This is an essay that a friend of mine sent to me a few years ago when I was burnt out completely. I re-read it every year before Winter Solstice. This year I’m inviting you to read it with me. If you don’t have the time to read it- you really, really need to read it. It’s one of those re-set, halleluiah, thank God essays that reminds you what your soul has been begging you to hear.
I remembered to read it when, in my therapists office this week I fell asleep. That’s how tired I was. I crumpled up onto her couch and I died for 30 min. It was the best $120 I ever spent. So, before Solstice (Saturday, Dec 21st evening) try to read this gift. I don’t mean to be bossy but: It will wake you up, it will calm you down. It may be what you’ve been longing to hear in this busy time ahead…
WATER IMMERSION DAY
By Thea Elijah
What is winter like? How would we recognize winter happening? What happens in
winter that does not happen at any other time? Would somebody just name something about winter that doesn’t happen at any other time?
“Dark” yeah, so lack of light. The whole issue of darkness. No accident that I’m
wearing the dark colors, and in winter many people having a tendency to wear
more dark colors in harmonization with the seasons. Times when it is dark,
these are winter times. Times when it is not from the outside that we will get
our source of light. Times when, if we want to see something at the end of the
tunnel, it ain’t gonna be out there. Especially at this time of year when we
have not yet reached solstice, the times in life where, frankly, it’s more dark
than light, and you know what? it looks like its getting darker– every day.
This is one of the things that happens and what a mercy, in a sense, that it
happens every single year: we go through a period of time where it’s darker
than it is light and every day it gets darker. This is a practical training ground
for learning, “oh, what do I do when it’s dark and getting darker?”
The challenge is, “You know what, I am going to have to find the light inside now; where is that exactly?” It’s a turn of focus from outer light to inner light, which, if we are dependent on outer light only–if we are looking for the light to come from the outside, the sustaining light only from outside– then we are going to have a very hard time in winter.
So one of the challenges, one of the tasks of especially early winter, where it’s
getting darker all of the time, is a training for all those time in life where it
appears to be getting darker all the time and we need to say “All right–
Where’s that pilot light of my soul?” I may not even have known I had one.
I may never have thought about it before. That so long as I’m alive, a living
being, there’s a fire burning in here. I may never have taken the time to note
that. And this period of time, the challenge of it, is to turn and say I need to
look for that burning light, that sustaining light, inside. Where is it?
This is the thing that will keep us walking through the darkest times. Find that
place in the low pelvis. This is exactly the time for NOT looking to the outside
for my light; finding this is what keeps me walking when there isn’t something
outside saying “oh yes, it’s about to get much better, just in another moment.”
Because we don’t get that all the time in life, and what a blessing to have a
season that gives us an external cue to find that place on the inside, every year
whether we need it or not, so that should winter hit at some other time we
know inside where to find this.
Allow yourself to feel this very basic, primordial “I live. I live. I live. I live.”
What does it matter if it is dark outside. Sometimes it is dark outside. I live. I
live. We live. We live. And we do not depend on an outward sign of life. Let
the whole world hibernate and grow dark; there are these burning lights in the
night. Inside we hold this. I hold this single flame inside myself, this pilot light,
and inside every living being I meet there is a pilot light, burning. We do not
need the outer light. We carry the light.
The blessing aspect of the loss of light on the outside is the opportunity to say,
well, I can’t really see what’s going on out there. It’s too dark. I guess it’s time
to do less out there. Never mind light for work out there. There’s a great deal
to be done that is done without light. Like going inward. Like rest. Like
hibernation. The deep, deep renewal of winter, and the invitation into the
unbelievably deep renewal of darkness. Of silence. Of not being busy scurrying,
fighting. In winter, two things happen at the same time that are opposite,
which is that some living beings hibernate, and some living beings don’t. Those
that don’t, they learn the challenge of the diminishment of light, of keeping
this light burning on the inside, and this is an important learning of winter.
It is just as important a lesson of winter to learn from those who do hibernate,
and to allow ourselves to go with that invitation, and to say, “What if I were to
become very very quiet. What if I were to become very still. What if I were not to strive and
strive and strive in the dark; what if I were to just say yes, I’m
going to bed. I’m going to go and I’m going to sleep for a long time.”
And then maybe do it again the next day. Go to sleep at 7 and do that until,
when I go to bed at 7, I’m so well slept that I lie there instead in the dark and
do an even darker kind of rest. Rest of the spirit, and rest of the mind, which is
very often hard to do when our bodies are underslept, when we’re physically
tired. The body demands its rest first, if we’re exhausted physically.
Have you noticed how sometimes when you’re exhausted physically your mind is like:
aaaaaahhhhhrrgggg….. it can’t actually rest, because you’re like ohmygod my body is
falling apart, I’m really, really tired I better survive somehow I better stay
alert. I gotta stay alert I gotta stay alert….It’s not a very high quality alertness.
But after the body is rested, after we’ve taken the winter invitation to get a
ridiculous amount of sleep, an un-American amount of sleep, sleeping until we
are incapable of further sleep… Give that a try. See what happens. What if you
sleep? What if you make a project between now and the solstice to sleep until
your body lets you know that you are incapable of further sleep, and then get
into that bed anyway, turn that light off, and see what happens.
I’ll tell you one thing that usually happens to a lot of people, to shift
metaphors slightly, and to bring in something from western physiology. We
have the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The
sympathetic is all about doing. Fight, flight, response to the outer world, outer
world action. And we have the parasympathetic. When we go into our
parasympathetic dominance, our parasympathetic state, this is the state of
rest. This is the state of “never mind the outside world.” And when we switch
over to this state, the resting state, we feel inactive because we are not doing
outer-directed activity. But don’t kid yourself. When we are at rest, there is a
lot that goes on. Huge amounts of things happen while we are at rest. It is a
different kind of activity. Why else would it be that you could go to sleep and
wake up feeling very different. Right? If there is something you can do for eight
hours and feel completely transformed at the end of it, that is not inactivity.
Something’s happening. Something unbelievably profound is happening.
Something without which we could not survive even with all the willpower in
the world. Things take place. On a physical level, tissue repair. Healing.
Healing does not happen through activity. Healing is a rest state response. The
call of the dark. The blessing of the dark allows for activity that happens that
is not willed activity.
When we take a moment to be quiet and allow a bit of silence to gather on the
inside, especially when we are physically rested, what do you know but
suddenly usually these scurrying little nocturnal animals start coming out, right
there, things inside of us that are just waiting for us to rest. The nocturnal
animals come out when we turn off the light. Go to bed, turn off the light, all
of a sudden (fast speed sound effects), especially if we go to bed no longer
exhausted. If we go to bed only exhausted, we turn off the light, we hit the
pillow, we’re out. When we are no longer physically exhausted now we move to
other levels of the mind and the spirit needing the same kind of down time.
And boy, if we haven’t had it in awhile, it’s like triage-level nocturnal animal
activity. All kinds of nocturnal animals that have needed to scurry around, get
a drink of water, a little bit of food, they start running around and we have a
choice in this moment. We can either say, oh yes I need to take care of
duhduhduhduhdudh, and get re-engaged in the thought process and begin will directed
activity again, lying there in bed doing will-directed activity: oh yes, I
should plan my speech, I should duhduuduhduhduh. Or we can accept the
blessing of darkness and say, I am not turning on the light. This is a time of
dark. An increase of dark. The light stays off. I lie here and let those nocturnal
animals, which are frantic sometimes, do what they need to do without
interference of my will.
I must say, sometimes we don’t have to be fully physically rested in order to
have this nocturnal animal triage-level zooming around as soon as we turn off
the light and accept the invitation of darkness. Sometimes we just need be a
little more physically rested than mentally rested. I would say that 90% of the
insomnia that I treat is the kind of insomnia where the person’s body, tired as
it is, is not nearly so tired as the person’s mind and spirit. And so the person
lies there in bed, unable to go to sleep, with thoughts and feelings whizzing
around inside. Why? Because they had no waking time to do it in. There was no
time during their busy day when they could just go: Wow. Huh. Mmm. Sit by a
brook. Or even watch the traffic go by. Even during their lunch break they’re
busy working. They didn’t even have time then to just kind of… be, and let the
nocturnal animals, let the scurrying, let the rest activity, the non will-directed
activity take place.
Or there’s this other kind of insomnia where the person is genuinely more
physically tired than mentally or emotionally in need of repair when they go to
bed, and so they hit the bed, they’re out cold after a little bit of last scurrying
down into darkness. Their body just says “I gotta get out of here. I need repair
now.” And then 2 am, 3 am, maybe 5, whenever it is, their body gets past that
triage level of having accepted the invitation of darkness. OK, I got just enough
rest physically. Now my mind and spirit are saying, “I can’t wait anymore. I
need it now.”
Now I need to lie awake and think about how I felt when my boss said that.
Now I need to lie awake and think of things to say to my girlfriend I wish I’d
said. Now I need to lie awake and go “baabababaaabab”. Whatever levels it is,
I need to take invitation of winter and darkness and not turning on the light
and just be here and let this whole parasympathetic non willed-directed
activity take place.
Do you want to heal your mind and your spirit? We are given winter for this
purpose: to stop being outwardly active and go in and have first seemingly
petty things come up. Usually at first, why are we thinking about this? Well,
because it’s still there in our nervous system and we didn’t have time to
discharge it because the next event happened right on the heels of the last one
and there wasn’t time to finish the last process before the next process began
and so we are literally going (sound of effect of tape running fast). All right.
Don’t get impatient with it. Go ahead and watch and wait and let the darkness
deepen. Because if we allow it, eventually the chatter settles. And there’s this
incredible feeling of quiet inside that usually lasts, oh it’s different for
everybody, but not as long as you think, before the next level of nocturnal
animals comes out. Right? Some deeper stuff starts floating up because there’s
this whole level of night beings, quiet beings, beings that only come out when
it’s clear that no one is going to be flicking the light on any minute. There are
places we can go on the inside when we have a quiet moment, but they are
places we’re not going until we’re sure that somebody is not about to call, or
about to say anything, that is going to draw us back up and out again.
We’re waiting for the safety of true dark, of deep dark, of extended dark.
So we have this blessing of this time of year that gives us longer stretches of
darkness and silence. This is a deeper land, this place of the deeper nocturnal
They say, is it safe for me to come out yet?
Is there time for me to feel this thing that I didn’t have time to feel before?
Who knows what will come up?
We notice what comes up, and we let the healing happen. We let things crescendo and resolve. We let connections be made that might not have been made if we hadn’t had the time. And then once again, these things too resolve into silence. And it’s such a satisfying silence. The silence of having moved through some things held in abeyance.
Allowed to heal. Allowed to truly finish.
The things that happen when we have time of true rest are things that we can’t make happen. We can’t deliberately cause revelation, intuition, the making of connections between seemingly disparate events in our life that now we say, my God! That’s what was going on and I’ve done that for thirty years. And I never noticed. This is the blessing of the diminution of light: to go into the dark and stay there for long enough for that which we cannot do with our will to take place inside.
I would say that on this break, be aware of the power of silence, and be aware of – I’m not going to tell you not to speak – but I am going to tell you, be aware of the power of speaking or not speaking. Be aware of what disappears when we speak, if we are not aware of the silence which is there at the same time– because for instance I am speaking right now, but I am speaking with great awareness of the silence; and when I speak aware of the silence then I can speak without breaking the silence. The silence is still here around my voice.
Winter knows how to do this. There’s nothing you can you say; it doesn’t matter how loud you get; you can’t drown out the silence. It’s a mighty silence. We might try practicing, during this break, speaking and living in such a way that we are not drowning out the silence even as we exchange sound– so that we keep the blessing going, of this quiet dropping inward.
There’s a way of being in constant fight with sound. “I want some silence. How come I can’t get any quiet around here? This is driving me crazy. It’s never quiet around here.” Around where exactly? And when one is in this state it can be anywhere; basically you can be in a cabin, in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, but something is humming somewhere. If we are not able to find the silence there will always be something to blame our lack of silence on; and our inability– or is that a refusal– to go inward… But you could bring a boom box playing Madonna into a redwood forest, and those redwoods would go on generating silence no matter what else was happening.
We need to be able to do that in our own bodies as well. Because sometimes it’s “don dan,
don dan,” that feeling of Jaws being somewhere in our life. (to the tune of Jaws): Mortgage, mortgage, mortgage. Payment, payment, payment…right? This is the music playing in our endocrine system. And just as we need to be able to find winter, take the winter’s blessing of being able to find the silence beneath the noise. Same in our own bodies. Sometimes it’s mighty noisy in our bodies. Can we ride the slope– the pre-solstice downward slope in our own bodies and say o.k. I hear the ruckus of my own body. I hear the ruckus of my
own fears, of my own Jaws swimming around somewhere in my life and can I say yes, that’s happening there and yes this is happening here, and find the place that’s so quiet that it does not have to assert itself.
That there is some deep self-knowing that comes in winter, that is a holding of the warmth on the inside, and part of what is so good about this holding of one’s warmth on the inside, is the memory of summer, and that summer will return; and the very careful and precious nature of exchange of warmth. This is a precious thing, not be taken lightly, the exchange of warmth. One of the things I love about New England is that if you and one other person are the only two people on the street when it’s thirty below, you definitely smile at each other. You are so happy to see this other person. However, the heart exchanges in this very careful way in winter. It’s not like a summer greeting. It’s a very different greeting, that thirty below kind of greeting. It’s pared down. Talk about love in the cold times. There’s that deep winter from one- living-being-to-another affirmation. Ah, you live. I live. That’s so powerful.
In summer it’s like yeah, you’re alive, I’m alive, ha ha. I mean it’s great, love in the summer, easy in a way. But the holding of this deep winter ‘I live,’ the holding of this deep warmth, and the incredible specialness of how much it means in winter, to be able to greet from that place.
Try it for a moment. First be summer. Just be out and about in the room.
Yeah, see the whole room changes. Here we are and we’re together and that’s fine. It’s not as special to be sharing warmth in summer. Now draw yourself in. Figure it’s cold and it’s going to be cold for awhile and on some level every single one of us is on our own, because it’s our survival that either will or will not happen in the cold. And then having taken responsibility for that, that paring down, saying o.k., each and every one us, our life in our own safekeeping… it’s not entirely pleasant to feel but I promise,
it is salutary. I promise I’m taking you some place that is a health-promoting
place. Bear with me, let yourself feel where I’m taking you. I need to protect my survival and that’s up to me. It’s a cold world. And my survival’s mine and I need to hold to this; I am in here. Now each of us having taken responsibility for this light that’s mine, then to look around the room at other lights and say, all right, we can build something together. If your car is stuck I’ll help you. If you need wood. I’ve taken care of mine. I’m alert to my survival. I’m already prepared for mine. I’ve already put in my stores and now I look to the rest of the people, one of whom might have a little bit more wood, one of whom might have a little more food, to feel that very different quality of being ‘in it together’ than the summer way of being in it together.
You feel this in New Englanders in a way that you don’t feel it in Florida folk. This quality of kind of checking each other out as we make alliance with somebody, from a winter mentality. You got any wood put away, buddy? Do you know it’s cold? Or are you just some summer person who doesn’t know about that? Do you know about cold? Are you aware of the coming dark? Do you know about winter? Do you know how cold it can get? There’s a way in which that’s who we want to know in our community. Don’t you want neighbors who also have their own wood stacked up, because they know winter is coming and they know what winter is about and they’re preparing, too? Yes. We are allies: all of us who know about the cold and have prepared. Now I’m ready to be your friend. There’s a wariness. My survival is at stake. I’ll stake it with you if you know my survival is at stake. And your survival is at stake. And yes, I’m willing to pull together, but it’s a very
different feeling. It’s not Southern hospitality, because you don’t have to heat down there.
Cold teaches us this responsibility, this awareness. I want to make sure that I’m saying this in a way that really gets across the virtue – there’s the contrast between the whole Southern hospitality thing, and the more Northern quality of wise friendship. We want a friend who knows what winter is, don’t we? We want friends who understand that it can be very cold for a long time. And that’s whose eye you want to meet. The eye with the kind of love that knows that it isn’t necessarily easy. I want to be around people who know that it’s going to snow and they’re going to have to shovel it. This changes a person’s consciousness and it changes the nature of a person’s connections. Cold teaches about conservation of vital resource, what it means to share warmth and share resources when resources are not plentiful, when the sharing of resources is a matter of survival. Is everybody equally aware of that? It matters.
What else happens in the winter? Christmas. Yes, there’s the spirit of Christmas and the other spirit of Christmas. The American spirit of Christmas does seem in a way like almost a perfect grotesque. I think what was aimed at, however, is a celebration in the spirit of just-after-the-solstice. After the solstice is in fact a time when we’ve already worked on that self-sufficient aspect, and we’ve said o.k. I can survive this winter with my light and my warmth in my own keeping. Now that I know for sure that the light is beginning to return, I can burn another extra log, o.k. You know how, until a certain point in the winter, you’re thinking, I have to make sure I have enough wood… And then the tide begins to turn and you’re thinking o.k., I have more than half of the amount of wood, and there’s less
than half of the winter left. That doesn’t tend to be exactly the case at Christmas time in New England. The timing is a little bit funny but there is still that natural sense of o.k., the day is beginning to lengthen. Because of this we are able to be a little more generous with our warmth post-solstice than we were pre-solstice.
Pre-solstice, it’s really an inward movement. Post-solstice I can begin to overcome stinginess. And so the spirit of post-solstice and the spirit of Christmas is, Can I in the midst of hardship and winter overcome stinginess and not let this energy of condensation and survival go too far, to the point where it isolates me from exchange with my fellow humans? This is important. If we’re using the Christmas spirit, the post-solstice spirit correctly, we are not running like frantic people all over the place but we are saying: even in the midst of darkness and winter I’m not going to become stingy, isolated, or think
I’m a total loner. I’m just self-responsible and I can put on an extra Yule log. I can burn a little bit more. In this culture we generally haven’t done our pre-solstice work very thoroughly, which is why Christmas comes as such a bizarrity, because we’re celebrating
the post-solstice without having really first done the pre-solstice work. The holiday season post-solstice makes a lot more sense as a celebration of not needing to be stingy and staying in touch with loved ones and saying yes neighbor, yes neighbor, yes neighbor, yes we are in touch even in this dark time.
Winter really is all about that fine line balance between darkness and light, and clarity about the importance of the light. It’s got to be very, very clear or there will not be survival. But it’s not clarity of light like summer, where there’s light all over the place. It’s clarity about light why? Because we are surrounded by dark.
Winter and what it gives to the human soul has a lot to do with the quality of faith. And faith is specifically “I hold certain things certain. Because of what I hold certain, I am comfortable in the presence of what I don’t know.” Healthy faith is because of my deep certainty that there is such a thing as Tao or that there is a light at the heart of the Universe or that there is a purpose to love. Because I am certain of this, I am comfortable in the presence of having no idea where this relationship is going. No idea where my life is going. No idea what the town planning board is going to do. Why? Because of what I hold certain, I am comfortable with the uncertain.
This is important in winter because winter is more about darkness than about light. There is more uncertainty than certainty in winter, and winter doesn’t always happen in winter. There are times in our lives when uncertainty outnumbers certainty so heavily you’re praying, praying, praying for a solstice to come in your life but it ain’t come yet. Where is the light? Where is the certainty? What do I hold certain?
This is huge, huge winter medicine, to say where is the light? Not everywhere. Not most of where. It’s not summer. Certainty is not abounding. A whole lot is not clear. Because of how much is not clear in my life right now, because of how much mystery there is, how do I dwell in this much mystery? This much unknown? This much uncertainty? It starts to get whoooaaaa – the ocean – it’s so huge. It’s so dark. All right. Where is the light? What do I know?
Stand in what you know, open to what you don’t know. Because that’s some place to stand. There’s something I know. Sometimes it isn’t much but it doesn’t have to be much. All it takes is a small light. Sometimes all I know is that I’m here. Sometimes it gets as bad as that, that nothing else is certain except that I’m alive right now and I don’t know what
will happen. I don’t what the results of the biopsy are going to say, if I will come out from anesthesia. I don’t know. Sometimes the uncertainties are really tremendous. Then that winter paring down to the very few certainties – I am and I love – that’s not such a bad place to begin my stand. All right, let’s stay with that. “I am.” Can I stay with “I am?” Am I sure of that?
Stand there. “I am. I love.” All right. I love. What else? Can we take further stock? What’s on the woodpile? What’s in the cupboard? What have I got? What are the certainties? I have a shovel. That’s a good thing to have. What am I going to do? I don’t know. I don’t need to know.
What you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s not a bad thing; it’s an unknown thing. The unknown contains as much that may benefit you as may harm you. Could be that the next thing that happens is the sudden check for $500. We don’t know what is. We don’t know what will be.
To be a knower and to be filled with certainty – I KNOW! I KNOW THIS AND I KNOW THAT AND I KNOW THIS – this is a problem. This is unhealthy winter. Oh I know, I know, I know. I’m certain. Everything is going to be fine.
You’re out of touch. You’re out of touch. You need to be in the place, we all
need to be, especially in winter and the winter of our lives, in touch with the mystery.
In balancing mystery and certainty, too much certainty is a problem. You will not get to know what else is going on here, the good as well as the difficult. Yet also too much uncertainty is frightening, is paralyzing, overwhelming and terrifying. Too much night, too much darkness. The mystery is wonderful and fills us with awe if we also have a little bit of certainty; if there’s a little bit of light. There’s goodness in this world. There are times when we say at the moment it’s hard to find, I’m scared, I’m upset, things are overwhelming, there’s difficulties, there’s trouble brewing… I may not even be aware of exactly where the good is; but I know it’s around here somewhere. And then the next thing you know your neighbor does something. Things come that are heartening. Single small lights in the dark come when we are resonating with: I don’t actually know what the good is but I know there is some, and I’m gonna hold the faith. Certainty allows me to be in the presence of the uncertain. I don’t know who you are. You’re human. You’re alive. You have a heart. There’s good in you. I don’t know what we’re going to meet, where we’re gonna go as we go down the path of relationship and getting to know each other. But I’m going to hold fast, through the whole journey, to the light.
Winter is the period of time through which you’re either going to live or die. Annuals die. Perennials do their best and if they do their best, and only if they do their best, they don’t. So there is that great divider. Perennials go dormant, so they go into something that is death-like. It is true for us also that if we don’t intend to die, we’re going to accomplish that by doing something that is very very close, very similar to death. If I’m going to continue to survive and keep going, the first I need to do is sleep at night. I need to rest.
It’s paradoxical. You want to go forward? Stop. You want to persevere? Relax.
How do you survive the winter, and how do we get through hard times? By going gggrrrr? No. The secret of survival includes being able to relax so in some sense in order to live we have to die. We need a certain amount of dying to stay alive. We need the renewal of sleep. We need the renewal of saying, I’m just going to let myself lose it, I mean lose it completely because I need to let go, to surrender to rest to survive. Rest is a skill. Some of us are better at it than others, and it is a wise skill to cultivate because it is a survival skill. It is the wellspring of life itself, to be able to rest. Check it out—let’s have a two minute resting contest. Let’s take two minutes and see just how rested you can get in two minutes. On your mark! The pressure is on! Hurry up! Get set! Now—Sleep!
Happy Solstice. May rest be with you.