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The Saturn Return

As A Cyclical Rite of Passage

originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, November, 1994


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The Saturn return, at age 29-30, is one of life's most infamous milestones. It is often approached by those who know something about astrology with great trepidation, and remembered by those who have been through it with great relief that it is over. The actual moment itself, as cathartic as it often is, however, is but the culmination of a complete cycle spanning the entire life to that point. What is experienced during the Saturn return is not an isolated event, but rather the outcome of a 30-year evolutionary process. In order to fully understand the Saturn return, then, it is helpful to explore it as a cyclical rite of passage, with reference to the entire Saturn cycle of which it is a part.

The Saturn return itself marks an astrological coming of age. Although society recognizes legal adulthood, in some cases at age 18, and in others at age 21, it is not actually until the Saturn return that an individual is psychically ready to leave the family matrix and embark on a path that is truly his/her own. Many people, of course, leave home well before this juncture, but for most of us, our pre-Saturn return attempts to define ourselves and create a workable life are influenced predominantly by the nexus of family values, patterns of conditioning, and expectations that are handed down to us from our parents, and the socio-cultural mindset of the world in which we grow up. Whether we accept or reject these values makes no difference, for in either case, we measure ourselves against them.

At the Saturn return, each of us is challenged to take responsibility for our own evolutionary journey, and begin to give expression to a unique voice that comes from within. Up until the Saturn return, we either do or don't do what is expected of us, but at the Saturn return, we begin either doing or not doing what we have taken birth to do. It is this shift in the focus of our responsibility, and not simply being able to vote or buy liquor, that constitutes adulthood from the astrological perspective.

During my Saturn return, for example, I left a stifling job, where I was overworked and underpaid, and made the decision to actively pursue a long standing dream . I decided that I no longer wanted to work for someone else, and that I wanted a simpler lifestyle that did not require me to spend all my time working to make money just to pay my bills. I left the town where my parents lived, and moved a thousand miles away, where I eventually bought some land and began to homestead. I did not really have a plan when I left, but my dream was strong and bright, and led me small step by small step to this Ozark cabin retreat where I sit to write this article today. I may be relatively poor by society's standards, but in allegiance to my dream, I am living a life where my time is essentially my own. The decisions made during my Saturn return, were the basis of my rite of passage into ownership of this dream.

Because the Saturn return is part of a cyclical rite of passage, our preparation for the transition marked by the Saturn return takes place in stages. These stages can be seen most succinctly and differentiated at the cardinal points of the cycle. At the waxing square (age 7-8), the fundamental issues that will come to a head during the Saturn return can be seen beginning to take shape. By this point, the child has begun to assert a nascent individuality and test the range of motion available to him/her in the expression of that individuality. The waxing square generally presents a point of crisis in the midst of this assertion and testing, as parents (and/or society) respond by setting limits. Because most children at this age are still very much dependent upon the approval and acceptance of their parents, they experience a point of ambivalence in their quest for selfhood. To what extent, they wonder, is it safe to push against the limits that have been imposed, and to what extent must they conform to external expectations in order to attain the love and approval that they need?

During my waxing square, I had made the difficult decision to play the game required of me at school. Since day one of kindergarten, I had rebelled fiercely against the very thought of having to spend my days cooped up in school. Before my mother had even left the room on the first day, I had walked up to some other kids building with blocks, knocked their structure down, and gotten into a fight. Throughout kindergarten and the first grade, I fought nearly every day on the playground, and refused to settle down or cooperate with a system that I instinctively knew existed only to take away my freedom.

By the time my waxing square had rolled around, society (in the guise of school authorities) had definitely responded to my rebellion. A conference was called between the principal, my guidance counselor, the school psychologist, my teacher, and my parents, and I was ordered to change my behavior or suffer unspecified dire consequences. Since by this time I had very few allies, either in the adult world, or even among the kids in my class, and because I did very much want to be accepted, at age 7, I began to seriously re-evaluate my strategy. I decided to change my tactics, did a 180 turn-around, and became a model student, shocking teachers and students alike. For me, however, it was a psychological survival mechanism that allowed me to get a foothold in a world I believed I had no choice but to enter.

At the Saturn opposition (age 14-15), a crisis related to the onset of puberty is inevitably experienced. The hormonal and social transitions associated with puberty are triggered by the waxing sextile of transiting Uranus to its natal position, which occurs at about the same time. Fueled by biological changes, individuality is pushing especially hard to crack the egg of parental and societal restraint, and rebellion is inevitably the norm.

Yet, at the same time, under Saturn's pressure, whatever decisions were made at the waxing square become focused into a more specific sense of direction during the opposition. Underneath the rebellion of the adolescent can often be seen an emerging adult, beginning to shed the skin of the child, even as it maintains the child's need for approval and acceptance. Some of this approval now comes from an adolescent peer group, and yet by this time important parental values have also been internalized. The developmental dilemma presented by the Saturn opposition often takes the form of an inner conflict between the emerging individuality and the various sets of expectations imposed by peers, parents, and internalized parental values.

While the Uranus sextile often gives a boost to the ascendancy of individuality, successfully maneuvering through the simultaneous Saturn opposition requires an integration of guiding principles capable of anchoring that individuality on solid ground. If this difficult astrological transition can be compared to driving a car, then the task at hand is not only about learning to step on the gas, but also to work the brakes. It is in learning to coordinate gas pedal and brakes, that the dual challenges of the Uranus sextile and the Saturn opposition are met at this critical juncture.

By the time my Saturn opposition had rolled around, I had actually done quite well in school, and was contemplating college. My passion at this time, however, was my music, and while maintaining decent grades, I reveled in playing saxophone with a number of local rock and roll bands. Yet as I turned to face my future, I again felt the Saturnian pressure of parents, grandparents, and guidance counselors, who admonished me to "be practical." "Music is alright as a spare time pursuit," they told me, "but you'll never be able to earn your livelihood doing it." Under Saturn's pressure, I believed them, and turned my gaze toward what I thought would be a more practical career in chemistry.

Between the opposition and the waning square, the consequences of decisions made at the waxing square, and consolidated at the opposition become apparent. To the extent that these decisions reflect Saturn's ability to bring the truth into focus, the years between 14 and 23 will be an ongoing discovery of a path that the individual can call his/her own. To the extent that these decisions have been marked by a Saturnian repression of one's essential nature, this period will be a tumultuous time of change, so that by the time of the waning square, the individual can be back on track in his/her process of emergence from the family egg.

The waning square (age 22-23) itself will either bring new opportunities for further discovery and expression of individuality, or it will bring chaos. To the extent that the emerging individuality has been successfully integrated with the guiding principles of childhood, momentum toward a unique personal path will accelerate at this time. The pull from this point forward is beyond the nexus of familial and societal patterns of conditioning toward a more complete embrace of individuality, but in order to do that the young adult must have internalized a certain level of Saturnian self-discipline, commitment, and capacity to persevere toward goals that feel important. If s/he has not, the waning square will show in no uncertain terms the necessity for these self-imposed Saturnian virtues. The crisis presented at the waning square is ultimately about taking responsibility for creating the structure and support necessary for one's own growth.

Between my Saturn opposition and the waning square, I came to realize that the practical decisions that I made under Saturn's tutelage during the waxing square and opposition were a mistake. They did not allow enough space for my emerging individuality, which was far more Mercurial and Neptunian than Saturn had wanted me to believe. By my junior year in college, I had switched my major from chemistry to English, began writing poetry, and editing the campus literary magazine. After college, I took off on a trip cross country with a friend, and wound up living in a commune called Funny Farm, where I experimented with soft drugs, and did lots of writing. Shortly after that, I discovered meditation, kundalini yoga, and astrology, and began to explore my spirituality. I was gradually throwing off the Saturnian conditioning of my childhood and discovering the personal touchstones of my own path.

During the waning square of the Saturn cycle, I was living in a yoga ashram, under the direction of a Saturnian teacher, who ran a tight ship, and was quite paternalistic toward his students. One day, as he came upon me organizing some notes from a teacher's training I had just attended, he suddenly decided that my talents could be better utilized at another ashram across country. So I moved, and became part of the Kundalini Research Institute, where I embraced a wonderful opportunity to develop my skills as a writer, a teacher, and an astrologer. I also began graduate school at this time, and eventually earned a masters degree in counseling psychology. It was during this period that I began to build the creative foundation for the work that I am doing now.

It is through this dance of balance between emerging individuality and the responsibility that comes with increasing freedom to express that individuality that the Saturn return derives its meaning. What we see at the Saturn return itself is only a snapshot of consequences, showing how we have handled the developmental tasks associated with the entire cycle. But just as the final grade on a report card fails to address the actual strengths and weaknesses of the student receiving it, so, too, does the Saturn return, in and of itself, fail to reveal much about the underlying issues that remain to be addressed as the student of life marches off into the second Saturn cycle. For that we need to look back and gain the kind of perspective that comes only from a study of the entire cycle.

In the intervening years between the waning square and my Saturn return, I had learned all I could living at the ashram, and decided it was time to leave. I began feeling increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, and increasingly conspicuous belonging to a spiritual organization that deliberately set itself apart from the everyday lives of the people in the community that surrounded it. I wanted to share my knowledge and my service from a more egalitarian place.

Returning to the "real world," however, was definitely a shock to my system. Suddenly confronted with the necessity for earning a livelihood, and paying off my student loans, my perspective began to shift once again. I continued writing, teaching, and practicing astrology, but outside the context of ashram life, I found it impossible to pay my bills without supplementing my income. After unsuccessfully seeking work in the counseling profession, I found work as a painter, but became increasingly dissatisfied having to work for someone else at a job that did not engage my creativity.

Coming full cycle, then, the decision to leave my job, purchase land in the country, and simplify my lifestyle can be seen as a continuation of a cyclical process, allowing myself more permission and more space to express my individuality with fewer external constraints. Through the first half of the cycle, the raw exuberance of my fierce Sagittarian demand for freedom met with stiff opposition. But gradually, as I learned the Saturnian lessons of self-discipline, responsibility and control, the need for an external Saturnian presence in my life decreased. I was gradually freed to pursue my own agenda in my own way, and to give my individuality the breathing room that it has always needed.

Looking strictly at my Saturn return, there is no clue that my process has involved any more than the decisions I made at that point. Observing the whole cycle, through the history of Saturn's movement through my life, however, it can be seen that this one moment in time is but the culmination of a cyclical rite of passage begun at birth. By tracing the entire cycle, the deeper process of establishing a foundation upon which I could creatively exercise my individuality and participate in life on my own terms was revealed to be the essence of this rite of passage for me.

As astrologers, if we can turn our attention from the moment to the entire cycle of which the moment is part, I believe a much more revealing story can be told. What is not so apparent looking at events like the Saturn return as solitary event in chronological time, becomes ripe with meaning when this event is seen through astrology's cyclical lens. It is through tracing the movement of a life through the key points of the whole cycle leading up to any milestone, that the deeper, personal meaning of that milestone is revealed.


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