies have shown that the most depressed individuals are not the ones who have nine-to-five jobs, but the ones who don't—the unemployed, the infirm, the retired—those who have nowhere to go and nothing to do. The ancients said that action-oriented Mars “joys” in this house. Our 6th house likes to be in motion. But does it carry the potential for magic too?

ChildMore and more, I find myself taking my cues from children. They are, of course, the undisputed masters of ordinary magic. Initially I laughed when my friend told me the following story about his three-year-old Zack. Now I see it as a koan of 6th house wisdom. Zack has two toothbrushes: a blue one for bedtime, a green one for mornings. One morning Zack's dad inadvertently squeezed the toothpaste onto the blue toothbrush. Zack was undone. Thinking this was a good time to teach Zack flexibility, Dad tried to cajole him into brushing with the blue one. Zack threw such a fit, his father had to carry him down to the breakfast table, stiff and screaming, teeth unbrushed. The tantrum continued until Dad gave in. He carried Zack back up the stairs. They reeled the day back and started it over again, with the green toothbrush this time.

I thought my friend was raising an unusual child. Then I had a toddler of my own. Branden taught me the importance of childhood rituals: the right activity, with the proper objects, at the right time. When he was two, Branden had breakfast in the green chair, watched TV with the checkered pillow. Mom had to drink her coffee out of the mug with the bird on it, and Dad had to drop his keys on the top (not middle!) shelf. One morning Branden and I left the house after giving the dog one cookie instead of two. The relentless sobs from the back seat "dog cookie, dog cookie" meant I had to drive two blocks back home and right the wrong. I was not happy about this (something the dog knew instantly, cowering in disbelief as I stormed in to toss another cookie her way). That morning was one of those "battles of wills" between parent and child that the old child-rearing books warn about. All is lost, they say, if the child "wins." Yet when I caught the look on Branden's face that morning, it wasn’t triumph, but relief. His magic spell had been preserved. The day had started right.

This is the 6th house for a child, who has neither work nor health concerns, nor even a good grasp of time. Children experience the 6th through their organizing rituals. Adults have routines, but children have rituals. Rituals create energy; routines drain it. Rituals invite assistance from the invisible world. They serve a magical protective function—acting as the garlic and sacred cross that keeps the 6th house vampires at bay. What draws a child to certain objects and sequences is a mystery, but the power of this attachment can't be denied. To children what happens in the present matters. The 6th house holds the personal holy rituals that give meaning to their world.

When children enter school, these meaningful attachments are gradually severed. Their unique experience of time is relinquished to society's more efficient rhythms. Personal magic gives way to productivity and practicality. The older one gets, the worse this becomes. The year I had my Sun plus four more planets in the 6th house of my solar return, my daily duties were overwhelming. I was hopping with productive, efficiently scheduled activity. I kept waiting for the avalanche of responsibilities to disappear. They never did. Towards the end of that year I heard Ray Merriman speak about the solar return 6th house Sun. He nailed me when he said, "These people have only themselves to blame. They over-schedule themselves, not realizing they should do the opposite: relax, float, and flow."

Merriman was suggesting that to balance the 6th, we should look to its opposing house, the 12th. This is the house belonging to the invisible world. It is Neptune’s territory. To keep Mercury’s efficiency in proper measure, we can evoke more Neptune—imagination, spirituality, the unconsciousness of dream. Just as our dreams carry images from our days, we might allow our days to remember images from our dreams.

Jung teaches there are two roots to psychological disease: the gods we forget to honor and the gods we overdo. Too much of Mercury’s “doing” without Neptune’s “floating in the empty spaces” makes "stress" a common 6th house syndrome. When Neptune is forgotten, this uninvited and quietly vengeful guest lies in wait, to throw us under his spell. Driving the freeway home, we suffer brief comas, waking up just minutes before the off-ramp arrives. We forget why we opened the refrigerator or entered the bedroom. Our bodies working like efficient machines, we go numb to the day. When we lose touch with our present, we fall prey to addictions. It's dishonored Neptune who puts the drink, the cigarette, the remote control in our hands.

If the 6th is a dull or harried house, perhaps we have only ourselves to blame. We might buy books like the Goddess in the Office. We might wear red on a Mars day, burn incense at night, or mime a few spells. But it's not finding the "right" magic ritual that will save us. It's finding the ability to attach to it—to have what happens in the present matter again. I’m not suggesting we should throw tantrums like a child when our personal routines are disturbed. Rather let's balance Mercury with Neptune. Let's use our reason to preserve spiritual imagination. Like children, let’s become the high priests and priestesses of our daily lives.

This is easy enough to say, but how is it really achieved? I don’t think simple formulas will do, although Merriman was on to something. I’ve noticed that those who do the 6th house well tend to have a good relationship with the 12th. They enjoy floating in the empty spaces, as well as being alert and absorbed when the work of the moment calls. I’ve wondered if the sign on the 6th house cusp might prescribe one’s optimum daily rhythm—and the best approach to 6th house crises. What I discovered was that most people move through the day in the style of their Ascendant. I’ve got Virgo rising, which means I adore planning, making schedules and lists. "An hour for Tibetan prayers, another for reading, then onto my work," I’ll tell myself. But then there are phone calls, emails to answer, the electrician who doesn’t come when he said he would. Aquarius is on my 6th house cusp. Aquarius more accurately describes the unpredictable rhythms that I meet. Despite my best intentions, my Virgo plans usually break down. If the chart describes one’s daily rhythm, its formula goes more like this: The Ascendant shows how you want the day to happen. The 6th describes how it actually does.

waterIn most charts, the sign on the 1st house is inconjunct the sign on the 6th. Inconjuncts are an aspect of disequilibrium. They keep us off balance and require constant adjustments. This natural tension between the Ascendant and the 6th house cusp is like a perpetual motion machine, constantly returning us to the primary work of this house: Reality knocks and we must transform. In the 6th we break down experience and absorb its feedback. We improve our techniques and skills, urged forward towards a perhaps unattainable perfection. This marks the difference between a human’s work and a machine's. It's impossible to write perfect articles, give perfect readings, or be a perfect mom. But I keep trying. The awareness of how I fall short is often painful. Yet in the disequilibrium between my intent and its realization, I'm also urged forward again—toward new techniques, approaches, understandings. All of this is unlike my computer, who performs its tasks the same way each time, never caring how they’re received.

The 6th is where we build mastery of our craft. We may want nothing less than consistent success, but disequilibrium is where the magic is. Creativity often springs from failure. We can learn from our 6th house crises. And isn’t that the key to mastery of our life?

  1. John Frawley, The Real Astrology Applied (Apprentice Books, 2002), p.177.
  2. Dane Rudhyar, The Astrological Houses (CRCS Publications, 1972), pp. 90-91.

MOONPRINTS by Dana Gerhardt

Go to Moonprints Popular with readers of "The Mountain Astrologer" for almost two decades, this beautiful report takes an in-depth look at your emotional foundations. You will gain new insights into your birth moon - its phase, sign, aspects, and house. Discover your life purpose, hidden talents and danger zones through the moon's nodes. Use the moon to position yourself in time - through transits to the moon, your progressed moon sign and house, dates for two progressed lunation cycles, plus a year of new and full moons around your chart. You'll want to read every page of this report, designed to please both beginners and advanced students of astrology.
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