Dear Friend and Reader:

Three or four times a year, everyone who knows something about astrology goes through a ritual called Mercury retrograde. Everyone who doesn’t know about astrology gets to have the experience, though not sure what it is and perhaps suspecting that something weird is going on.

We are now approaching the first of four Mercury retrogrades spanning between early February 2014 and early February 2015. The upcoming retrograde begins Feb. 6 with Mercury in Pisces and ends on Feb. 28 with Mercury in Aquarius.

What I call the echo phase and what other astrologers call the shadow phase began Jan. 22. The after-retrograde echo phase begins when Mercury stations direct and runs through March 20.

Typically the retrograde itself lasts three weeks, but the whole process — wherein Mercury is dancing around approximately the same 15 degrees of the zodiac, lasts for two months. Hence, while Mercury is retrograde just 19% of the time, the retrograde effect can be felt about half the time. It’s the most concentrated around the days when Mercury changes direction. These are called the stationary points, or stations retrograde and direct.

Associated with lost keys, late or lost payments, disk drive failures and communication mishaps, Mercury retrograde does not have a very good reputation. Yet some people love it — if you’re the creative type, or if you have a slightly tweaky mind, if you like the feeling of swimming against the current, you might be one of the people who looks forward to Mercury retrograde happening. If you’re very sensitive to it for whatever reason, you might take a more cautious approach. Other people seem impervious to it, like it’s not even happening or has no effects. By now you probably know where you stand with this.

Mercury retrograde happens when the planet Mercury passes between the Earth and the Sun. Because Mercury’s orbit is about 84 days, this happens three times a year. While the retrogrades typically last about 22 days, there is a margin on either side of two to three weeks where the influences can be felt.

Mercury is not made of mercury. It has a huge core with a very high density, leading astronomers to believe that it’s made mostly of iron. In fact Mercury is believed to have the highest iron content of any planet in the Solar System.

This is all another way of saying Mercury retrograde means a huge magnet passes between the Earth and the Sun, making its closest pass to our planet at the same time. This may explain why devices act weird, but I think that it also helps explain why the mind gets wonky, such as the tendency to lose things, or to perceive problems as being worse than they are — the nervous system runs on electricity. The mind is a device that is, at least on the physical plane, rooted in electricity and magnetism.

In my view, the effects of the retrograde are evenly distributed between a perceptual event and one in the world outside the mind. The combined interaction is powerful, the more so for not being easily discernible as a reality or as an effect of the mind. A purely mental phenomenon seems to be associated with a Mercury retrograde effect, so notice how your mind is handling problems or puzzles when they arrive. I have observed that the approach to a problem really does suggest whether and how that problem will be solved.

With the space remaining I will pass along, in summary form, some of what I have learned about Mercury retrograde. I don’t mean what I have learned from books — I mean what I have observed tracking, experimenting with and doing consulting about every Mercury retrograde since 1994, and some going back to 1987.

I agree with “don’t sign, don’t buy.” That is, when you can avoid doing so. I have experimented with making purchases during or near Mercury retrogrades. Most of the time it turns out I don’t need or don’t use what I purchased. Sometimes it does not work, works strangely or does not do what I intended it to do. So I divide my life into times when I buy things and times when I don’t.

I will usually (as in 99% of the time) make major purchases only with Mercury direct and out of echo phase. There are rare exceptions, but not so many. If you buy something during a retrograde, try not to be too attached to it, or expect a break-in period, while you work out the bugs. Sometimes things work out just fine. Really, most things can wait a week or two or three. If they cannot wait, be extra conscious of all the factors involved in the sale, don’t rush the process, keep your paperwork and make sure there is a good return policy. Choose carefully and get a good one, whatever it is.

As for contracts, it’s not always possible to determine when you sign your lease or make the deposit, but I have been known to make landlords wait for weeks before even leaving a deposit. (Hi Stefan!)

Plan ahead and use what flexibility you have. It’s worth finagling this to your advantage when you can. The operative events are the first payment and the signature on the contract.

The problem if you sign with Mercury retrograde, or about to retrograde, is that something is likely to reverse itself — an elementary illustration of what it could mean that Mercury changes directions. Or, you will learn something you wish you had known sooner. Which leads to my second point.

There are legitimate questions of what to do when you have a house closing scheduled for during Mercury retrograde, if you have to start a new job, or you get the bug to have that new car. I plan to write more about this; there are some basic approaches that can be applied, one of which is to understand exactly what is in the contract or commitment and not make any promise that you cannot keep.

If the situation involves significant amounts of money, a real commitment or the potential for a real inconvenience, it might be a good idea to talk to an astrologer who truly knows what they are doing with Mercury retrograde. [I can usually handle this kind of consultation in-and-out much of the year.]

The truth comes out when Mercury stations, either retrograde or direct. Mercury has a way of shaking out information, especially right as it stations. You can count on this. If you’re working on a mystery, or a riddle, or an investigation, or research, or trying to solve any mental puzzle, keep it going till the next Mercury station retrograde. Just to be sure, wait for the second batch of information just as Mercury stations direct. This is one reason you want to wait before signing or buying.

If an item of communication is missed, don’t assume you’re being ignored. Many people shoot off one email and expect a reply. With spam filters, busy people processing hundreds of emails a day and odd errors like emails not arriving, it’s better to give people the benefit of the doubt. Give people a day or two to respond, and if they don’t, send over a friendly one-liner to the effect of, “Hey I emailed you, just want to make sure you saw it.”

If communication gets dicey, pick up the phone. We are getting better at communicating online, but still, it can be difficult to relay feelings or basic concepts, especially with Mercury retrograde. The moment things get weird, such as if there is a misunderstanding, pick up the phone and clarify — before things get out of control or real misunderstandings happen. It’s better not to conduct arguments by email. It has all the sensitivity of sniper fire. Err on the side of being human.

Resolve the past, plan the future. I have found that the best use for Mercury retrograde is to tidy up what you’ve left unresolved in the past. Clean your desk, organize your stuff, contact old friends, go through your email and see if you missed anything important. While you’re at it, collect your ideas and figure out what you’re going to do next. Plot and scheme. Use the various qualities of the retrograde to refine your plan over time, then plan a launch sometime after the station direct.

If it may not be broke — don’t fix it so fast. One phenomenon I’ve noticed during Mercury retrograde is that things seem broken or like they are malfunctioning but are not really. Or, the problem is one thing but you think it’s another. Or, the problem is not as bad as you think. Therefore, before tearing everything apart, or spending a lot of money, or sending anything back to the factory, troubleshoot carefully and try simple solutions. Break out pure logic and apply that as a tool. Look for temporary workarounds and see if the issue resolves on its own. I’m suggesting you avoid solving a problem that doesn’t exist, or worse, making a bigger problem than you thought you had.

Always remember that Mercury is the trickster.

That means he, she or it can be tricky, and you need to use your mind — not have your mind be tricked. Mercury is a kind of a game. Be a good sportsman and keep your sense of humor.

Image Over the Rainbow. Illustration by Nina Gabriel.