What is Mercury Retrograde, Anyway?

by Natalie Kiser

For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.

What does the infamous Mercury retrograde actually mean for us?

I like to reframe that question and instead ask, what is Mercury retrograde trying to help us understand? Each time the planet of communication appears to reverse its course, we can feel opposed and knocked down in every conceivable way. Or we can surrender to being in relationship with this inevitable event and come into a space of greater curiosity and awareness about what it can show us about ourselves. It’s our choice.

I like to refer to it not as “Mercury retrograde” but as “Mercury Rx.” I consider the time of retrograde, which is when any planet is at its closest distance to earth, as taking in the medicine of a planetary body and internalizing it as my own. I allow it to show me how to embody that archetype within my own personal expression.

See also: Tips for Navigating Mercury Retrograde

What does Mercury retrograde actually mean?

We experience Mercury retrograde, and all astrological phenomena, from our position on Earth in relationship to the celestial spheres. During its retrograde phase, Mercury (or any planet) does not stop; it does not go backward, it does not slow down in space. The perceived reverse motion is an illusion that results from our vantage of the planet and its orbit in relation to ours. Retrograde happens only from our perspective. Although it is our perspective that in turn creates our reality, so in actuality, there is no difference.

We won’t be plunging into the depths of this rabbit hole, but let’s explore direct versus retrograde. The reason Mercury is retrograde to begin with is that it appears to be revisiting a place in the sky where it has already been. Mercury goes through space within the zodiac and then, from our perspective, slows down in the sky just prior to taking a brief pause and reversing its apparent motion to a specific point in the zodiac. Then it once again slows down, takes another brief pause, and appears to move forward again.

Note that Mercury is stationary twice during each retrograde cycle. Gary Caton, author of Hermetica Triptycha: The Mercury Elemental Year, asks us to especially consider these stations, or periods of time when Mercury appears to stand still. When I think of the stations, I envision myself back at school when the principal would come over the intercom and announce a change in the regularly scheduled program. These can be insightful times because they give us an opportunity to pause and be keenly aware—and, in so doing, avoid any of the typical Mercury retrograde complaints of miscommunication.

Caton explains that to consider Mercury’s cycle only as direct versus retrograde is lacking profundity. The planet Mercury, whether retrograde or not, always challenges us to use our wit and ever-evolving ability to change directions to organize—and reorganize—the way we think about life. (If you desire to dive deeply into the topic, Caton’s book is a great resource in which he offers a foundational understanding of the Mercury cycle.)

See also: Everything You Need to Know About Venus Retrograde

What happens to us during Mercury retrograde?

Mercury retrograde has been popularized in a way unlike any other astrological event, except perhaps the full moon. Why? Perhaps because it is known for incurring calamity, notably technological and communication gaffes.

Technology

Be mindful, rather than paranoid, about the tendency for these occurrences. On the technological front, knowing that we’re about to enter retrograde can be a reminder that we should regularly back up important information and work documents.

Communication

Misunderstandings in communication are notoriously common during Mercury retrograde. The very nature of retrograde is confusing because Mercury seems to go backward even though it’s actually not. Being the ruler of communication, Mercury can bring on the same quality in conversations. One way to counteract this is to voice your understanding of things to someone in order to be certain you and others are on the same page.

Self-awareness

Mercury retrograde influences us from both an external and internal perspective. It relates to the level of communication with others as well as self, a topic that’s relevant although not often discussed. During any retrograde, we are called to an awareness around our need to be more individualized in whatever aspects of life that planet rules. Mercury specifically corresponds to deductive, linear, and rational thought. Its retrograde period is a time to reorient the way we mentally organize reality, specifically in terms of facts, rules, and thought processes that come from external sources. It is a time to look for what is not in alignment with what we know when we turn inward and review our own reality. Journaling is an amazing tool to explore this.

Mercury retrograde does not ask us to deny facts. Rather, it helps us throw off the conditioned approaches to thinking that are limiting our more inductive and intuitive understanding and processing of reality. It is a call to think individually, to not put linear or rational ways of thinking on a pedestal. Mercury retrograde might be asking you to identify where you can shrug off the societal pressure to listen to logic. During the upcoming Mercury retrograde periods, allow yourself to simply let go, forget, and release what you feel isn’t aligned with or necessary for your thoughts as you ponder and play. Allow yourself to use more of your intuitive faculties. If you thought you knew how you were going to make a business proposal happen step-by-step and you receive an intuitive nudge to do something differently, listen to that whisper.

Slowing down

When Mercury appears to reverse its course, it invites us to change our way of always being on the go, always being distracted by devices, always overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. Sometimes we tend to feel more scattered during Mercury retrograde. It can be both a highlighted time of intense single-pointed focus, as well as a feeling of not being able to hold onto information if it truly is not in alignment for you. During this time, people have the tendency to more easily check out mentally because of a deeper function that is calling us to empty out all the information, data, and ideas that are creating stagnation. Ease up on judging self and others for being mentally preoccupied.

See also: 5 Simple Practices to Cultivate Calm When Life Feels Crazy

What is Mercury shadow phase?

Prior to and following Mercury retrograde are what’s commonly known as the “shadow phases.” These are the two weeks before and two weeks after Mercury appears to reverse its movement. During the pre-retrograde shadow, Mercury goes through the exact same degrees of the zodiac that it will revisit after it goes direct.

I think of the pre-shadow phase as the foreshadowing of what is to come. This is a time when we tend to experience some of the same awareness and misunderstandings that happen during the actual retrograde, but to a lesser extent. After Mercury goes direct, the post-shadow phase can bring any number of lingering effects, whether an embellishment or a resolution of any situations you recently encountered. Try to experience them as hints leading you to clarity and insight around any situations or mindset you are being asked to revisit.

What are the Mercury retrograde dates in 2022?

In 2022, we will experience four Mercury retrograde cycles, which is one more than is typical for the calendar year:

January 13 to February 3 May 10 to June 2 September 9 to October 1 December 28 to January 18, 2023

Each Mercury retrograde cycle has a unique meaning based on the sign and corresponding element in which it takes place. In 2022, Mercury’s retrograde cycles are unique in that they all begin in air signs and drop back down to earth signs. What is the effect of the planet that represents ideas and communication transiting from the air to the earth?

This is, in part, an indication of the new age of air energy being grounded firmly into our reality. (The new age of air refers back to the Great Conjunction that took place at the end of 2020 that brought us into the age of air, or the age of Aquarius.) On a societal level, technology and cyberspace might become a more prevalent presence in your day-to-day affairs and bring greater understanding or opportunities to you. This is because virtual reality is ruled by the air element and the earth element makes things tangible.

On an individual level, the planet of communication moving from air to earth will invite us to review our thoughts about how we are going to be in connection in the world moving forward, and then how we will begin to take the steps needed to turn these ideas into actualities.

On a more spirit-centered or meta level, Mercury asks us to incarnate what we want to bring to the earth through the breath. As we continue to root into the age of air, it is important to be mindful of the importance of breath and how it is the carrier of divine intelligence. It fills our body with calmness and clarity that no Rumi quote or Google search can transmit. The breath can also bring about anxiety when we are disconnected from it. Mercury wants us to consider these things as it is the weaver of the within and the without. During Mercury retrograde, I invite you to learn a variety of pranayama practices in order to find more mindfulness around the cycles.

See also: 2022 Astrological Forecast: What the Planets Have Aligned For You

Mercury retrograde misconceptions and truths

Following are a few practical tips for being in relationship with Mercury retrograde. Some might appear to go against the usual caveats you’ve heard in the past. Instead of relying on absolutes in terms of your thinking and behavior, focus on how you hold yourself in a particular situation and draw on your awareness.

Contracts are OK!

You absolutely do not have to wait to sign contracts until after the Mercury retrograde periods. However, double check everything you sign and review agreements with people verbally—literally state back to them in your words the way you understand the contract to read—in order to avoid confusion and miscommunication.

Trust your intuition

Allow yourself to leave behind the linear way of thinking as your primary orientation. Listen to the whispers of your inductive reasoning and the less-linear parts of your mind. Step out of societal thinking that everything needs to be a certain way. This will save you a lot of frustration.

Be open, be adaptable

Mercury is a trickster, and it can, indeed, throw some curveballs and obstacles our way. Take these situations as redirections, which will serve you more than fixating and ruminating on your mental framing of what was “supposed” to happen.

High contrast of experience

During Mercury retrograde, you can alternate between feeling hyper-focused on a particular area of life and completely checked out of your day-to-day reality. Being aware of this propensity can help you avoid the typical Mercury retrograde miscommunications. If you feel that you are going to check either of these areas of extremes, convey your unavailability to necessary parties so that no relationship issues arise as a result.

Being aware of the above can reorient you away from an oversimplified perspective on Mercury retrograde and allow you to begin to be in a more dynamic relationship with it. This is just the beginning of your understanding of its relevance in your life.

About our contributor

Cameron Allen began his path to understanding mind-body awareness with a degree in health and sports science and psychology. Beyond the colonized education system, he began seeking understanding through direct experience with nature, Astrology, herbalism, rootwork, yoga, and other indigenous technologies. Cameron is a herbalist, astrologer, and writer. Cameron is a student of life and continues to deepen his studies of ancient wisdom and apply it to modern life.

See also: More astrology insights and related practices