You're happier than you think
By Pamela White (email@example.com)
For 28 years, Rob Brezsny has been covertly practicing poetry in the form of a weekly astrology column. Free Will Astrology runs in more than 100 newspapers nationwide and has earned accolades not commonly associated with the practice of astrology. Utne Reader has called Brezsny a "Culture Hero" for his witty oracles. Novelist Tom Robbins compared his astrological predictions to "little valentines."
Whether he's standing on the street corner practicing "reverse panhandling" or coaching participants at the Burning Man Festival to chant, "I am a fucking genius," Brezsny is engaged in the subversive exercise of creative joy. He calls it "Pronoia" and has devoted 300 pages to describing exactly what Pronoia is and how it can benefit humanity in his most recent book, Pronoia is the Antidote to Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.
An ode to life, a self-help book and a post-apocalyptic survival guide, Pronoia is a coloring book for adults and mixes autobiographical accounts with poetry, images and workbook exercises geared toward rebooting the spirit. It attempts to refocus the cynical modern mind on life's beauty, while offering the reader a framework for dealing with all that is negative in the world.
In anticipation of his Wed., Aug. 16, performance and book signing at Boulder Book Store, Boulder Weekly tracked Brezsny down to his home in Santa Cruz, Calif., to talk about astrology, creativity and the art of crafting reality.
Boulder Weekly: I understand you studied astrology in college.
Rob Brezsny: I went to Duke for two years. Then I transferred to Goddard in Vermont, which, at that time, was one of the most radical schools. I think the day I arrived Anaïs Nin was reading in the commons room, and there were at least 20 nude people in the audience listening to her. It was a place where you could actually take a course in astrology, among other things. Eventually my degree was in creative writing. But there was a teacher there who taught a very esoteric form of astrology that didn't really deal with astrology as an analysis of personality, but rather astrology as a mythic symbol system.
BW: That definitely had some influence on how you see astrology. One of the things I love about your column—and I think the thing that everybody loves about it—is that it's not one of these tabloid astrology columns. It's not, "You're a Pisces, so today you're going to be mugged." It's not fast, predictive, simplistic.
RB: They tend to emphasize the fear factor. They pander to people's tendencies to see their lives superstitiously and expect the worst is about to happen. That's one of the reasons I dislike them. And, of course, the other reason is that very few of them are written by people who worked at all on their writing or have any sense of what it means to use language in a way that liberates people rather than enslaves them.
I don't know if you ever came across James Hillman's book, Soul's Code, but he's a neo-Jungian psychologist. In that book he proposes that everyone has a blueprint that they can choose to tune into and express or not or rebel against. I think of the [natal] chart as a map, as a way to read that blueprint.
For me, relationship is crucial. I think what makes my astrology column work is that I don't pretend to be an authority preaching from on high, but regard my column as a collaboration between me and my audience. And I have over the years constantly received feedback in the form of letters and e-mails and also in the form of personal testimony and even in dreams. And so I regard my column as this ongoing collaboration between me and my readers. I think if it's good and useful, it has something to do with that dynamic.
BW: Your column feels very intimate. There's a level of resonance that feels very personal to your readers.
RB: I think there's magic involved that's beyond rational understanding. I'm not talking metaphorically when I say the column is a collaboration. I really mean I think there is some dialogue going on.
BW: As you just said, relationship and dialogue are important to you. In your book, Pronoia, you emphasized dialogue by inviting readers to co-author parts of the book with you.
RB: I've tried to do that throughout the book, where I encourage people to respond, to write, to protest, to use their imagination to counteract or to agree with me.
BW: When I read through your book, I felt the book was telling us that we all have immense creative potential. It's not just a matter of plastering a veneer over the way we think about our lives and the world. Each of us has the power truly to create our own reality.
RB: It's sad that poets are no longer the unrecognized legislators of the world, because what the poet used to do was inform people that it's important what language you use and it's important that your imagination be free. As you say, it's not just a matter of plastering a different interpretation over your difficult experiences, but rather creating your life in the world through the heart, through your use of liberated language and a careful and yet expansive use of the language to name what's happening to you. So those are two key elements to what I do in the astrology column.
I regard what I do as the covert practice of poetry. I like to let people know that there's nothing more important than liberating their imagination so that they can tell the story of their own life rather than absorb all the other stories that are flying around out there. And when you tell the story of your own life, you have tremendous power to create what happens to you, and likewise, to choose your language in such a way that it feeds your dreams rather than subverts them.
BW: There's a jolt factor to your column and your book that tries to prompt people to get out of the rut they're living and thinking in. That's so refreshing. It reminds me of the Zen parable of the student who asks his teacher how he can reach enlightenment. His teacher smacks him in the face and walks away laughing.
RB: It's a perfect place to try to pull that off. The astrology column is a despised genre. Nobody gives it any respect or credit, so when people read it, they don't have this sense that some great teacher is pontificating from on high, delivering wisdom. It's just a little astrology column that you spend five minutes a week with. And so in a way they're more receptive to that kind of Zen trickster element, in which they may be more able to use the alert to wake up.
BW: In many ways, your book seems to me to be an expansion of the ideas you work with in your column. It looks at these issues in depth. What inspired you to write the book?
RB: For many years I noticed there's this gap between the narrative about the world that was coming out of the news and entertainment industries and the actual life experience of most of the people I knew, even poor people. Most of the people I encountered in my life were very glad to be alive. The majority of their experience, if not always positive, was interesting—interesting enough to get them up in the morning and make them excited about going through the next day. And as I pondered that gap, I grew increasingly enraged and passionate about pointing out that, in fact, the prevailing narratives about the state of the world are contradicted by the actual raw life experience of most of us. I decided to collect evidence for that hypothesis, that, in fact, things are much better than anyone lets on; that, yes, there's always suffering in the world, and yet the predominant experience of everyone, especially in America, is one of plenty, of great freedom of choice, of material plenty unknown in the history of the world. It became very exciting for me to collect that evidence in support of that hypothesis.
BW: So we all might be a lot happier than we realize if we took the time to count our blessings?
RB: Yeah. There's that piece in the book called "Glory in the Highest," which is early on in the book, and that's the beginning of a manifesto of everything that works for me, that delights me, that makes me feel at home in the world. I encourage everyone during my performances to write their own "Glory in the Highest" manifesto, and people report back to me that they are shocked at how much fun they have, how much they enjoy the act of daily living.
BW: It's such a different thing than we often do, which is to get together and recite our problems and the bad parts of the day with one another, instead of saying, "I have 10,000 things to be grateful for in this moment and two things that irritate me."
RB: It's considered uncool to do that. And educated people especially—people who consider themselves smart—regard cynicism as a sign of intelligence. It's reached that point where it's a collective mental illness where to appear smart you complain and criticize, and to praise and express gratitude is somehow a weak-willed, mushy-minded indulgence. And so one thing my book tried to do was to express the point that, actually, no, living a Pronoiac life is one of the greatest taboos in our culture that you can possibly imagine.
BW: One thing I love about your writing is that it urges experience over caution and fear.
RB: I hope that I can inspire people to do that within whatever makes sense for their own lives. Some people are more cautious than other people, but within any life there are degrees of liberation that most people haven't begun to plumb.
BW: When it comes to dogma-based religions, there's always a time of revelation, and that time is always in the distant past. And those revelations have been interpreted and are subject to teaching by a controlled pool of experts. But what your book expresses so beautifully is that we're in a moment of divine revelation right now and that we are our own best interpreters of these messages and these blessings.
RB: Absolutely. Pronoia means, among other things, being alive to the raw and ever-evolving truth of the moment, not being lost in the stories in our heads, wherever those stories have come from—whether they're our own personal conditioning or the scenarios that are propagandized by the media and entertainment industries. And I think there are actually other forms of fundamentalism that aren't recognized as fundamentalism. And it's not just the religious fanatics of Christianity and Islam and Hinduism and Judaism, but it's a whole range of people who in essence practice fundamentalism. What fundamentalism means is, "I'm right, and you're wrong." My interpretation of reality is correct, and everything else is stupid or foolish or inferior.
For instance, I think the people who practice what Robert Anton Wilson calls fundamentalist materialism—which holds that nothing exists unless it can be detected by the human senses or by machines created by human beings—are practicing a form of fundamentalism. And so when I say, "What I see spread out before me in all directions is a stunning miracle crafted by a supernal consciousness that simultaneously oversees the evolution of 500 million galaxies, and yet it serves as personal companion and daily advisor to every one of us"—if I say that, the fundamentalist materialists think I'm an idiot. That's them practicing their form of fundamentalism.
The scientific method is a wonderful way of knowing the world. And it has led to tremendous breakthroughs in human experience, but it's not the only mode of knowledge, and those who believe it is are fundamentalists.
BW: It makes me wonder if we've entered a time when our culture is taking on a fundamentalist mindset, because we're polarizing, arguing with each other, choosing our friends based on who they voted for and that sort of thing. We're showing that absolutist "I'm right, you're wrong" kind of mentality.
RB: Yes, I know progressive political people whose values I share almost entirely who believe that every Republican on the planet is either stupid or evil or both. To me, that's a form of fundamentalism. I want to be awake to the humanity of people whose values I don't share. I know Buddhists who just adamantly decree that the nature of life on this planet is suffering. I know astrologers who think there's only one right way to practice astrology. Fundamentalism is rife, and it's not recognized as fundamentalism for the most part.
BW: When you talk about the images that the media presents, I often hear people say, "Blame the media." This is a newspaper where I work, and we do tend to cover what's wrong in the world. But the media is merely an expression of society.
RB: Yep, it's us. It is we who must reframe the situation. That's why I'm rooting for an uprising of Pronoia, because it's only by doing that that we'll change the media, who are us. As you may be aware there are a growing number of websites and newspapers that are now talking about the Pronoiac news. According to my definition of the Pronoiac news, it's not the kind of thing Ronald Reagan advocated, which was, "Two thousand planes all took off today, and they all landed safely," That's good news, but it's not very interesting. If we're going to compete with the old mode of thinking, Pronoiac news has to be interesting.
I have hundreds of stories in the book that I consider to meet that definition. Since the book came out, I've been collecting more information. I don't know if you came across the "Human Security Report," which came out last October. It was a study done by the University of British Columbia. They found that the world has become dramatically more peaceful in the past 14 years. The number of wars and coup d'etats and acts of genocide has declined by 40 percent. Weapons sales between countries have dropped by 33 percent during that time. The number of refugees diminished by 45 percent. If it were up to me, that would be on the front page of every newspaper.
BW: Instead people are talking about World War III because of what's going on with Israel and Hezbollah and Iraq.
RB: And we don't want to ignore that. Pronoia doesn't advocate repressing the ugliness. It just says let's give equal time to the beauty and the miracles.
BW: And also there's a way of engaging with ugliness that is interesting. It's not just about looking for the silver lining. Can you explain the difference between Pronoia and just looking for the silver lining?
RB: I like to tell people that life is a vast conspiracy that guarantees they'll always be well supplied with blessings. Are those blessings 10 million dollars and a gorgeous physique and a perfect marriage and two luxurious homes and high status? Well, maybe. But it's more likely the blessings will be interesting surprises and dizzying adventures and gifts you hardly know what to do with and conundrums that force you to get smarter and wilder and kinder and trickier. Pronoia doesn't require you to imagine that you'll be forever more free of all difficulties. In order to build your optimism, you view your challenges as gifts from the Goddess that are designed to make you smarter, and you welcome each fresh puzzle as a potential source of your future bliss, as a teaching that's going to issue you to your next breakthrough. So from a Pronoiac viewpoint, the difficulties are included. I'm not the first person to say that. There's a wonderful poem by Rumi: "This being human is a guest house/Every morning a new arrival/A joy, a depression, a meanness/Some momentary awareness comes an unexpected visitor/Welcome and entertain them all/Even if they're a crowd of sorrows/Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture/Still treat each guest honorably/He may be clearing you out for some new delight/The dark thought, the shame, the malice/Meet them at the door, laughing, and invite them in/Be grateful for whoever comes/For each has been sent as a guide from beyond."
That for me really sums up the Pronoiac attitude toward difficulty.
BW: Are you planning on doing a second edition of Pronoia? It's been unexpectedly popular. That's what the news reports say. They say "surprisingly popular."
RB: It got up to 1,096 on Amazon this week. It's in its fifth printing. Yeah, I probably will. Right now I'm working on the soundtrack to Pronoia. I've been doing a Pronoia show, which I'll be doing in Boulder, although a somewhat shorter version of it. It involves a cappella singing, praying, interactive rituals and some more common speaking, so I'm going to put that on a CD. I was a musician for many years so it comes natural to me, and the CD I'm doing will have music.
BW: What is the feedback you've been getting from readers for Pronoia?
RB: Joy for the most part. And gratitude. People say, "I've been thinking these thoughts in the back of my mind, but I've never had any excuse to give them credibility. Thank you for allowing me to begin to understand that those fantasies that I've had in the back of my mind may actually have some validity." I think that's my favorite response from people.
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