Illustrations: Shuhua Xiong

Astrology, Tarot, and the Struggle to Make Sense of a Pandemic

In early May, Tiffany Coffman was talking to me on the phone while sitting on the porch of her new house in North Carolina. I could hear the lilting birdsong of the Pisgah National Forest. Coffman had been offering acupuncture treatments on cruise ships for most of the last decade, but was now, like millions of Americans, indefinitely furloughed.

As a deadly pandemic grips much of the world and reconfigures almost every aspect of daily life, Coffman decided to start a YouTube channel and Facebook page — both named The Insight Circle — for people “who might be struggling emotionally and spiritually.”

In one guided meditation video, Coffman speaks extremely softly, a smile fixed on her face, about the feelings of uncertainty that have become ubiquitous over the past months. “Just feel that sense of trust that the next breath is going to come,” she says, encouraging her adherents to focus on the small things they can control. “Meditation is a really wonderful way to prove to yourself that everything is going to be okay without having to take someone else’s word for it.”

Coffman has been employing a number of different practices to keep herself calm and grounded right now. In addition to frequent meditation, which she says facilitates “compassionate inquiry into the self,” she has also been using hape, a Shamanic snuff that’s comprised of sacred tobacco and herbs. “When you’re going through a difficult time and you can’t move forward, this really helps you to reset and process your emotions,” she says.

Coffman says that the pandemic and recent social upheaval have provided the optimal opportunity to embrace spiritual practices as a way to feel more whole and even healthy. “People are looking for guidance to feel better in their bodies, for confidence, and for higher meaning in their life. If they’re not drawn to it now, I don’t know when they would [be]. What else are you going to do?”

Spirituality collides with a pandemic

I met Coffman in Miami back in December when we were both having our auras photographed at 9th Chakra, a shop in South Beach full of crystal singing bowls, Tibetan bells, incense, and a variety of deities in statue form. Coffman is a petite and peaceful blonde in her thirties. In her aura picture, she’s staring serenely at the camera while surrounded by a glowing white halo. In comparison, my photo — dominated by whirls of blue and purple — appears stormy, almost like I’m raining on myself. (An indication, apparently, of my “low life energy.”) I was in Miami — back when one took getting on a plane for granted — to explore the modern “spirituality as wellness” phenomenon, including all of the tarot readings and crystal fixations and ancient goddess workshops that have come to characterize the monster self-care movement. These practices have now taken on new meaning as a way to seek calm and sharpen focus as people try to figure their way through a pandemic.

While much of life has since been indefinitely suspended, Covid-19 has kicked the spiritual wellness community into high gear — in-person yoga studio workshops and Bali retreats have been turned into Zoom meetings and Instagram live content. At a time of profound chaos, months or years away from a vaccine and seemingly a million miles from our former lives, some turn to faith. But for many others, secular spiritual wellness is filling that need — addressing uncertainty, providing a sense of perspective, tapping into expanded self-awareness and personal development, and offering the reassurance and validation often missing elsewhere.

“This pandemic is an opportunity to question the way things have always been done,” says Liz Childs Kelly, who researches and practices ancient goddess worship and “reclaiming the sacred feminine” in Northern California. “Maybe you were already questioning it, but you weren’t really willing to take that next step. Well, normal is now out the window so I’m going to go down this route.”

“We need to remember that, pre-Covid, we were living in an unprecedented conflict between truth and fiction in the culture, there was no consensual reality. It was already this macro trend and the coronavirus accelerated it.”

Spiritual wellness practitioners have been using their expertise to help people cope. Astrologers are looking to the universe to explain our moods and motivations and provide some sort of cosmic reason for the pandemic. Dream goddesses recommend turning to your unconscious mind for the inner strength you might need. Energy healers are chanting Buddhist scriptures to boost their immune systems. Mindset coaches are launching positivity challenges. And The Cosmos, an online wellness space for Asian American women, has been hosting “Sacred Healing Circles” and “Emotional Release Yoga.”

Beth McGroarty, director of research for the Global Wellness Institute, says she expects that spirituality as wellness will be the next mega-trend — driven, in part, by Covid-19. “Everything that people 10 years ago would have considered super hippie and super nonevidence-based is exploding everywhere,” she says, noting that the particularly “buzzy” aspects of this New Age throwback include shamans, crystals, spirit guides, tarot, microdosing, living your life by lunar cycles, witchcraft, and astral projections.

“During volatile and uncertain times, these forms of spirituality have great appeal,” says McGroarty.

Pre-pandemic times were already being characterized by the rise of the “spiritual but not religious.” Now it seems spirituality of all forms — whether it’s crystals or more traditional religious practices — are seeing a rise. “We need to remember that, pre-Covid, we were living in an unprecedented conflict between truth and fiction in the culture, there was no consensual reality,” says McGroarty. “It was already this macro trend and the coronavirus accelerated it.”

The coronavirus pandemic, like many cataclysmic events of the past, has enhanced the appeal of faith and the notion of some sort of greater power. According to Publishers Weekly, demand is up for “uplifting content and spiritual guidance.” More than half of Americans report praying for an end to the coronavirus pandemic — including 36% of people who indicate that their religion is “nothing in particular.” Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, found that Google searches related to prayer “skyrocketed” in multiple countries in correspondence with the biggest Covid-19 spikes. “The rise is due to an intensified demand for religion,” she writes in a new paper. “We pray to cope with adversity.”

A turn to religion has happened in past crises. Some researchers have made the case for a positive connection between economic insecurity and religiosity, even as recently as the 2008 financial crisis, suggesting that spiritual practices may “provide a buffer against adversity.”

But how do we cope with adversity when organized religion is not a part of our lives? For the youngest Americans, that’s increasingly true. McGroarty believes a vacuum has been created that could be filled by spiritual wellness. “One of the biggest sociocultural trends in the world is people inventing their own hybrid spiritualties falling under the umbrella of the wellness world,” she says. “These elements of soft spirituality provide a lot of comfort and a lot of millennials are really rushing to it.”

Filling an urgent need

Some studies suggest that spirituality can have a particularly beneficial impact for women of color, who are dealing with racism and xenophobia on top of the pandemic. One University of Illinois study found that spirituality — including “meaning-making” and feeling connected to others and the universe — can, for Black women in the study, “be more critical to mental health and life satisfaction than adherence to religious doctrine or engagement in religious activities.” Another study found that spirituality among Black and Hispanic women was correlated with positive health outcomes.

“Church services have closed up and you can’t worship with your community but folks still need support.”

Lilly Ayers remembers that the first time she bought a crystal, over 20 years ago, it was from a Black woman selling them on the street. Ayers’ interest in spiritual wellness grew from that interaction, and she has since opened Queen Hippie Gypsy in Oakland, California, which she says is the first Black-owned crystal boutique in the city. “I remember seeing someone who looked like me and realizing that it was okay for me, too,” she says. “I think it’s really important for Black women to see themselves represented in this moment when metaphysical practices are a trillion-dollar business and many of these practices were handed down from our ancestors.”

Since the pandemic started, Ayers says she has noticed an uptick in customers looking to buy cleansing sage but she has also seen eagerness surrounding the cultivation of community. “It’s a new day and people are reimagining themselves in this moment,” she says. “Church services have closed up and you can’t worship with your community but folks still need support,” she says. “We provide that to our customers, and they come from all over to get it.”

Few things in recent memory have felt so radically unsettling as a pandemic (which has further exposed race-based health care inequalities) coupled with an emphasis on police brutality against Black Americans and a rise in racism against Asian Americans. Some spiritual wellness practices are tying their services directly to the toxic impact of systemic racism that has only been exacerbated by Covid-19. Satya Yoga Cooperative in Denver, for example, says their vision is “to be a healing force by and for people of color, using yoga as a tool for both personal liberation and social transformation” and their mission is “to model and teach a liberation oriented yoga that acknowledges systems that fracture wholeness.” Women of Color Healing Retreats has added a “Covid-19 Resources” section to their website, complete with Black Chakra Affirmations: “I am a gift to the universe and I give thanks for the beauty of blackness. I bless others with my blackness. My melanin is as powerful as the hearts of my ancestors.”

Cassandra Lam, first-generation Vietnamese American co-founder of The Cosmos wellness community for Asian women, was holding a selenite wand (believed to have purifying properties) as she explained to me over the phone that she sees spiritual practices as an important opportunity for inner listening and healing. “The world feels like it’s falling apart and the pandemic is really forcing people inwards to reflect on how the macro-level violence and oppression in this world might have started within us,” says Lam. “It’s bringing everything into hyper-focus as we each ask what is our role.”

Turning inward

The activities associated with spiritual wellness are fairly diverse — everything from chanting in crystal canyons at indulgent resorts to small witch covens formed in suburban basements to discuss the healing cycles of the tides and moon. But the language is surprisingly universal. Empowerment narratives abound, suggesting the harnessing of “inner power,” the setting of “powerful intentions,” and the embracing of your “inner warrior.”

In other words, everything you need to satisfy and enrich yourself, to fulfill your destiny, comes from within. As spiritual life coach Ami Park recently posted to her Instagram: “The secret to having it all… is knowing you already do.” Park recently told me that her morning ritual includes waking early for a walking meditation with a focus on gratitude and journaling for 20–30 minutes, including asking and answering “empowering” questions like, “What am I proud of today and how does that make me feel?”

Focus on one’s interior world is a particularly reassuring message at a time when many are either largely forbidden or fearful to leave their homes, trapped in the present moment, and awaiting news of when and how a return to previous lives might be possible — or if those livelihoods are forever altered. All you have to do is concentrate all of your energy on yourself: your desires, your relationships, your past lives, your childhood, your ambitions.

For some, the focus on the individual over structural social constraints is not limiting but empowering. “People are always blaming things outside of them — oh, it’s my partner, my job, where I live, and you lose a sense of control when you do that,” says Coffman. “Practices that bring you back to yourself give you a sense of control over your body, fate, and emotions.”

Searching for answers

Astrology, in particular, has embraced this moment, as some look to the stars in the hope of clearing an ever-present earthly fog. In early May, the New York Times reported that traffic to astrology sites has increased since the virus arrived stateside.

Modern oracle Chani Nicholas, who has described her new book, You Were Born For This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance, as a tool to “bring us inward to commit to ourselves and our life’s purpose,” has been posting a mix of pandemic-related content to Instagram, from how to weather Aries season in quarantine to a call for a nationwide rent freeze.

One recent Covid-related post from Nicholas suggests that adherents should seize this moment: “This is the time to put all the healing practices that you’ve studied, invested in, and worked with, to use. This moment is the reason why you learned them. Ancient healing arts keep us well when life is relatively normal, but they are essential in moments of crisis and change.” (She also reminded followers to wash their hands.)

Aspects of spiritual wellness can offer the same earnest exploration of therapy, the gulping down of information, trying to connect the dots of internalized messaging with external actions.

Coffman says that she’s using the present isolation as a tool to reaffirm her identity. “A lot of people get cues about how they are from the outside — from our parents, from our jobs,” says Coffman. “What’s really coming up for me is breaking down all of that. I’m away from my career, which I’ve invested a lot in. I’m away from the social circle I’ve spent the last decade building. I’m redefining and rediscovering myself in a lot of ways. In separating yourself, you can really find out who you are. It’s constantly changing and evolving, and that’s been a really fascinating process.”

For many, all of this crisis and change is sparking major mental health concerns. During these early months of the pandemic, one-third of Americans report having experienced high levels of psychological distress. Some devotees insist that activities like tarot card readings, astrology charts, and crystal healing can prompt the same kind of revelations that come about through conventional talk therapy. Jaya Saxena, a writer in New York City and author of the forthcoming book Crystal Clear: Reflections on Extraordinary Talismans for Everyday Life, says that crystals are just a way to externalize what we want so we can see it more clearly. “Just holding it makes you think about what in my life has gotten me to the point where I need to buy a rock to help me with my problems,” she says.

In that way, aspects of spiritual wellness can offer the same earnest exploration of therapy, the gulping down of information, trying to connect the dots of internalized messaging with external actions. It’s a fact-finding mission, a way to locate your true self in a confusing universe rife with competing needs and conflicting messaging.

Christabel Lobo, a writer presently based in India, checks two astrology apps daily: The Pattern, which helps establish behavioral patterns; and Co-Star, which offers “hyper-personalized” readings. “We’re being bombarded with so much bad news, so I seek solace in astrology-themed memes and accounts,” she says. “They show me what work I need to do on myself, and help me recognize patterns that I have been repeating unconsciously.”

Patterns can also be underscored by the use of crystals, which can serve as a physical tool to focus and clarify feelings, good and bad. “In an age when people with brains burned out on digital devices crave physical talismans, crystals seem to promise wisdom from the core of the earth,” writes Rachel Syme. “Also: they’re pretty.”

They can also serve as a charm against the bad vibes created by Covid-19. Colleen McCann, crystal healer and author of Crystal RX, has been posting pandemic-specific videos where she suggests trying selenite to clear stuck energy, rose quartz to promote self-love and love of others, and nirvana quartz for feeling restless while stuck at home. She also suggests smudging with sage after an “intense digital moment,” a nod to the proliferation of Zoom calls. “I think we could all use a little extra TLC,” she says.

TLC also comes in the form of reading tarot cards, which can have a self-soothing effect amidst the prevailing chaos. Saxena says that she has been using tarot cards to stay calm and focused as she charges forward with important work during the pandemic, such as volunteering with her local mutual aid network and her union.

“When I do read tarot or go to my crystals, it’s mostly to help clear my head so I can get back to work,” says Saxena. “It’s something that requires me to stop what I’m doing and think about why I’m feeling or acting the way I am in the current moment. It reminds me to ask questions like why I’m stressed, or assess what I’ve been doing that day. I’ve trained myself to start thinking deeper the second I pick them up.”

Patti Woods, who owns Sandy Hollow Tarot in Connecticut and has been practicing tarot for over 20 years, says that many of her clients have come to her because they were already thinking pretty deeply even before the pandemic. Between Covid-19, the political climate, and the actual climate, many of her clients are flailing. “They want to be assured that things aren’t spiraling off into complete chaos,” says Woods. “Right now the world is a particularly scary place, and they want answers that they’re on the right track, that jobs and relationships are going to be okay.”

One thing they also want to know: Did you see this pandemic in the cards? “My answer is, I kept getting weird things that seemed so illogical that they couldn’t be explained,” says Woods.

Unconditional acceptance

For people looking for a sense of control and trying to figure out the best path forward during one of the greatest health crises in history, the spiritual wellness world can also offer a unique form of indulgence: unconditional acceptance. You, the movement gently whispers, are a good person who deserves everything your heart desires — a particularly welcome message right now.

This form of aspirational approval is particularly true of “manifesting,” an increasingly popular practice that’s basically a modern take on The Secret’s law of attraction, which posits that thoughts shape our reality and that we can, therefore, summon the things we want and need if we truly believe we deserve them. Manifestations can run the gamut from spiritual or romantic needs to the mundanely material. “I manifested a NEW FREE CAR and even got my insurance paid for a year,” noted one testimonial in a recent promotional email for Miami-based mindset life coach Tiffany Nicole’s manifestation program, Believe. “It’s the beginning of the best year yet!”

It’s hard to underestimate the intoxicating appeal of being told exactly what you want to hear — that you are enough, that you are deserving, that you control your destiny, that you are a goddess who deserves everything she wants and needs.

It has obviously not been the best year for anyone. Over the last two months, Lacy’s Manifestation Secret Society — a very active but recently archived private Facebook group for over 20,000 fans of Los Angeles-based Manifestation Advisor Lacy Phillips — has remained full of people (mostly women) looking to manifest their dream condo or even a Nespresso machine. But many are also looking at this moment to manifest a better, more meaningful future by surrounding themselves with “expanders” (individuals who can help you fulfill your goals) and embracing the “pings” sent their way by the universe.

One woman wrote of her initial shame about collecting unemployment, but she subsequently received a “download” from the universe that she should start a small online school, and now has the time to dedicate to it. Another was looking for advice related to quarantining with an alcoholic parent. And yet another was wondering how it might be possible to be “magnetic” — to attract what she wants in life — in the midst of so much worry, anxiety, fear, and fatigue. Many suggest that what they’re ultimately looking for is permission to keep wanting and feel deserving, to retain some version of their life where they’re moving forward even as the world temporarily stands still.

It’s hard to underestimate the intoxicating appeal of being told exactly what you want to hear — that you are enough, that you control your destiny, that you are a goddess who deserves everything she wants and needs. There’s a moment from the spiritual wellness event in Miami in December that continues to stick with me. An intuitive healer named Claudia Aros moved around a yoga studio, at one point stopping to smooth down the sides of my hair, while offering affirmations: “Each of you is special in your own way so bring that light into the universe. We really need goddesses like you in the world.” I wasn’t sure how much I bought into the whole thing, but I couldn’t deny that it was nice to hear.

Messages of unconditional approval are not messages that most people receive in their lives — not from society, not from their jobs, not in their relationships, and certainly not during a global health crisis when the balls they’ve been juggling drop all at once. Even before a modern global plague introduced near-universal upheaval and uncertainty, people were overwhelmed. Pre-pandemic polling found that Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world.

“Now, there’s even more caregiving to do, more imminent danger, and more of a sense of being on our own as we try to figure it out,” says Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. “I think it’s no wonder if we reach for any form of solace, especially anything that we can do alone and that we can squeeze in between our responsibilities to other people — and also that doesn’t require insurance authorization.”

While the “woo woo” term is often thrown around to describe spiritual wellness and the presumed disconnection from established or evidence-based science, the idea that certain practices transcend the earthly realm might even lend greater credibility. In an excerpt from her new book, Madame Clairevoyant’s Guide to the Stars, Claire Comstock-Gay suggests that astrology “shines brightest in our modern world not as a tool for deciphering omens and curses or foretelling our predestined lives and deaths, but as a mirror to our inner world.”

“Look, there will always be snake oil merchants out there, but I think it is important to make space for personal rituals that allow you to just be for a little while,” says Jessica Friedmann, a writer in Australia who has found tarot cards “very calming” during the pandemic. “There is huge value in slowness, meditation, genuine introspection that has nothing to do with the frenetic race to [be] optimized.” In early May, crystals-enthusiast McCann posted this message to Instagram: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”

As we wait out the minimum 12–18 months for a vaccine, it’s completely reasonable to ask what else might possibly save us. “This event has very much brought us to our knees and forced us to accept that we are not masters of the universe,” says McGroarty. “We’re in fact a very vulnerable part of the universe. That’s what the faith or spirituality piece brings to people’s lives. Whether it’s tarot or astrology or crystal healing, they’re tacitly recognizing explanatory systems that slot them into the world.”

The opportunity to be part of something bigger, a small but worthy speck in the midst of a giant and interconnected universe rooting for your success, might be the precise antidote to the age of lockdowns and limitations. If there is meaning in everything that surrounds you, and the universe and nature are constantly lighting up with signs to guide your path, then being trapped in your one-bedroom apartment with some tarot cards and astrology apps might mean that you can view the pandemic as a productive learning experience rather than wasted months or years of your life. It’s the same mentality that draws people to organized religion: that there’s a deeper meaning to everything that can provide a sense of purpose, alongside the comfort of like-minded community.

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