Planet Waves for April 200 | What Was That? by Eric Francis


Surface of the vast, elisuve planet Neptune, as seen from Voyager 2 spacecraft, late 20th century. Could it be that a conjunction between this giant planet and its cousin, Uranus, is behind why we're all so weird these days? Space photos, including Uranus, below, courtesy of NASA's magnificent Astronomy Picture of the Day website (your kids will love it).

What was that?

Planet Waves for April 2000 by Eric Francis

Have you wondered how it is that we seem to live in the most enlightened times in history, yet also those in which ignorance, superficiality and dangling at the brink of disaster have never been more prominent features of existence? Don't you catch yourself thinking how awesome of a moment this is, and then noticing how people act like their heads are full of Jell-o?

My very most favorite example is cigarettes, because it's so human and so personal. Through the 1990s, a lot of scientifically documented, legally verified and very disturbing facts about cigarettes came out through lawsuits against their manufacturers. This was genuinely a miracle on all levels. At the peak of the trials, a new litany of astonishing lies was exposed daily on the cover of The New York Times and other newspapers across the nation and around the world, there for all to see. It became common knowledge that commercial cigarettes contain, for example, ammonia and a variety of other industrial chemicals and waste products, plus things like chocolate, which is addictive, sugar, which is also addictive and pretty sickening when burned, and extra nicotine added to tobacco that is already genetically modified to be more addictive. We learned that the manufacturers knew how deadly cigarettes were all along, that they cause cancer and heart disease, and that they worked diligently to conceal these facts from the public, even though kids were calling cigarettes "coffin nails" back in the '50s. (What did not come out at the trials is that many cigarettes contain traces of nuclear radiation and dioxin, but that is another story.)

Despite these revelations, how many people still smoke? And how many of them are mad about, fearful of, or otherwise obsessed over cancer? Go figure, right? (I used to smoke. For 10 years or so, starting really young. I know it's difficult to quit, but what finally convinced me was not wanting my mouth to taste like an ash tray for anyone I was fortunate enough to get close enough to kiss.)

Then there is mind pollution. Through a variety of user-controlled media (VCRs, books and CD-ROMs, for example), vast amounts of real information -- more than ever before -- is widely available to ordinary folks like us (as opposed to just priests, aristocrats and scholars, like in the old days), yet a great many people around us seem to know far less than ever, and to believe what they (we?) are told with ever-less substantiation -- and we can barely remember what happened half an hour ago. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that while personal computers run a thousand times faster than they did in 1980, and are in something like half of American households, most schools and all libraries, most of what we do with them is play games, chat all night with people we don't know, or buy things on How many people's minds does it cross that a computer service like AOL is far more powerful (and 100 times easier to use) than what top scholars and researchers were using not even 20 years ago?

Then there is medical science, which we know is progressing at a miraculous rate, and I'm not being 100% sarcastic here. Yet consider the number of people receiving medical procedures they don't need, being given batteries of tests on highly sophisticated equipment (such as MRIs), and costly treatments that can rack up hospital bills of $100,000 in a single week or less -- and which are often inconclusive, and do nothing for them, and sometimes make them very sick, or worse, turn out to be deadly. Then consider that in this same moment, we are able to work with genuinely competent alternative practitioners such as homeopaths, naturopaths or chiropractors, who often help people work through extremely challenging, even life-or-death health problems, for comparatively little money, and which procedures, at the very worst, can do little harm. But who knows about these "alternative" arts, and where do most people invest their faith?

Perhaps most notable of all, there is no one who can feign ignorance on the serious global ecological problems resulting from overpopulation, overproduction and over-consumption. Where I live, most indoor areas are air conditioned to the point where hot coffee freezes in 10 minutes, as power plants spew out sulfur and radiation -- all so that we can wear Shetland wool in August?

We all know exactly what is happening. The water is polluted beyond being safe, or perceived as safe (sign of the times: people toting around plastic water bottles everywhere, even as we are discovering that the plastic is itself a potent contaminant in the water), the land is contaminated, the atmosphere is getting warmer, the ozone is getting thinner, and many around us are getting cancer. But we also accept the fact that "the culture," that is, the collective aspect of humanity (which is to say, we) can do very little about any of it, and that our individual contributions don't count. We pretty much accept as a given the idea that we're sailing straight for some huge collective disaster, perhaps in our own lifetime, and it's la-di-da, off to the gym.

Interesting times. And we get to be here.

You could sum up the psychological climate as chaos. Our knowledge contradicts our beliefs; our beliefs contradict one another; our actions, therefore, contradict our beliefs. The fancy way to say this is "epistemological disorder." The whole process of knowing and processing knowledge is backwards, upside-down and out of control. We don't know what we know, we don't know how we know, and we no longer seem able to discern truth from lies. This leads a lot of people to "not believe anything anymore."

Astrologically, mental climates and sweeping cultural or historical trends are often marked by the movements of what are called the outer planets, also known as the "modern planets" -- those discovered starting with Uranus in March 13, 1781. Saturn is the last planet visible from Earth as we move away from the Sun. Saturn represents discipline, structure, formation and what is already known and established; it also represents limitations. Symbolically, Saturn is the edge of the familiar world we think we live in.

The new planets take us beyond the edge, and include the worlds we cannot see in the sky without a telescope: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and a more recently-discovered one called Chiron, and these planets have been extremely active all through the 20th century, and especially during the past 15 years of history. Before 1781, for as long as history is recorded, astrologers worked with the seven visible moving celestial objects (the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Notoriously eccentric Uranus and its moons, as seen from Voyager 2, all orbiting sideways and rotating backwards, provoking havoc and brilliance.

The world had just barely gotten used to being round, and no longer being the very center of the universe (that was called the Copernican revolution, after Nicholas Copernicus, who got credit for those discoveries) and then, with the official discovery of the first new planet, our conception of reality and the cosmos once again began changing very fast. Uranus turned out to be a revolutionary influence. The American and French revolutions had just shaken the world. Science was becoming a powerful force in society, and would soon revolutionize and dominate everything. The word "revolution" came into its current meaning around this time, and social changes would sweep across Europe and the New World as the old order began to tumble away and the new one began.

On a personal level, Uranus works much the same way: people with a strong Uranus placement in their natal charts embody the characteristics of the planet, and are often highly inventive, creative, charismatic and have electrical personalities. They like to shake things up, they challenge authority, and have a knack for inventing things that impact life, often in very positive ways. Many brilliant scientists, psychologists, researchers, artists and writers have had strong Uranus placements.

The next official discovery of a planet was Neptune, on September 23, 1846. It's worth mentioning that Galileo Galilei got a look at Neptune through his telescope more than two centuries before, in the early winter of 1612, but did not mark the discovery as a planet. He thought it was a fixed star, even though it moved, which is typical of how this planet so often functions: unconsciously. Even the great mind of Galileo could not conceive of planets beyond Saturn, and was tricked by misty Mr. Neptune. Astrological keywords for Neptune include: dreams, denial, delusions, drugs, drink, and deception. When Neptune is working positively (which is fairly rare), its properties include spiritual vision, intuition, higher love, mysticism and compassion. Neptune is closely involved with our belief systems, and our relationship to the "supernatural." But the most important keyword of all is "dissolving." Neptune, the ancient God of the seas, washes things away, melts them, and softens the hardest structures, whether mental, physical or psychic.

Both of these planets move rather slowly. Uranus orbits the Sun every 84 years. Neptune orbits the Sun every 165 years. And every 171 years, that is, about once every two centuries, the two planets join together and form a conjunction -- and we are now living under just such an event, which began around 1989 and is now at the end of maximum intensity. These extremely rare conjunctions of the outer planets, perhaps more than any other force in nature, are associated with the climate of the culture in which we live. These conjunctions take a long time to form, and a long time to fade away, and represent major shifts in the historical process. And in the past 110 years, we have had three of them (Pluto-Neptune conjunction in the late 19th century, the Uranus-Pluto conjunction of the 1960s, and the Uranus-Neptune conjunction of the current era.)

To see how these processes work, consider that the present Uranus-Neptune conjunction began in the late 1980s, when the oppressive structures of communism began to tumble, fueled by the disillusionment and restlessness of the people of Eastern Europe. As historian and astrologer Richard Tarnas notes in his book Prometheus the Awakener, this event coincided not just with the liberation of millions of people from the oppression of the so-called Communist regimes, "But of the entire planetary consciousness from the imprisonment of the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear apocalypse." Through the 1980s, it was unthinkable that the supposed menace of the Soviet Union would just vanish one day, but that is basically what happened, preceded by the advent of perestroika and glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev. And it was in the spring of 1989, just as the conjunction was coming into contact, that peaceful student activists in China raised the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square, getting the attention and compassion of the world community.

"The Uranus-Neptune combination is associated, both in history and personal biographies, with periods in which the archetypal, the imaginal, the numinous -- is suddenly awakened and liberated in new ways into human consciousness," writes Tarnas. "We see this all around us now: the tremendous upswelling of interest today in an astonishing multiplicity of spiritual paths and traditions, in esoteric disciplines, in the transpersonal movement, in meditation and mystical religious traditions, in Jungian and archetypal psychology, in mythology and ancient religions, in the recovery of Goddess spirituality and feminine dimensions of the divine, in ecofeminist spirituality, in psychedelic self-exploration and new forms of experiential psychotherapy in the emergence of holistic and participatory paradigms in virtually every field [and] in the unprecedented convergence of science and spirituality."

This has come with what amounts to a state of total disorientation, on all levels: psychological, spiritual and historical. Yet this confusion, Tarnas notes, leaves us "open to possibilities and realities not even permitted within the arena of sensible discourse in an earlier generation."

But, Tarnas reminds us, there is the dark side to this aspect as well, which we see in "the collective impulse toward escapism and denial, passivity and narcissism, credulity and delusion: the hyperstimulating rapidity of technology of images signifying nothing; the hypnotic fascination with and addiction to image ("image is everything"); and indeed, with widespread addictions of all kinds, from drugs to alcohol to consumerism to television." These are the worst attributes of Neptune being excited by Uranus.

These are the times in which we live. And it is very difficult for us to see how fast things have changed in so few years, and how unstable our reality structures really are. It would be particularly difficult for young people, who have grown up in the midst of nothing but constant change and breakdown of the social orders, without much new coming to replace it (unless you count cable television). And it is safe to say that we are left without many places to orient ourselves. We do not trust the stability of Saturn, of authority and structure: for example, we have no delusions that "the government will save us." We also do not trust the revolutionary impulses of Uranus -- we are still afraid to really be different, to stand out, and to create, and we still fear change, even in the midst of so much of it; and as ever, it's very difficult for us to see or feel the subtle influences of Neptune, which so often manifest as denial, addiction and glamour. (I recently went clothing shopping (I don't do it often.) I had to say to one of the sales people, "Would you please show me everything you have without a designer label on it?")

What we often get in these days of history is a lot of high-minded idealism (which unfortunately now manifests on a cultural level as advertising, not social action), as well as confusion, not knowing who or what to believe, and not really caring. Many people live the idea, "It does not matter anyway, so I might as well do what feels good." And what feels good is clubbing, drinking, drugging, smoking, partying, making tons or at least pounds of cash, or worse, credit, and spending it on clothing, fancy cars, vacations and high-tech equipment. I don't mean to sound too judgmental here, only to point out that we might want to, well, notice that we're fiddling while Rome burns.

It's also true that a noticeable, if not statistically significant, segment of the population is simplifying, eating less meat, or no meat, or doing/buying/consuming less in general; people are figuring out that it is possible to live closer to nature; and many people are opting for new ways to take care of themselves. At times, it seems like one of these lifestyles or the other -- natural versus consumerist -- will eventually dominate, and we all know what will happen if unbridled market capitalism spreads throughout the entire world: Gaia, the planet we live on, will not be able to sustain humanity in all its mindless, thoughtless greed.

The Uranus-Neptune conjunction is now ending, but the stage of history which it marked is just beginning. This conjunction is no "passing phase," but rather a threshold or gateway to the times to come. Many old things have ended and are fading away, and many new ones have come into being, or are now emerging -- for example, the Internet, something so vast we cannot even conceive of it, something so revolutionary we cannot imagine its implications.

And what will come of all these changes? It may take years or decades to find out, but -- thanks to some big changes of another sort, changes that are approaching rapidly -- we may also have some very interesting clues about the direction of the future in the next two months. Tune into Mystic Gardens in May, when this article continues with a look at the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, and the alignment in Taurus. ++

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