Winter Solstice: Being Still
Even the Sun stops in its tracks, twice a year. This is a seasonal event, and before you can say “well, duh,” let me explain that I mean it in the spirit of the seasonal as contrasted with what is in the calendar. Some years ago, I wrote an essay suggesting a chrono-biological approach to the fact that the flu season is also the season of lesser light when creatures of the day are naturally less active and perhaps less immune responsive. In the process of writing that essay, I learned that the word season comes to us by way of Old French and refers to the quality of time when it is good to sow seeds, not March 20, but when the ground and the sky are ready to receive and support those seeds. And I learned that calendar comes to us from the Latin, and refers to the first day of the month, when Roman bills came due. These two words, in their contrasting senses of time, point to a lovely distinction between what is natural and what humans culturally impose upon nature. But it seems to me we get into trouble with two time references, one in our bones, and another on our books!
Let me say exactly what I mean for today, for the winter solstice: even the sun rests, the dogs rest, and we need to rest too. I may be a special case of mania, but I don't really think so. Almost everyone I know, even the very young and the very old need to rest more than they do, and I wish we could rest guilt free, I wish we could celebrate rest. (Remember John and Yoko’s sleep-In?)
In honor of the winter solstice, the doorway of the Quiet Season, I invite you not to take my advice, but to listen to your own body, to observe the Sun in its moment of stillness, to lie down and let some beautiful music wash over you. To let the world carry you. . . but only if you find that you want to.
And there's a magical twist to this indulgence. While you do this, you will not use any resources or energy. So you can feel less guilt about ecological collapse and economic scarcity if you give yourself that longed-for rest. Just think, what an economy it would be if we valued rest. Rest doesn't cost anything; it restores, conserves and delights. We collectively might find our natural selves in our natural world with a bit more ease and certainty. We might even know what to do, and what to do less. I know that this happens to me when I do mindfulness practice, and when I rest.
For the past few months, I have been engaging the spiritual practice of mindfulness meditation for at least twenty minutes a day. Sometimes I think it is literally turning my life inside out. I have begun to read and use Ron Alexander’s very practical and helpful guide, Wise Mind Open Mind. Today, this cold day of the winter solstice, I was focused on uncomfortable body sensations and on releasing them. What I noticed was a nuanced and profound desire to rest, to be still. I noticed the subtle pushing forward of my jaw, the effortful bracing in my back and neck, a gnawing in my stomach, all deep habits of body and mind. All of these and more sensations called for the same one thing, to rest, to stop, to be relaxed, to let something else carry me; the something else of the universe itself, grace, nature, something that might be implied in the word “God.”
So, today I went from meditation to a hot bath and from a hot bath back to my crisply made bed. I lay down and listened to Saint-Preux' Concerto Pour Une Voix, surrounded by warm little dogs. I have noticed recently that these same little dogs can sleep deeply and happily for most of the day and all of the night, especially in the winter when the days are short and cold. I notice how they approve when I stop to rest, to listen to music; to make a cuddle-dog-music-saturated renewal.
I am spending time this year with a wonderful group of intellectuals (at the Zygon Center in Chicago), scientists and theologians who are struggling with questions about what natural means. Are we humans not natural? Then is not technology, the creation of us natural beings, not natural, too? Their job, and mine, as scholars and knowledge makers, is to ferret out incorrect and problematic understandings and to offer new possibilities. And our heritage of thought related to the word natural is very problematic, so much so that our thought habits have allowed us to destroy our own niche in nature. I love this work of correction and expansion at the level of idea, and I love these people. But sometimes I want to suggest that they attempt to stop thinking and just sit aware in nature, nature as contrasted with human culture—nature as in forest and field and mountain and river and ocean; nature as in bird, squirrel, fish, deer, opossum—to experience their own roots in the qualities of nature, to feel nature and to feel what it means to be nature.
At the end of our last session a young Native American student responded with hostility to the whole conversation, saying there is a different way entirely to answer these questions, a way that Europeans have nearly but not completely killed. He said we should consider ourselves less than nature. No one liked that idea much. I think they may not have understood him. Maybe his message was lost to me, too, but I think he was saying that we need to understand that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we have obligations to that something and that we are entirely dependent upon it. Or maybe that is what I am saying.
As I left, I heard the question again, “But how do we get a handle on what nature is and what we are in relation to it?” This time I answered, “Wilderness Awareness dot org.” And I do heartily suggest this wonderful school for waking up to nature. Yes, we are natural, us humans, and I think we are cultural too, and it is this culturedness by which we constrain and direct nature, often unwisely. But our cultural selves are built upon our biology, so we need to feel down to the level of our own bodies and not be entirely distracted by a head full of enculturated thoughts if we are to keep the connections in working order, if we are to remain on the lovely planet we have come to kind of know and certainly need.
It may be, as Joan Chittister suggested, that we should “go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again." If it seems a daunting task, start by just being with your own body, attentively. If you fall asleep, choose it! You might feel good.