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Today is the winter solstice. This evening the tilt of the earth will place our hemisphere the furthest it is from the sun, rendering it the longest night of the year. Winter solstice is also known as the beginning of winter, and the “return of light,” as from this day forward, daylight hours will become longer.
A beautiful image on today’s local paper caught my eye – of a statue of a person trumpeting at sunrise – the sky an orange glow, and the black silhoette of the person in the forground. Beneath the photo the caption was something to the effect of: The bad news? Longest night of the year. Good news? Return of the light.
Yes, it’s true – this is what solstice is. But….I personally hestitate to judge it as good or bad. It is what it is.
It’s true that the long hours of darkness can perpetuate the “winter blues” and it is a time when grief and sadness can feel extra sharp and jagged against the expectation of joy and celebration. There is no doubt that the long nights of winter create a challenge on many levels for many people. There is also no doubt that people look forward to more of daylight, and the return of the sun, as this brings a sense of hope, renew, warmth and comfort in it’s wake. It is for this reason that solstice has been celebrated and ritualized throughout history.
Metaphorically, the darkness of winter solstice reminds us of the darkness of our life, and of our experiences. Our grief, loss and suffering can become more intense when the darkness of our environment surrounds us and perpetuates a sense of isolation and withdrawal. I have heard time and time again of how difficult this time of year is, and even in my own body I feel the natural tendancy towards slowing down, turning inward and looking deeply at the core of my being. I feel more lethargic, emotional, introspective and low.
However, I strongly challenge the notion that is “bad news.” For, the light can only exist in relation to the dark…Spring can only come from winter…Day can only come from night. As Robert Ingersoll says, ”In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”
This is one of the great paradoxes of grief and mourning. Similarly, your pain at the death of your loved one can only extend from the depth of your love for them.
Suffering and love are two of the most true, raw, and unavoidable human experiences. They exist in relation to each other. Consequently, the task reconciling your grief and loss involves moving through the center of your grief and touching both the love and the hurt. Feeling the joy of the memory and the pain of the reality. In this way, over time, grief can be integrated it into your being.
Re-framing the experience of your grief journey (and solstice for that matter) with the words, “both/and” instead of “either/or,” we can use the darkness of winter solstice as a time to turn inward, become more reflective, and to slow down. We can hold it all – the light and the dark, love and pain, grief and joy.
We are not meant to run from the natural cycles of our lives (including joy and birth and inevitabely death and grief), nor are we meant to run from the natural cycles of the earth (sleep and wake, light and dark, changing of the seasons). By staying present and staying mindful, we learn to let our bodies vibrate with whatever our experiences bring. From this hope and light can grow. During this dark time of year, we can nurture our natural feelings towards hibernation we can find more rest in our own experience and develop a cocoon for our changed life to grow in. Can we hold the tendency towards darkness with an open palm and let it be present enough that we might see a flicker of light.
A yoga practice can reflect the cycles of the earth and the energy of the winter solstice by choosing more restorative and restful practices to conserve energy and by focusing more on meditation and breathing exercises than a strong physical practice. A Yin Yoga practice can feel especially quiet, restful and deep.
Two great articles for further reading:
Self Care for Winter Health via the Yoga Jounal
Winter Solstice Brings Messages of Hope and Renewal Amid Darkness via the Edmonton Journal
Much of my focus on this blog, and in my yoga class, is about loss and grief as it relates to the death of a loved one. Quite simply, this is because it has been my most personal and profound experience, and in essence my teacher. By no means do I intend to minimize other types of losses and grief resulting from situations other than death. In fact, in today’s post I want to address loss as it touches all aspects of our life – with changes, transitions, growth and deterioration.
More than educating on types of losses one may encounter, I hope to convey that as a society, we need to look at how life (in all it’s ups and downs) effects us emotionally, and how we don’t need to be “diagnosed,” or “treated,” rather beheard and acknowledged that life is hard, and reaction to change is normal.
Imagine tossing a stone into a pond – the stone hits that water and sinks, leaving behind ripples that move in concentric, radiating circles towards the shore.
Think of the stone as the circumstance of change in your life – it doesn’t even have to be a bad change, it can be anything. Outward from that circumstance or incident, the ripples represent the impact and influence that change has on your life.
Change can be anything: loss of a job, change in health, retirement, children leaving home, getting married, deterioration of friendships or romantic relationships and countless more…
And the ripples…depend on your relationship to what what changed, or to the transition, circumstance in question. It’s never JUST about the Loss of _____. Loss and change extend into how we see ourselves, and how we see our place in the world, both now in the present moment but also through the memories of the past and plans for the future. For example:
- loss of a job or retirement = loss of financial security, loss of role (in both job environment and family), perhaps even status, loss of routine, loss of meaning…
- change in health = loss of security/trust in your body, loss of identity, loss in quality of life, loss of dreams, loss of life plan…
- children leaving home = loss of role/ feeling useful, loss of sense of family, loss of developed routine and meaning in life, loss of self-identity as mother/father figure, physical loss of children, and even the security of having more people at home…
- getting married = perceived loss of independence, loss of role as a single person, change in self identity, fears about the future…
If we can slow down and turn our attention inward, AND combine honest appraisal of your life change, AND have a little knowledge about how we naturally react to change and loss (grief), we can become empowered to sit with our pain/emotion/fear and understand that our experience is normal. It’s OK to cry…in fact, more than OK, it’s healthy. It’s normal to feel anxious and distracted, and even have difficulty with memory. It’s normal to have changes in sleeping patterns, and physical symptoms of grief such as fatigue and aches and pains. It’s normal to have volatile emotions. Expected, real, understandable, acceptable, healthy, albeit difficult.
Finding supportive, non-judgemental companions who can lend a listening ear is valuable. As we become aware of how our bodies/minds/souls respond to loss, we need to express it outside ourselves, via talking, journalling etc.
Most importantly, trust yourself, and trust your experience. Give yourself permission to let the changes, transitions and losses in life move you – grieving what you had, what you lost, how you’ve changed. In order to heal grief, you must move through it…
Recently, I came across a blog written by a man and his family, while he was journeying through a terminal illness. It is so honest, wise and deeply moving, as to his ability to really Be with the experience of his death. I won’t write more about it – there is no way I could do it justice. It can be found here.
Along the same lines, here is a video of an interview with Joan Halifax on Dealing With Death. Joan Halifax has become one of my favourite death and dying gurus for her compassionate approach.
Both the resources I have listed in today’s post touch on contemplative practices as a way to understand life. There is much wisdom to be found in these practices – teaching that by “leaning into” grief, death, and suffering, we can find our strength and hold these experiences with open arms.
“When we bear witness, when we become the situation – homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death – the right action arises by itself.” – Roshi Bernie Glassman