Published in The Mountain Astrologer, Dec 03/Jan 04
It is fitting that Neptune should be the most glamorized planet in popular astrology. Neptune has long been associated with glamour, both in the prosaic sense — cosmetics and fashion — and in the esoteric sense — the illusion behind the material world, known to the Hindus as Maya. In facile interpretations of natal Neptune, the planet’s complex range of meanings is often obscured by the same utopianism of which Neptune is itself a symbol, making the native sound like a veritable saint.
Just because Neptune is amorphous does not mean it does not pack a punch. This is the planet that governs both ambrosia and poison. When manifested without awareness, Neptune’s collective function, in particular, deserves a very careful look.
Neptune refers to the human longing to pour one’s identity into universal consciousness, a sublime experience that beggars description in any other terms but the spiritual. Mystical, artistic and psychic explorations are among the few pursuits subtle enough to properly express its agonies and ecstasies. This is the planet of mists and waters, governor of poets inspired by the muse and sailors bewitched by the siren. It refers to yearnings which do not belong to the material world and cannot be satisfied by material pleasures. Trying to respond to Neptune with anything other than a soulful perspective is like trying to put vapor into a cardboard box.
Because Neptune’s purpose is to know the truth of the infinite, any attempts to take it into the finite world tend to run aground. So what do we do with Neptune in a culture like ours, where the dominant belief system proclaims physicality to be the be-all and end-all of reality, and where every desire is fair game for commodification? We glamorize the material plane. Neptune is square to Gemini Mars in the natal chart of the USA, and elevated in the 9th house 1: it is very strong, and very confused. Our collective yearnings for transcendent bliss are at odds with our scattered efforts to attain it. For our Valhalla we have Hollywood, and for our gods we have movie stars. Our lust for nonstop entertainment and material satiation come from Neptunian drives which have been displaced from their origin in the soul.
Ultimately, Neptune feels the mortal coil to be an onerous weight. This translates into an urge to escape duty and restriction, whether we see our burden in existential terms or simply as the boss forcing us to show up for work. What may appear to be irresponsibility is actually a fear of being trapped by the confines of the earthbound self. This is why independent action and clear decision-making are repellent to the Neptunian mindset, which would rather seek out some deep, wide pool into which it can dive and disappear. The alcoholic or drug-taker who seeks solace in a mood change is motivated by the same impulses as the devotee in an ashram: each wants freedom from the prison of individual consciousness. On a collective level, unaware Neptune manifests as conformity, group hysteria and blind faith in undeserving leaders. Awash in group feeling, we free ourselves, at least temporarily, from the burden of having an ego.
The spiritual purpose at Neptune’s core is rarely positively modeled in the Western world. Our society does not honor the divine discontent that is universal to human experience — that craving to lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves. In our day and age, such stirrings, if they are named at all, are likely to be pathologized by our secular priests — the medical/psychiatric scientists — as the lapses of a weak ego or an unstable mind. It is no wonder that we are beset by addictions of every stripe, which represent our efforts to seek the numinous without disturbing our allegiance to the literal. It is no wonder that we fall prey so readily to trends of fashion and ideology, which seduce us to pool our sensibilities together with large numbers of our fellows, and thereby divest ourselves of individual choice.
As astrologers seeking to plumb the meaning of the current world scene, we have at our disposal the archetypal framework necessary to look at important human dilemmas which are otherwise hidden in plain sight. Our deeper view has never been more required. Let us consider Neptune’s role in recent global events.
When the Pentagon attacked Baghdad on March 20th, Saturn was conjunct the USA’s natal Mars and squaring natal Neptune to the exact degree, with Pluto still within orb of the national Ascendant.2 We know that unconscious Mars and Saturn together can manifest as the crudest kind of masculine assertion, narcissistic and defensive; and that Pluto governs destruction and death. But of particular interest here is the role played by Neptune, governor of the mass emotionalism that accompanies war.
Nation states no less than individuals have troubling feelings which must be raised to awareness and worked through, lest they fester and cause psychic harm to the host. Much has been written about the wounds that linger in our national psyche from the abomination of slavery, and from the disaster that was the Viet Nam War. It is now more important than ever before in American history to understand the workings of our collective unconscious. With every month that passes, more wounds are inflicted upon the American soul, due to our current government’s launch into pre-emptive violence, a decision with immense karmic reach in which we all participate knowingly or unknowingly (Neptune makes no such distinctions).
Americans have not yet found a workable way to use our 9th-house Neptune to purge collective feelings like grief and guilt. We have no tribal keeners to ritualize sorrow; no funerary priestesses to dignify and release our national pain. We have not come up with a galvanizing art form such as the trancelike mass dancing South African demonstrators used to transform their suffering into the creative will to break apartheid. With no means to process these energies, what happens to them?
They manifest as public sentimentality, which has no movement in it, and no ability to heal us. Sentimentality is not true sadness; it is a thin substitute, arising from ignorance of the role tragedy plays in the deepening of the soul. Another telltale symptom of stagnated Neptune is depression, which has reached epidemic proportions here in what we call the First World. New drugs are invented every year to suppress this mass inundation of feeling, but it is like trying to dam up the ocean instead of learning the ocean’s laws. Psychotherapy and groups like AA may help us on an individual level, but we lack a mechanism to do so as a nation. Instead of confronting our traumas as a group and ennobling ourselves through meaningful catharsis, we numb out, alone, in front of a television set; or drive to a murder victim’s house and leave teddy bears on the sidewalk.
Mass feeling is a formidable force; one which shifts unpredictably like the weather at sea. An example of healthy Neptune occurred when, shortly after 9/11, an unprecedented sense of togetherness opened hearts in this country and around the world in a soulful period of mass grieving. But our unscrupulous leaders moved quickly to harness the power of these tears, jerking them ever so effectively for a couple of years now, in order to justify completely unrelated foreign and domestic agendas. For Neptune also governs the stagecraft of politics, the confetti and balloons and giant flags flapping against a blue sky. Neptune’s swelling chords and cinematic imagery can provoke a flood of group fantasy, impelling otherwise rational citizens to support the insanity of war. Neither reason (Mercury) nor pragmatism (Saturn) has anywhere near the impact on a crowd.
At issue is the Bush administration’s campaign to inflict great harm upon many innocent people all over the world with whom the ordinary American citizen has absolutely no quarrel. It is an old story. In order to cajole consensus opinion, warmongers in every age have appealed to ideals of racial purity and national superiority. As extravagant as they are utterly vague, such notions constitute a vulgarization of Neptune’s quest for spiritual meaning. Without the illusions of distorted Neptune, people would vote for life over death every time.
It is time to take a sober look at the phenomenon of nationalism. The patriotic fervor this country has indulged in for almost two years will become even more of an issue with the transit of Saturn over the USA’s sun cluster in Cancer (late 2003-2004).3 Cancer is associated with security, home and native land. In its highest expression, Cancer inspires a genuine identification with the land — as when we connect emotionally with our country’s purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. But Cancer, especially when paired with Saturn, is also the sign of fortifications, defenses and walls. The upcoming transits could create more visionaries like Julia Butterfly Hill, or more glorified prison wardens like Tom Ridge. It is critical that we understand the forces behind this planetary signature so as not to fall further into its shadow guise when the Neptunian swoon comes upon us.
Many of us derive inspiration from certain shared American values, such as democracy, a worthy and elegant concept if there ever was one. But Neptunian idealism needs to be balanced or it takes over and jettisons critical thinking. An affectionate yet reasoned approach to democracy would involve watching it at work, keeping it healthy and having the wit to notice when it is being taken away. By contrast, the patriot’s championship of democracy is all too often accompanied by an utter obliviousness as to whether his own government is acting democratically. We have recently witnessed these much-touted ideals get used as a front for the old Us-against-Them dualism, and once again the values themselves have gotten lost in the shuffle. With no grounding in historicity or moral relativism, nationalism has degraded the idea of democracy until it becomes as flat and meaningless as a Hallmark card.
Taking off the blinders of negative Neptune would allow us to confront the fact that nationalism has become anachronistic. In today’s world of multinational corporations, where entire islands are bought and sold to the highest bidder, and whole countries are used by others as banking vehicles, nationalism is no longer a motivating reality for the uppermost captains of industry and government. The corporate billionaire may shed a tear when the flag is unfurled at a civic event, but his accountants know — even if the public does not — that his allegiances belong to no one country.
Indeed, even the patriotic hysteria that gripped the American public in the wake of 9/11 did nothing to disturb the chummy transnational alliances between Bush’s oilmen and Saudi Arabia’s oilmen, despite the astounding fact that fifteen of the nineteen vilified hijackers were Saudis. This would seem to be a blatant tip-off that our leaders claim exemption from the simplistic, with-us-or-against-us nationalism they encourage and exploit in the masses. That this irony was not immediately denounced as such by the public is a testament to nationalism’s irrational power. Neptune is an emotional planet, not a mental one. Upon the collective mind it can function as a mass narcotic.
With origins in tribal survival, nationalism as a human organizing device started out as a reasonable enough way to service a sociological need. But the world is smaller now. Nation states are no longer the sine qua non of group identity. The bottom line in global survival is that an identification with one’s country must no longer trump an identification with the human race.
Over the past couple of centuries, the vision of our shared residency on a fragile planet has begun to replace the old chauvinisms. It is a vision that has given rise to human rights organizations, to the peace and justice movement, and to environmental groups worldwide, all of which prioritize global cooperation over the caprices of governments. It is to universalism that we must now pledge our primary allegiance.
A potent symbol entered our collective visual vocabulary in the 1960s when the first NASA photographs of Earth were sent back from the moon. No longer a gaggle of distinct countries and tribes, we were jolted into seeing ourselves as a single unified world, iconicized by a delicate little blue ball that was alive, precious, and home to us all. That picture may become a powerful consciousness-raiser over the next few years: it is the modern world’s link to the ancient dictum that all people everywhere are inextricably connected.
Every spiritual system the world over promotes some version of this idea, and it is far closer to the essential truth of Neptune than any of the various other crowd-rallying sentiments in currency. It is to be hoped that the visceral poignancy of the upcoming Cancer transits will further support this viewpoint, arousing within us the same urgency when we consider the fate of the Earth that a child feels when its mother is in danger. No other version of Neptune will work anymore. The prospect of replacing nationalism with universalism has about it a sense of evolutionary inevitability; and among the world’s visionaries the campaign is well underway. It is a perspective that is spiritual but not necessarily religious; even a secular society like ours could accommodate it. As Americans, we can further this effort by refusing to be seduced by the expressions of distorted Neptune all around us: in our popular culture’s obsession with the illusory, in the media’s preoccupation with the maudlin.
Behind these grotesqueries is a hunger for higher meaning. To bring Neptune back into balance, we need to use this hunger as a starting point.
2. In the last two issues of The Mountain Astrologer are several articles deconstructing our country’s lurch into full-scale militarism . See TMA #108: Editorial, Tarriktar; and TMA #109: Bush, Iraq and Saturn Forum.