Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Back before covid, before computers, or even electricity, way far back as the stone age, there is evidence that our neolithic ancestors made a huge deal out of the winter solstice. Imagine how terrifying it must have been to observe the sun -- the source of all life -- as it retreated lower in the sky for progressively shorter days, until it stopped, hovering at the same point in the daytime sky, for three days. And then, the amazement and joyous celebration when it finally began rising again!
(Newgrange, Eastern Ireland, Co. Meath)
Long after our ancestral astronomers determined the sun was just doing its cyclical thing, people of all faiths continued to celebrate the dark night followed by the miracle of light. The Zoroastrians held an all-night vigil, Yalda, on the solstice to protect against the evil lord Ahriman who was said to be at his strongest that night. The next day, on Khorram Ruz (or “Joyful Day”), the birthday of the sun, was celebrated as Ahriman’s defeat.
(Image: Yalda celebration. Marquetry work by artist Qumars Sayyad)
The Hanukkah story tells of the miracle of one day’s worth of oil which burned for eight days after the rededication of the Second Jewish Temple, which had been desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes the Seleucid king. The Christian story, of course, centers around a miracle of the virgin birth amid the turbulent social and political turmoil of King Herod’s unhinged rule of Judea.
As 2020, arguably the darkest year in recent memory, draws to a close, most of our normal holiday rituals are out the window. The upside is that we now have an opportunity to create more meaningful, personal rituals that can help us move through the darkness of our time and incorporate its wisdom, so we can be more present for our lives and the work that lies ahead.
Indeed, “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isiah. Teachers from MLK to Mother Teresa to Brené Brown have described the deep and soul-strengthening power of embracing the inner darkness. When we are a witness to our own darkness, it has less power over us. We become less reactive, and more compassionate. We have more agency and clarity of purpose. We are more liberated.
Ritual is a valuable tool to help us explore these deeper parts of ourselves. Rituals can be complex, but they don’t have to be. Indeed, some of the most powerful rituals are the simplest. Whether we're making the sign of the cross upon entering a church, striking a gong before meditation, or drinking coffee in the garden in the morning, a ritual is the action that allows us to leave the world behind for a bit, and enter the liminal space where revelation and change is possible. Then, when we're ready, we can return back into the world, hopefully with a new feeling or view of the world.
Here are a few simple ideas for creating that liminal space amid the crazy this year.
1. Breathing meditation + morning pages
While our modern day holiday traditions are hectic and stressful, the season of winter invites us to slow down and find peace. The simplest way to do this is with the breath. I like to sit in the early morning dark and use the breath to help me sink deeper into my body, below the level of thought or feeling, and into just pure stillness.
After meditation, I do a 5-minute free-write to exhume whatever has come up during the meditation. I never re-read it; it’s just a release. The meaningful stuff sticks with me!
2. Find beauty in small things
The New York Times published this beautiful article, How We Survive Winter, in which writer Elizabeth Dias shares a quote from professor of Iranian Studies at Duke University Omar Safi who describes one of the lessons from the Persian winter holiday of Yalda, “Look for the smallest bit of beauty around you. That very much resonates today, at a time where it seems like the mega-systems are all broken or falling apart, to return your gaze to the small.” When the world is running down, it is especially nourishing to the soul to take in small gifts of beauty.
3. Learn to grieve and move on
I think we all know on some level - conscious or not - that the world is not going back to “normal” anytime soon, and indeed there is much that needs to change. If we are not already good at adapting on the fly, we will need to get good at it. In order to maintain our ground, we will benefit if we take time to grieve the old, the normal, the familiar, and the safe (whatever that was). This will help us be more clear-eyed and adaptable when the time comes for us to change again, and again.
To ritualize this, you might make a grief collage, combining photos or symbols of the things you are grieving, and bury or burn it to ritualize the release. Or you might take a hike to contemplate that which you grieve. The important thing here is to feel that grief - to let it out - so it is no longer stuck in you. Once you are finished, spend some time doing something that nourishes you to give yourself some closure.
4. Forgive yourself or others who have hurt you
Every major faith tradition describes the many benefits of forgiveness, though it is not always easy. Indeed, true forgiveness is the fiercest spiritual practice there is, as it involves doing the work of transcending our egos and choosing love over hatred, resentment, or injury. Dr. Paul T. P. Wong, Founder and President of the International Network on Personal Meaning, writes “Forgiveness is preferable to hate, because it sets our spirit free, heals our emotional wounds, and enables use to regain control of our future.”
The demands of the ever-shifting world will require us to be our best selves. If you are holding on to any grudges, or hurts or beliefs that no longer serve you, this is an ideal time to let them go. Lovingkindness meditation like this practice from the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center is a great one to help.
5. Honor the metaphoric darkness as a teacher
We tend to push our darkness away. We drink it, drug it, eat it, work it, or otherwise numb ourselves against it. But darkness holds so many gifts. Author Glennon Doyle notes that once we understand what our pain is about, it’s like a North Star that orients us to find a deeper sense of purpose.
When negative feelings come up, rather than reach for the numbing agent, spend a moment in dialog with them. What is this feeling trying to tell me? What is the gift underneath? How might I honor the wisdom it offers?
Especially during these longer nights of winter, in this long dark hellstorm of a year, we are invited to align ourselves with the archetypal practice of midwinter ritual. For even today - with all of our awe-inspiring technical and intellectual wizardry - our confusion, our unconscious bias, our rage and our hopelessness can guide us towards deeper wholeness.
Join us for weekly rituals and workshops to learn more about the practice and process of self-designed ritual.