Hollywood Astrology or: the heroes’ journey

Dynamics of the UnconsciousOne definition of a really good book, for me, is that it mightn’t just change but save your life. Or even just save your sanity. Whether you totally like or finish reading it needn’t matter; what counts is that it yield some key idea. One such book eased my way through a dark phase 14+ years ago – Dynamics of the Unconscious: Seminars in Psychological Astrology, Vol. 2 (1988) by Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas. The first three parts treat aggression, depression and the quest for the sublime, respectively. But reading the last part – on alchemy as metaphor – gave me relief from the suicidal thoughts that were surfacing as I weathered withdrawal.

Whether a person is letting go of an addictive substance or process, the terrain encountered along the way is known for certain harsh features ranging from strain to torture of body and soul. The themes of burning (and the alembic that safely contains it), dissolving, coagulation and sublimation – as they apply to traditional alchemy and to the psyche’s dynamics – mapped my suffering closely enough that I trusted it would soon change shape.

For several years that book had stood unread on my shelf – like a neighbour or coworker seen daily yet barely registered, who one day appears with some revelation when you least expect it – sparking a revolution in the mind or the heart. I can’t recall why I opened that book, but it helped me stay sane through a crazy time. Possibly it even helped to keep me alive. Of course I can say the same of at least one friend, and even one stranger – but not only is a book much more affordable than, say, therapy; it’s on hand to lend support 24/7 – a relationship that won’t ever need closure; that will, with subsequent reads, likely continue to unfold.

What brought this valued book to mind? A close friend lent me a couple of others. Their format is superficially similar – a series of workshops with two astrologers, Measuring the Night: Evolutionary Astrology and the Keys to the Soul (Vols 1 & 2) by Steven Forrest and Jeffrey Wolf Green. And there ends any resemblance: evolutionary and psychological astrology are two quite different beasts. Having read Forrest and Green before, I came to this joint effort intrigued, recalling their respective styles as being like chalk and cheese: the former comic, conventional and dense with examples; the latter solemn, idiosyncratic and prone to generalities.

Saturn, on its path round the Sun, has lately returned to where it was when I first got serious about astrology, teaching myself by reading such authors as Liz Greene, whose work on the whole affirmed what I’d observed in myself and others. By the time I read Green and Forrest I had a sound working knowledge of the discipline against which to measure their input. Green, I found to be more or less cryptically left field; Forrest, accessibly mainstream (if not so original), grounded and logical.

Maybe they could have saved my life if I’d consulted them in person. After all, how deep can you go in a workshop? Quite deep, as Liz Greene demonstrates – which reminds me of why I mentioned these guys. A trained editor could have made a difference: theirs, Mrs Forrest, is a fantasy writer but that’s another skill entirely (publishers, as we’ve recently seen, slash editing budgets at their peril). For one thing, you won’t find Liz Greene’s texts cluttered with self-promotion. Not so with Forrest and Green’s Measuring the Night, Vol. One (2000):

Somewhere between ninety and ninety-nine percent of what gets published in the world of astrology is exoteric. I’m not using that as a dirty word either. Think, for example, of Liz Greene’s material, which is of course very sophisticated psychological astrology. I certainly don’t mean to sound disrespectful of Liz Greene. She’s brilliant. But I also want to observe that she might write eloquently and wisely […] and it can provide us with valid and difficult insights—but it is still descriptive. […] If you posit a spectrum of human possibilities and you locate someone on it, it’s exoteric astrology. In true esoteric astrology, you forget all that. You simply compare yourself to where you need to be (p. 274).

I’m not sure why such self-advertisement – whether subtle, as above, or much more overt – crops up so often in Forrest and Green’s workshops; their audiences, which laugh at all their jokes, seem not to need converting. And you can read 15 pages of ads for the Forrests, Green and more, at the back. But what does emerge, through repetition, is the competitive edge of the evolutionary viewpoint vs. the merely psychological. Why limit yourself to childhood when you can spice your reading with past-life themes? Green channels the crucial plot points in your soul’s saga with the conviction of all self-styled prophets, while Forrest more humbly admits to a margin of error; describing his improvised scenarios as metaphor, an art form at which, to give him his dues, he often excels. Here’s how he justifies it in Measuring the Night, Vol. Two (2001):

Any novel worth reading is a true story in which the facts are made up. The practical point here is to be intuitive if you can be, and certainly to be creative. Our aim is to trigger an emotional response in the client that stirs the old karmic memory and relates it to the present circumstances (pp 78–9).

I’ll refrain from comment on Forrest’s notion of the novel. The thing is, this approach seems fitting for clients conditioned by TV and Hollywood – let them star in their own period drama. Uh-huh: Forrest’s astrologer–novelist wife writes historical fantasies and he invents synopsis-sized versions for his clients. So isn’t Forrest/Green’s aim sort of like that of every Hollywood film ever made – to ‘trigger an emotional response’? That’s entertainment. Which is to say it’s manipulative, if in a well-meaning way: essentially it puts the client, like cinephiles, in a passive position.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I have a closed mind; whether as subject, facilitator or guide, I’ve explored assorted methods for recalling past lives. So I know how such scenarios can speak to a client’s need for meaning – though I tend to think deeper emotional shifts can be achieved through trance/regression or even just through exploring vivid dreams: it’s like the difference between watching something on screen or actually doing it. A movie – be it porn, rom-com, action etc. – functions as substitution.

Liz Greene draws on an extensive knowledge of myth, but it’s common property – she won’t make up stories about your personal past lives or speculate on your next rebirth. Depth psychology – the basis for Greene’s Jungian style of astrology, with its emphasis on the unconscious – doesn’t exist to describe individuals but to serve as a guide to the psyche. You can’t move on, not really, until you know where you are, deeply. Or else you just wind up reprising old themes in yet another remake.

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