This is the dark time. December is the month of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Our ancient ancestors observed this event, watching the stars and the shortening days, patiently abiding and taking note until one day…it changed. They learned that the darkest day is followed by a little more light.
Left to its own devices, the ordinary thinking mind tends towards pessimism. The light will never return, it tells us; it is always darkest before it is pitch black: that kind of grim prediction. The thinking mind can’t help it. Educated as it may be, it is wired to a reptile mind that wants to take swift, crude action, to fight, flee or freeze. The ordinary mind needs to come down out of its skull-sized projection room, where it sits screening movies about what happened or might happen, and enter the world of the body. The body is the realm of fresh observations and sensations and possibilities. When we sit down to meditate or spend time in nature, we rejoin the living world.
In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3200 B.C.E., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb, a place of rituals. But here is where it gets extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice, on December 21, floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.
Today, there is a decades’ long waiting list to witness this marvel. But imagine the impact it must have had five thousand years ago. Imagine how dark it must have been in a world lit only by fire. Imagine being gathered in the dark chamber with others…and then the light. Also imagine the astronomy, engineering, and creativity this project required, and register again that it was undertaken five thousand years ago, in what we call prehistoric times.
Why did these ancient ancestors undertake such a vast and exacting project? Some speculate that they were ritually capturing the sun on the shortest day, as if they could help make the days grown longer. We tend think of our earliest ancestors as if they were very primitive in their thinking and feeling, capable of little more than magical thinking. But the monument they built is evidence of the fineness and depth of their attention and intention.
It is amazing to realize that these bodies we inhabit come to us from ancient ancestors. It is astonishing to register that since prehistoric times, human bodies, hearts, and minds have been the same. Even though our relationship to outer nature isn’t as close, we have the same human nature. We can have the same potential to bring mind and body together, to be still and patient, to notice the slightest lightening of the dark.
In Buddhism, a definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. The root of “patience” is a Latin verb for “suffer,” which in the ancient sense meant to abide or tolerate. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It means going on seeing, going on noticing how things change. When we aren’t wishing for something to be over, when we aren’t shaking the packages to see what is in them, when we aren’t freezing around an idea about what is, we see and hear more. We notice that nature has cycles, cold and darkness pass, that it really is darkest before the dawn.
Still, what do these words about meditation and ancestors have to do with our messy and often painful contemporary lives? Here is one example:
Somewhere between the baggage claim and the car, I noticed my wallet was gone. It had been a long trip and a long flight, and I pictured snuggling into the car and soon my own warm bed, a returning warrior, battered but enriched by my experiences. That bubble burst. I took everything out of my bag and examined the interior, and then I did it again, unwilling to accept the gaping absence of something so essential.
I cycled through the expected reactions: panic and disbelief, the desperate hope that some honest citizen had turned it in, then rage and self-blame, that psychic technique we use to ward off the greater pain of feeling vulnerable, preyed upon in a moment of unconsciousness. Later at home, I lay in bed in the dark, wrestling with the dark angel of why. Why did this have to happen? A chorus of witch-like voices chimed in. I felt like a blind and wounded giant lurching around breaking things: you weren’t paying attention, that’s why. This has happened to you before, and you have been bereft just like this. The universe is definitely trying to get your attention.
And under all this noise, there lurked a darker, quieter truth. In spite of all of our plans and precautions (and I do plan to get a good cross-body bag), life is unpredictable and subject to change. But no matter how hard we work to shore ourselves, to achieve and become someone, there will be loss. Things will not turn out the way we dream. The big underlying truths come out in the face of a challenge.
At about 1 a.m., the iPhone on the bedside table lit up. A band of light flashed across the screen in the dark, a message from my daughter in England. Mom, I’m so sorry this happened to you. In the light of day and in smooth times, such a message would be no big deal, nice words. But that night it was a candle in the darkness, a reminder that there was kindness compassion in the world, that there are forces that shine out steadily in the face of loss.
I felt a little blip of love and gratitude. I answered her message and another flashed back. This exchange felt wiser and more alive than the dire and dramatic racket in my head. I remembered once telling my daughter that being kind is more important than being right. It turns out it is wiser too. I’ve heard compassion defined as responsiveness, the quivering of the heart in the face of suffering. Lying in bed in the dark, watching my iPhone light up, the insight dawned that the meaning of life, the real purpose of our presence here, may be this responsiveness. In the end, practice is about being available to life, about opening our hearts to the passing flow of it, knowing that those hearts will inevitably break because life will always exceed our plans.
There are studies that reveal that people remember coming through hard times more vividly, and value them far more, than unimpeded good times. Why is this? In the middle of night of the darkest season, I realized that sometimes suffering opens the door to deeper qualities of heart and mind. Sometimes a little sunlight floods the darkest chamber.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.” –Albert Camus