“People are somewhat gorgeous collections of chemical fires, aren’t they?” wrote Harold Brodkey. “We are towers of kinds of fires, down to the tiniest constituencies of ourselves, whatever they are.”
Those tiny constituencies include our mitochondria, the little engines in the center of our cells, and smaller still: the molecules and atoms whirling and pulsing inside ourselves. We are deeply alive. Even on our worst day, we are vessels for an aliveness that is literally made of star stuff. The ambient light in our lives–our driven thinking and doing–blots this out. But when we take a minute or two to be still and bring our attention home to the body, we are drawing close to the fire of life.
Soon it will be the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Ancient people observed this day, watching the stars and the shortening days, patiently abiding and taking note until one day…it changed. They observed that the shortest, darkest day was followed by a little more light.
We can observe this deep truth in our own lives: things change. Life flows. When we dare to let go of thinking and trying to control our lives, when we dare to just experience the darkness of the unknown, just sensing and feeling and observing, we discover the light of attention within. We notice that this light opens us to a world that is much more alive than our thoughts.
“The true light never hides the darkness but is born out of the very center of it, transforming and redeeming,” writes Jungian author Helen M. Luke. “So to the darkness we must return, each of us individually accepting his ignorance and loneliness, his sin and weakness, and most difficult of all consenting to wait in the darkness and even to love the waiting.”
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 perhaps, or a place of rituals. But this is what is 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.
And here’s a new twist. In recent years, due to drought, new neolithic symbols have appeared around Newgrange, and new smaller but similar structures are being unearthed. It’s extraordinary to think of beings practicing a religion that was based on patience. The Latin root of the word is, “pati,” to suffer. Being willing to just sit there and wait in the dark, quietly observing, they observed how darkness can give way to new light.
“Be patient with everything unsolved in your heart,” wrote Rilke. “Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. “Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Gradually, like noticing the days are a bit longer.