In which we bury a symbol of paranoia in an effort to break on through to the other side with astrologer Rob Brezsny
By Sarah Phelan
Photographs by Dina Scoppettone
It began with an email from Rob Brezsny, that renegade genius whose syndicated Free Will Astrology column runs in 130 newspapers nationwide, including Metro Santa Cruz. Only this time Brezsny, who lived in Santa Cruz for 14 years and has since moved to Marin, wasn't writing horoscopes, but pushing his newest book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia (North Atlantic Books; $19 paper).
"Reading it is interesting and helpful, too, but a lot of good stuff can happen if you just let its edgy benevolence seep into your dreaming mind," wrote Brezsny, who urged me to sleep with a copy of Pronoia under my pillow for at least three nights.
At 296 pages thick, the copy of Pronoia that happened to be sitting on my desk didn't strike me as a dream pillow—even in softcover. But Brezsny's email did get me leafing through his weighty tome, whose cover (a flaming heart at the center of a labyrinth) and optimistic subtitle (How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings) had already piqued my curiosity. And once inside its pages, I was unable to resist the "dear gorgeous genius" love letter, or the "luminous tease page," which in typical Brezsny fashion exhorted me to "rebel against your horoscope," and "sip the tears of someone you love." And then there were Brezsny's miribilia reports, which reportedly come "live from your repressed memory of paradise," and include freeing gems, like the uplifting news that "black sheep have a better sense of smell than white sheep."
Promising to place my copy under my pillow (beauty sleep be damned), I emailed Brezsny my request for a face-to-face interview—something he deemed "so 20th-century, but fun, too."
He ended up suggesting that we meet at the Evergreen Cemetery in Harvey West Park to carry out a ritual burial of my share of paranoia, cynicism and snark.
"Not that you have any more than the rest of us; we all need to bury our load of psychic garbage," wrote Brezsny, adding that if I wanted to bury my paranoia then I should bring a symbol of it.
And so it was that after deliberating on paranoid symbolism for the next two weeks, I found myself standing beside the white picket fence that delineates Evergreen Cemetery, a picture postcard of George W. Bush in my hands. Brezsny says he chose this graveyard for our meeting because of many fond associations he has with the place, including meeting the love of his life, Ro Loughran, who he first spied "flailing like a whirling dervish on top of a sepulcher during a performance art event called "A Happy Birthday for Death."
Oddly enough, my first impression of the historic site, which contains the tombstones of some of Santa Cruz's earliest movers and shakers, was of a lover's quarrel, thanks to the pasty-faced goth couple with matching jet-black hair, who standing beneath the cemetery's metal archway were hurling poisonous insults at each other, as I approached.
Not wishing to invade their space and with Brezsny nowhere in sight, I wandered between the cemetery's white entrance pillars and up the redbrick path that meanders into the hills that flank Harvey West Park. Halfway along the path, I encountered a woman whose body was silhouetted by a blinding sheet of white light. Temporarily disoriented, I was just beginning to wondering if this lady—and the goth couple for that matter—were ghosts, when the apparition stepped out of the sunlight and into the shade, revealing herself to be Metro Santa Cruz photographer Dina Scoppettone, who told me that she had just found an old headstone inscribed with the name "Sarah"—a site she thought might be perfect for my paranoia burial ritual.
Just then an exuberant gaggle of school kids caught our attention as they entered the cemetery screaming happily and followed by a man with windswept silver hair, who was wearing a white lab coat over black clothes and carrying a clipboard and pen. As the sun glinted off the man's Harry Potteresque spectacles, I recognized him as Rob Brezsny, "the master of rowdy bliss" as he calls himself in Pronoia, who was here to help me bury my postcard of Bush "without hate." And so we spent the next hour, sitting on the some cold stone steps that led to a nearby grave and talking, as solitary yellow leaves drifted down from the tree canopy and onto the trails, where wind swept them along in dry rattling rustles.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: What can we do about paranoia in light of the fact that Rove is still roving and Bush just got, er 're-elected'?
BREZSNY: The worst thing is to let any of our responses to Bush make us like him, like the fundamentalist virus, which makes us believe the way we see things is correct.
Confess your fundamentalist virus.
My daughter is always busting me when I'm prejudiced against rich people. The mark of a fundamentalist take on things is that it's totally serious, literal and personal. Those are the three death grips.
How long have you been assuming your lab coat identity?
About six years, part time. I like some of the ways that scientists look at the world, how they shed their personal biases, how they don't jump on a little bit of data and make up stories, but just deal with what's there. One of my hypotheses is that the world is conspiring to give us exactly what we need, not from my ego's, but from my soul's, point of view. I put on the lab coat to inspire me, mostly. To remind myself that I'm a scientist, a researcher, not a know-it-all. I like to say I'm looking for the answers so I can destroy them and think up better questions.
Grave New World: Both Rob Brezsny and George W. Bush share the same astrological signs — Cancer with Libra moon — yet only Brezsny adheres to the ancient Spider-Man koan: 'With great power comes great responsibility.'
Do you think that people sitting there, saying, 'Bush is our greatest teacher,' even as bombs keep killing people in Iraq, can lead to dangerous apathy?
I think the answer is to try to live in both of those realms and maintain a dual perspective. Yes, everything is going exactly as planned, but from the perspective that we as small egos can't see, it will work out in a way that may be immediately difficult and painful, but will be good for all. So you can sit there, but also be prepared to fight fiercely for beauty and justice and harmony, to be absolutely devoted to kicking ass in the most tender way possible. Being a pronoiac doesn't make you passive. There's a lot of fierceness in my particular approach to creating goodness and truth and beauty.
I notice you say 'pronoiac' and not 'pronoid.'
Pronoiac rhymes with aphrodisiac. Pronoid rhymes with paranoid.
By rhyming with aphrodisiac, pronoiac emphasizes a love of life?
Yeah, this pronoia is celebration. It's not a passive optimism. It's not an "ignore the darkness" kind of optimism. This is not a shopping-mall-in-Indianapolis kind of pronoia. This is not a gated-community kind of pronoia. It's a let-the-chaos-in kind of pronoia, because the Goddess is bringing us chaos over and over again. That's how she creates. So, pronoia's got to thrive on chaos. It can't be afraid of it.
A woman with a heavy Spanish accent called our paper a few months ago from Watsonville, and said, 'Rob Brezsny, he hates Aries.' She claimed your column always bashes Aries. Do you have a secret hatred of Aries?
(Laughs rowdily.) No, I love all the signs equally, but as you can imagine, I'm a huge projection screen for people. In general, that's probably pretty good. They can project onto me their inner teacher. They can imagine that I'm somehow the source of this information, when it's actually coming from them, because it's all in how you interpret my work. I think when I'm working at my best, I'm standing in for each person's inner teacher. Since lots of people don't know they have such a thing, I can provide a service, I can materialize it in the outer world.
Your work, then, is all in the interpretation?
I try to keep my intentions extremely clean and pure and loving, because I think that's the only thing that's going to work to ensure that people take what I say and use it in the best way. It's so important that your intentions don't get subverted, or appropriated by the ego or your desire to be loved or please other people. Not that those are terrible motivations, but to do what I do best, I have to give without any strings attached, with the smartest love I can summon.
What made you leave Santa Cruz?
My wife was going to grad school in San Francisco. I also had that sense that as long as I lived in Santa Cruz, that because I resonated so deeply with the starving artist archetype, I would remain a starving artist. I don't think everyone who lives here does that, to the contrary, but I felt I'd remain insular, if I stayed. And within a couple of years of leaving, my column took off and got syndicated, and I made a lot more money.
Do you pray for clarity?
I do. Most of my prayers start with gratitude, asking Goddess what I can do for her, rather than what she can do for me
Is Pronoia a character in Greek mythology?
In Greek mythology, Pronoia was the consort of Prometheus, the divine rebel who stole fire from the gods and brought it to humanity. Pronoia is an ancient word that's been used in different contexts, but used to mean providence, or the abundance of spiritual gifts.
Do you see Pronoia as a female figure, or as a belief system?
I like to say it's a mode of perception and try to take out of realm of belief. I do like to see it as a muse, though, as a somewhat elusive but generous muse, which for me, because I'm a heterosexual man, tends to take a female form, and a muse that bestows an abundance and surprise and clues to me as a researcher. ... It's critical that what we call the archetype of the Divine Feminine returns in full force before we kill the world — or kill the world as it's inhabitable for us.
In 'Pronoia,' you call yourself Global Village Idiot and Fool Czar?
Right, although the president hasn't responded to my request to be appointed Fool Czar.
So, as Fool Czar, how would you exhibit compassion toward George?
I'd love to kiss his ass. I even offered to kiss Rove's butt without his underpants on, but I haven't had any response. And I'd love to talk about the fact that George W. Bush and I share astrological signs. We're both Cancer with Libra moon. I'd like to talk about ways we're similar.
What are those ways?
We're both good at touching into the collective imagination. However, in my opinion, he manipulates that for the powers of greed, of elitism, of militarism and materialism, whereas I'm trying to, I suppose, manipulate it in the name of beauty and truth and the elimination of hierarchy, of pure democracy and feminism. I'd like him to consider creating some new holidays. One of them would of course be the Bliss Blast.
As part of one of the exercises in your book called 'Rank Your Favorite Doomsday Scenario,' I went on the Internet, typed in 'paranoia' and got tons of hits. Waco. Men in black. The Bay of Pigs. The Bermuda Triangle. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. UFOs. Tinfoil Hats. The missing WMDs and 9/11. Bin Laden. Seems like it's a pretty good time in the history of world to be paranoid.
A pretty interesting time.
So, you're swimming against the stream with your pronoia?
I'm not gonna claim that the news is 95 percent good, but I would like to work on the hypothesis that maybe it's fifty-fifty. I think that the absurd domination of bad news is curious and suspicious. It seems to suggest that those who identify themselves as educated and elite communicators in our society believe the opposite of what the poet John Keats said, which is, 'If something is not beautiful, it is probably not true.
The media and a lot of politicians seem to say the exact opposite, which is, if something is not ugly, it is not true. And that's a cockeyed view of world. I'm not advocating that we ignore the darkness and pretend, for instance, that we're not living through a mass extinction event. For example, biologists say we're living through the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years. However, in my opinion we're in the midst of tremendous abundance as well — tremendous beauty and joy and pleasure. The apocalypse is not happening sometime in the future, it's already under way. It's a slow motion apocalypse and it's both apocalypse in the current sense of word, which is a collapse, a degeneration of things falling apart, but also in the ancient sense, which is an awakening. So, right alongside all this collapse and degeneration is awakening and birth and fountains of incredible creativity and reinvention. To be honest, as educated intellectual people, we need to report on the other side.
Tell me about the homeopathic medicine spells in your book. Do you put the bad, negative stuff inside them?
Yes, you recognize the negative. You put it in its place and surround it with blessings, with a spell of protection, so it won't reach out and grab some part of our subconscious mind and say, "This is true. You are like this." So, in a sense, these spells protect us against our temptation to resonate with ugliness, evil and ungenerous anger. Jung talked about the shadow, that part of ourselves that is wounded, sick, that never grew up right. So, we have to have a relationship with our shadows. If we try to deny or ignore their existence, they will bite us in the ass, subvert our good intentions, undermine what we're trying to do. We need to make sure that before we go out and ask the world to change, that we're in very close contact with the ugliness in ourselves and that we're working to redeem that and transform it.
We take a break, during which Brezsny retrieves a long-handled shovel from his car for our burial event. But as he poses beneath the cemetery's metal archway, and I dig a hole safely away from the graves, including the "Sarah" headstone — a police car turns onto Evergreen Road and slows to a crawl, its uniformed occupants eyeing our merry trio with detached curiosity.
Immediately, my paranoia, which I have not yet buried, springs back to life, taunting me with questions, such as, 'Is it illegal to bury a photo of the U.S. president, especially if you're an immigrant on a green card?' Not knowing what else to do with the evidence, I jam it into my pants, with the unintended consequence that Bush's photo ends up kissing my ass. (Hey, maybe the exercise is already working!) And the minute the cop car passes by, I hastily dig a shallow grave, lay Dubya's picture in it with as much kindness as I can summon and cover it up with soil, moments before the cop car cruises by again and Brezsny and I resume our interview.
In 'Don't Think of an Elephant,' George Lakoff warns against framing the debate in the opposition's language. Are you dancing around on the philosophical side of that equation, with your vision of pronoia?
In the Jewish magazine Tikkun, almost immediately after the November election, Rabbi Michael Lerner began talking about how the left can't keep ceding spirituality to the right. We have to add a spiritual aspect to our perspective. That's why a lot of people just gravitate de facto to the right, because at least they recognize or include the element of spirituality. But there are people on the left who represent the spiritual side of left. We do have a moral vision, a very powerful vision about what's good for most people.
As the aftermath of 9/11 showed us, clearly our fears can be manipulated. Is there also a button for happiness?
Right now we as a society are addicted to fear. We need an intervention, to talk in 12-step language. We're so accustomed to being motivated and moved and fascinated by fear that we've lost the capacity to even imagine that pleasure and joy and regeneration and integrity can be interesting. I think it takes a retraining, on a personal level... The first step is to have the intention to be happy. Who'd have thought of that?
What do you believe in?
My personal belief is that there are many other dimensions besides this particular one and that there are beings that are not physically manifest: some are stupid, some smart, good, some bad, some in between, just like in the material realm, but I believe the caricature of angels, kind of a New Age parody, if we look back at John Milton and William Blake, who consorted with angels and many great literary and intellectual minds who took angels very seriously, seriously, not just as a metaphor, not as some empty hope, but as literal entities. I believe in angels, angels who are working full-time to create beauty and truth and love in the world. Unfortunately, they want and need us to identify and ask for what we need, and most people don't do that.
Why do people need to ask?
Because this is a collaboration, not a fascist regime. Contrary to what fundamentalist Christians would say, this is a collaborative effort. The whole point in free will is to participate in a collaborative effort, not leave it to some all-knowing spiritual forces. In a greater sense, I believe in God or Goddess, a single divine intelligence that animates the universe and is simultaneously aware of 500 million galaxies and their function and the six kittens that were recently born to you. From the ego side, that sounds impossible, but I don't think a belief in angels and divine intelligence is required. Some of the greatest spiritual workers on the planet are atheists, but they are supremely ethical, their spiritual work having firmly to do with improving conditions on earth.
In 'Pronoia,' you write, 'I'm allergic to dogma. I thrive on riddles. Any idea I believe, I reserve the right to disbelieve as well.' So, after 'Pronoia' has been out for a while, you're not going to tell us you don't believe in it anymore, are you?
My policy is to believe in the things that inspire me about 75 to 80 percent. I say that about astrology, too. I would never think of saying that I believe in astrology 100 percent, or in feminism or in the perspective of psychology, or leftist politics. All those things, when you identify yourself so entirely with them, that there's no "you" outside of those ideologies, then I think you lost, you're upset, you're possessed by ideas. That's always dangerous, even if the ideas are great ideas. So, I think it's important to maintain skepticism about pronoia. Some people have written to me in a critical way that I expected. Most people resonate pretty well with the philosophy of pronoia, but some say, "You are deluded, you are helping to spread stupidity and laziness." I can understand the fear that if we work at seeing things optimistically, we might lose sight of everything that's wrong with the world. I don't think I'll do that, but that's a valid fear, so in that sense, I'm skeptical of pronoia and I'm not going to promote pronoia as a cure all.
What about the flaming heart in the labyrinth on the cover of 'Pronoia'?
It's the heart on fire, the heart inflamed with the desire to bring beauty and truth and love and justice and harmony to the whole world. Pronoia is not a passive thing. It's fierce, it's filled with strong intention to bring that message that life is much better than it's being portrayed right now, that there's a lot we can do to emphasize what works, and we have to do that aggressively.
William James, the philosopher, talked about how we need a moral equivalent of war. What I take that to mean is that we all have this martial force within us. It's an inherent part of every human being. Unfortunately, it's usually expressed as war and conflict and anger, but there are other ways to express that martial force. As aggressiveness expressed in the name of feminine values. That's my particular angle. That's why I call myself a macho feminist. I want to bring the message of relationship, of intimacy, of love, of caring for other human beings with the same force that a macho dude might use in his struggles to take over the oil fields in the Middle East. This has macho force behind it, but it's done in the name of joy, peace and harmony. That's what that image says to me.
What was your motive for writing 'Pronoia'?
When Henri Matisse started his work, critics said he threatened to undermine civilization, that's the power artists had in some eras of history. It's hard to imagine anyone saying that about a painter or an artist today. It's been demonstrated that art has the power to remake the world, whether to subvert existing values and/or create new ones. I'd like to return to the Henri Matisse kind of place.
So ended our interview, and shortly thereafter, strange stuff started happening. No, the Bush regime did not immediately crumble to dust under the weight of its lies, like vampires in full daylight. Instead, things I thought I'd been paranoid about for years in my personal life turned out to be my angels whispering in my ear all along. And when I confronted the truth it turned out to be more beautiful than the ugliness of living in a lie. So, be advised: burying your paranoia may change your life, not necessarily in the way you were expecting, but in a way that will free you to see the truth and beauty in your own life—perhaps even with humor. As for the bigger picture, I'll leave you with a vision that Brezsny describes in Pronoia's "I Have a Dream" section:
"I'm the president now ... and so are you. I am the supreme Commander of the United Snakes of the Blooming Haha ... and so are you. And what we proclaim is that in the New World, we will love our neighbors as ourselves, even if our neighbors are jerks. We will search for the divine spark even in the people we most despise, and we will never dehumanize anyone, even those who dehumanize us. I have a dream that sooner or later, every one of us will become a well-rounded highly skilled, incredibly rich master of rowdy bliss—with lots of leisure time and an orgiastic feminist conscience."
Metro Santa Cruz © 2005
"At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." ~ Ernesto Che Guevara