Monday, December 16, 2013

Winter Solstice part 2

I’d like to continue on the theme of the upcoming solstice. The solstice this year occurs next Saturday Dec. 21, 12:11 PM EST. This is one of the four critical turning points of the Great Round with its complement in the Summer solstice and the two equinoxes in Spring and Autumn. 

Moving toward this cosmic marker, the light is becoming less and darkness is increasing, gathering us together for the longest night, tucking us in, and readying us for the quiet display of its majesty. Once we are enclosed by this dark mother, in appreciation, we can then begin noticing the birthing of light as  days begin ticking their way toward greater radiance. But if not for this Great Darkness, this cosmic matrix, the stars could not be seen and we would not experience light. Darkness is the necessary ground for the possibility of any discussion about light.

Solstice is a holy day that is natural and cosmic. The cultural holidays; Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza are human invention preferring membership in a group. Though solstice is honored by only a few, it shares its bounty with all, no membership required. It does not exclude on the basis of caste, class, creed, color, age, gender, or species. All beings are welcomed to the awareness of darkness in their lives.

In our increasingly manic, growth oriented, and light focused culture, we seem to devote great energy toward eliminating darkness, silence, and death from our lives. We deny death, trying to hide it away from view by placing dying people in hospital and hospice away from the bustle of life where they might be seen, away from the home. We apply cosmetics to our recently dead, wanting them to appear only asleep in their final rest. 

We eschew the quiet, leaving our televisions and radios constantly on, making noise to keep silence at bay. I find that I can’t even go to a sporting event without music blasting out in between the action. We find ourselves keeping our phones attached to us to keep the conversations going or information flowing, avoiding silence and solitude at all cost.

We light up our cities and towns causing light pollution, obliterating the night sky. We illuminate our homes to chase the darkness away from our lives, keeping nightlights and security lights burning to ward off whatever shadows may be lurking that we’d prefer not to meet.

In our family, in addition to the beauty of Christmas honoring the birth of the Light of the World out of darkness for Christians, we've always celebrated the winter solstice. We generally have many lights (votive, candle, incandescent) lit in the room in which we gather then slowly extinguish each light and doing readings about darkness (we have even sung solstice carols on occasion). When the light has been removed, we sit in darkness for a few minutes and each share the value of the dark in our lives. Then we slowly return illumination to the room, relight the tree, and open one gift. In gratitude, we may even make a toast to darkness as that which contains, holds, and brings forth light. It is a simple ritual to honor that element to which our culture pays so little positive attention.

Let me close with Rilke’s words about the dark…..

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you. But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.

Wishing you a meaningful solstice and a merry Christmas!
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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Winter Solstice

            This is the season in which we celebrate the Winter Solstice, the longest night. That time of the year when we can observe the power and necessity of darkness in our lives. Though I am not comfortable with this matter of darkness, I recognize that it comprises a significant portion of my life and to attempt to ignore it, to make it go away, to keep it in the background is to deny its existence and by extension, deny a part of my own existence. Our culture seems to try to ignore this darkness, calling it the shortest day, by focusing attention on light and the birth of the Sun or the Son (Christians) during this time of the year.

            I am not at ease in the dark, on the shadowy paths which twist and wind in my life. Darkness is an unknown where things are unlit and ill defined. It is where security is at a minimum and risk and uncertainty rule. I prefer the sense of knowing who I am, of seeing with clarity, of being in control by manipulating a well-lit environment. Who likes to be left in the dark about matters? I am a creature who faces the light but in so doing I see nothing behind or beyond the spotlight of my narrowed awareness. I miss so much in my unwillingness to trust the dark. If I truly believe that creation is blessing, then darkness as an integral part of creation contains blessing within itself.

            I am reminded that I am the fruit of an encounter that quite likely occurred in the soft darkness of a winter’s eve, reminded that I am sprung from the darkness of a loving womb. I am reminded that in the darkness I can sleep and be renewed from the labors of the day. I am reminded that when I am bleeding, I bandage my wound, cloaking it in darkness in order that the healing process may begin, and that injured creatures retire to dark out of the way places to allow nature to work. I am reminded that the seed begins it germinative activity in the darkness of the fecund earth.

            The dark contains as the womb contains, holding mystery, numinous in its depth. It is a matrix, maternal, holding billions of stars in its vastness. It is imbued with the power for transformation, filled with potential, shape shifting the contents of life, bringing forth anew that which has hardened and dried under the glare and heat of a bright consciousness.

            Darkness is half of creation ebbing and flowing in an eternal dance with light. T.S. Eliot wrote,

I said to my soul be still, and let
the dark come upon you
which shall be the darkness of god.
As, in a theatre,
the lights are extinguished for the scene to be changed.
With a hollow rumble of wings
with a movement of darkness on darkness...
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing.

            When I am in rhythm with this cosmic dancing then I flow with reality, rather than distorting or denying it. Without this Holy Dark, there can be no creativity because there is no gestation leading to birth. 

            Additionally, if everything in my life must be exposed to the light of thorough scrutiny, then I am less able to express tolerance for things which cannot be understood in the clear light of consciousness. Uncertainty, anomaly, mystery, vagaries, even slow growth brings anxiety. When I try to force the bloom of my life with excessive light, I lose the ability to savor life itself. Forced blossoms are never quite as fragrant as the ones slow grown on the vine.   

            Being attached to light, I am only half a person. To reclaim wholeness, darkness needs a new honoring. We must allow ourselves to be in the dark about things. The Kentucky poet, Wendell Berry writes,

To go in the dark with a light is to
know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find that the
dark, too, blooms and sings, and is
traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

            I hope we can all find time to celebrate this Holy Darkness.

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Friday, October 4, 2013


            October is that moment in the Great Round when the harvest is finishing up and much of what remains is dropping seed and leaf, preparing for the dark turn ahead. The Fall is in full display and at its finest. It is my favorite month. Halloween, that eve when traditionally the veil between the worlds is most thin and we can feel the presence of the ancestors, will come to our home. Though I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and my wife in the Episcopal, neither of us have found them very satisfying in addressing our interests, needs, and concerns. We have over the years created a variety of rituals in our family to bring a sense of the religious to our lives.

            Halloween is a “cross quarter” day, midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. In astrological thinking, the midpoint of any phase of a cycle discloses the meaning of that cycle, in this case, the necessary dying of individual life to the larger Life. On Halloween, we always prepare a dinner for the dead, those family members and friends who have preceded us back to the source. We set a place at the head of the table to honor those who cannot be physically present. There is red wine for the adults and grape juice for the kids, the legacy of a grape season, the fruit of death. Glass and plate filled for the deceased. We do some readings and poetry on themes of dying and autumn. We tell stories about the lives of our honored guests and play appropriate music. It is one way in which we try to deepen our lives by recalling those upon whose failures, accomplishments, and shoulders we stand offering homage. 

            Halloween affords me the opportunity to reflect upon death, especially my own. For many years I have had the fantasy of when I’m old and gray of going up on a hill overlooking a pastoral setting on a beautiful October day and just sitting under a tree and expiring. This I have come to believe is an imaginal place, my psychological dying space. It brings great comfort. The image, of course, is death as a completion of life rather than death as an interruption as it is so often experienced. How many of us would wish for an easy death, not too much pain, disability, or lingering but the final punctuation sweetly ending our life’s sentence.

            Personally, I’m saddened at the prospect of leaving this life and find it extremely disheartening. It’s very difficult for me to let go of family, friends, animals, sunny days, storms, snowfall, and fog. I have no wish to fight death’s appearance or pray that it never occurs. I recognize its necessity. It’s just that it’s so final. When my turn is finished I need to give up my seat to another who is just getting on this wild ride and hope that they have as rich and  meaningful an experience as I have had.

            I am put off by talk of an afterlife, I find it terribly distracting from this life. There is so much occurring here that I don’t want to miss any of it through inattention. If there is no afterlife for all beings that have died, then I certainly wish none for myself. How am I more valuable than the eagle, worm or possum? These creatures are filled with the same life that pulses through my being. 

             My comfort surrounding death is in believing that I return to the generous womb of the earth which first conspired with my parents to bring me here. As Alan Watts once said, “we do not come into the world but out of it.” I trust that I am able to go graciously back to the source and contribute to the wellbeing of those who follow.

            Perhaps my favorite thoughts on death come from Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” and I hope that they will be read upon the occasion of my demise.

            I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
            I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
            I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
            If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
            You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
            But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
            And filter and fibre your blood.
            Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
            Missing me one place search another,
            I stop somewhere waiting for you.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic?

            A number of years ago, I read several articles concerning the falsity and implausibility of astrology, a discipline near and dear to my heart. Many skeptics argue that astrology is false and tell us why it doesn’t work. The academic research into astrology that I’ve seen demonstrates that the claims of astrology are not true in a literal, falsifiable manner. Oddly enough, this is not at all hard for me to say though I frequently use astrology in my life and work.

            My belief over the last 30 years is that astrology is much closer to religion than to science, more in line with drama and poetry than equation and fact, more fictive than empirical. The attempt to address astrology through quantitative research is similar to evaluating a poem by the criteria of good legal contract writing, or describing a Beethoven sonata as a particular array of sonic disturbance in a gaseous medium. We can do this but it would not capture the power and beauty of the verse or the music. In other words, we would not be able to see the value of poetry and music if we used the wrong tools to address them.

            Astrology works in the fashion of great drama, lyric, or narrative. It captures us with its elegance. Who among us has not been deeply moved by dramatic presentation, enriched by poetry, caught up in musical ecstasy, entranced by art, or enchanted by ritual? To suggest that these experiences have little value by not being amenable to empirical testing or demonstrating a literal truth is simply specious.

The late psychologist, Rollo May writing in The Cry For Myth, about science’s failure to realize that astrology has a different basis than science notes that astrology “is a myth and requires the language of myth. It has both the shortcomings and the positive effects of myths.” The word “myth” is used by May not to denote falsehood (perhaps the popular understanding), but to speak of that category of human experience in which value, significance, and meaning reside. He further writes that myths are “essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world.”

            Astrology is a form of imagination, an imaginal poetics that is better placed in the humanities than the sciences. We do not argue the truth of art and literature but rather indicate that they are vehicles for conveying, suggesting, or disclosing truth, and so it is with astrology. In the same manner that a portrait reveals, evokes, or presents a particular view of its subject, likewise, the drawing up of a natal chart allows the astrologer to construct a rough draft of the person which becomes increasingly refined through dialogue with the client.

            Astrology provides a framework for imagining a profound intimacy between ourselves and the world. It gives us the fantasy of belongingness and connection. It situates us naturally in the world, part and parcel of an interdependent universe. It gives us a place, bespeaks of home. Through its archetypal images, it can give voice to our deepest connections.

            I believe that we go to astrology, tarot, I Ching, enneagrams, and the like not seeking the facts of our life but rather the truth of our existence. Like beachcombers walking the morning shores at low tide, we seek a revelation from the larger mystery out of which we all originate. We yearn to bring to the foreground of our lives a hint of a larger order to sustain us, if only for a brief moment, in the ground of our being. After 40 years of experiencing astrology, my faith in it rivals the empiricist’s faith in reason. I do not know why I believe what I believe, perhaps because it comes not from the head but from the heart. 

            Despite several centuries of scientific discrediting, we seem to need astrology, myth, and magic. Some veiled part of the soul yearns for mystery. Astrology works not because it gives us the facts, but because it provides a satisfying aesthetic. It suggests elegance, beauty, and the sublime. What better task for astrologers than to spin beauty back into the world, to reawaken in us some of the abracadabra of life?    

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