by Jessica Murray
In our last column we looked at the breakdown of belief systems in American society and all across the globe, as signaled by the current transit of Pluto. This is the cycle that has been presenting the past decade with its most obvious theme: the temples of the world undergoing a massive purge.
Reading transits has the logic of telling time from a clock. Since Pluto is the furthest-out planet in the solar system, its cycle functions like the hour hand of a clock, giving us a very broad sense of what time it is for humanity. Once we get a sense of Plutos themes, we move our attention to the less-distant planets, analogous to the minute and second hands of the clock. These continue filling in the picture of what time it is in layers of successive specificity.
The most significant transit after Pluto is that of the Saturn-Neptune opposition (2005-2008), which describes the next set of lessons upon us during the late-00s (by the way, has anyone figured out yet what to call this decade? The zero years? The Aught-Aughts? The Ohs?).
The Saturn-Neptune Opposition
Those familiar with planetary symbolism know that trying to integrate Saturn and Neptune, even as concepts, is like meditating on a Buddhist koan. Where is the meeting ground between the planet of mists and fairies and the planet of rocks and corporations, for heavens sake? What we have here is a paradoxa tricky proposition for the linear Western mind.
The best way to approach the task is to examine each of the two symbols separately at first, on its own terms. Saturn has traditionally been associated with hard thingsin both senses of the word (physically dense; difficult). It is said to govern whatever is solid or solidifying, whether conceptually so (rules and regulations; gravity) or literally so (cement, lead, glue). And Neptune has been associated over the centuries with energies that are maddeningly elusive and intangible: fog and poisons, inscrutable longings, untraceable ailments. What are we to make of the fact that two archetypes so different are opposing each other in the sky?
Let us start with the literal, always a good place to start when looking for meaningthough not, for our purposes, the best place to finish.
Mundane astrologers, whose focus is primarily prediction, interpret transits in terms of worldly events. On this level, among the meanings we can infer from this opposition are a new realism (Saturn) about environmental hazards (Neptune); the attempt to codify (Saturn) universal health care (Neptune); and the blockage and/or scarcity (Saturn) of liquids (Neptune), a signal of the politics of water.
Healthcare in Crisis
For a while now it has been common knowledge that healthcare in the USA is in sad shape; but thanks to the Saturn-Neptune transit the word crisis is now invariably invoked to describe it. Polls just before the last election ranked healthcare second only to the war in Iraq as a subject of popular dread.
Neptune governs chaos and epidemics as well as hospitals. These are images of immense miasmic power, which helps to explain why the healthcare debate is roiling in the mass mind like a storm at sea. Saturn, the planet of sharp-eyed practicality, is removing wishful thinking from collective opinion on the matter and bringing harsh realities into view. Americans are starting to connect the dots between the expense of healthcare and its inefficiency (consider that only 30 cents out of every health care dollar in the USA ever makes it to any hospital or clinic). Large numbers of people are starting to realize that the fact that America is the only industrialized country without a functioning universal program (Neptune) has something to do with the fact that private insurance companies (Saturn) run the show.
As bad as it is now, George W. Bushs new budget proposes millions of dollars in additional cuts (Saturn) to existing programs, money that would have gone into childrens and preventative care and fighting cancer. Meanwhile, 47 million Americans are uninsured, another 17 are underinsured, and public hospitals are closing left and right. A report just came out ranking the USA as 37th in the world in health care indicators.
The greater significance of these abysmal statistics is how at odds they are with Americas proud self-image as the ultimate First-World society. Incongruities like these illustrate a running theme of Saturn and Neptune in opposition: we are being forced to look at juxtapositions that are so alarming they seem surreal. The wholesale failure of conventional standards of realness is a clue to the essential meaning of this aspect, an idea to which we will return.
The Politics of Water
Neptune governs water; Saturn governs structures of containment and application. In the USA, California provides the emblematic example of water use practices now being pushed into the headlines. Though water is widely known to have been the engine behind the machinations of power throughout this states history (remember the movie "Chinatown"?), the issue is rearing its head in critical new ways.
About eighty per cent of the water used in Californiathe countrys (and the worlds) breadbasketgoes to irrigating crops, half of which add very little to the economy but are generously subsidized . The political footballs of dam construction and river diversion are bringing this information to the fore, along with the darker issue that underlies them: the plutocratic relationship between agribusiness and government. Meanwhile, Americans spent eleven billion dollars on bottled water last year presumably out of health consciousness; but one that stopped short of considering the environmental impact of the fuels necessary to produce and distribute the stuff, not to mention the question of what to do with all those pesky plastic containers.
The transit is doing more than merely putting water in the news. We are in the throes of an epochal consciousness change around its archetypal meaning: water (Neptune) is being redefined (Saturn). The opposition augurs a new way of thinking about this unique element of daily existence, a substance so essential to life that it establishes the very requirements for lifeand which Americans and other First World denizens have tended to take for granted in terms of unlimited accessibility.
But as the recent explosion of ecological awareness has made clear, the worlds oceans are dying. At the same time, increasingly scarce natural sources of water are being taken over from their indigenous users by globalizing corporations . We are moving into an era of hydro-politics.
Water is fast becoming the new oil.
The Metaphysics of Water
And it is not just our approach to water as a physical reality that is changing. Our approach to the metaphysical realities of water is changing, too.
Everywhere and always, water has been seen as the universal solvent in a figurative sense as well as a literal one. Water is the aboriginal source of the other four elements, and the matrix whence everything in the universe arises. In astrology this etheric sea is symbolized by the planet Neptune, the all-encompassing womb whence we all emerge and to which we will all return. Neptune reflects the mass mood, in which the Saturn-Neptune opposition is currently triggering deep fluctuations. Collective angst and confusion permeate this second half of the decade, as the transit exposes the shifting contours of the group imagination. Once we concede the existence of this vast reservoir of pooled energies, the question arises: what is it for?
It is impossible to make sense of Neptunes mysterious workings unless we credit the existence of the soul, for which this material lifetime is just a sojourn. Neptunes placement in the birth chart reveals each persons individual point of connection to an Ultimate Spiritual Sourcewhatever name we give it. Neptune is the part of us that remembers we have a soul dimension, and that when we came to Earth we decided to become separated, temporarily, from that souls source.
Is it any wonder transits of Neptune are notorious for inducing us to space out and float away? Part of us just wants to go Home.
So what happens when our worldly impulses collide with our other-worldly ones? We moderns tend to psychologize the Saturn-Neptune conundrum, diagnosing it in personal terms and giving it names like paranoia, utopianism, depression and apathy. But an appreciation of Neptunes true meaning will help us understand the deeper implications of the opposition upon us. Instead of seeing it as a pathological impasse, we can use it as a spur to profound understanding.
There is no doubt that there is a shadow side to Neptune, which Saturn can be counted upon to put in our face. The temptation to go unconscious in the face of daily responsibilities is very strong right now. A deep restlessness may make us chafe at being confined in any one activity. And although it is true that tasks may arise which seem particularly onerousdespite (or maybe because of) the fact that they may simultaneously feel quite meaninglesswe will get more out of the cosmic lesson being taught if we de-emphasize the specific events that the transit seems to cause, and meditate instead upon the meaning of the state of mind the events are triggering. No matter where we are, no matter what we are doing, we would be facing the same existential dilemma. Even if we were spending our days lying around in a hammock on Bali we would feel it a chore to get up and mix the piña coladas.
The malaise associated with this aspect is not hard to understand when we remember that Saturn is about obligations and duty, whereas Neptune refers to our connectiondeeply unconscious in some, closer to the surface in othersto the part of our nature that is aching to disappear back into the Infinite. The transit now in the sky is accentuating a universal human dilemma: How do we live within the restrictions of this life when some part of ourselves knows full well that This is Not All There Is?
Challenging the Authority of Reality
At first blush, this transit feels as if it is pitting the boring old here-and-now against the idea of a more perfect alternative. But there is a deeper riddle to solve here. Every few decades when these two planets reach the opposition point in their cycle, humanity is given the chance to melt down some of its most basic assumptions about reality.
Saturn, the planet of solidity and substance, declares that itand it aloneknows what is real, whatever the word means in any given context. Meanwhile Neptune is associated with the unreal a slippery concept, best arrived at through process of elimination. Over the past couple of years, Neptune has been mercilessly mocking many of our most cherished convictions, with the result that the authority of reality has been challenged everywhere we turn. Reality shows, identity theft and Scooter Libbys prodigious memory loss are examples of this process.
What is real and what is unrealreally? Though we run our lives by these distinctions, we rarely stop to think about them. In American culture, for example, we are brought up to believe that a stone is more real than an idea. Money is presumed to be more real than, say, a poem. In some cultures, the secret name given to a baby by the tribal shaman is considered more real than the name she is called by her community. The fact that Paris Hilton commands big bucks for showing up at a party makes her activities seem more real to many people than the doings of a gifted nobody. These notions are clearly very relative, yet to those who hold them they seem obvious and absolute; and since they are rarely questioned, they dont run up against much controversy. This is why the transit is so unsettling: it is inviting us to question them.
The word "myth," for instance, is used in the vernacular to mean not true. But which is realer: a literal event that affects no one, or a myth that affects billions of people? And who defines whats real? Is an idea real by virtue of being repeated over and over in the media until it assumes the patina of normalcy? In these high-stakes times, this is another assumption the transit is asking us to consider. Does the phrase war on terror, coined by our government and ubiquitously applied to the occupation of Iraq, refer to something real?
Also causing consternation is the issue of financial realness. Already a great source of anxiety in the USA, the concept of material security has been getting less and less concrete. At earlier points in their history, Americans were able to assure themselves of their worth in terms of acres of farmland and pieces of gold; by contrast, these days more and more people are investing their savings with Wall Street, where wealth is abstracted into a series of flickering numbers on a screen.
With massive national debt looming in the background, the realness of material worth has never seemed more illusory; and the Saturn-Neptune opposition has brought the point home. The stock market rout on February 28th that sent the Dow Jones average down more than four hundred points and erased more than a half a trillion dollars of market value occurred within hours of the transit reaching exactitude. From a cosmic point of view, the most apposite question here is a philosophical teaser: Did what was erased (Neptune) ever occupy actual form and space (Saturn) in the first place?
The Saturn-Neptune opposition is not about producing answers or assuaging doubts. It is about stimulating questions. It is a nudge to detach ourselves from fashionable but arbitrary verities, and to replace them with understandings that come from a deeper place.
This is the only way to achieve peace of mind during this transit. We must get our bearings in essential truths if we are not to be swamped by collective lies.
Debauchery and Rehab
Astrological symbols can come in very handy in times of deep cultural malaise. The opposition upon us now is reminding us that Neptunes intention is to undermine whatever a given societys definitions of realness happen to be. Thats the planets job. It messes around with our sense of clarity in order to tempt us beyond reality into something greater. But we must not confuse the transits true purpose with the ways it gets distorted through clouded consciousness.
It is all but inevitable that group expressions of this opposition will be askew in a culture that is out of touch with the spiritual meaning at Neptunes core. Modern secular societies have precious few healthy mechanisms to model this planets key teaching: that every living thing in the world is connected; We Are All One. Without this central idea to guide us, we are at the mercy of the troubling emotions that slosh around just below the surface of the mass mind.
In its confusion over the Saturn-Neptune dynamic, American society has pressed into service a well-oiled escapism industryamong whose central players are television, electronic gadgets, alcohol and Big Pharma. But the enthusiasm with which the USA embraces escapism masks an acute ambivalence. It is one of the stock incongruities of American culture that conventional opinion heartily condones some drugs (Neptune), prescribing them as fast as they can be cooked up in the lab and promoting them with multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns; while other drugsincluding far-less-pernicious onesare righteously criminalized and stigmatized (Saturn).
Another expression of this societal confusion is the current Revolving-Door Rehab phenomenon. In a reaction to the Saturn/ Neptune contradiction, pop culture breathlessly extols its partying celebrities, sending paparazzi to the nightclubs to keep us informed about what theyre wearing and drinking as they make the sceneyet condemns them the minute they are perceived as crossing some fine line between high jinks and debauchery.
The trouble with all this bouncing back and forth between the transcendant cravings of Neptune and the punitive impulses of Saturn is that it is not a response to the opposition; it is a reaction. The only way to resolve the opposition is to find some sort of equilibrium between them.
Equilibrium and Sanity
If the Neptune-Saturn battle can be said to have a function, it is to get us to confront the existential problem of defining reality. Using our own societys standards as a backdropfor we incarnated into this culture for a reason, and must use what we have: there is no such thing as an accident of location any more than there could be an accident of birth timewe should be asking hard questions about the societal pictures all around us.
To respond in a healthy way to the transit, we must avoid reacting against these cultural pictures through negativity, cynicism or despair (unintegrated Saturn) just as we must avoid blindly caving into them (unintegrated Neptune). The two planets seem to be vying for supremacy, but they can, through awareness, be used to mitigate each others excesses. If we find ourselves sinking passively into conformity or denial (negative Neptune), we have the perfect antidote at our immediate disposal: Saturn, governor of healthy skepticism.
Neptune is sensitizing us to the insanity of the times. Saturn is grounding us in the understanding that just because a worldview is shared by millions of people does not mean it is not insane.
1 The opposition reached exactitude in late February and early March and will peak again in late June. As is true of all oppositions, this one is a juncture point in a larger cycle: the Full Moon phase of the cycle that began when the two planets conjoined in 1989. That was the year the Berlin wall (Saturn) crumbled (Neptune), a benchmark of modern world history. We are now experiencing the cyclic aftermath of that development, watching geopolitical verities that were once held as gospel being exposed as illusory or downright fraudulent.
The last time the two planets opposed each other was in 1971, when America was going through a similar mass disillusion with its official stories. Consider Viet Nam, now an enthusiastic trading partner of its former mortal enemy, Uncle Sam. Contrast this capitalistic Cinderella story with the scenario being spun by Washington during the sixties about what would happen to Southeast Asia if the USA lost the Viet Nam War. Virtually unquestioned at the time, the domino theory of communism turned out to be a Neptunian chimera.
2 For example, cotton, rice, alfalfa and pastureland.
3 Pluto in the second house of the USA chart indicates the compulsion to control whatever the worlds most coveted resources happen to be at any given time. See my book Soul-Sick Nation: An Astrologers View of America, AuthorHouse 2006.
4 By unreal here I mean transcendant or imaginal. Though we Westerners are brought up to believe that whatever is not empirically verifiable is unreal by definition, in order to integrate Saturn and Neptune we need to reconsider such assumptions. Certainly even modern thinkers who scoff at the supernatural know only too well how palpable the contents of the unconscious mind can beparticularly if they have Neptune strong in their natal charts.
Jessica Murray trained as a fine artist before graduating in 1973 from Brown University, where she studied psychology and linguistics. After a stint in political theatre in the heady early '70s, Jessica moved to San Francisco and began studying metaphysics, where she has had a full-time private practice in astrology for more than 30 years.
Her new book, Soul-Sick Nation: An Astrologer's View of America, has recently been published by AuthorHouse. In addition to her column in Daykeeper Journal and the monthly Skywatch on her website, MotherSky.com, Jessica's essays appear in The Mountain Astrologer, P.S. Magazine, Considerations and other publications. Jessica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.