Background in transpersonal movement and astrology
Stan Grof’s contribution: The scientific study of the holotropic states of consciousness
The levels of the psyche and Perinatal Matrices
Richard Tarnas’s contribution: archetypal astrology – The Rosetta Stone of human psyche
Prometheus The Awakener
Cosmos and Psyche
Archetypal astrology and the birth of a New Worldview
September 12, 2014
Background in transpersonal movement and astrology
ADRIAN: Hello Renn, and thank you for accepting my invitation to discuss your work!
RENN: Thank you for the opportunity, Adrian. I see it’s late in Romania.
ADRIAN: Yes… Renn, you wrote a marvelous book on how to use archetypal astrology to guide one’s inner journey into the transpersonal realms: how to use it to support deep internal therapeutic work. But before discussing your book, I’d like you to say a few words about your background in astrology and the transpersonal field.
RENN: During the 1960s my father was dissatisfied with the traditional religion he was raised in and was inspired by the wave of evolutionary and transformative energies of the Uranus-Pluto conjunction of 1960 to 1972 – eventually going to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. He did a month-long workshop and later went back several more times…
After my parents divorced in 1973, my mother went to Esalen and lived there for several years, so I had some deep roots in California. In late 1979 I had the opportunity to go to Esalen as a work scholar after my first year of university (I started out in Political Science and Economics) and ended up staying at Esalen for all of 1980. During that year I was able to have many fascinating and inspiring conversations with Richard Tarnas whom I had met on a previous visit in the 70s… He was so generous and kind with his time. He encouraged me to explore Stanislav Grof’s work and talked a lot about the interface between archetypal astrology and Stanislav Grof’s research in transpersonal psychology.
I remember as if it happened yesterday some of our conversations… in one, we were sitting in the Esalen garden and he was very animatedly talking about some of the experiences people have in the dynamic stage of labor, when they’re accessing that part of their psyche… I was able to culminate a fantastically rich and awakening year in 1980 at Esalen with a month-long seminar with Stan and Christina Grof and guests in the fall of 1980. It was an amazing experience…
I eventually went back to university a year later, switched to English and Religious Studies and got my B.A. I did a number of Holotropic Breathwork workshops in the Bay Area as a participant in the late 80s and eventually certified as a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator in the second year of certification in Dahlonega, Georgia in October 1989. I moved back to Canada and have been doing workshops in Victoria since 1992.
In terms of astrology, I had my chart done by a friend of my mom in February 1978 when I was staying with her for three months in San Francisco, after I graduated from high school. I was fascinated with it. There was some kind of archetypal power in astrology. I remember listening to this lovely woman and looking at my chart and it just resonated so strongly with me: there were encouraging parts and kind of scary parts. I didn’t think too much about astrology for the next year and a half but then in September 1979 I found on our farm where I’d grown up, where my dad was still living with my brothers and sisters, a copy of Sakoian and Acker’s classic The Astrologer’s Handbook and I read that avidly that autumn. Then I came to Esalen on December 2, 1979 and had the opportunity to have those many inspiring conversations with Rick Tarnas. I remember putting on my workscholar application that I had certain planetary aspects in the house of work which said basically that I am a hard worker. Rick Tarnas discussed the application with Brian Lyke, the General Manager of Esalen at that time, and they were both kind of intrigued that I had that knowledge of astrology.
I was also able to do a weekend workshop with Robert Hand at Esalen in 1980 which was amazing. He is a brilliant man. I was so impressed with him also: so warm, intelligent and yet so down to earth as well. A number of other books that I read then at Esalen were also very inspiring: some of Stephen Arroyo’s works and Hamaker-Zondag works, Ebertin’s The Combination of Stellar Influences and Liz Greene’s books, especially Saturn – A New Look at an Old Devil.
Stan Grof’s contribution: The scientific study of the holotropic states of consciousness
ADRIAN: What an appropriate moment to honor the elders… and since your work is based on their research and discoveries, would you like to discuss Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas? This way we can put your own work in the right context and then we can emphasize your personal contribution.
RENN: Well, Grof, as you know, is the foremost researcher with LSD in psychiatry. In the mid-1950s the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, Czechoslovakia received from the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland samples of pure LSD-25. At that time LSD was being used and investigated by clinical researchers among other things as a way for healthcare professionals to have experiences that were similar to the mindsets and states of consciousness of their patients, so it was seen as a way to get inside the human psyche and to get a first-hand taste of some of these inner territories, to develop empathy and understanding of what their clients were going through.
Grof enthusiastically signed up for this program as a young intern or perhaps he was a psychiatrist at that point, and his first experience was incredible. The parameters of the “experiment” (which is what I think they called it) were that the psychiatrist running the session was going to be shining a strobe light at him (laughing). It was, you know, probably all in white coats in some sort of brightly lit room, but he agreed to it and I remember from his account in his When the Impossible Happens, I believe, that he felt during this experience that he was leaving the consciousness of his body and moving into outer space, beyond the speed of light and connecting with the Divine. This was his very first LSD experience. He reflected on the incredible irony that the Divine was revealing himself and allowing him to have this awakening experience in the context of a medical experiment, within the confines of a traditional scientific model, catalyzed by a chemical compound which had been created in a laboratory and all of this happened in an atheist Marxist country…
ADRIAN: And dominated by the Soviet Union!
RENN: Yes! So it was the incredible irony that dramatically changed his life and career, and he devoted the rest of his career to the research of non-ordinary – what we are now calling holotropic or “moving toward wholeness” – states of consciousness. Holotropic is the term coined by Grof, borrowing from the Greek words “trepein” which means “moving towards” and “holos” meaning “wholeness”, just like a heliotropic plant moves toward the Sun (Helios). In these states the psyche automatically knows how to clear out leftover toxic memories and blocked energies and widen the pathway to Divine Consciousness.
So he eventually had the opportunity in the late 1950s and up through the mid-1960s to work with a series of voluntary patients with systematic LSD psychotherapy and he eventually conducted over 4000 LSD sessions. He was personally overseeing two sessions a day: one in the first part of the day then another one following, 6 days a week for many years. In his own words he “was very deeply involved” and he also had access to the records of 2000 more LSD sessions from colleagues around the world. Many of the experiences that he observed fell outside of the range of the traditional Freudian psychiatric model within which he was working, not to mention the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm, and he went through several years of very painful and difficult conceptual confusion, but eventually he was able to systematize a new expanded cartography of the human psyche which accounted for the observations of his client sessions, as well as reaching into areas of spirituality described in the great religious traditions of the world.
After the drug hysteria, in large part caused by the sensationalist reporting of some tragic accidents and suicides in the ‘60s during the unsupervised use of psychedelics by young people, which was then followed by the clampdown of the authorities on legitimate psychiatric research, Stan Grof and his wife Christina developed a nondrug substitute for his earlier research which they called “Holotropic Breathwork”. This powerful technique uses deep and rapid breathing, evocative music, focused bodywork and mandala drawing and it’s done in a safe supportive environment, often in a group, which also allows people to access holotropic or non-ordinary states.
The levels of the psyche and Perinatal Matrices
It might be useful to just briefly introduce the perinatal matrices here. So what Grof discovered, by extrapolating from the thousands of clinical records that he had from these sessions, was that people’s experiences tend to fall into three broad categories. He felt that psychedelics are to psychology and psychiatry what the microscope is to biology and the telescope is to astronomy, and used in a responsible way these substances offer unparalleled insights into the deeper and broader dynamics of the human psyche. He found that people’s experiences emerge from three broad levels of the psyche.
The first layer of the psyche, he termed the BIOGRAPHICAL, and these are the traditional experiences that are well known from conventional psychotherapy. Many of these were introduced by Freud (so we could call this the Freudian layer of the psyche, as well). This layer includes physical and sexual abuse, various childhood traumas, sibling rivalry, severe toilet training, and a hostile family atmosphere. There was another category of experiences that have not yet been integrated in most schools of psychotherapy and these are very serious illnesses, operations, or accidents. Grof found that these events (especially if they represent a threat to life or breathing, such as suffocation, near-drowning experiences, attempted strangulation by a sibling or diphtheria, whooping cough, and other serious illnesses) leave often a permanent trace in the psyche that can then be released and completed later on, as they routinely surface years later in deep self-exploration.
The second layer of the psyche, Grof termed PERINATAL (“peri” means “surrounding,” like a periscope goes around and “natal” of course means birth). Perinatal experiences represent a very profound encounter with biological birth as well as death and mortality. Grof found that these experiences tend to occur in four broad thematic clusters of experience and he termed the Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs).
The first perinatal matrix (BPM I) is based around the union with the mother and in an ideal womb situation oxygen is supplied and waste products are taken away through the umbilical cord. The fetus is floating in an amniotic sack and is essentially an aquatic organism. When people access this matrix in sessions or sometimes just spontaneously they tend to have experiences of blissful connection, unity, sense of higher meaning, and they can have images of heavens or paradises from various parts of the world, even those which they had never heard of. They can describe specific details about these archetypal terrains which can be verified by looking in reference books in a library. This was essentially laboratory proof of Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. There are also toxic womb experiences, if the mother was under a lot of stress, was sick, had serious accidents or also was using drugs or alcohol – then there can be various degrees of toxicity in the womb and these can also leave a trace in the psyche until faced and worked through.
The second perinatal matrix (BPM II) is based around the onset of labor contractions where the cervix is still closed. When people access this memory there can be a sense of being engulfed by a compressing force. The whole Universe seems to close in on a person – there can be images of being swallowed by a whale or being constricted by a giant octopus, or trapped in a huge spider web, as well as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and victimization. People often reflect on the biblical story that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise the curse on them was that in pain and sorrow shalt thou bring forth children… very interesting.
The second perinatal matrix is a very logical and convincing source of clinical depression, of what’s called the endogenous type of depression where people feel no interest in anything and have no confidence, that the world seems to be absolutely meaningless, like an absurd cardboard world in which death, suffering, and alienation are all that really exists. When people access this matrix in their inner lives, there can be a feeling of existence in hell. However, Grof makes the distinction that the perception that hell is eternal represents a confusion between real time and subjective time. While the perception is that you’re in a hellish realm of suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it and that there’s no way out, no exit, full surrender to this experience consumes it from the psyche and allows the process to move to the next stage. The sense of being in an eternal negative situation can only last minutes in real time but it can feel like an eternity.
The third perinatal matrix (BPM III) is based on the dynamic stage of labor. Here the cervix is open and the fetus is being slowly forced down the narrow birth canal by uterine contractions that oscillate between 50 and 100 pounds of force. There’s an activation of enormous biological energies at this point. He describes it as a sort of biological and instinctual inferno. It is a life-threatening or potentially life-threatening event and this is because of the suffocation. In the birth process the oxygen supply to the fetus comes through an artery in the umbilical cord and that is fed by arteries that are wound through the uterine walls, so every time there’s a contraction it cuts or diminishes the flow of oxygen to the fetus. This is experienced as suffocation and choking and if this is serious enough it can lead to permanent brain damage.
I actually work in a group home about 22 years next month and almost all the people that I’ve had the privilege of working with, did experience this cerebral palsy from anoxia at birth, a lack of oxygen at birth. This situation can also be complicated by the umbilical cord around the neck or pressed between the head and the pelvic bone. So it is a very intense experience and there’s an activation of enormous aggressive energies in the fetus but because it can’t fight back, scream or leave the situation, these energies are pent-up and then jammed back into its own body and musculature for later discharge. Additionally, the fetus introjects the powerful driving forces of the mother’s contracting body into its own musculature and these become the basis of judging, punishing, and cruel attitudes later in life, the desire to hurt others – this is a very important root of sadistic feelings.
People can also experience sexual arousal connected with this stage of birth, based on the suffocation in labor, and demonic energies. There can also be scatological experiences and these seem to be related to the fetus encounter with blood, fetal liquid, mucus and sometimes feces and urine in the final stages of delivery. Sometimes it gets into their mouth – people can be grimacing, gasping, and determinedly coughing as they relive this. There can also be very intense feelings of disgust as people confront the mandatory waste products of biological existence. It has an archetypal quality, including images of giant cesspools or piles of excrement, as well as seeing images of decaying bodies. These experiences seem to impress on people the Buddhist truth that all things are temporary and ultimately the biological side of our nature is something that comes and goes. Perinatal experiences impress on us the need to access something beyond the physical realm, to reach transcendence. Finally, people can have experiences of pyrocatharsis, of passing through purifying fire. I think Grof mentioned somewhere that Jung had observed this in his patient’s dreams, but I was unable to find a reference for it. Maybe some Jungians more thoroughly versed in Jung’s work may be able to find out this reference. The fire seems to have a purifying quality, purifying everything that is rotten in people’s souls and preparing them for rebirth.
The final perinatal matrix, the fourth perinatal matrix (BPM IV), is based on the sudden intensification of pressure in the final stage of delivery, followed by explosive liberation as the infant crowns and comes out of the birth canal and into the delivery room. This is experienced as an ecstatic liberation from danger and threat, enormous decompression of space. Space opens out into infinity and people can have images of giant halls and cathedrals that seem to share the quality of openness of space. They can have images of the end of wars or revolutions, or medicines that benefit both sides in a conflict, the end of storms. Women can at that moment relive the successful delivery of their own children. People also access the Divine at this point. Various Mother Goddesses experiences such as Isis, Demeter, Lakshmi, Parvati, or Mary are very common in people sessions and it doesn’t seem to be dependent on what culture of origin or what people’s beliefs are: these experiences just appear and have a very powerful numinous quality. You feel you’re in the presence of a greater being. People can also access the masculine faces of the Divine: identification with the resurrection of Christ, Dionysus, or Osiris, with God, or with the Divine in a more abstract form such as radiant light.
So this was the second layer of the psyche, the PERINATAL.
The deepest layers of the psyche, which are beyond even the perinatal, Grof termed TRANSPERSONAL. He coined this term I believe in 1968 and just very briefly, the most common of these include ancestral, racial or collective memories, for instance Caucasians can experience episodes from the slave trade, or identification with Jews in the concentration camps, or with the Mongol invasions of Middle East in the 12th century, and many others. There are past life experiences, not very common but are very powerful and often involve verifiable elements like details from history that the subject could not have possibly known. People can also identify with the consciousness of other people, groups of people, all of life, or all of creation. They can experience the consciousness of a specific animal or plant, or even inorganic materials and processes, archetypal experiences, mythological sequences, experiences of the Universal Mind, Absolute Consciousness, or the Super-Conscious Void. These are the ultimate experiences referred to in the mystical traditions that modern people can access through these types of holotropic self-exploration.
Richard Tarnas’s contribution: archetypal astrology – The Rosetta Stone of human psyche
ADRIAN: What a model of reality! And in this almost unbelievable landscape they had an impossible riddle…
RENN: Yes, for years, Grof and his colleagues had looked for some kind of diagnostic technique to predict the experiences of their clients in psychedelic sessions. They looked at the Rorschach test, the DSM-III categories, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and others, but they were not able to find any reliable predictive technique.
ADRIAN: And when the search seemed in vain, a light suddenly appeared, the Rosetta Stone…
RENN: (laughing) This is where Richard Tarnas entered the picture – he had already been exposed to some of Grof’s research, and earlier had been educated by Jesuits and then went to Harvard. He was getting a great education, as well as being inspired by the countercultural evolutionary wave of the 60s while he was at Harvard. He moved to California and Esalen Institute in the mid-1970s in order to meet Stanislav Grof and they struck up a very close friendship, as well as a working relationship which they’ve maintained ever since.
Tarnas was familiar with Grof’s discovery of these four basic clusters of experience that people have when they are accessing the perinatal layer of their psyche, the ones based around the stages of biological birth and named by Grof the perinatal matrices (BPMs). To his astonishment, Tarnas began to realize that the very distinct thematic qualities of the four perinatal matrices fit exactly, and in very richly detailed ways, the traditional archetypal character of the four outermost planets in the solar system: Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. (Now, Pluto has been reclassified as a dwarf planet but its archetypal, symbolic power in astrology does not seem to have been affected). Grof was equally amazed and impressed by this discovery and he had to remark on yet another irony of his career: that the one successful predictive technique that could shed light on the content of people’s psychedelic and holotropic sessions turned out to be something that was even further outside of the range of acceptability in terms of conventional science than psychedelics – it was astrology!
ADRIAN: “The gold standard of superstition…”
RENN: (laughing) Yes. So what Tarnas discovered in amazement – and not all at once – was that the most powerful astrological influences that are activated in a person’s birth chart at a given time by what are called transits, will reveal the basic thematic quality and timing of their experiences in non-ordinary or holotropic states.
Again, the most amazing correlation was with the perinatal matrices. If a person had transiting Neptune interacting with almost any point of the chart in a powerful way, then he or she was more likely to access the experiences from the first perinatal matrix or BPM I, based around the union with the mother, feelings of cosmic unity or oceanic ecstasy. People can have a rich inner life, an openness to spirituality, sense of basic security and higher meaning, feelings of more fluid, open boundaries with others, with nature, with the greater cosmos. The difficult side of Neptune does not seem to be related to the Neptune archetype per se but I’m suggesting it is related to leftover toxic womb memories, where the feeling of no boundaries is experienced as difficult, toxic or confusing, where people feel that somehow they’re uncertain where their own boundaries and other people’s boundaries begin and so on. This seem to be related to disturbances in their intrauterine situation.
So not only was Tarnas able to discover these correlations, such as Neptune with oceanic experiences, but these were then further inflected by the other archetypes interacting with Neptune. If Venus was interacting with Neptune, then the oceanic experiences would tend to have inflections of the Aphrodite archetype, with elements of beauty, love, enjoyment, friendship, revelations of higher beauty and so on. If the Moon was interacting with Neptune than it would tend to bring in feminine elements around nurture, maternal feelings, community, family, bonding and so on. If the Sun was interacting with Neptune that it would tend to bring out the archetypal masculine qualities so they would experience the spiritual, oceanic nature of Neptune inflected through the solar masculine archetype of the Sun: people with Sun-Neptune transits can have easier access to the masculine personas of the Divine such as Apollo, Buddha, Christ, The Heavenly Father, or the Divine Sun.
To complete this layer of discovery, when Saturn was heavily aspected, people would tend to be more in touch with the No-Exit stage of birth or BPM II, and feel that they were compressed, they had lost something and there was no way out. They tended to see the world with the cup as half empty, their horizons tended to narrow… Of course there’s a positive side to Saturn as well: building the sense of moral conscience, integrity, responsibility, discipline, practical feelings, focusing on the here and now and on the material side of life.
When Pluto was heavily aspected Tarnas discovered that people were more likely in their inner lives, and in a concentrated way in their holotropic sessions, to access the dynamic stage of labor, Grof’s Third Perinatal Matrix or BPM III: activation of extreme biological energies, aggressive feelings, a sense of being in a titanic death-rebirth struggle, possible sexual or sadomasochistic feelings, demonic feelings, scatological issues, or pyrocatharsis “purification by fire”.
And then when Uranus was highly aspected, people would tend to have feelings of rebirth, breakthroughs, freedom, sudden intensification of suffering and then dramatic liberation and release from it, opening of new horizons, quantum leaps, sudden resolution of all problems, and so forth. As with all the other major archetypal influences, the Uranian or Promethean qualities associated with Uranus transits would then be inflected by the other archetypes interacting with Uranus. So if Uranus was interacting with Mars, the breakthrough qualities would tend to have a more physical, decisive, energetic, or fast quality, all associated with the Mars archetype. People can identify in their inner life with rebels and outlaws, the pirate archetype, images of cutting their way out of the whale or slaying the dragon, killing the tyrant, escaping from prison, heroic rebellion, and so forth.
If Jupiter was interacting with Uranus, the Uranus archetype would tend to be broadened and expanded by Jupiter: the sense of daybreak everywhere, the world is again made new – there could be a sense of universal redemption, feeling that the Promethean rebellious, genius, breakthrough qualities connected with Uranus are celebrated and glorified and honored in the mainstream culture as opposed to being seen as antagonistic toward it.
Prometheus The Awakener
ADRIAN: What really amazes me is that they discovered these astounding correlations calculating everything by hand, not using computers, right?
RENN: (laughing) Oh, yeah . . . this was long before the advent of personal computers. I believe Rick made many of his most important discoveries sometime around the fall of 1976. I know that around the time of the winter solstice, December 21, 1976 – as he writes in the opening of his great handbook Prometheus the Awakener which is, I would say, the best introduction to astrology – is when he made the association between the planet Uranus and the archetype of Prometheus. He felt that Uranus had been misnamed: it had been named by a kind of linear logic because it fell outside of the orbit of Saturn and Ouranos was the father of Cronos/Saturn in mythology. But while there are some basic formal similarities between the planet Uranus and the archetype of mythological figure of Ouranos, it much more closely fits the character of Prometheus, the rebel who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. This was an amazing discovery and I imagine one of the most exciting moments in the early part of Tarnas career, in December 1976.
Tarnas was able to do quite a bit of his own research back then. I imagine it was a very exciting time for both of them and not only was he exploring his own psyche and looking at the astrological transits but he was also then enthusiastically pouring over the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was at Esalen, the heart of the California counterculture (laughing) famous for a somewhat anti-intellectual ethos – but it was very important to him and he was able to make correlations between the experiences he was having and the different thematic qualities and experiences, with the natal charts of famous people in Western history: philosophers, artists, painters, writers, historical figures… he would look at their natal charts and then their major contributions – what were their painting styles, their philosophical contributions, etc. – and he see parallels between these themes and the experiences he was encountering in his own inner explorations, at the same times that he had the precise astrological archetypes activated that they had had for their entire lives.
Not only that, but he was able to see that the timing of their specific creations, such as when they published their books, when they made their great paintings, when they had their notable military adventures such as Napoleon, that all these and many others were discernible and intelligible in terms of the transiting influences, the part of the chart that changes over time. I think it was just a time of Promethean ecstasy for him. They coined this term – Promethean ecstasy – to describe the type of ecstasy where you feel like your head is opening, your crown chakra is opening and you’re getting inspired by a flood of insights. He often described this Uranian feeling as lightning strike, a strike of inspiration and I think he has been in these states for long sustained periods of time.
ADRIAN: This was all in the afterglow of the great Uranus-Pluto conjunction.
RENN: (laughing) Yes, I guess you could say that. In 1976 I believe it was also a Jupiter-Uranus opposition which was probably still active in December, just checking that out… yeah, the Jupiter Uranus opposition was still well within orb in December 1976, so… The Jupiter-Uranus combination was one of the most distinct cycles that he discovered, probably the most distinct cycle in history. He discovered that the years when Jupiter and Uranus were in conjunction or opposition (especially those two, which he called the axial alignments), tended to correspond back through history to some of the great quantum leaps in terms of cultural flowering, sudden new revelations, sudden breakthroughs and I think it’s only fitting that it was in one such year, 1976, that that he made his great discoveries with Grof.
ADRIAN: I’m blown away by the description of the Promethean ecstasy; this sounds like Divine Grace.
RENN: Oh, definitely. Rick is ten years older than I am and a hero to me in so many senses of the word. I remember one day, I had been up in the hills of Big Sur doing some research of my own, and I came back in the late afternoon and remember walking across the creek and up the other side and I looked over toward the wood shop and there was Rick working on something. He was cutting some wood with a power saw, busily working. He had long hair and a ponytail which was sort of flowing from side to side as he worked and I just stood there looking at him, from about 100 feet away, he didn’t see me. He had encouraged me and inspired me to do the session, given me the encouragement to pursue this path and I just stood there in gratitude looking at him. He just looked so free and inspired, truly a great cultural hero.
I was able to read the prototype of all three of his books. I read Prometheus the Awakener in its unpublished manuscript form in 1980 and wrote out some feedback on it. I thought it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
Cosmos and Psyche
ADRIAN: I felt exactly the same when I read Prometheus the Awakener… this was the book that launched me on this path.
RENN: By the end of 1980 or maybe 1981 he began to feel that while that book would have influenced some people, it just did not have the kind of mature Promethean quality that was needed to influence the intelligentsia in the mainstream culture. So he went back to the drawing board – though he had already put a lot of work into this manuscript – and basically spent the next 10 years working on another book which became The Passion of the Western Mind. It has gone on to win awards and was called by Joseph Campbell the best history of the Western world views that he had ever seen in one volume and is being read in university courses around the world.
And then he followed this with his short Prometheus the Awakener already mentioned. I think is the best beginner book for any student of astrology. Finally, in 2006 Cosmos and Psyche came out. At Esalen, as he put it something like “all things great and small came through there” he had the opportunity to see everything that was happening the human potential movement. Everyone who lived at Esalen was able to see the whole rich variety of things as they came through. Often people got very interested in something for a while and then they lost interest and they got into something else for a while, so there was a kind of very fast, a kind of youth-culture, California overdrive, it had to be exciting and new – though there were many exceptions to this of course and the mainstays of Esalen massage and Gestalt certainly withstood the test of time and will continue to do so, no question. But for Rick to be working so long at his writing and research projects and not to be published, I think some people probably thought it would never happen but in his very powerfully inspired way he just kept working and working. He is not only a brilliant, gifted writer – someone described his writing as like watching an Olympic diver – some of the sentences… you just watch these twirls and then it just comes down and hits the mark perfectly – he is also an extremely hard worker and he was the right person for the job, for the Herculean task of ushering in the new cosmology.
So in 2006 Cosmos and Psyche was published and I mentioned in one of my endnotes in my book that I believe scholars will look back at 2006 as the moment of the paradigm shift, the official moment, but that’s just my speculation.
ADRIAN: I have the same feeling…
RENN: I have an equal regard for Grof’s book The Cosmic Game…
ADRIAN: A masterpiece, a really perfect book, with an astounding story itself!
RENN: Yeah, I was musing the other day that maybe one day on my website I would write that the book of the century is Cosmos and Psyche and the book of the millennium The Cosmic Game.
So what a beautiful moment for that to come out! I was just so proud of him, he put so much work of research and titanic brainpower into this project. Part of it was made possible by the fact that he has been teaching classes for at least a decade, before that point I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 years or more at CIIS in San Francisco (California Institute of Integral Studies) so he became aware of what were the most important points to present and what were the areas that people would have the most questions or difficulties with in his new hypothesis. He was able to learn the most effective and concise way to respond to those questions.
One of the main differences in archetypal astrology – this school I guess we can say he has initiated – I don’t believe he set out to initiate a school of astrology but I think that all of us who follow and come after Tarnas would say that this is a new school of astrology – is that there is more of a focus on the aspects and the planets themselves: planets, aspects and transits. We don’t use the house system or the signs as much and this has the effect of solving two big debates and the problems between the different house systems and between the two sign systems, tropical and sidereal. It often crossed my mind if these things are so powerful, these sign boundaries and house boundaries, then how could there be such a difference of opinion about them? If one is true and one is false, then you would think that the evidence would gradually make the true one obvious and clear. I think we all agree that there is definitely something to the signs and the houses but I see them more as adjectives or adverbs which modify or reinforce the basic, more important thematic quality of the aspects and transits themselves.
Tarnas was able to zero in on the core archetypal meanings of the aspects and transits. I think that the reason that he was able to do what few astrologers or none before him were able to do was that he didn’t get distracted by these other minutia of different layers of astrology. I don’t think it’s possible to write something like Cosmos and Psyche if you’re talking about the planets in the houses or the signs, it just won’t deliver the same archetypal power and concision and persuasiveness. If you want to get to the core meanings, you really only need to look at these major interactions between the great planetary symbols themselves.
ADRIAN: Would you like to mention one of his most astounding correlations?
RENN: Some of the most interesting chapters in Cosmos and Psyche are based on the alignments between the outer planets so there’s a chapter for Uranus-Neptune alignments, Uranus-Pluto alignments, Saturn-Pluto, Jupiter-Uranus, and so forth.
The Uranus-Neptune alignments are so beautiful to talk about because it is such a transcendent energy. The last major Uranus-Neptune alignment that Tarnas articulates occurred from 1985 to 2001. Uranus and Neptune were conjunct in the sky during that period and some of the things he observed that corresponds to these alignments are the emergence of new religions and a sense of spiritual awakening, rather than Uranus-Pluto alignments which tend to have a more political, elemental, biological, and revolutionary quality. Uranus-Neptune, because of Neptune’s spiritual, gentle qualities is more like the velvet revolution or spiritual revolution and it’s interesting that it corresponded to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in which almost no one died! It was one of the great miracles of our time that this opening happened in such a peaceful way.
The Uranus-Neptune alignment of 1985-2001 also coincided with an incredible upsurge of goddess imagery in people’s inner lives, of spiritual feminism. Many people in their sessions began to have images of the Divine Feminine, it saw the rapid spread of ayahuasca through the entire Western world with ceremonies by shamans. There was also an incredible renaissance of female musicians, Uranus corresponding to the return of the repressed. The ‘90s were dominated by great female musicians. Tarnas was able to go back in previous Uranus-Neptune cycles and I won’t elaborate here because I really recommend people read Cosmos and Psyche, but many religions began during Uranus-Neptune alignments back through history. Now it is very interesting that there is this period…
ADRIAN: The Axial Age?
RENN: Yes, the period from about 595-560 BC, these incredible 35 years coincided with the lives of Buddha in India, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, probably Zoroaster in Persia, and the first Greek philosophers in Asia Minor: Thales and Anaximander. Pythagoras was also living during that 35-year period of the axial age, as well as the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Second Isaiah.
I mean that’s incredible: the birth of Greek philosophy is a very special moment in human history, as well as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mahavira the founder of Jainism, also the Greek poet Sappho who lived on the island of Lesbos – this is really amazing. Tarnas prefaces his book with a beautiful, poignant line from one of the fragments of her poetry that we have. This period coincided not only with a Uranus-Neptune conjunction but with Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune all exactly conjunct – the only period in recorded history with an exact conjunction of those three planets.
I think that is quite an astounding correlation: a spiritual quantum leap in human history coinciding at the halfway point of the patriarchal era – which began around 3000 BC and so the Axial Age was about the halfway point. This was a very powerful dispensation. Of course there were spiritual practices going far back into prehistory with worship of the Great Mother Goddess and of nature, and then shamanism going back tens of thousands of years before that, but the Axial Age was quite a moment and this is one of my favorite parts of his book.
Archetypal astrology and the birth of a New Worldview
ADRIAN: Amazing discoveries! Can you describe how all these summed up in the birth of a new worldview?
RENN: Well, Tarnas writes that the cosmology of a worldview, of an existing paradigm or governing belief system of a culture, is the physical setting and place, the context within which that worldview exists and flourishes as well as this sense of the higher meaning of it all: what is the state of the Cosmos or the Universe?
I think that there have been many parts of the new paradigm which have been being born and coming into the mainstream, gradually growing for a long time but Cosmos and Psyche really presents now for the first time a coherent cosmology. I believe we finally have the setting for the new worldview, we can finally say okay and this is how we are now seeing the Universe, this is the furthest extent that our perceptions and our scientific explorations and knowledge have revealed about what the Universe is and it definitely does return to us some of the lost elements in Western civilization that we had already discovered but then left behind: Plato’s idea of the meaningful connections between the macrocosm of the archetypal realm and the microcosm of human experience and sense that there are higher archetypal principles, so for Plato, all experiences of beauty are an emanation of the archetype of the Beautiful.
Pythagoras’s great discovery of the importance of mathematics and the incredible way that numbers interact with each other, in harmonics and so on is also an important part of the astrological archetypal worldview, so Tarnas refers to it as a Platonic-Pythagorean cosmos. What archetypal astrology does now is returns soul to that cosmos. By contrast, in the final forms of the Newtonian-Cartesian modern worldview, all consciousness, reason and purpose was located in the human brain alone, in the human being who existed in an essentially unconscious universe that was run by simple mechanistic laws . . . there was no higher meaning or purpose or intelligence.
But now in this new worldview we rediscover that there are conscious archetypes, cosmic principles that are operating both in the cosmos at large – we can observe them in the patterns of history and in the experiences of the psyche of all humanity, the collective psyche, and as well as in our most personal intimate self-explorations, in our souls. The same principles and patterns and archetypal processes that happen within our own beings are also operating in larger being of the Universe.
I think Grof’s research essential laid the deep concrete foundations over the river, while Jung and others also contributed, and Tarnas’s work represents the bridge itself, a kind of high, paved road for the mainstream culture, a respectable path for many professors and students and the intelligentsia of the world to go across into this new worldview which has very powerful implications for the future of humanity. When people feel connected with the Universe and have a sense of being embedded in a meaningful cosmos permeated with higher intelligence, they’re much less likely to take the negative destructive actions against nature and against other people.
That current global crisis is essentially an outgrowth of the modern worldview in which people feel separate from each other and from nature and many of us are just locked into cycles of consumption which don’t really satisfy but we keep on trying to fill the void with material things, and acquiring more and more without really looking at the consequences to the people around us, the other life forms around us, the ecosystem of the planet as a whole. We often don’t see the big picture and we’re also not seeing ahead in time – we’re not looking at the effects on other generations, the pollution of our air, water and soil.
When people explore their own psyches in these holotropic states they automatically develop ecological awareness, this doesn’t have to be taught, they automatically see that we’re connected with part of the world – whatever we do to some part of nature or to other people we’re essentially doing to ourselves and if these things don’t affect us immediately then they certainly will affect our children, maybe our future lives – for people who believe in reincarnation that would be an additional ethical context they need to live their lives within. I might incarnate in my next life in some flooded out nightmare country that is of one of the casualties of rising sea levels or super storms or droughts and all the other problems associated with climate change.
If I wanted to sum up what this new paradigm is about, it would be a revaluing of the subjective side of human nature. We have become experts in manipulating nature and the outer world, and materialistic science has given us vast powers to improve living conditions or potentially improve them, to create and build things, to use technology and that’s all great. We can maintain the material benefits that science has given to us. But we have left behind the subjective side of our human nature: feeling, conscience, perception, a sense of connection and I think there is a desperate need for us to reclaim the interiority of our psyches and when we do that then we also see the interiority, the consciousness and awareness in the world around us.
ADRIAN: And archetypal astrology is the language of these very qualities…
RENN: Yes, it’s a language of feelings, of emotions, of subjective experience, of varieties of perception, of different aesthetic qualities, it’s a very concise language to talk about relationship issues and it can give us a lot of validation for when we’re going through difficult periods, it can show us that they have a time limit and the sort of general direction that these challenging times might be taking us, so that we can cooperate with the energies and go in that direction. They can also help to curb us when we are in a period of inflation or extravagance or overdoing things and excess and show that these also have a time limit, i.e., don’t think that this lucky streak is going to last forever. It can help us deal with our aggression issues when they come up, when we’re more likely to feel more aggressive or when the people around us are, specific types of aggressive feelings and what are some of the most effective ways of channeling those and dealing with them in helpful ways rather than aiming them at other people or at nature. The same for many other subcategories of archetypal energies and how we can deal with those.
Also, archetypal astrology is very encouraging and validating and I would say that it is the intellectual accompaniment of holotropic experiences which are actual personal experiences, rather than sitting passively and imbibing what a religious authority might say is important. You are having your own experiences of spirituality, you are getting your own answers, you’re having your own direct experiences of the numinous, of the Divine, these things can go a long way toward undoing feelings of fear and overcoming the fear of death and I would say that the spread of these kind of holotropic types of self-exploration including the responsible use of psychedelics, ayahuasca and other indigenous plant ceremonies, also with the nondrug techniques like Holotropic Breathwork and similar techniques and other ways of entering non-ordinary states such of meditation, trance, dancing, fasting and all the other time-honored technologies of the sacred, are so important now. There’s an urgent need for these things to spread and to be used in a responsible way and for young people to have access to them in rites of passage so they don’t just turn to gangs or to terrorism and other really negative and destructive substitutes for these genuine rites of passage which our ancestors had.
So I would say at the core of the paradigm shift is an opening to these kinds of non-ordinary states. Grof says that in order to drive a car in traffic we want to be in the “moving toward matter” mode of consciousness, the hylotropic mode, but in order to find higher meaning in life we have to periodically enter the holotropic or “moving towards wholeness” mode of consciousness. Most, if not all non-Western and preindustrial cultures have had ways for people to enter into these states and I believe that we can maintain the best that modern science has given to us while reclaiming these lost dimensions of the psyche and lost techniques of self-exploration: healing rituals, the mystery religions, the rites of passage and shamanic journeys that we left behind in our Promethean advance. We went so fast in the development of our intellects and of science that we now need to let the emotional side of our nature catch up and I think that there is a very pressing need for governments to allow responsible legitimate researchers to continue, to resume their research projects with psychedelic healing in addictions work and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, also sexual abuse and just birth trauma in general.
I would see astrology essentially as a way to encourage people in those journeys, to say this is a great time to do it or don’t be surprised if you suffer a for awhile in your session but it will be cathartic, there’s a finite amount of these negative things in the psyche and it’s very valuable to face them.
Second part of this interview: Pathways to wholeness
Third part of this interview: Archetypes and archetypal astrology