Astrology: Slowing Down With the Stars: Mercury Retrograde as a Contemplative Practice

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Pythia Peay Author of "American Icarus: A Memoir of Father & Country and America on the Couch

As a writer and explorer of the inner life, astrology has always fed the springs of my imagination. Like a kind of symbolic almanac, astrology marks the rhythmic ebb and flow of time as it unfolds through the solstices and equinoxes, the phases of the Moon, and the rising and setting of the planets. It reconnects us to that cosmic grid that once organized Old World cultures, synchronizing their religious festivals, planting and daily lives with the heavens. This archaic memory lives within us, stirred awake by the stars above.

It is from the changing cycles of nature that astrology draws one of its key principles: the wisdom of timing. Observing the planets as they make their rounds through the sky teaches that life doesn't always unfold according to our personal will. Instead, a deeper process weaving its own design seems to be at work behind our lives.

One astrological cycle that I watch closely in this regard is Mercury Retrograde. Indeed, if you haven't already heard about it, we're midway through a cycle that began on April 18th, and will end on May 11th, gradually waning in effect until the end of the month.

To those who may be new to this increasingly talked-about phenomenon, let me explain. Three or four times a year, for a period of approximately three weeks, the planet Mercury appears to slow down, reverse direction, and retrace a section of its path around the Sun. It then shifts forward, moving "direct" until it returns to its original starting point. Mercury doesn't actually stop in the Heavens and go backward--it just appears that way to those on Earth who are observing its motions.

As Mercury is said to rule commerce, travel and all forms of communication, astrologers warn that its reversal can trigger setbacks, misunderstandings and "out-of-the-blue" events. A recent, dramatic example is the eruption of the Icelandic volcano days before Mercury turned retrograde, and that wreaked havoc for travelers and the aviation industry. For this reason, astrologers caution against making major decisions or initiating new ventures during this period of uncertainty. Most advise that this is a good time to undertake anything with the prefix re: redo, review, retreat and reflect.

In our relentlessly forwarding moving culture, of course, such advice goes against the grain. Even despite its growing popularity, Mercury retrograde has earned a bad rap as one of the worst times of the year, when anything can go wrong or fall apart. This is a symptom, I think, of our imbalanced way of life in which delays and obstructions are seen as the work of the devil---when it's more likely, as Carl Jung said, that "All haste is of the devil." In fact, I think it's hardly an accident that Mercury retrograde has become part of the zeitgeist: it's exactly the antidote we need for our time-impoverished, speed-addicted society.

We have the slow food movement. So why not take time to "slow down with the stars"? Allowing three-week "time-outs" several times a year to take life at an easier pace may be one way of realigning ourselves with what really matters. Would it be such a sin if we took advantage of this astrologically timed opportunity to play more, garden, go on retreat, journal, or simply stop pushing the envelope? Rather than give in to frustration when my electricity suddenly went out several days ago, for example, I spent a pleasant morning chatting with neighbors over coffee at my local convenience store, then reading the newspaper from cover to cover.

There is great foresight, as well, in the cautionary advice astrologers issue around the retrograde cycles. To deliberate over our actions deepens us philosophically and broadens our perspective, revealing the bigger picture behind our everyday lives. One commonplace about Mercury retrograde is that by the end of the cycle, our problems often look quite different from how they appeared at the beginning---yet another reason for adopting a "wait and see attitude."

In myth, Mercury was frequently portrayed as the "messenger" who shuttled between heaven and earth. Depicted by his winged cap and staff, this ancient god of wayfarers reminds us that life is a journey toward meaning. Guided by this winged messenger, perhaps we can learn to slow down enough to trust the process of life as it unfolds through unexpected twists and unpredictable turns. Mercury retrograde reminds us that without losing our way we might never discover the right path. Retracing our steps along with Mercury, we might also unlock the door to the secret mysteries of time and patience--mysteries that our own modern-day culture has ignored at the expense of our psychological, spiritual and physical well-being.