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Why Am I Like This: Judy Balan brings Carl Jung home

An engaging memoir portion opens into a breaking down of Jungian thought, psychological astrology and related mythology

Why Am I Like This: A Journey Into Psychological Astrology; by Judy Balan; Simon and Schuster India. 304 pages, 499

By Indumathy Sukanya

LAST PUBLISHED 02.05.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

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Why am I like this? – is a question we have all likely asked ourselves at some point in our lives. It’s often rhetorical though, as most of us don’t really want to pull at that thread: dwelling on the question can take us to some painful places. But sometimes, life may plunge us into so much pain anyway that the only way out might be through deep introspection. This is when most people turn to religion, philosophy or spirituality.

It is one such dark night of the soul that apparently turned erstwhile YA author Judy Balan into a Jungian astrologer. In her latest book Why Am I Like This: A Journey Into Psychological Astrology , she reflects upon the key events in her life that led her to this phenomenal transformation before breaking down the basics of the field of study for the reader. This book is a good place to start for those among us who want to dig deeper than regular therapy and horoscopes and take the mystical road to inner work.

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In the initial chapters of the book, Balan talks about her unsatisfyingly normal childhood; her years of teenage rebellion; the “God versus Devil" era, the abrupt abandonment of all things esoteric and the eventual reclamation. With expert story-telling chops, she draws the reader into her life and treads into increasingly murky territory, with chillingly specific dreams, prophecies and paranormal encounters. And then, rather quickly, the memoir portion of the book winds down to make way for the (mostly) textbook-y part.

This feels like those times in school when your favourite teacher would lapse into a really interesting story about their life; you feel intrigued and invested; and then suddenly, they switch gears and return to the lesson. Still, the author effortlessly employs examples, metaphors and mythology to explain Jungian and astrological concepts in a way that is easy to grasp for beginners. 

Jungian studies is not taught in this part of the world. So for those fascinated by the idea of the unconscious, the archetypes, the shadow realm and all the ways in which they influence our outer lives, self-study is often the only way to learn more. In that sense, Balan’s attempt to bring Jung home is commendable. In a conversation with Lounge, the author talks about her process, her love for psychological astrology and what “doing the work" means.

You've previously written YA fiction and parodies like Two FatesTweenache in the Time of Hashtags and Sophie Says. After a gap, we now have a startling book on natal charts, archetypes and gods. What influenced this shift?

I don't think it was any single event or experience as much as a gradual unfolding (or unravelling in my case!). It's a lot easier to connect the dots in retrospect of course, and that's part of why the book insisted on being part memoir. But I've always felt this overwhelming need to understand how people worked; as individuals and as a species. I wanted to know how I worked. I couldn't understand why this wasn't the first thing we were taught in school. 

By the time I discovered Jung, I was at the precipice of a long and painful dry spell in my creative life. I felt like I had nothing left to say. It was terrifying. Of course I tried to force it because I had signed two book deals but I just couldn't write. And for at least four to five years, I couldn't tell if I'd be able to write again. So I did the thing that came easy. I studied. I lost myself in rabbit holes and sub-rabbit holes. It was amazing but I had no idea what I was supposed to do with all this knowledge I felt impelled to devour. And now here we are. But I still can't be sure what this means or what I'll write next. And finally, I'm comfortable with that. 

Evidently there is a lot already written on the subjects. What are you hoping to add in these areas with your own book?

Oh, if there was anything I was clear about in relation to this book it was this: I'm not adding anything. I'm merely breaking down and re-shaping the brilliant work already out there; for an audience that may never pick up a Jungian book or even hear of Liz Greene. From the moment I discovered it, my urge was to introduce everyone to it. In the same way that one feverishly recommends a much-loved book or movie to their best friend and impatiently texts to see if they’ve “reached that part yet."

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Can you explain, in simple terms, what psychological astrology is? 

It’s a synthesis of two subjects: astrology and depth psychology, specifically Jungian psychology, where the study of the unconscious (or the part of us that we’re completely in the dark about) is the central focus. Jung’s model of the psyche is a map of our inner landscape. But his understanding of the unconscious is far more exciting than “what happened to you." It’s not just a psychic garbage can where your traumas and repressed desires stay locked up; it’s also a field of potential. It contains everything you could be—both in the most creative and life-affirming sense, all the way to the most destructive extremes—in seed form. So everything we encounter in our lives—our particular struggles, patterns, gifts, hopes and longings—has its roots in the unconscious. 

The ‘work’ involves facilitating a dialogue with the unconscious, facing unpleasant truths about ourselves that we'd much rather project on the outer world and taking responsibility for things we couldn't otherwise know we had any part in creating. But the goal of Jungian work is not fixing symptoms and becoming well-adjusted as much as finding our inherent wholeness (which is very different from perfection or even goodness). And of all the tools available to get a sense of our psychic terrain, astrology is, in my opinion, the most insightful. Especially used alongside dreamwork. The natal chart, which is a snapshot of the sky at the precise moment of your birth, may be understood as a map of your psyche.

One of the biggest objections people have to astrology is its claims to predict the future. Ironically, it's also the biggest draw. How do you understand/respond to this duality?

Psychological astrology makes no such claims. In the Jungian view, astrology is only predictive in an archetypal sense. It captures the essence, meaning and the general emotional tenor of time in symbolic language. It can give you a fair sense of what to expect from a specific chapter of your life in terms of its big-picture meaning, its particular challenges and opportunities, what it’s trying to work out in you, and how you can best respond to it. We can make educated guesses about concrete events but there is no way we can be certain about how a particular transit might manifest. 

For example, if I see that Saturn is about to hit my moon, I can be fairly certain that it’s going to feel emotionally heavy. I may feel unsupported, unloved, lonely, insecure, fearful or even depressed. I can even be fairly clear about what it’s trying to accomplish in me (making peace with my existential alone-ness, clarifying boundaries and addressing dependencies, coming to emotional maturity, etc.) But I cannot tell if these feelings will be triggered by a break-up, moving out of my parents’ place, the birth of a child, an illness or just a period of self-imposed isolation. Also having this information isn’t going to make the experience any less painful. But it can make it meaningful. And we tend to underestimate the power of meaning in processing suffering.

Studying astrology or Jung requires focus and persistence. How do you see such a subject finding an audience in an era of Reels and instant social media gratification?

Actually Jung's concepts can be annoyingly internet-friendly. I suppose Jungian terminology ('shadow,' 'anima,' 'animus') is just...catchy? Dealing with them inside oneself is of course a whole other thing. But nothing riles me up more than the complete misuse of 'Jungian archetypes.' I cannot go into it here but I assure you, it's not what Instagram thinks it means! So I'm always torn between the need to make this accessible and the need to preserve its integrity. I don't really worry about finding an audience. I think there is an obvious hunger for this as evident in the widespread popularity of astrology beyond sun signs. The greater challenge is finding that aforementioned balance. 

Doing the inner work does not mean life gets easier. In fact it opens one up to deeper suffering and demands greater resilience in the face of odds. This being the case, what do we stand to gain from digging deeper?

Well, suffering is part of the human condition so we’re going to suffer one way or the other. The question is if we're going to suffer consciously or unconsciously. We can, to a significant extent, avoid suffering at our own hands, for example. We can also make it easier on ourselves if we can understand the meaning of our individual patterns. I think quick-fix culture has robbed us of this. And besides, like I said, the point of Jungian work isn’t fixing our problems so we can fit into some collective standard of what is ideal. It’s about recognising that everything we're longing for and in pain about, has to do with this quest for our inherent wholeness. Is it more rewarding than anything you've put your heart into? Absolutely. Is it for the faint of heart? Definitely not.

Indumathy Sukanya is a Bengaluru-based writer and artist.