for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire:
it is the time for home.
~ Edith Sitwell
One kind word can warm three winter months.
~ Japanese Proverb
In our 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. Much of the reason we dread the transition into the wintry season is that we’ve lost touch with how to embrace and embody the spirit or rhythm of the seasons. This has been a gradual cultural movement away from traditions that honoured our place in nature to our modern materialist, secular version of culture where such traditions are often so completely forgotten that many are not even aware that our ancestors used to live in such a way, even more recently than one might suspect. However, we may be surprised to see that our present ‘sophisticated’ culture may have something to learn from what we often deem the stuff of mysticism and superstition. Moreover, as we collectively face the devastating impact our modern commercial-industrial-capitalist etc. culture has had on our natural environment, it might be out of necessity that we engage again a way of seeing the world that positions humanity in harmony with nature rather than as its dominator and ruthless exploiter. Ultimately, the stakes are becoming increasingly grave and with 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 the broken relationship between ourselves and the Earth, we as a species could be facing extinction.
As a Chinese Medicine practitioner trained in what is known as the Five Element tradition and one who has 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 perceiving and being in the world that provides remarkable hope to the peril our species faces. What I’ve learned is quite obvious: that we’ve utterly lost contact with nature and the natural way of things. And yet, my time spent engaging nature-based traditions has shown me that there is a pathway to healing for us to begin forging and, thankfully, much of the work has already been accomplished in the endeavours of our ancestors and the courageous indigenous peoples who have kept the light burning of their traditions through a period of intense darkness of imperial conquest that almost saw all of their wisdom totally wiped out. My intention surrounding the Winter Solstice is to offer an example of how we can come together and restore our connection with nature and begin replanting our roots in the Earth and once again become a part of it.
In the ancient traditions of Chinese Medicine still abided by today by some, it’s asserted that a primary way to maintain health and longevity is by attuning and subsequently adapting our lifestyles to the changes of the seasons. This is a multi-dynamic approach, working in such realms as diet, cultivational exercises and even our philosophical perspective of the world and how we should act in it. An example in this more philosophical instance would be seeing Winter as a time for introspection and personal reflection whereas Summer, at the opposite end of the axis, would be a time for being more outgoing and for more vigorous activity. To the ancient innovators of Chinese Medicine to go against the way of nature engendered by the spirits of the seasons was seen as one of the first steps one takes toward inviting disease in their life. In a modern world completely aloof from the way of nature, this disease is clearer than it has ever been in our obscenely poisoned environment and toxic lifestyles.
Ancient traditions understood the primacy of attuning to nature because in the past our 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 assure we’d live well and survive. Drought could spell potential doom. Life was a fragile balance with the forces of nature holding ultimate power. In the modern societies of First World Nations such as Canada, we’ve evolved ourselves culturally to be insulated for the most part from nature’s at times unwieldy and merciless power. Innovations in technology have allowed us to manipulate nature to our advantage and we now bask in our seeming dominance. However, as is becoming quite clear with the significant Earth changes taking affect, it seems we are being forced to digest a massive slice of humble pie: as free as we may believe we have become from the forces of nature, it is becoming increasingly clear we are not as powerful and free from Her circumstances as we formerly believed. It only takes a little inquiry to realize that though cities seem to have transcended the limitations of the natural world, we still subsist on an agrarian industry (farming) and if the weather is intensely unfavourable and the seasons begin to move more out of their natural alignment as we continue to push the fundamental ecosystem from which all alignment on Earth manifests, we will face more and more adversity. Cities may have exiled nature to carefully carved parks but the very lifeblood of our species is still very much dependent on nature itself. Ultimately, it seems cities have duped us into forgetting our ties to nature (now as the roads leading to farming communities) and yet we may actually be living in a much more perilous position than before because if we were to be struck some kind of environmental catastrophe, as a culture far removed from self-sustainability, the results would be disastrous. It has been noted that in the case of food shortages, a city has a supply of only two days’ worth of food to feed its whole populace, painting a grim picture indeed. And yet, it also represents a tremendous opportunity (and even necessity) to re-evaluate our culture and transform for the better. As Shakespeare so dutifully stated: ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity.’ So how do we reconnect with the nature through the portal of the Winter Solstice?
Our ancient ancestors were so aware of our necessity to fit into the natural accord that almost all of our perennial festivities were done to honour and mark a significant event in the natural procession of the seasons, such as the beginning of a season (i.e. the Equinoxes & Solstices), the celebration of harvest time, and even events such as eclipses which also invited a cosmological element in the contemplation of the rhythm of nature. In fact, the tremendously sophisticated ‘star-knowledge’ of the ancients that we are still only beginning to understand reflects that our ancestors had an immense perspective of the things that extended far beyond merely 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. So relevant was nature to their culture that some of the greatest wonders of the world, from Stonehenge to the Pyramids, were sites devoted to extrapolating naturalist principles (including stellar events) and even coordinating with them. Ultimately, there was a deep understanding that we as a species are not apart from nature but very much interwoven with it and that nature itself was not some dumb, blind force but a multi-dynamic functionality of energy and matter that ebbed and flowed in cycles and highly influential events that, given our interweaving as a species interdependent with them, have an inevitable and immense effect on our 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. For any who has dealt with the Winter Blues knows firsthand that we can be intensely affected by the seasons.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. And yet, this is no doomy gloomy event for herein nature reveals one of its most eternal symbols: the circle, embodied here as the cycle. For though this date marks the time when in Earth’s axial tilt we are farthest from the Sun, it is also the pivot point where we begin to actually turn back toward the Sun and the days start to gradually lengthen and the night’s shorten. Thus, many ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice had to do not with necessarily focusing on the darkest time of year but rather the return of Light or what was long viewed as a rebirth of the Sun or Sun God/Goddess in several cultures: “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 of greatest dark (The Winter Solstice), which is seemingly deathly, now 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.
This is why evergreen wreaths were hung on doors: to honour and celebrate the continuity of life and the wheel of the year. The Wheel of the Year refers to the Pagan schedule of nature-inspired festivities, of which there were eight major ones with many minor ones interspersed. Many of these festivities have actually continued as evolved traditions in our contemporary culture. For instance, Hallowe’en was formerly the Pagan holiday of Samhain and, as I shall discuss, there’s much evidence that points to the fact that Christmas itself used to be an extension of the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, with the clear parallel between honouring rebirth of the Sun and honouring the Son of God, Jesus.
Moreover, the date of the Winter Solstice in Roman times was the 25th of December upon establishment of the Julian calendar (formed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC): “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 what is now the Winter Solstice was known as Saturnalia and was not a mere celebratory day but entailed a week of 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, jewellery, 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 neighbours 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, as with most festivals, was a way for us to consciously express the energy and rhythm of nature through our own unique human cultural expression. Here, the focus was on Light itself, embodied in the pivot point of the Sun returning its splendour on us. As Light bestows life, vitality, warmth and even joy in the spectacle of basking in a resplendent sunny day, Saturnalia was a time for us as well 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 friends and family feasting together 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. Thus, 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 more common bonds to be forged between us during a time of year when Joy was under greatest threat by the amplified spectre of darkness. In this vein, nature inspires us toward festivities to harmonize our social order and familial relations, which is why perhaps many ancients believed that nature itself is inherently good, including human nature itself; a refreshing and radiant belief in our times of great cynicism. Now that we’ve created the context to revive some of our reconnection to nature, let’s deepen the texture by exploring pragmatic ways we ourselves can connect and embody the spirit of Winter.
Since Midwinter has traditionally been viewed as a time to celebrate the rebirth of Light, we can honour by being Light ourselves; sharing the inner-radiance of our spirit and helping to light up others with our generosity, kindness and tenderness. Sadly, singing (traditionally carolling for this time of year) is something that is lost on us in North American society for the most part. 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. A great practice would be finding some traditional folk songs attributed to this time of year in your cultural tradition and learning them with your family. For myself personally, I’ve found digging out some traditional Christmas carols when we gather for family time can wipe away the Winter blues almost instantly and create an exuberant mood.
As Light is connected to the heart, any service of love is a way to honour this time of year. Such activities could include: donating food and clothing to the poor in your area, volunteering 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, and to, ultimately, stay abiding in the heart as much as possible. Light can also be honoured by putting up typically 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.
As I stated before, the ancient Chinese viewed transforming one’s lifestyle to live in harmony with the differing seasons as being central to the cultivation of health and longevity. To this end, it’s appropriate to deepen our sense of the spirit of Winter by citing some of the ancient Chinese wisdom and we’ll begin with perhaps their oldest known text, the I-Ching or The Book of Changes. This book actually dates back to 5000 years ago and contains an elegantly intricate system of symbolic codes that symbolize the essential patterns inherent in nature itself. Now this may seem mystical but in fact it’s grounded in rational thought. One can also look to the ancient Greeks among many other cultures for inquiries into the quantifiable patterns in nature’s design. One of the most famous examples is the mathematical formula of the Fibonacci Sequence which is the essential formula by which all of 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 as mentioned the Sun/Light begins its return. Let’s have a study:
Hexagram 24, Fu, The Return (“The Turning Point”) [SEE HEXAGRAM HERE]
The idea of a turning point arises from the fact that 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.
It’s interesting that right away we have the similar theme that other ancient traditions have of the continuance of light or life, inspiring vision of a cycle: once light is pushed toward its extreme it begins again, exuding the victory of light to not be snuffed out by dark but in retreat to turn around and find movement forward again.
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--a custom that survives in the time of rest observed at the new year. In winter the life energy, symbolized by thunder, the Arousing, is still underground. Movement is just at its beginning; therefore it must be strengthened by rest so that it will not be dissipated by being used prematurely. This principle, i.e., of allowing energy that is renewing itself to be reinforced by rest, applies to all similar situations. 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, the overarching theme is one of rest, something our hyperactive society could be wise to respect. Following the course of Winter where nature is dormant, pulling inward like the closing petals of a flower, we are advised to pull ourselves within to rejuvenate and replenish our energetic reserves. Winter is a time where introversion is encouraged as we spend more time indoors, perhaps in personal reflection over our more active accomplishments throughout the rest of the year; seeing how the seeds planted in Spring, come to the zenith of their activity and growth in the Summer and what resulting fruit was 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 where the thriving, “springing” energy of boisterous growth encourages us to replant and grow again in the seasonal cycle. By aligning ourselves thusly, we actually optimize our projects because 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 of physiological function. According to Chinese Medicine logic, each season pertains to one of the Five Elements (the Chinese consider late Summer to actually be a season) and, moreover, each element relates to particular organs in the body which are seen to embody that element’s energies. In Winter, we find the Kidneys and the Bladder as representatives for the Water element and the life-energy (or qi) that flows through our bodies through the acupuncture channels or meridians is said to be more active in these organs’ meridians during the Winter season. Thus, we’re being attuned to the rhythm of Winter without even without being conscious of it!
Rest and respite is vital to our health and longevity, something almost utterly lost on a caffeine-addicted, adrenal depleted and active society that works and stresses the body constantly beyond its limits without any attention paid to our resources and their conservation. Following the Hermetic axiom ‘as above, so below’, we see how our personal lives of anxious activity and overly taxed energetic reserves are mirrored in the natural world: our land is growing barren from over-farming, often due to over-fertilization asking too much of the land before it has a chance to re-mineralize and, moreover, we are facing the immense energy crisis in the alarming depletion of the scarce resource of oil which, interestingly enough, as a substance is being found to have a drastic effect on harmonizing tectonic plate activity. It seems when oil is taxed so excessively (as our personal energy reserves are), the Earth is left in a state of disorder with increasing earthquake activity as there’s a lack of oil to lubricate tectonic plates to graceful movement, seen in our own lives as the disorderly state of our nervous systems and their inability to keep us from our own nervous quaking.
A great service done to ourselves would be to take time in Winter to rest and see this season as nature’s way to offer us respite. It’s clear that that is, after all, what nature intends for us by making the outside environment so unpleasant and downright impossible to be mobile in. Following the lead of many our land mammalian relations, we’d do well to lean toward hibernation, spending more time in the warm shelter of not only our warm homes but in other activities that create enduring warmth, such as close companionship with friends and family, as we tap the element of Fire embodied in the Heart as Joy. In this darkened time of quieted city activity, personal reflection is offered a perfect environment to flourish in serenity and without the incessant need to be somewhere and do something. Our powers of introspection can be even more strengthened by taking up the eternal spiritual art of meditation; an excellent antidote for empowering our lives with confident peacefulness and liberating ourselves from the endless chatter of the egoic mind and its intense and intoxicating attachment to desires, the majority of which are superfluous.
One of the greatest challenges we face in Winter is maintaining not only the external warmth of our flesh but also the inner-warmth of our spirits. As mentioned, the Winter is the season of Water, the element that controls Fire. During Winter, just as there is more darkness outside, it seems within us we are unable to find and be aware of our inner-light. This has manifested as Seasonal Affective Disorder--the dip in mood that affects so many. Thus, developing strategies to counter depression are important. Though rest is emphasized, it doesn’t mean we must fall into laziness and idleness. To maintain our Fire requires our effort and gives us an opportunity to strengthen our resolve to reveal to ourselves our inner-light and better cultivate its splendour to keep our spirit warm and even be a boon to others in a season where community sharing can be critical to psychological survival. It’s important to make sure we still move our bodies and get sufficient exercise, though in our society of constant over-exertion is must be said that what is known as the ‘soft arts of exercise’, such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Yoga, deserve more of our attention because they don’t push our body consistently beyond its limit and engender an overall regenerative effect; excellent in times of such utter degeneration of body and mind. Companionship is important because hearts spark and inspire each other toward more radiance. In these darkened times of long nights, 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, many other traditional festivities to explore that dot the cold and long Winter months that can serve as places of jovial gathering and other convivial things to help see us through a period of the year that sadly torments many of us. By reclaiming the practices of our ancestors and innovating them in our own way to become evolved aspects of our own lives, we are creating lineage through time, which was once seen as a sacred way to maintain human bonds. Moreover, as many of these traditions exude a spirit of harmony with nature, we can find the particular kind of healing we need in a world that has lost its connection with the natural way. What is perhaps most profound about revisiting ancient, naturalist traditions is discovering that 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 still endure in our language and cultural expression to this day, in albeit hidden and superficial ways, speaks to the eternal power of nature has in our lives. Ultimately, it was our observance of nature in times primordial and the insights we received therein that influenced our very first understanding of the world and ourselves. And the great beings of our history have all been bridled to such a relationship.[iv] In our modern times, it is no different: science is our present exploration of the workings of nature and for anyone who has kept up-to-date with the revolutionary discoveries recently found in such intriguing fields as quantum physics knows, what we’re now discovering about nature is beyond incredible.[v] Moreover, it’s intriguing to see that many modern discoveries were things the ancients already had apprehended![vi] All in all, it calls for the rise of a new set of symbols to draw out of nature and place in our lives, tying us to the ever-evolving understanding of the true nature of things, which directly should influence how we ourselves exist and act as individuals and as a culture. We must encourage a vital movement forward beyond the stasis our culture has become with its obsession with greed and material wealth to engage the birth of a new culture of true values and integrity that serve truth rather than profit.
Nature is truly the one religion that we all can agree upon and must agree upon and serve in our times when our relationship to the natural world is the primary dilemma facing us all. By revisiting the traditions already emblazoned by our ancestors, we can take heart in knowing a path has already been provided. It is now up to us to continue innovating that path to speak to the trying times of our day and return us into relationship with nature and the world as it really is. During these Winter months, embody the Light that is our finest and most brilliant quality. Share it far and wide, lighting each other up and 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 soever 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 eye-ball; 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). http://www.shambhala.org/arts/fest/unconquered.html.
[iii] Shotwell, Janet. “The Unconquered Sun”. The Karma Dzong Banner (Vol III, No 11, December 1991, Halifax, Nova Scotia). http://www.shambhala.org/arts/fest/unconquered.html.
[iv] I often recall Leonardo Da Vinci in this instance, one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived, and how he was banned from receiving formal education during his era as he was left-handed which was seen as kind of handicapped state that warranted alienation. Da Vinci was not to dismayed, however, and spent his time out in nature, in the forests and it was his careful observance of the workings of nature down to its most intense minutia that truly provided the educational nourishment that encouraged his mind and soul to become such incredible forces for creativity and innovation.
[v] I recommend the works of Lynn McTaggart for an exciting overview of the revolutionary discoveries in quantum physics. Her two books The Field and its follow-up The Intention Experiment are absolutely integral to understanding where truth has evolved to in our modern era.
[vi] The Tao of Physics by Fritjoff Capra is a canonical work on this subject.