Category Archives: winter solstice

Happy Arbitrary New Year!

winter-solstice-pegs-500Just ten days after the winter solstice — which few people even notice let alone celebrate — everyone around the world celebrates this totally arbitrary change from one year to the next. On the solstice, we have a brief celebration at the neighbors, watching the sun set and making a toast. Beyond that, to make things even more clear, they created a series of holes in the stone railing of their west facing balcony, where on the solstices and equinoxes they set metal stakes that register the shadows cast by the setting sun. One stake aligns with each of the three others in turn, the furthest left on the winter solstice, the furthest right on the summer solstice, and the middle one on both the equinoxes.

And on each of those occasions, without variance, the shadows of the stakes align. It is so comforting, especially in these very topsy-turvy feeling times, to see that solid recurring natural phenomenon. The earth is still circling around the sun just as it has been doing for a really long time, and likely will continue to do, no matter what we humans get ourselves up to. The reality of that is like solid ground to stand on.

What is real about New Year? It is based not on some physical reality but on a mutual agreement. Since there are multiple ways that we measure the years passing on multiple dates (Jewish New Year, Chinese New Year, etc.) it’s not even really a total agreement. But for the convenience of global commerce, January 1, 2018 is the official new year. I have no problem with this! In fact, I relish a global community and appreciate all that makes it possible. But it seems important to remember that a mutual agreement is not a physical reality. The calendar we rely on has been changed several times in history, and theoretically could change again. So the calendar isn’t based on physical reality.

The marking of time in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years is arbitrary, very loosely based on nature, but straying when nature isn’t sufficiently ‘orderly’. It wasn’t all that long ago that a universal clock was invented for trains to run on time. Before that each community set its own time. And not long before that, mostly agrarian societies were attuned to the sun, the moon and the cows in need of milking. In tribal life and in small towns they lived in such close community, there was no need to say ‘I’ll meet you there at 4 o’clock’. They just looked around to see who was about, or they met up at sunset, the way we do with our neighbors on the solstices and equinoxes. Of course, clouds can play havoc with this system, which, combined with growing population and travel made the establishment of measured time necessary.

But even though measured time is just a mutual agreement, it feels concrete, doesn’t it? I certainly felt a great sense of satisfaction this morning when I tossed our 2017 calendar in the recycling bin!

Because the New Year feels very real, it is often a powerful time to review, release, and press the reset button on life. We are more inclined to want to establish good habits in the new year. So powerful is this belief in the ‘turning over a new leaf’ that I successfully used it to quit smoking 46 years ago. Had I not, what a very different condition I would likely be in now. So great gratitude for the power of the New Year!

Whether these New Year’s traditions are powerful for you or not, it’s still wise to distinguish between things that are agreed-upon human creations and things that are physical facts. You don’t have to be a scientist to make this distinction. The insight meditation tradition is based on questioning the veracity of what we have always accepted as true. After meditation, we have quieted the pool of our minds enough to see more clearly all our assumptions about life. Our practice of inquiry works with this increased clarity and compassion, as we come alive with questions rather than being numb to the experience of life.

But it’s important to know that not all questions are useful. In the coming weeks we will be looking at questions that leave us in a tailspin and questions that cultivate clarity. Please join me in this exploration, either in person in my Thursday morning women’s meditation class in Marin County, or by following this blog (Click on ‘Follow Stephanie’) at the top of this page.

Happy New Year! May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.

 

This little light of mine

Here we are in the deepest darkness of the year. Most of us have challenging relationships with darkness. Why? Our fearful thoughts and feelings are activated in the dark because we can’t see, so we don’t know what there is there. And in the quiet of the dark night our other senses are heightened. We hear things. What is that? We don’t know!! Yikes. Then our imaginations, already activated with the patterns of dream-making in the dark, can create all manner of things to be afraid of. So yes, the dark can be difficult.

But the dark is also where the riches can be found — all those hidden treasures stored away in the dark cavernous basement or the dark dusty attic of our inner world. But if we are going to explore these areas, we need a flashlight, right? Through the regular practice of meditation, that’s exactly what we are developing: the ability to shine a light in our own darkness.The ability to calm our fears and see more clearly. Our practice is illumination! We actively cultivate the light of clarity and the infinite loving light of kindness and compassion. We are well equipped to be present with whatever we find, and our discoveries will very likely be of benefit to us and in turn to all beings.

So on this longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I wish you Happy Solstice! I attended a granddaughter’s holiday chorus and was delighted to hear her group singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ That shall be my theme song for the season and beyond. Try it for yourself and feel the glow. 😉

Here is a video of my illustrated solstice poem, and below that is the poem for reading. Enjoy and share widely. You never know who among all your friends, family and acquaintances might be afraid of the dark and in need of some soulful fortification. 

Stephanie Noble

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice
a poem by Stephanie Noble

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– copyright 1994 Stephanie Noble

 

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.

Celebrating Winter Solstice – My Illustrated Poem Now on YouTube!

Whether you enjoy this dark season or hate it, you’ll find comfort in this short video. I wrote the poem 25 years ago. Since then it has become part of winter solstice celebrations around the world. Twenty years ago, I illustrated the poem, cutting out black white and gray shapes. Recently I came upon the illustrations and realized that now there is Youtube, so, with a little help from a family member, I put it together and posted it.
It had it’s debut on the ‘big screen’ in this week’s Poetic Pilgrimage class at College of Marin. I hope you will view it on something larger than your phone! Be sure to turn the volume up. So many people struggle this time of year, so please SHARE IT widely!

Background
I wrote this poem originally because it seemed to me that everything about the winter solstice was celebrating the return of the light. That is just another way to lean into the future rather than noticing what is present and finding something in this moment to celebrate.

It is not saying darkness is preferable to light! It is only saying to notice all that is happening in our current experience with at least some level of gratitude. Let’s stop wishing life away in favor of some ‘perfect’ day. When it’s raining let’s listen to the symphony of raindrops and the gratitude of the plants and, if you live in a part of the world prone to drought as I do, gratitude for the filling of the reservoirs. Every season has its gifts and its challenges. We humans tend to have a negativity bias and see the hassles and challenges more readily than the gifts. This poem offers us a little balance.

What is Winter Solstice?
Some people are still unclear about what the winter solstice is, thinking it’s something religious. While it can inspire spirituality, it’s actually when the earth tilts furthest away from the sun, making it the shortest day and longest night. The summer solstice is when the earth tilts towards the sun, making it the longest day and shortest night. The northern and southern hemispheres have exact opposite solstices.

equinox

Are you afraid of the dark?

Happy Winter Solstice!
eb391-wendygoldbergtwilighttomales-bmpTonight is the longest night, the turning point when the light begins to return in the northern hemisphere. But before we celebrate the coming of the light, can we pause and appreciate the darkness for its many gifts?

Here’s a poem I wrote over twenty years ago that I’m happy to say is still getting requested. It’s used in solstice celebrations around the world. Share this post to spread the spirit of the season.

Painting above by Wendy Goldberg

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– Stephanie Noble  (copyright 1994)

 

‘Tis the season…

Happy Solstice! In this time of deepest darkness, all about us nature is quieting down, settling in, and going dormant. Meanwhile many of us are busier than ever, adding even more to our social calendar and to do list.

Whether we celebrate Christmas or not, most women can relate to the sense of wanting to create a happy experience for our families and/or friends. There is a frenzied quality in the air that some find harrowing and others find delightful. I remember my mother always saved some shopping to do on Christmas Eve, just to be out in the hustle bustle of it all.

It is definitely busier in the streets around the holidays. People are more distracted and do even less wise actions when driving.

I’ve been very conscious of making sure I drive safely, but the sense of overwhelm comes out in different ways. Yesterday I left my purse behind at a meeting as I was off to another meeting. Forgetting a purse for a woman is rare. Our bodies just don’t feel right walking out a door without it. But — what are the chances? — just the night before a friend left my house without her purse! What are the chances of that? Pretty good during this time of year it seems.

How do we stay mindful this time of year? We center in, reset our intentions to be present and compassionate. We pause, we slow down, we sense in, we breathe.

The theme of my local Toastmasters club meeting yesterday was (what are the chances?) ‘Inhale, Exhale’ — such a great theme. But did I pause to notice my inhalation and notice my exhalation? Did I hear the message? No! My mind was caught up in the task of taking meeting minutes, of being sure the guest next to me understood what was going on, and peripherally sensing the limited number of shopping days before Christmas. Sometimes we are just so caught up in planning and worrying that we forget what it is to really live, to really be here, to really feel that aliveness.

Yesterday morning I received an email from my Ohio friend Marita. We know each other from winters spent in Mexico, but we stay connected throughout the year because she’s a talented photographer who sends out group emails of her adventures wherever she is. This is the first year she has been stuck in Ohio, in the deepest coldest winter they’ve had in quite awhile. She’s no fan of the cold, and has always made a point to be in warmer climes. In fact, until now she didn’t even own a decent pair of winter boots. But yesterday’s email started this way:


“Frequent snowfall this month has opened a window into a new world for me.  A natural world in which the Who – What – When – Where of wildlife is revealed like magic.
“Reading tracks in snow can be intriguing.  Am I the first human on this trail today?  That dog is not on a leash!  Which direction did they go?  These footprints were made last night, then covered by a fine dusting of snow this morning.  How many deer were passing through?  Was that a squirrel?  No a rabbit.“


Her words were such an inspiration to me. When we let go of what we wish things would be like and begin to notice what is happening in this moment, magic happens. In this moment, whatever this moment holds, there is always something of value.

Again my mother comes to mind. She was of the generation that followed her husband’s career without question, and so she made homes in many different places. Once the home was set up and the children situated in school, she set about to establish herself in her new community. She found people with shared interests, did volunteer work for peace, one time became a realtor, one time got her college degree in marine biology and started a Greek restaurant. She was an amazing woman in part because of her ability to make the best of every situation. Now she didn’t pretend it was easy to make the transition, just as Marita’s emails from a week ago were a tad grumpier than this inspiring one. But in both cases, these women accepted what is happening in the moment, and instead of clinging to some alternative reality or criticizing this one, they found a way to discover what is it about this time and place, exactly as it is, that they could enjoy, engage in and maybe even love.

So often in life we think that something outside ourselves needs to happen for us to be happy. But this is simply not the case. For my friend in Ohio, for my mother in her many new homes, for us in this season that sometimes feels like a steamroller, we all have choices in the way we relate to what is going on in our lives.

If we can let go of wishing for things to be other than they are, if we can befriend what is happening in this moment, we are not ‘settling’. We are simply not relying on external circumstances to create our happiness.

So let’s give ourselves the gift of mindfulness this season: When things get scrambled, let’s pause, inhale, exhale, reset our intentions to be present, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others, especially when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted or sad. Let’s send metta, loving-kindness, as a healing balm for what ails us and what ails the world: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace. In this way we sense our deep connection with all life as we breathe ease and joy. ‘Tis the season!

Happy Solstice!

Winter Solstice

The following is a poem I wrote nineteen years ago. At that time I was frustrated because every celebration of winter solstice, a natural phenomenon that has great meaning to many people, was focused on the return of the light. As a Buddhist practitioner, learning how to be present with what is here and now, I could see that was is present right now is darkness. This is the shortest day and the longest night in the northern hemisphere. (Happy Summer Solstice to you in the southern hemisphere!)
Since then this poem has been shared at many a winter solstice celebration. Feel free to share it, keeping in mind that in the spirit of taking only what is freely given we always include the poet’s name on any poem we share with others.

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.  
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we  rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

– Stephanie Noble



This time of year the darkness provides an opportunity to slow down, but do we?
If we take a slower pace, if we give ourselves our meditation practice and then extend that sense of timeless awareness that arises from it into our experience of this season, it does indeed become merry, joyous and filled with an inner light.

The poem talks about ‘our own inner light’ — what does this mean?
We often talk in class about our inner wisdom, our Buddha nature, our most authentic self — well this inner light is the same. Our inner wisdom has the quality of light. First metta, loving-kindness, has the infinite quality of light, shedding light everywhere, not picking and choosing who is worthy of the light of our loving kindness. This kindness and it’s companion compassion (karuna) arise naturally as light and spreads without effort. So light is very much a quality of metta.

Awareness also has the quality of light. When we develop awareness we are casting light in the darkness of our habitual thoughts and patterns. This is both a floodlight of awareness, when we understand our interconnection with all that is; and a spotlight, when we are able to focus on a particular aspect of something and discern what is going on more clearly, seeing previously hidden connections and associations, seeing how assumptions we have relied on don’t hold up when we are really paying attention and noticing. We can see more clearly and more deeply with this light of awareness.

One morning this week, I awoke at 5 AM and, thinking it was later, I got up and opened the curtains so that the sunrise would lighten the room as I meditated. But what I discovered was the stars shining so brilliantly in the western sky, stars that I am not used to seeing there. I am no astronomer, but I could see that the constellations were in a very different position, and also that the sky was very far from sunrise. Even as dark as mornings are this time of year, I could tell it was very very early. But I was drawn to throw on some warm things and go outside and stand in the deep darkness with those brilliant stars. And they were so bright that even the neighbors’ bright security lights across the street could not dim their brilliance. And I really felt the truth of the poem, how ‘Only in darkness can stars shine across the vastness of space.’

This is a very special season, both a season of sharing and celebration, and a season of quiet. In this season of darkness the faintest light of awareness can be more noticeable, more amplified.

In this season the sense of joyous loving kindness can bubble forth and express itself in such good will and generosity, reminding us of our truest nature. We can find our true selves under the tree of being! The greatest gift of all.

So I wish you all a very Happy Solstice! May the awareness of your inner light bring joy to all the holidays you celebrate — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve — and all the moments in between the celebrations, when you are a celebration unto yourself.