Late in the summer of 1992, while working for a magazine outside of Chicago, I began feeling increasingly burned out by the long hours I’d been keeping and decided to get away for just a few days by myself. So, after talking it over with my boss, I managed to wrangle a few extra days around an upcoming weekend and rearrange a few other things in my schedule. It was all very impulsive, I knew, but something about it felt right, like this was exactly the best time to do it.
But where to go? I’d been thinking for some time about a historical site in South Dakota I’d read about years before, called Bear Butte. Of all the sites revered by the Native American Plains Indians, this one seems to hold a special importance — a 1,200-foot hill where 60-plus tribes from the United States and Canada still come to conduct vision quests and spiritual retreats. For some reason, something was calling me to this spot more than any other right now. So, late that following Friday afternoon after work, I headed out on the highway toward the northern Great Plains, the Black Hills fixed firmly in my sights.
Driving on just a little sleep, I managed to make it across the border of South Dakota sometime the next day, and eventually reached my destination. This whole area is rich in history, I came to learn, having played host to such iconic figures as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud. After climbing to the top of the hill and spending some time by myself, I made my way back down and spent the next couple of days exploring the area around Bear Butte, including Mount Rushmore and the nearby city of Sturgis. After two whirlwind days, I got into my car and drove on back to Chicago, feeling noticeably rejuvenated.
It was just a few days later, after settling back in at work, that an odd thing happened. While conversing with a few individuals, both in person and over the phone, I discovered that at least three other people beside myself had made the long trek to Bear Butte the same weekend I did, all completely independent of one another! That four different people would all be drawn to the same remote spot on the exact same weekend, and not even cross paths with one another, was startling, almost as though we were all pulled there by some unseen force. There’s even some small irony in the fact that Bear Butte is a proverbial stone’s throw from Devil’s Tower — the site where Spielberg filmed Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie about individuals mysteriously drawn to the same geographical spot by some unknown force. Irony, synchronicity — call it whatever you like.
I’ve had a number of experiences like this over the years, where I found myself attracted to a place or subject around the same time as others, in ways that were difficult to explain. Not impossible, just difficult. And every one of these times, I’ve been reminded of the “subterranean links” that synchronicity always seems to hint at, as though our lives have been choreographed in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine, with subtle connections drawing together seemingly disparate events and people.
Whose Thoughts Are These, Anyway?
And among other things, this has prompted me to wonder about the true nature of thoughts. What are they, really? And where do they come from? Are they simply generated by our brains, as most scientists claim? Or do we pick them up out of the ethers, almost like radio waves captured by a receiver? While still a teenager, I came across this intriguing quote attributed to anomalist Charles Fort (though its exact source is debated); it resonated with me then, and still does now:
“… ours is an organic existence, and … our thoughts are the phenomena of its eras, quite as its rocks and trees and forms of life are.”
That crystallized my own view precisely, since I’d already wondered even by that young age if my ideas might somehow be a product of my time and place, rather than something strictly personal to me. In that same spirit, I now had to wonder whether it was possible I’d simply tuned into the same “Bear Butte” wavelength those other three people had tuned into that weekend back in 1992. At the very least, it was food for thought.
Philosophers have a word for this sort of thing — zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age.” Throughout my life, I’ve noticed how different periods seem to exude distinctly different qualities or moods, and how certain ideas or achievements seem appropriate to their times. A shift in the group consciousness takes place, and suddenly a particular subject becomes all the rage or certain themes start popping up in different places independent from one another. Historians have long mused over the curious way parallel developments arise simultaneously in independent fields, like inventions appearing at the same time or theoretical breakthroughs being conceived by different people simultaneously, such as Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin both coming up with evolutionary theory, or Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton both conceiving of calculus.
This happens in the arts, too, possibly because creative types possess especially sensitive antennae for picking up on subtle trends streaming through the collective consciousness. I once read an interview with songwriter Paul Simon where he marveled at the coincidental way Paul McCartney composed “Let It Be” around the same time that Simon composed “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” since the two songs were so similar in tone and completely different from everything else being played on the radio at the time — yet neither he nor Paul was aware of what each other was writing then.
Astrologers Have Something of an Edge
Fortunately, astrologers have something of an edge in studying the zeitgeist, since they’re able to chart its various waves and shifting currents with some degree of precision. More often than not, that changing mental–emotional atmosphere seems especially connected with the interactions of the slower-moving planets — in particular, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, though Saturn and Jupiter are sometimes involved, too.
For instance, in his book Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas points out that the famed mutiny on the Bounty took place exactly as the French Revolution was erupting in France thousands of miles away. These two events were uniquely parallel to one another in significance, involving nearly unprecedented rebellions against authority, yet there was no way the disgruntled sailors could have known about the French uprising unfolding far away; it’s as if both groups were responding to the same revolutionary impulse streaming through the air at the time. But what was that, astrologically? Most likely, the result of a powerful opposition taking place between Uranus and Pluto, two planets traditionally associated with revolutionary energies whenever they join forces.
On that occasion, there was an opposition at work, stirring up turbulent feelings among people, but for many astrologers an even more profound agent of historical change is the conjunction between slow-moving bodies. During my own life, I’ve been lucky enough to witness two such exact pairings of the outer planets: the alignment of Uranus with Pluto during the mid 1960s and the conjunction of Uranus with Neptune during the early ‘90s. (And lest we take astronomical events like this for granted, keep in mind that there won’t be another such conjunction of these three outer planets during the rest of this entire century!)
Anyone who’s lived through these two periods will probably recognize what extraordinary times they really were in some ways — politically, scientifically, culturally. For instance, the ‘60s were a time of revolutionary fervor, when people around the world were exploring new ways of thinking about their lives and values. Men finally walked on the Moon, women and minorities were demanding their rights, and new artistic forms were breaking into consciousness. In popular music, Bob Dylan and the Beatles composed arguably their greatest work precisely as Uranus and Pluto joined forces in 1965 and 1966. Dylan came out with three of his greatest albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, and Blonde on Blonde) within the span of those two years, while the Beatles produced Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver during those same years, with Sergeant Pepper following shortly afterward the next year. This was a period when many other musicians and songwriters were hitting their stride, too.
The Conclusion Seems Inescapable
The conclusion seems inescapable to me: The zeitgeist is especially rich and creatively potent at some times more than others. During such periods, emotions run stronger, inspiration flows freely, and powerful ideas present themselves like low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking. But once these periods have run their course, it’s as if a phantom spigot has mysteriously been turned off and those brilliant feelings and ideas are suddenly harder to come by. I once heard a yogi remark that the “truly great souls” choose to incarnate onto the Earth at powerful times in history, like the Italian Renaissance or Sophocles’ Athens, because of the opportunities those times present. Difficult as that may be to prove, it makes a certain reincarnational sense, when you stop to think about it. By analogy, would a budding world-class gymnast want to attend a strictly average athletic school or prefer to enroll in the best institution available? Likewise, would an Albert Einstein be more likely to incarnate into a period that’s totally out of sync with his abilities and skills or one that offers the optimal circumstances for developing his brilliant ideas?
Consider that the hugely successful author, J. K. Rowling, was born precisely as Uranus was conjoining Pluto in 1965 and penned works that spoke to millions of readers. (Note, too, that the Harry Potter character sports a Uranian lightning bolt–like birthmark on his forehead!) Likewise, Larry and Andy Wachowski, directors of the successful Matrix franchise, were born in 1965 and 1967, respectively, and created a film that reached audiences the world over. Going back further, consider how both Ludwig von Beethoven and Napoleon Bonaparte were born during the rare grand trine in the 1700s between the three outer planets — Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
In all of these cases, it’s as though these individuals’ relationship with the transpersonal planets provided them with a finger on the pulse of those generational streams that defined their era, for better (Beethoven) or worse (Napoleon).
Although some periods may indeed be more energetic or truly revolutionary than others, it’s important to point out that all periods have their own unique qualities and set of possibilities. Every era witnesses the rise of individuals who are preternaturally attuned to the potentials of their time, whether constructively or destructively, with one decade witnessing the rise of Michael Jackson and Mikhail Gorbachev, and another one seeing the ascent of Lady Gaga and Barack Obama — and on it goes.
But in more modest ways, even the most obscure individual is a creature of their particular zeitgeist, their thoughts and drives reflecting the necessities of their era. Is there any way to tell more precisely how someone is aligned to the zeitgeist? One method is to look at whether you were born close in time to any configuration involving the outer planets. Did you arrive in the midst of Uranus square Saturn? If so, then take a moment to reflect on how your life has been concerned with reconciling traditional versus unconventional values. Or were you born when Saturn was conjoining Jupiter? If so, then how has your life been involved in grappling with systems of religion, law, or morality?
Having said this, it’s important to realize that though we’re all shaped by our times, we’re not necessarily confined by them. That’s because in a certain sense the zeitgeist is whatever we make of it, in terms of utilizing its resources for either constructive or destructive ends. You can hand some people the most expensive art materials and they’ll still manage to create inferior art, while others working with the most meager of materials will still manage to concoct masterpieces. Likewise, a great soul can do wondrous things with the planetary potentials offered by their era, just as a less balanced mind can abuse or squander them. The famed yogi Paramahansa Yogananda once implored students to “rise above the age in which you are born.” I’d suggest a slightly different variation: As long as we’re here and now, why not make the most of it?
Adapted and abridged from a longer article in The Mountain Astrologer magazine; reprinted by permission.