Rituals for the Winter Solstice

Yesterday was the solstice and because we have a western view, it is always the sunset that captures the sense of change, how the sun is as far south as it is ever going to set, and from here on until mid-June it will set further and further north.

Our next door neighbor has creatively captured these changes by drilling holes for small stakes to sit that mark the solstices and the equinoxes. For the past couple of years, we have come together to celebrate, but also to drill (which isn’t all that festive, but needed to be done.) But yesterday, no drill was needed. The holes were there, and there was something amazingly comforting in seeing that indeed, the shadow of the peg in the hole drilled last winter solstice still aligns perfectly with the anchor peg’s shadow.

winter-solstice-sunset500 winter-solstice-pegs-500

I brought various bells over, gifts of teachers and students over the years, and we each had a bell to ring out the sun as it set behind the mountain.

Then we toasted the solstice with wine homemade by my neighbor’s mother. And then, without the sun to warm us, we went back inside. A lovely joyous ritual.

This morning, I led my meditation class in a series of rituals to celebrate the solstice.

Beginning with our regular meditation, focused on the breath, I suggested noticing the empty breath, not to extend it or alter it, but to notice and honor it. We recognize it as part of a cycle — how there is: The inhale, the full breath, the exhale and the emptied breath. Noting each part of the cycle as it happens offers us a sense of awareness that we can apply to all that arises in our experience. We can notice details with more clarity when we give each our full attention as it comes into our field of experience. And like the breath, we can see how it is just as it is, unique unto this moment, but also how it is part of a cycle. Like all life!

Before class I had set up a center tray with:

  • A circle of unlit candles, one for each student, around a lit central candle.
  • A bowl
  • A bell
  • Natural things I found outside that are part of the season including a bare branch and some crumpled raggedy leaves (enough so each student can have one).

On hand I had some pens and bits of paper, and books for writing surfaces.

After our regular meditation session, I gave each student a crumpled leaf to contemplate and experience.

These leaves offer plenty of opportunity for the mind to state its preferences for a new supple green leaf, an autumnal festively colored leaf — almost anything but this sad looking specimen. But finding the subtle beauty in this too, as an artist would do, is part of our practice. And because we are a group of women ‘of a certain age’, finding beauty in what is faded, wrinkled and ‘past its prime’ is helpful. The Japanese term wabi sabi captures this ability to see beauty in such things.

Next, I pointed out the bare branch, and asked them to consider its ability to year after year release and renew. Then I passed out the papers, pens and books and asked the students to allow themselves to think of something within their own hearts and minds that is ready to be released, as easily as a leaf from a tree in late autumn. They wrote these down on their bits of paper and silently put them in the bowl. Then I set fire to the small pile of paper, and we watched the beauty of the flames, the paper darkening and curling, red glowing on the edges, and the curl of smoke arising, noting also its the sweet acrid odor suddenly there in the room. (If you had a large group this might be a bit of a bonfire, but our group was intimate enough that it was not a problem and didn’t set the smoke alarm off!)

Then I asked them each to take a moment to contemplate what quality they wanted to cultivate in themselves and in the world now. Then I lit a small candle from the larger one and said ‘I light this candle for….’ the quality that had come up for me. Then I rang a bell. When the bell went silent, each student, when moved to do so, lit her candle, stated her intention, and rang the bell.

Circled around our candles, we chanted to Om Mani Padme Hung chant. Although chanting is not central to the tradition I teach, this particular sangha has expressed the desire to incorporate some chanting into our sessions together, and I am happy to do so.

The Om Mani Padme Hung is said to express all the teachings of the Buddha in one expression.

Because we have just recently finished exploring the Paramitas, I found this teaching from Gen Rinpoche most interesting:

The six syllables perfect the Six Paramitas of the Bodhisattvas.

When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the
practice of generosity.

Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics,
Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience.

Päd, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance,

Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration,

and the final sixth syllable Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.

“So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom.”

After we finished a lovely period of chanting we sat in silence for a few minutes, feeling the resonance of the chant, as if we were bells that had just been rung.

After that, I read my winter solstice poem in its original form (written in 1994, and this season adapted to Youtube video.)

And then, because this was a morning class on a bright sunny day, and it is the day after the actual solstice, I invited the students to go outside and stand facing the sun, closing their eyes and letting all the senses deepen in the experience of the warmth on the skin, the orange glow on the eyelids and any other sensations. After a couple of minutes we stepped into the shade, where we paid attention to the sudden coolness of the air, and then back into the room where the temperature felt warm by comparison.

Attuning ourselves to what is rather than wishing it away is central to Buddhist practice. What better opportunity than in the darkest time of the year when many of us struggle with our relationship to darkness, wishing for the light. But light is not absent. It is revealed. The stars shine brighter. We light a candle or a fire. And when we give ourselves the gift of really quieting down, our inner light shines.

We observe nature that greatest of all dharma teachers, and we see that letting go is a natural part of life. We too can release what is ready to be released.

We set our intention as to cultivate a beneficial quality, both in our own inner experience and in the way we relate to the world, making optimum use of whatever gifts we have to offer.

We give ourselves the gift of full attention as we circle deeper and deeper within through meditation and mindfulness practices. We chant in a way that deepens attention.

And we recognize that life is ever and always in flux. Can we dance in celebration of the ever-changing experience of being alive?

Wishing you every good blessing and joy in however you choose to celebrate the season.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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