December 21, 2013

Winter Solstice: Embrace Darkness & Embody the Light ~ Darren Austin Hall

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

~ Edith Sitwell

In modern times, the Winter Solstice is nothing more than a marker for the beginning of the winter season, a season often anticipated with much dread.

We’ve lost touch with how to embrace and embody the spirit of the seasons.

There has been a gradual cultural movement away from traditions that honored our place in nature to a modern materialist, secular version of culture where those traditions are often completely forgotten. We may be surprised that our present sophisticated culture can learn something from what we often deem the stuff of mysticism and superstition. As we collectively face the devastating impact our modern commercial-industrial-capitalist culture has had on our natural environment, out of necessity we can again engage in a way of seeing the world that positions humanity in harmony with nature, rather than as its dominator and ruthless exploiter.

The stakes are becoming increasingly grave; the recent Fukushima crisis and its potential deleterious effect on the world at large and the Pacific Ocean.

Unless we figure out how to heal our broken relationship with the Earth, our species could be facing extinction.

The Winter Solstice is an opportunity to come together and restore our connection with nature.

As a Chinese Medicine practitioner trained in the Five Element tradition, I have been granted tremendous opportunities to study with indigenous healers and wisdom keepers from around the world. I’ve been privy to an ancient, and still excitingly novel, way of being in the world that provides remarkable hope. What I’ve learned is quite obvious: We’ve utterly lost contact with nature and the natural way of things. Engaging nature-based traditions reveals a pathway to healing, as much of the work has already been accomplished by our ancestors and the courageous indigenous peoples who have kept the light burning.

This is a time to begin replanting our roots in the Earth and once again become a part of it.

In the ancient traditions of Chinese Medicine, a primary way to maintain health and longevity is to attune and adapt to the changes of the seasons. This is a multi-dynamic approach, working in such realms as diet, cultivation exercises, world view and behavior. Winter is a time for introspection and personal reflection. Summer, at the opposite end of the axis, is the time for being more outgoing and engaging in vigorous activity.  To go against the way of nature engendered by the spirits of the seasons is the first step toward disease. Ancient traditions understood the primacy of attuning to nature because lives used to be inextricably and intimately tied to nature itself.

Agrarian societies were wholly dependent on the munificence of nature. Rain meant crops and nourishment, which would ensure survival. Drought could spell potential doom. Life was a fragile balance, with the forces of nature holding ultimate power.

Our ancient ancestors were keenly aware of the necessity to fit into the natural accord. Almost all festivities were done to honor and mark a significant event in the natural procession of the seasons, such as the beginning of a season (i.e. the Equinoxes and Solstices), the celebration of harvest time and events such as eclipses that invited a cosmological element in the contemplation of the rhythm of nature.

The tremendously sophisticated star-knowledge of the ancients reflects an immense perspective of the things that extended far beyond the ecological principles of the Earth, emphasizing the unique and powerful influence the cosmos has on the happenings of our planet as part of the universe.

From Stonehenge to the Pyramids, sites were devoted to extrapolating naturalist principles (including stellar events) and even coordinating with them. There was a deep understanding that we as a species are not apart from nature, but very much interwoven with it. Nature itself was not viewed as a dumb, blind force but a multi-dynamic functionality of energy and matter that ebbed and flowed in cycles that had an inevitable and immense effect on people’s lives.

Take for instance that winter now has a disorder attributed to it: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the depression that comes in this cold and dark months. Anyone who has dealt with the Winter Blues knows firsthand that we can be intensely affected by the seasons.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. This is no gloomy event, for herein nature reveals one of its most eternal symbols: the circle, embodied here as the cycle. This date marks the time when we are farthest from the Sun in Earth’s axial tilt and the pivotal point where we begin to turn back toward the Sun. The days gradually lengthen and the nights shorten.

Thus, many ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice had to do with the return of Light, or what was long viewed as a rebirth of the Sun or Sun God/Goddess. “Winter Solstice has been celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years. This start of the solar year is a celebration of Light and the rebirth of the Sun. In old Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel.”[i] The wheel is symbolic of the cycle of life and its continuity from the extreme dark (The Winter Solstice) toward the greatest expression of light and life (The Summer Solstice), only to turn again and again. This brings to mind the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game”:

And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and ’round and ’round
In the circle game
And go ’round and ’round and ’round in the circle game.

Evergreen wreaths were hung on doors to honor and celebrate the continuity of life and the wheel of the year, referring to the Pagan schedule of nature-inspired festivities. Many of these festivities have evolved into traditions in our contemporary culture.

There is much evidence that Christmas was once an extension of the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, with a clear parallel between honoring the rebirth of the Sun and honoring the Son of God, Jesus. In Roman times upon establishment of the Julian calendar (formed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC), Winter Solstice was celebrated on the 25th of December. “This is the turning point of the year. The Romans called it Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[ii] The Roman festival to mark the Winter Solstice was known as Saturnalia and entailed a week of celebratory festivities:

“The Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, was both a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. Riotous merry-making took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense.
Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life’s continuity, and processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets.  The custom of mummers visiting their neighbors in costume, which is still alive in Newfoundland, is descended from these masked processions. 
Roman masters feasted with slaves, who were given the freedom to do and say what they liked (the medieval custom of all the inhabitants of the manor, including servants and lords alike, sitting down together for a great Christmas feast, came from this tradition). A Mock King was appointed to take charge of the revels (the Lord of Misrule of medieval Christmas festivities had his origin here).”[iii]

Saturnalia was a way to consciously express the energy and rhythm of nature through unique human cultural expression. The focus was on Light itself, embodied in the pivot point of the Sun returning its splendor on us. As Light bestows life, vitality, warmth and even joy, Saturnalia was a time to embody such attributes.  And so it was that the essential spirit of Saturnalia was to convey love to family, friends and associates, much the way the Sun bestows warmth and life with its rays. Customary of Saturnalia was feasting and exchanging gifts; a custom the Christians adopted in their own Christmas celebration.

Interestingly, in ancient Chinese thought, Light was attributed to the element of Fire, which correlates in their medical tradition to the heart and the emotion joy. During this time of year, the ancients celebrated the return of Light in merriment through feasting, dancing and other festivities with the joy of the heart bestowing bountiful warmth upon the community.

Melting the frigid, Scrooge-like personality and inviting bonds to be forged during a time of year when joy was under greatest threat by the amplified spectre of darkness. Nature inspires festivities that harmonize social order and familial relations, which is why many ancients believed that nature itself is inherently good, including human nature itself; a refreshing and radiant belief in our times of great cynicism.

The ancient Chinese viewed transformation in harmony with the seasons as central to the cultivation of health and longevity.  Perhaps their oldest known text, the I-Ching or The Book of Changes , dates back 5000 years ago and contains an elegantly intricate system of symbolic codes that symbolize the essential patterns inherent in nature.

This may seem mystical, but in fact it’s grounded in rational thought.

One can also look to the ancient Greeks for inquiries into the quantifiable patterns in nature’s design. One of the most famous examples is the mathematical formula of the Fibonacci sequence, the essential formula by which all matter is designed. The book is broken down into 64 Chapters each containing a different hexagram or pattern that embodies a rhythm in nature. If we look to Hexagram 24 we find one entitled Fu or “Returning.” This is also the hexagram that expresses the quality inherent to the Winter Solstice; the time of year when the Sun/Light begins its return.

Hexagram 24, Fu, The Return (“The Turning Point”) [see hexagram here]

The turning point arises after the dark lines have pushed all of the light lines upward and out of the hexagram, another light line enters the hexagram from below. The time of darkness is past. The winter solstice brings the victory of light.

The Image
Thunder within the earth: The image of the Turning Point.
Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes at the time of solstice.
Merchants and strangers did not go about, and the ruler did not travel through the provinces.

The winter solstice has always been celebrated in China as the resting time of the year. In winter the life energy, symbolized by thunder (the Arousing), is still underground. Movement is just beginning, therefore it must be strengthened by rest so that it will not dissipate prematurely. Rest reinforces the renewal of energy. The return of health after illness, the return of understanding after an estrangement… everything must be treated tenderly and with care at the beginning so that the return may lead to a flowering.

Here are five ways we can connect with nature, embody the spirit of winter & heal our relationship with the earth this season:

1. Be the Light.

Midwinter has traditionally been viewed as a time to celebrate the rebirth of Light, we can honor the season by being Light ourselves, sharing the inner-radiance of our spirit and helping to light up others with our generosity, kindness and tenderness. In the past, without televisions, radios and computers to entertain us, it was common for families and friends to come together to rouse each other’s spirits through song.

Find some traditional folk songs attributed to this time of year in your cultural tradition and sing them with your family. This will wipe away the winter blues almost instantly and create an exuberant mood. Light can also be honored by putting up Christmas lights outside or adorning your home with candles. In this way, we are reminded of the warmth and joy of the Fire element of the heart through these challenging months.

2. Serve Up Love.

As Light is connected to the heart, any service of love is a way to honor this time of year. Donate food and clothing to the poor in your area. Volunteer at a social service agency, a soup kitchen or even a hospital. Put up bird feeders and keep them filled throughout the winter to supplement the diets of wild birds. Donate funds and items to non-profit groups. Perform focused meditations and contemplations for world peace to generate positive energy in the world and in your life.

3. Respect the Need to Rest.

Our hyperactive society would be wise to respect rest. Follow the course of winter, when nature is dormant. Pull inward like the closing petals of a flower and rejuvenate. Replenish your energetic reserves. Spend more time indoors, perhaps in personal reflection over our more active accomplishments throughout the rest of the year.

Seeds planted in spring come to the zenith of their activity and growth in the summer, and the resulting fruit is borne for us to harvest in the fall. Acting in such a natural way allows us to better understand how our goals and projects have performed and how we can reinvent, revise and re-establish them come spring again. We are working in alignment with the natural energies of Earth in a masterful way, creating harmony and graceful flow in our lives.

This is not merely a matter of philosophical input but one of physiological function.

Do a great service to yourself and take time to rest. It’s clear that nature intends for us to rest by making the outside environment so unpleasant and downright impossible. Engage in activities that create enduring warmth, such as close companionship with friends and family.

Tap the element of Fire embodied in the heart as Joy. In this darkened time of quieted activity, personal reflection will flourish in serenity without the incessant need to be somewhere and do something. Our powers of introspection can be strengthened by taking up the eternal spiritual art of meditation, an excellent antidote to empower our lives with confident peacefulness and liberate us from the endless chatter of the egoist mind and its intense and intoxicating attachment to superfluous desires.

4. Stoke Your Inner Fire.

One of the greatest challenges we face in winter is maintaining the external warmth of our flesh and the inner-warmth of our spirits. Winter is the season of Water, the element that controls Fire.  During winter, just as there is more darkness outside, it becomes difficult to remain aware of our inner light.  This has manifested as Seasonal Affective Disorder, a dip in mood that affects so many. It is important to develop strategies to counter depression.

Though rest is emphasized, it doesn’t mean we must fall into laziness and idleness.

To maintain our Fire requires effort. This provides an opportunity to reveal our inner-light and better cultivate its splendor to keep our spirit warm. It’s important to make sure we still move our bodies and get sufficient exercise, though in our society of constant over-exertion the soft arts of exercise (Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Yoga) deserve more of our attention.

5. Gather Together and Connect.

Companionship is important because hearts spark and inspire each other toward more radiance.  In these darkened times, deep conversations are encouraged, especially over warm beverages such as sumptuous teas. Ginger tea is most excellent for its ability to stoke the body’s warmth. The spirit of giving commenced by the Solstice celebrations and Christmas can offer continuing warmth as our generosity lights up the lives of others, in the end yielding more love to ourselves as we become true bearers of heartfulness and learn the alchemy of spiritual fire in the interconnections with others.

There are many traditional festivities that can serve as places of jovial gathering and help see us through a difficult season. Many of these traditions exude a spirit of harmony with nature and in this we find the healing we need in a world that has lost its connection with the natural way.

Nature was once regarded as something incredibly rich, organic and replete with a symbology that influenced some of the most enduring archetypal images we still have to our day—the spirit of nature.

The more one explores how these nature-based traditions endure in our language and cultural expression, the more the eternal power of nature will manifest  in our lives.

Nature is truly the one religion that we all can (and must) agree to serve. By revisiting the traditions emblazoned by our ancestors, we can take heart in knowing a path has already been provided. During these winter months embody the Light, our finest and most brilliant quality. Share it far and wide, lighting up the world around us.  For indeed, the Sun is returning and so its Light, and what life it brings us. What life!  In the darkest day, and all our seeming darkest hours of existence, the light is ever returning…

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other, who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.
Nature says, he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.
I am glad to the brink of fear.
In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period so ever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.
There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

[i] Fox, Selena. Celebrating Winter Solstice. http://www.circlesanctuary.org/pholidays/SolsticeArticle.html.

[ii] Shotwell, Janet. The Unconquered Sun The Karma Dzong Banner (Vol III, No 11, December 1991, Halifax, Nova Scotia).  

[iii] Shotwell, Janet. The Unconquered Sun The Karma Dzong Banner (Vol III, No 11, December 1991, Halifax, Nova Scotia).  

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Assistant Editor: Jennifer Moore/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Darren Austin Hall

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