The solstice marks mid-winter, the time when the sun’s path is lowest in the sky, nights are at their longest, and the days shortest. The sun has reached its weakest point, and light and heat are in short supply. It is a time to acknowledge the dark and the cold, but to carry the light and warmth through to the new year.
In the dark a new spark of light grows. This is a moment when change can take place.
The lead-up to the solstice has been unusually cold this year in Britain, and my attention has been focussed onto the temperature – by having my heating break down. How precious warmth and light is, but how easily we take it for granted. The one night of mid-winter is a good time to remember this, and to hold vigil for the light.
It’s not surprising that traditions for marking this time involve light or fire, for example lighting a candle in the dark, or burning a Yule log on the fire. For me, it’s fire embers glowing in the dark, or a candle lit in the room. I like to sit in silence with only the quiet sound of the fire. Of course, watching the sun set and then rise again is also an important part of marking the occasion. I try to keep an awareness of the sun travelling underneath the world from its setting to its rising.
Our ancestors clearly thought the winter solstice was important, and some particularly marked the mid-winter sunset. The Maeshowe chambered cairn on Orkney for example was designed so that the rays of the setting mid-winter sun would shine down the entrance passage to the centre of the tomb. The main alignment at Stonehenge is the mid-summer sunrise, and the mid-winter sunset.
In Carmina Geadelica, Alexander Carmicheal describes a ceremonial way of covering a peat fire for the night:
“The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three.”
The following protective prayer might be said whilst covering the fire:
THE sacred Three To save, To shield, To surround The hearth, The house, The household, This eve, This night, Oh! this eve, This night, And every night, Each single night. Amen.
After the long night, the sun rises again, now getting stronger, with the dark giving way to the light. It is a time for celebration and new beginnings. Some ancient places mark the sunrise instead of the sunset at mid-winter. For example Newgrange in Ireland has a specially designed roof-box which allows light from the mid-winter sunrise to shine into the central chamber.
This time of year ivy comes into flower. The intense perfume of the blossoms has a clean, cold almost otherworldy smell. The flowers also attract the attention of insects, which swarm around this late-season treat. Later in the year, the black berries will form – food for the pigeons during the worst part of the winter.
Ogham and the Celtic Calendar
The poet Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, associates Ivy with the Irish Ogham letter gort, and the month running from 30th September to 27th October, a time when here in southeast England the ivy flowers are beginning to fade. There are just a few left at the moment,
There’s plenty to read on the associations that Graves and others make with Ivy (see the links below) but you can also try to make your own connection with a plant or tree and see if part of its nature is revealed to you. Reading what others have written is useful, but you don’t have to be bound by it.
Robert Graves’ associations for the tree calendar originate in an old Welsh poem in the book of Taliesin called Kat Godeu, or Battle of the Trees. The lines about Ivy run as follows (in a modern translation by Marged Haycock):
Privet and honeysuckle, and Ivy, despite his appearance, how fiercely [did they go] into the fray!
What does this tell us about Ivy? For one thing, perhaps that his appearance is deceptive!
Seeing for ourselves
How do we approach Ivy – or other plants or trees – to find out more about them? Perhaps we can divide our approach into three categories:
Observation – we can use our senses to try and see ivy – look close, watch it in different contexts, in different seasons. Spend time with it. Use other senses: smell, touch, taste (after of course checking to make sure it isn’t poisonous!), maybe sound?
Investigation – this is where reading can come in, finding out about Ivy, but also we can also try our own experiments. What can we use Ivy for? What can we make from it? How does it fit into the local ecosystem? What does it do?
Experience – maybe we can interact with ivy on a different level, where we are not dealing with it as an object in our familiar world, but as an agent in a bigger, less familiar world. Perhaps we can meet the ‘spirit of the ivy.’ To do this we would need to keep a level of inner silence so that we can perceive the ivy, and also a certain courage to allow us to meet the spirit of the ivy as equals.
The Three Winter Berries
The berries of mistletoe, holly and ivy work together in the winter woods. Mistletoe – the golden bough of the druids – born from heaven without touching the ground. His berries are white – the male seed. Holly is shiny and sometimes prickly, flickering light in its leaves. Her berries are red – the female seed. Ivy climbs around and over the other trees and its berries are black – the seed of spirit. Together the three winter berries echo the beginning of the world.
“It is like standing by a lake… On the surface we see the reflection of the world, but in the depths there are those mysterious things that alchemists show in their books – dragons, ravens, eagles, wolves, suns, moons, and the like.”
Sphaera Elementum, from Liber Sphaerae by Colin A. Low
The Diamond Mirror is centred on our sense of ‘I’, with the familiar world around it, shown in white on the diagram below. As discussed in Part 1, we can become more aware of the workings of this world, but the diagram also shows other, less familiar parts of our being, which operate outside the familiar world, often without our awareness.
Instinct and the Elemental world
At the base of the Diamond Mirror is instinct. When we were born, instinct was all that we had. Our bodies worked, we breathed, cried, shat and suckled. Instinct still lives in us. We can be more or less aware of it, and we only have a little control. For example we can adjust our breathing, and breath is an important gate into instinct.
We call the world of instinct the Elemental World. This emphasises the physicality of the world – made from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth.
We may think that we live in the physical world, but we’re not really aware of it. It’s a bit like the two pictures below – zooming in on a carrot in a magazine picture, we see the reality behind the illusion: just coloured dots. We see an alien world under our familiar one.
Extending your awareness
You can extend your awareness and move beyond concepts and constructs towards the raw physical reality you are part of. You could spend a little time out in nature. Settle down and try to be aware of your body, and of the reality and individuality of living beings around you. Set aside your own thoughts and preoccupations for a while. Be aware of the clouds moving in the sky, the air moving on your skin.
“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe … the people of the Faery Hills … still ride the country as of old. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. … When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by.”
W.B. Yeats’ Notes on his poem The Hosting of the Sidhe
Can we? Should we?
Before we begin exploring unfamiliar worlds, we should be aware of the potential dangers. There are borders to the unfamiliar worlds for good reasons. For example, interfering with the automatic processes of the body such as breathing can sometimes lead to problems. Maybe it’s dangerous or unnatural to extend our range – after all, we can get by in the familiar world, and in a sense it’s designed for our comfort: in fact we ourselves have designed it for our own comfort. Many people live all their lives in the familiar world with maybe just a glimpse outside it now and then. But for some people it’s not enough. It’s true that there is danger in going beyond the familiar world, and it is important that we have a strong foundation in the familiar world before attempting to explore beyond it. There are stories of problems that meet the incautious visitor to the otherworld.
Merlin’s warning in the Ballad of Childe Rolande:
“After you have entered the land of Fairy… bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again.”
Our body is our passport
The elemental world has many different scales, from the smallest particles up to the largest clusters of galaxies. It also includes the messy internals of our own bodies: the sinews and flesh, the guts and pulsing heart. It can be an uncomfortable places for us to visit because of its rawness and sometimes scary power and scale.
One way into the elemental world is through the body, where instinct rules. Think about your body. It has amazing intelligence and endurance. It preserves itself, fighting off disease and repairing damage. It can deal with a wide variety of food, transforming whatever you eat to sustain and fuel itself. It can adapt to different environments, and activities, employing long-term and short-term strategies for survival. But you are probably not aware of all this intelligence and activity unless something goes wrong.
At the borderline of the familiar world is breath. Breathing can be automatic, but it can also be under conscious control. The nature of your breathing tells you something about the state of our body, and being aware of the breath can help you to be fully present.
There are many practices which can help us to become more aware of the body and the breath. One that I personally find helpful is the first part of this morning exercise.
I’m in a stone circle in the middle of the night. I’ve been here a while, keeping a vigil, and my hold on the familiar world is beginning to loosen. Standing in front of one of the large stones, I see it begin to come to life, breathing in and out.
Is it real?
One of the key issues that we deal with in going beyond the familiar world is the question ‘So is it real?’ Experiences we have outside the familiar world by definition don’t make sense and can’t be explained, so we are inclined to either reject them or attempt to rationalise them. A more profitable approach is to leave the experiences as they are without trying to explain them, or to fit them into our familiar world-view.
How about you? Have you had any strange experiences? You could ask your friends if they have – you might get some interesting stories!
More to come on the Dragon World and the Shining World!
The diamond mirror is a map of our faculties, based on the experience of explorers. It’s an interpretation and a simplification of what is actually there, so that we can get a grasp on our own experience as we explore the range of being human for ourselves. The map is not a substitute for the experience but it helps us organize it and understand where the experience is coming from.
My life as a ghost
We usually operate with only a small part of our capacity. We see what we expect to see and repeat learned actions without thinking very much. I’m a modern-day hunter-gatherer. I go to the supermarket and I walk around, looking for the things on my shopping list and putting them in my basket. Then I queue up, put my shopping onto the conveyor belt, pack it away, and pay the bill. But how aware am I of the other people in the supermarket? They have their own lives and shopping lists, but I’m not really interested in them unless there’s something unusual about them. It’s like we’re ghosts in each other’s worlds. And how much attention do I pay to the process of packing up my shopping? I’ve got my particular method. The heavy stuff goes in the hessian bag, and the cold stuff in the plastic bag, squashy stuff at the top. I don’t think about it that much. I’m usually thinking about something else, like what I’m going to have for dinner. It’s almost as if I’m not there.
Of course, all this is a choice. I can choose to be more aware of the other people and I can pay more attention to what I’m doing. Try it sometime. How does it feel to be more present? How long can you keep it up for? What takes you away from being present?
In order to work with the mysteries, you need to be present.
Most people, most of the time, live in quite a small, familiar world, a slice of reality that we’ve learnt about over the years, the home of ‘I’. It’s like a bubble we’ve built around ourselves, a bubble of perception we’ve learnt to deal with, a place of supermarkets, phones and clothes, flowers, friends and nights out, woods and seaside and stories. It’s made of everything we know about. We need the familiar world. We’d literally be like newborn babies without it, struggling to make sense of our perceptions and not knowing how to act. But it’s not all that there is.
Being more present can help us to be more aware of how we operate in the familiar world. We begin to see factors at work, such as conditioning and associations.
Conditioning is the set of habitual patterns and learned responses to things, built up over the years, often accidentally, sometimes useful and sometimes not. For example, when I’m going to the supermarket, I usually take the same route. It’s not necessarily the best route, but it’s the one I found when I first went there. The good thing is that I don’t have to spend energy thinking about how to get to the supermarket every time I go, but on the downside, maybe it’s not always the fastest route.
One of the main problems with conditioning is the way that it limits the way we see things.
I sit watching a tree blowing in the wind, but that’s my conditioning. I try to watch without conditioning, and I see the tree alive, moving, and I feel its movement on my skin, hear it talking. Is this true seeing? Conditioning wants me to say yes or no, but if I say neither what happens then?
The associative or formative mind is the system we use for a lot of our thinking. This level of mind is organised by links or associations between different memories, in the form of feelings, thoughts or sense impressions. One thing leads to another. The associative can work well in some circumstances. For example, in the supermarket I see some lemons and a whole bunch of associations fire off – kebabs, aubergine, hummus, celery. My associative mind is thinking about what to have for dinner. The operation of the associative mind can be seen sometimes when we are trying to be mindful, and sit and watch the thoughts that come and go. When you realise you’ve drifted off, you can often trace back the steps by which you became distracted.
Sitting watching the pond, and a bird calls. Is that a Chiffchaff? Maybe it’s one of the Iberian Chiffchaffs that all those bird watchers came to see. That couple conducting the bird survey last month were nice. Maybe I should join the group. Do they meet in Surbiton? I’ve got to go there tomorrow. When do I have to be there? *I remember what I’m doing, and go back to watching the pond*
The usual way the mind works in the familiar world is through a kind of flow. It works automatically, using conditioning and associations, linking one thing to the next so that our thoughts flow in a misleadingly named ‘stream of consciousness’.
I can be more aware of what I am doing and where I am (being present) through for example practicing mindfulness, but only for a few moments, and then I am carried away again by the stream.
It is possible to be more aware of the raw interactions we have. I can try to be aware of sense data for example, before it is processed by conditioning and starts to trigger associations. By maintaining awareness I can try to act on a different level. This is not entirely unfamiliar. For example, sometimes when I wake up and open my eyes there’s something in my field of vision, but I don’t recognise it. It takes a few seconds for it to click that I’m looking at a chair. This can also happen when you’re out and about and maybe see or hear something but can’t place it. That moment before pigeon-holing the impression has a different quality. Scary perhaps, but full of potential and energy.
I’m out walking in the dark, in the woods. I can’t see much at all, but every now and then a shape or a rustling sound triggers a fear reaction. My body is alert, I am aware of my breath. I half see something and my mind wants to identify it: is it an animal, a branch, another person? Can I hold back from making it into one thing?
Eating is another good field of practice for getting to raw interaction. Usually I gulp my food, not really paying much attention – perhaps reading or watching TV at the same time. If I try to pay more attention to the eating, I can literally get more out of my food.
Another way of extending the familiar world is to become aware of a level beyond associations, where instead of being taken by the flow from one association to another, we can step back to watch the associations a little bit. We can sometimes see this in dreaming. A dream can take us from one scene to another, following associations seemingly at random, but sometimes there is some pattern behind the dream, a meaning which can perhaps be difficult to put into words. Maybe there’s one character in the dream that has a particular quality, or maybe a situation that seems to be significant. We can also use this level to create meaning in writing poetry.
I used to have many dreams about tidal waves, where I would be by the sea, and then suddenly a huge wave would rush in, swamping everything, including me. I kept a dream journal partly so that I could learn more about this type of dream. It seemed to me that a dream that repeated must be significant. After a while, the dream began to change.
Nowadays people often favour working with the complexity and variety of nature, rather than the simplicity of the abstract, but in our work we need both.
Mind strives for simplicity. It transforms our complex experience into simpler but perhaps less tangible mental images, thoughts and feelings.
At its deeper levels, beyond the rational and verbal levels, mind works with symbols and archetypes. Rich with meaning and significance, these archetypes are in some sense the pillars of mind, the building blocks of meaning.
Beyond even this, the mind works with the pure abstract – with number and pattern.
One way of working with the abstract is what we now call sacred geometry. Some of the oldest examples of this activity are the 5000-year-old stone balls found in Scotland.
Hundreds of carved stone spheres, roughly three inches in diameter have been found over the years in Scotland. Many form regular polyhedra, and some depict platonic solids, long before the Greeks wrote about them. As to the purpose of the stone balls – no one knows. Perhaps they were used as weights, as dice for oracles, in ball games, or just as ‘prestige objects’. Or maybe the Neolithic people used them as objects of contemplation.
I have a replica of the Towie stone. It has four large knobs on it, each decorated with a different pattern. It forms a tetradedron – a triangular-based pyramid.
All of the stone balls are of a size to fit comfortably in the hands. I sit in the dark with the replica, feeling the shape with my fingertips. After a while it warms from my body heat. I sense the fine patterns of decoration. There is nothing to say about it, except that something in me responds to its shape. I wonder if our ancestors made a similar use of the stone.
Walking can be a useful technique, either as part of a pilgrimage to a special place, or just a walk by itself. Walking can be a meditative practice. When you want a special walk, be quiet and don’t daydream. It’s often best to go alone. Put your awareness on your surroundings, your breath, and your feet touching the ground – one, two, one, two… Make sure all your senses are open, and keep the attention wide.
Try to adopt a steady rhythmic gait, and empty yourself so that as you breathe, you breathe your surroundings in and breathe them out. There is no you, just the breathing and the landscape.
Sometimes it’s good to push yourself. Go further than you feel comfortable with, or walk in bad weather.
Sometimes it’s good to wander aimlessly, letting the sights and sounds draw you on.
Sometimes it’s good to sing or chant as you walk.
Slow walking is a meditative practice. Take small steps, as slowly as you can. Slower than that! Feel the weight move as you step and be aware of the moment that the weight switches from one foot to the other.