“Life leads the thoughtful man on a path of many windings. Now the course is checked, now it runs straight again.” —Confucius, in a commentary on the 13th hexagram of the I Ching, Wilhelm translation.
In 1996, Chicago-based physician, Curtis Cates walked away from a successful career in Obstetrics and Gynecology to pursue an extraordinary journey of personal awakening, healing and transformation.
No longer a practitioner of Western medicine, he now devotes his time to helping others along the path of what pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung called “individuation” or the discovery of Self.
Through an unusual combination of work in symbolism, psychotherapy, astrology and dream interpretation, Cates offers a daily reading of what he calls the “zeitgeist” or his Intuitive reading of the collective astrological atmosphere which can be found at his website, Kristo.com.
Discovering the Spiritual Gold
From our talks, it’s clear that Dr. Cates’ journey is far from over. Rather, he seems proof of the idea that one self, or phase of experience, invariably and inevitably gives birth to another. Currently pursuing the study of Oriental medicine and acupuncture, his philosophy can be read as a unique synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions.
For all of his range of interests, though, Cates defines himself primarily as an alchemist and healer. He believes that with the qualities of patience, attention and openness to those conscious and unconscious forces always at work in our lives, we can experience the alchemical process of transformation and discover the spiritual “gold” of ever increasing awareness. Currently at work on a book on alchemy, Cates himself seems to have an extraordinary grasp of both the psychological facts and the subtler spiritual implications of what is popularly termed “transformation.”
Yet, in person, the youthful 50 year-old projects an image that is definitely not that of your usual self-help expert. An engaging combination of easy sincerity, magnetic presence, and childlike enthusiasm, he seems–through fearless experimentation, devotion to the process, and unrelenting self-examination–to have come upon his own brand of magic.
Reinventing Your Life
Teresa Kennedy: Was yours a conscious decision to reinvent your life? To most of us, the transition from obstetrician to alchemist seems pretty radical. What happened?
Dr. Cates: The fact was I had wanted to quit obstetrics for many years and devote my time to a career in the visual arts. But I had been trained as a doctor–you don’t just walk away from that. It would have been inconceivable to me at that time. However, I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t devoting enough time either to my art or to my practice–there simply weren’t enough hours in a day.
Then one day, I got a letter telling me my malpractice insurance premiums were going to double. I just couldn’t see how I could pay for it. I was only practicing obstetrics part time by then and would have had to resume a full time career. But I didn’t want to quit art school or give up any of the work I’d done. Because, at the time, art school was where my emotional investment was. So, after a lot of worry, rage, and feeling imprisoned by the reality of that circumstance, I sat down one day under a willow tree they have on campus at DePaul University, thinking what am I going to do? And it came to me–drop the insurance.
To a doctor, it was unthinkable. Yet that is what I decided to do. To this day, I see that answer as pure inspiration–an act of grace. My ego never would have come up with the answer. At the time, my ego was hanging on for dear life. But I did drop the insurance and I quit my practice three months later.
I think my own experience is actually a pretty classic example of the kind of unconscious engineering of reality that happens when we really require growth. When the soul is in fact, demanding growth. We always have the option to resist that, of course. But to resist requires tremendous effort.
Alchemy & Transformation
TK: Why do you refer your to work in spiritual psychology as “alchemy?”
Dr. Cates: Because the alchemists worked in metaphor, just as I do. They used symbols to illustrate experience but not to define it. Meaning never resides in a definition of something, only the experience of something. That’s why the use of symbols and metaphors is so very important.
The alchemists used a combination of methods to work their magic–astrology, chemistry and their knowledge of the collective human experience. That’s how they transformed ordinary things or “lead” into gold.
TK: It seems we’re constantly hearing about transformation. It’s become almost a fashion. But what does it really mean? How do you define Transformation?
Dr. Cates: Once we have truly experienced something through our feelings, it becomes part of us. Once you know something, or have seen life in a way you never could see it before, it becomes part of who you are.
That’s what alchemy is. And when an individual can take the essence of that experience and apply that wisdom in their lives, they have the Philosopher’s Stone. That’s what transformation is. To me, anyway. But it’s always an ongoing process. It really can’t be defined as a single event or experience. We like to believe it is, of course. But as human beings, we’re incredibly resistant to the whole process of transformation.
TK: We are? It seems rather the opposite. I mean, I think everyone is really looking for the path–but everybody has a different idea of just what the so-called path is supposed to be. Why else are all the self-help and New Age movements so popular?
Dr. Cates: I think they’re popular because they offer us comfort. We’re all looking for answers, and many of them also offer us real techniques for accessing that part of ourselves we often can’t seem to get at. But no book or messenger can give you an experience. No one can tell you what’s right or wrong and bring you any closer to an experience. They can only offer you a message.
TK: So how do we turn an experience into an experience of transformation?
Dr. Cates: Don’t run away from it when it shows up. And we do that all the time. People run from the most healing images in dreams, for example, because they can seem so terrifying. In waking life, we do the same thing.
TK: Is that what you mean when you say we’re resistant to transformation?
Dr. Cates: Sure we’re resistant. Because real transformation is very expensive–very demanding. And we always have the option to resist. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as a transformative experience, but those are the same kinds of experiences that are so extreme as to cause us genuine suffering.
The ego has to go through all kinds of gyrations and contortions when we refuse to simply accept reality and experience it on its own terms. Because we keep trying to manipulate reality to conform to our expectations of what we think reality ought to be.
We lose a job or a relationship; we become depressed, or angry or frustrated at our own inability to make things turn out the way we want them to. And it’s painful. So we try to make that pain stop. We find all kinds of ways to resist the experience of simply accepting what is.
Because we’re in that place of transition, we want to know what’s coming. We get lost in all the contingencies of getting what we think we want. But when we do that, we also lose the opportunity to fully experience all the subjective reality of that experience. Yet it’s those circumstances that make us the most uncomfortable that are so important.
What is Subjective Reality?
TK: What do you mean by subjective reality? We all have changes occur in our lives that we’d prefer not to have changed. Are you saying that we caused these things to happen?
Dr. Cates: Not in the sense that Ego causes them. Not in the sense of cause-and-effect. You can’t tell someone with cancer that they “caused” that. Because we don’t cause those experiences. But it’s important to accept that those experiences are called forth from the deeper levels of being.
Say you lose your job. The Ego will go through all kinds of contortions and gyrations and speculations about why that happened, or why that shouldn’t have happened, or how could that have happened to me? But that’s not the same as accepting the reality that it did happen, and feeling your way through that. And we each have to learn to simply be present to reality before we can become open to the real richness of that experience.
We live in our feelings, not the facts. And as long as Ego keeps fighting the facts, we can’t feel the subjective, emotional reality of what’s going on.
TK: But for most people, reality just isn’t all that exciting.
Dr. Cates: For the most part, what we think of as reality isn’t very exciting.
But that’s objective reality. Subjective reality, that which we truly experience through our feelings can be absolutely extraordinary. That is an experience of the divine.
Living to Fully Feel
TK: Describe what consciousness really means to you.
Dr. Cates: I don’t know what consciousness is. I’m not enlightened. I have experienced periods of creativity, though, where you begin with an idea and gather the materials and work to make that idea a reality. In those states, for me at least, time and space and ego all fall away in that process. In a very real sense, I lose myself in that state, but it’s also an experience of divinity. It’s where we have the chance to really bring up unconscious content into personal consciousness.
Once you have a little taste of what it really means to feel that good, it’s like falling in love. You want to nurture that sense of Self, to live those feelings, because after awhile, living without those feelings becomes almost impossibly difficult. Once you’ve had a little taste of that, you get hungrier and hungrier for more.
Symbols & Synchronicity
TK: How does that fit in with your readings and counseling work?
Dr. Cates: I don’t pretend that I can take anyone beyond where I have been myself, but healing is certainly an important element of all the things I do– medicine, therapy astrology and alchemy. If I had to identify an underlying theme, it would be healing. I’m that physician who has to heal himself.
Because of what Jung called synchronicity, every reading or client will serve in some way to constellate something that I need to pay attention to in my own process. We’re all connected to each other through the collective. Those archetypal energies are always operating in and informing in our lives.
Symbols help us to more fully comprehend what those energies mean and how to use them. So we’re all constantly drawing to ourselves the people and experiences we most require for healing. Whether we like it or not.
Spark of Divinity
TK: What specifically do you find informative about astrology?
Dr. Cates: Well, astrology is to me an indication of the wholeness of the collective unconscious, but also of universal consciousness. The alchemists, who practiced astrology, believed that every thing contained a spark of divinity. A planet is an identifiable material reality. But in astrology, a planet is also a symbol of a kind of energy.
That system can be used to inform us on a very deep intuitive level about how those energies operate in our lives.
When I do a birth chart reading, I always feel like “Here’s another miracle.” To me, every chart is a kind of poem.
Sometimes my fear is that I won’t be able to adequately translate that poem in a way that is really meaningful and useful. But each time I do a reading, I get to describe that poem. I get to help somebody Dream work is the same. Those symbols are a wonderful illustration of synchronicity. But sometimes we run from those symbols, too
TK: We run away from our dreams?
Dr Cates: All the time. We encounter an archetype, or rather the symbols of archetype in a dream, and the Ego thinks–no possible way. That’s not me, that’s not what I’m about at all. Because it’s just too scary to think that Psyche demands that much of us.
But if you can learn to view the synchronicities in life and in dreams with your witnessing self, rather than your ego, you can stay with it and allow it to lead you–to really transform you. If you can work with those symbols over time, you can discover at least a portion of what they really mean, and experience the energy of archetype in a very subjective way.
TK: So when we talk about synchronicities, we’re not just talking about coincidences, or happenstance?
Dr. Cates: Not at all. I see synchronicities as signals, reminders of the wholeness of the collective. They’re a sign of what we are really talking about in the following quote:
“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing. And just as all things have come from this One Thing, through the meditation of One Mind, so do all created things originate from this One Thing, through Transformation” — The Emerald Tablet of the alchemists
So, in a way, I would have to say that’s what we’re talking about when we discuss transformation. The ability to see the amazing beauty of just how connected we are. To God, to the cosmos and one another. There is a great passion in that, great joy.