Solstice Rest and Reflection

Like many of you, I consider it my duty to stay well-informed, and often times that desire to be informed conflicts with the desire to.... remain hopeful about the world, and humanity.  Almost daily it seems, a new video of another person, usually black, being killed by police bullets.  On the one hand, the terrorist attacks of ISIL, on the other, xenophobic attacks against Muslims.  Desperate refugees being turned away at borders. Murders of transgender people. Attacks against women's health care providers. New laws to further burden the homeless. Poisons in our water, earth, and air.  Overwhelmed, my instinct is to withdraw –  to contract into the protective cocoon of my home and closest loved ones.  And then berate myself for exercising the privilege of being able to do that.  The question always is, is it ok to withdraw occasionally, and for how long?

Many of you may know that the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, because Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year with respect to the Gregorian solar calendar.  In fact, almost all the major Chinese holidays are lunar – they're seasonal but don't fall on solar dates – with two major exceptions, one of which is Winter Solstice, or Dong Zhi. Historically the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar after New Years, Dongzhi is a time of family reunions, feasting, and making offerings to our ancestors and to heaven.  In ancient times, winter solstice was the start of the new calendar year (which frankly is the only starting point that makes sense to me).  And even tho solstice marks the darkest time of year, we all know that the coldest time usually happens afterward, in January and February.  In an age before electricity and central heating and cars, winter was a time to rest and to reflect.  Not just for our Mother Earth but for her people as well.

The longest night of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) will be Monday night, and the shortest day Tuesday.  After that, the nights will shorten, the days will lengthen, as yin recedes and yang advances, until we get to summer solstice and the directions reverse.  The Taoist yin/yang symbol is a representation of this yearly cycle.  In Taoist cosmology, yang is male/heaven/light/warmth/active/activity/expansion/summer, and yin is female/earth/darkness/cold/passive/rest/contraction/winter.

It may be that our very earliest ancestors feared the sun might disappear. But logically, by the time people had a concept of what the winter solstice was, they clearly already knew by definition that the sun would be returning.  At least by 1000 BCE, which is the earliest known record of the yin/yang symbol, people understood the annual cycle of light and dark, and winter solstice rituals were a celebration of the resurgence of yang, of light.

I want to be careful here.  It would be unreasonable to deny that we, being diurnal creatures, have an instinctive fear of the dark.  We need light to see, to be able to move around our environments safely.  Moreover, we need light to live – for plants to grow, which provide both our food and energy. And many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder during the shorter days of weaker sunlight. So it makes sense to celebrate the return of light.  Yet I do not want to perpetuate the idea that light is “good” and darkness is “bad.”  Knowing that yin and darkness is seen as feminine in Taoism.  Knowing that many of us – whether consciously or subconsciously – see darker skin as less “good,” and how that results in the devaluing of black lives.  There is already too much of that theology out there.   We need light to live, yes, but we also need darkness.  To rest.  To dream.  One form of torture is to keep people in constant bright light so that they cannot sleep.  LIFE thrives in the balance of light and dark, yang and yin.  It isn't darkness but imbalance that is destructive.

So I want to return to the practices of my ancestors, our ancestors.  After the frenzied activities required to celebrate solstice (and other winter holidays), I want to take the following winter days to rest and reflect, trusting that the period is both temporary, and necessary.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative