Winter Solstice—Trusting the Return of the Light
This winter the solstice (Saturday December 21 at 11:11 PST) marked a turn to a new year at a level I’ve not felt for a while. I usually spend it with my Elder’s Circle down in the Santa Cruz area conducting ceremony in a hollowed out redwood tree that will hold a dozen people in its charcoal teepee-like interior. Chayim Barton would lead us in letting go of the old and dancing in the new, and sharing stories of Manibozo and singing in the light.
But Chayim is in the bardo now, having died in a bicycle accident on November 14th.
Chayim was a student of Lama Yeshi, the Tibetan rinpoche who came to Santa Cruz in the 1960s and established the Vajrapani monestary there. He was my teacher in that tradition, inviting the deep integration of the masculine and feminine, dedicating oneself to the enlightenment of all sentient beings, praying for compassion and acceptance of life as a dream, and spirit and connection to all there is as a truer identity.
So now I am on my own, opening to the Susan-in-me and finding wholeness, opening to the Chayim in me and finding guidance from an inner place.
The Time of the Light’s Return
The stories of Jesus and this time of Christmas are ringing with new meaning. Historians don’t know the precise time of Jesus’ birth, but it makes mythic sense that it would gravitate to the same time of year that people since the beginning of time have held as sacred, the Winter Solstice, when the night is the longest and the promise of the sun returning a matter of faith. It is the time when we pray to have the inner strength to endure and relationships that we can lean into for support.
In earlier societies having good social ties at this time was essential, for without relationships with people who had food and warmth and good snowplows it was difficult to survive the winter. It’s no accident our rituals of family connection and community swirl around this season, guiding us to appreciate our roles as members of extended families and tribes, the core economic relations that allow us to survive the toughest times.
It’s no accident that we gathered for retreat and contemplation of the new year in our Grove community. Nor is it an accident that all of my children chose to come south and gather around the new year. We haven’t declared intentions, but it is inevitably about experiencing our way into a new way of being now without our Susan. We are renting a house in Sonoma and going to just be together with the youngest and the oldest, sharing our lives.
Finding Nurture at Harbin
And delightfully a new solstice ritual emerged this year, in the form of a couple of days at Harbin Hot Springs north of Calistoga, California with a close friend who has been supporting me in this time. My intention was to stop, ground myself in nature and my own nurture, and prepare for receiving my family at a new level of intimacy and connection. If ever there were a temple to the goddess energy this is it, with the hot spring pouring out of a gentle canyon in the oak laden, rolling hills of Lake County. Warm outdoor pool, to smaller, hot, indoor pool, to even smaller outdoor cold pool and then sitting with Quan Yin, nested into a madrone and bamboo in the very center. No talking. Being held in amniotic memory. Remembering what it feels like to be and feel connected, to see a rainbow around the sun midday, to feel the breeze on my cheek, to see the beauty we all hold when we are at peace and open to each other.
The days began with sunrise through the window of a small cottage in The Grove (nice coincidence), a new development. Harbin evolved out of the Northern California hippie culture, and has organically grown into a full blown healing, teaching retreat center where sometimes people even wear bathing suits! But it retains the accepting, permissive warmth of that eruption of release and idealism that attended the late 60’s and 70’s in this region of the country–and spread worldwide for a while.
I returned to the New York Times and SF Chronicle in San Francisco and was reminded of how much of our lives are not held in gentle connection with nature and those we love, and how much work there is to do to support people who are not able to provide for themselves through the winter, or worse, live in the terror of cultures ripped with genocide and hatred.
Lessons in Loss
As someone whose heart has been ripped open by loss this year, and inside the grief found wells of gratitude and love that seem oceanic in scale, I’m realizing that yielding to the mystery of the winter, and opening to the hope that Jesus, Quan Yin, and the little grandchildren bring is something that doesn’t require understanding, only staying open, and letting others touch my heart. I’m asking people “how are you?” this year with a different kind of attention. I know we all live lives that are unfolding unpredictably, and all have stories of tragedy and loss somewhere in our fields of attention.
When Jesus grew older he knew that the doorway to “heaven” was that portal of innocence and unknowing children know so well. The gift of tragedy and loss is to peel away the adult certainty and “rightness” and, at least in my case, connecting me again with my own innocence. My own Christian traditions make sense this year. The ornaments of memory and family touching find a home on the little tree of life in the living room. The music and holiday foods and candles remind me of the importance of this time, even as I face it without Susan. Giving presents is more about giving “presence.” The compassionate example of Jesus holds hands in my imagination with Quan Yin in a way that begins to bridge differences in tradition.
Climbing the White Mountain
Many years ago I was working with Jacob Needleman, a philosopher from SF State University and a deep student of esoteric wisdom. He was in my studio and I was sharing some of my journal work with him. I remember him stepping back, and saying “don’t confuse reflection with real spiritual development.”
He then told me a story that remains a “map” to my new territory. At the center of all cultures, he said, is usually a story about a White Mountain of consciousness, in the heights of which one can rise above our frail human condition and find God (or whatever other name this state of divine union is called). In the north, Jacob went on, the guides to this mountain caution journeyers about the importance of the right dogs for the sleds and extra warm parkas. In the south it’s about that mosquito netting. In the desert cultures it’s about water and protection from the heat. These “rules” and ways are critical in the early parts of the journey. But as people move outside their cities of origin, they begin to encounter different challenges. Inns and retreat centers run by former seekers point to the paths up the mountain. You need overnight rest and touchstones to remember your intentions, they say. You need to rise above your mukluks and burkas. But many of these inn keepers have stopped journeying themselves. Those who continue begin to rise to higher ground. Other climbers begin to appear from other directions. The conditions are now very similar. The path becomes steeper, until there comes a time when you only progress by roping up and continuing as a team—a group of people committed to ascending to the very peaks by holding each other up.
I’m wondering if this might be a solstice story—even a Christmas story? Can this be a time when renewing our commitment to roping up becomes more important that remaining alone in our differences? Can this be a time when we connect at our deepest levels and ask for and open to the support we need from each other? Can this be a time when we rise above whatever distractions, upsets, overwhelms, indulgences and dogmas that also attend this season. Can we remember that this time of deepest darkness is also a truly sacred time?
This winter I choose to climb the White Mountain of full awakening, fueled by loss and love. I choose to yield to unknowing and connection. I yield to my faith, that there is light and that it returns, and that it can be a north star for anyone who cares to open to it, through whatever traditions provide a trusted pathway to the light. And I yield to connection—to my large extending family, to loving friends and fellow climbers, to The Grove and my professional community, to my Coro community, and to the growing network of people worldwide who are also climbing the White Mountain, finding in me a trusted climbing companion.
Trust and embrace the light this new year—that is my prayer.