Years before I became a practicing astrologer, tarot reader, magician, and mystic initiate, I got a crash course in spirituality — only I didn’t know it. I thought I was watching cartoons on Nickelodeon. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012–2014) are billed as kids’ action series, but upon rewatching, I can confirm that these are the most spiritually advanced texts television has ever seen, the most triumphant synthesis of Eastern philosophy to Western aesthetics since Madonna’s Ray of Light.
I’m going to tell you a secret. All the mystic arts, from tarot to Kabbalah — they’re all the same, or at least, they’re built of the same stuff. Those core ingredients, the Rosetta stone of all esoterica: the four elements. Water, earth, fire, air. The elements are how we identify, how we make sense of the cascading and competing forces within, of the ways in which we clash and click with others.
The elements form the visual language and characterization of both Avatar series. In this imagined land, crafted as a pan-Asiatic parallel, nations are divided by the elements, and populated by gifted “benders” who can shape the forces of nature: sturdy earthbenders can move mountains at will; waterbenders dance with waves and make knives of ice; firebenders command flame and lightning; airbenders glide with the winds and play with tornadoes. Only the Avatar, a once-in-a-generation master of all four elements, can maintain harmony between all elements, and all people. The Avatar of the first series is Aang, a young airbending monk who must defeat the tyrannical firelord. The sequel series picks up with Aang’s successor, Korra, a teenage brawler who must integrate the forces of nature with a modernizing world.
Watching the balletic bending scenes and the devastating operatics of Avatar imbued me with an understanding of the elements. They led me and my friends to discuss our own compositions: She’s definitely a waterbender. You think I might be a lavabender? I was out of banal Buzzfeed “Which Hogwarts House are you?” territory and into something more primal, more powerful. With the basics locked, I could access the four suits of tarot, categorize the signs of astrology, explore my own elemental makeup via Ayurveda, do my own bending via Kundalini and Qi Gong, and even commune with the four elemental archangels — Raphael, Gabrielle, Michael, and Uriel.
In my daily practice of magic, meditation, and divination, I find myself clocking how much of my spiritual ABCs come from these series: one episode centers around the seven chakras, another is about a middle-aged woman getting an acupuncture treatment. Characters solve problems by meditating, touching trees, and connecting to the source of the earth. More and more, so do I.
The easiest way to get a handle on the zodiac is by understanding the elemental correspondences: fire (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius); earth (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn); air (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius); water (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces). Avatar and Korra helped me see the zodiac as one.
The show’s characterization demonstrated the glories and pitfalls of every sign. Aang, the airbender, is a perfect representative of his element: curious, ideal-oriented, and gregarious, but flighty and evasive. The fire prince Zuko betrays himself to his volcanic emotions and unprocessed grief — in the language of Ayurveda, he needs to clear out his agni. Katara can bend water to heal, nourish, ravage, or destroy, depending on her tempestuous moods. Sound like any Cancer you know?
But astrology goes far beyond the personal, as we read the movements of the planets to understand the shape of things to come — in culture, politics, and the progression of human consciousness. Korra explores big-picture themes through its elemental villains: the Piscean populist Amon, leading an anti-bender movement; the airbender anarchist Zaheer, who takes Aquarian idealism to the point of zealotry; and the Capricornian metalbender Kuvira, aiming to unify the world under her fascist vision.
Astrology has taught me that everything is cyclical, seasonal, and part of a larger celestial harmony. On Avatar, conflicts align to lunar convergences and eclipses; Avatars reincarnate in an orderly progression through elements and genders; as one claims their power, so their villains deliver the concurrent backlash. Studying in the framework of shifting planets and changing epochs, I can escape the despair of my former myopia. Everything is connected, in sequence, in harmony. There will always be more planetary transits to come, just as there will always be a new Avatar.
THE SPIRIT WORLD
In the heat of every crisis the Avatar faces, with bombs dropping and time running out, Aang and Korra will dip out, find a silent space, and meditate. From there, they enter the Spirit World, a parallel reality where they may commune with elders, past lives, higher beings, and animal entities. As a mystic initiate, I was trained to do exactly this: to cultivate a liminal space through which my soul can travel, undergo trials, and interact with gods and guides.
It’s a rush, and a responsibility. Like the Avatars, whose friends watch over their bodies while their spirits travel, I have to ensure that I have the right tools to ensure my safe return, no matter where I go. I have encountered fearsome beings, loving ancestors, and totally disinterested gods. I’ve witnessed my own birth, and met future selves. Plunged into oceans and into the fires of the underworld, I’ve had my smallness spelled out to me, but so too my infinite immortality. “I feel whole,” Korra says, after connecting with Raava, the divine feminine, in the Spirit World. That interior descent, along with my healing and recovery in the waking life, made me feel so too.
The Spirit World is real. Our wellness overlords have made meditation into another slog in the gulag of optimized living. But Avatar knows what the mystics always have: with the right training, and the right protection, going inward should be an adventure. Whether you access that realm by prayer, meditation, trance, or creative expression, you understand: whatever your problems are, they’ve already been solved; whatever your question, there is always someone to offer insight; whoever you think you are in this moment, you are so much more.
In studying the elements, one contemplates the balance between masculine and feminine, active and passive. Avatar’s Aang is male, but his characterization aligns to feminine yin: he resists firebending, for fear of hurting the ones he loves, and finds the prospect of his own unlimited power dangerous and corrupting. He can’t take decisive action.
Indeed, Aang’s passivity at first grated on me — it reflected my own fear of claiming power. In the tarot, the Magician is card one, a vertical, erect figure symbolizing mortal access to divine forces. But what happens when power corrupts? In fear of becoming anything like my own abusers, I elected to hide in meekness, playing victim and martyr, refusing to take responsibility for myself, and my power. That’s not the point of being alive.
When Aang encounters dragons, the original firebenders, he sees what fire can really do: “All this time, I thought firebending was destruction. I’ve been too afraid and hesitant. But now I know what it really is. It’s energy, and life.” I’ve only recently begun to tiptoe into this territory, into the possibility that my will could generate, and not just consume or distort. What if, in command of power, I could finally fulfill my destiny, instead of running from it?
Korra, meanwhile, is Aang’s inverse: a young woman built like a tank, all yang, who can launch herself into battle but struggles to find a connection to the subtle body. At the onset of her journey, she’s all ego, trying to prove her own force, unyielding to the ambivalent role the Avatar must play. Like many of us, Korra is brought to spiritual surrender through failure, loss, and nearly dying.
I don’t believe that pain and trauma are the only building blocks of wisdom, but in my case, and with countless clients I’ve witnessed “coming online,” awakening comes through a sacrifice: near-fatal injuries and illnesses, revelations of ancestral violations, shocking loss of circumstances or relationships. Something had to die so you could be reborn. Only by relinquishing our identity, cutting our hair, can we finally be of service. “I needed to understand what true suffering was,” Korra says, “so that I could become more compassionate to others.”
I can tell you, as an astrologer, that seeing the big picture is a mixed blessing. You have perspective of the larger recurring cycles of human evolution — through years, decades, and centuries. That gives you a sense of relief: everything goes through phases, destruction is necessary for creation, progress isn’t linear. But it also forces you to accept that horrible things can and do happen, that hard times could be coming (and continuing), and that you can’t save everyone.
Inevitably, by the end of Avatar, Aang is ready to face the firelord, save the world, and restore balance. But he must accept his total failure to prevent this disaster in the first place, and all the lives lost along the way. Zuko only arrives at his destiny after making devastating, potentially irreconcilable mistakes. Every one of Korra’s victories is tinged with doubt: by defeating an anarchist revolt, has she paved the way for a fascist to take over? Every time she seemingly changes the world for the better, she’s met with disdain and bitterness by the human populace.
In my 20s, I think I was more vocal, active, eager to take stands and show up for what is right. Now, I see things differently. Not every fight is mine to interfere in, and some battles can’t be reduced to good and evil. Like the characters of Avatar and Korra, I’ve learned that I can’t be enough for everyone, nor can I always live up to whatever we deem “good” in the moment. All I can do is be of service — try to fulfill my role (which is always evolving) as best as I can.
The Avatar is an intermediary, a symbol of balance. Through the myriad practices I’ve learned since starting the journey with Aang and Korra, I negotiate daily with my own tempestuous forces: my parts, selves, desires, death drives, gifts, and distortions. If it’s possible to bring my inner elements into harmony, then bringing the world to balance is nothing.