Wednesday, December 21, 2005

To Bill O'Reilly (and Everyone Else): A Happy Solstice

Today is the day of the winter solstice, the terrestrial event around which all these early-winter holidays formed like moss and mushrooms on a moist rockface. Hannukah, Kwaanza, Ramadan, and of course Christmas all point around or center upon the solstice; just as Easter, Passover, and the various springtime holidays focus on the period of vernal equinox.

So if you're sick and tired of Shillmas and the psychological waste that poisons this time of year, perhaps it would be a good idea to think about the meaning of the solstice—this point in the cosmic circle of being that is the core of every festival of light and harvest that we know. In the African traditions surrounding Kwaanza, this is all about the storage and equal distribution of the year's agricultural harvest; a time of rest and replenishment. Other cultures observe the solstice through fasting and meditation on the gifts of life and love, along with a quiet celebration of family and the human connection to Nature.

Before all this became papered over with cash, commercialism, and the clutter of display, it was obscured and corrupted by the monumental ideologies of religion. The poison, as with other arenas of life—government, morality, business, and even science—is in the beliefs that are projected like white phosporous onto the living body of Nature and our human place within its vast presence.

The connection with the organic cycle of natural life is emphasized in the ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching, in its winter solstice hexagram, titled "Return". Here is the poetry of Hexagram 24, followed by the commentary by Richard Wilhelm, from his well-known translation of the I Ching:

RETURN. Success.
Going out and coming in without error.
Friends come without blame.
To and fro goes the way.
On the seventh day comes return.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

The time of darkness is past. The winter solstice brings the victory of light. This hexagram is linked with the eleventh month [of the lunar year], the month of the solstice (December-January)...After a time of decay comes the turning point. The light that has been banished returns. There is movement, but it is not brought about by force...the transformation of the old becomes easy. The old is discarded and the new is introduced...The idea of RETURN is based on the course of nature. The movement is cyclic, and the course completes itself. Therefore it is not necessary to hasten anything artificially. Everything comes of itself at the appointed time. This is the meaning of heaven and earth...Movement is just at its beginning; therefore it must be strengthened by rest, so that it will not be dissipated by being used prematurely. This principle, i.e., of allowing energy that is renewing itself to be reinforced by rest, applies to all similar situations. The return of health after illness, the return of understanding after an estrangement; everything must be treated tenderly and with care at the beginning, so that the return may lead to a flowering.
The I Ching, or Book of Changes, tr. Richard Wilhelm (Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 97-98.

Every literary tradition of psychological depth and spiritual freedom celebrates this solstice consciousness in the movement of human and natural life. The ancient Egyptians observed the entombment of Osiris on December 21; to them, as to the ancient Chinese and the early Christians, it represented a time of simultaneous death and rebirth. The shortest period of daylight in the entire year has been reached, and what follows from this point all the way up to the summer solstice will be an ever increasing light, as the days become longer and the season of planting and growth approaches. Jesus is born "on a cold winter's night that was so deep," to quote the popular carol, amid material poverty and among the creatures of nature with whom he belongs as an equal. Yet the quality and veracity of his "planting season"—the teachings and insights that he will bring to the world—can be recognized even in his incipient moment of winter birth.

For a modern version of a solstice moment that contains several layers of psychological meaning, we need look no further than the massively popular Harry Potter stories of J.K. Rowling. Harry's first solstice encounter arrives in the form of a number of symbolic figures and events that enter his life during his first term at Hogwarts. In my book, The Tao of Hogwarts, I described Harry's experience this way:

Christmas break is approaching at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Harry Potter is a cauldron of shifting and frequently aggressive emotions. He has just lived the greatest triumph of his young life—the capture of the "golden snitch" in his first competitive Quidditch game—but he is also troubled by his glowering Potions master, Professor Snape, who seems to have carried some sort of personal grudge into his relationship with Harry. There is also the increasingly annoying problem of Draco Malfoy, the school bully who is developing into Harry's personal nemesis among the student body. "I hate them both," Harry says of them, "Malfoy and Snape." Fortunately, Hagrid is there to call him back to the joy that has marked this time of renewal and discovery for Harry, ever since he had been rescued from the torpid superficiality of his oppressive boyhood home to attend this wondrous school where magic is ordinary and where his very name inspires respect.

Yet at this point, he remains trapped in a realm of oppositional thinking, where there are only friends and enemies, for and against, loyalty or hatred. Of course, this is as much as he's been exposed to at the odious home of the Dursleys, with whom he was raised. But he is now not only in the magical world, but in its educational element—he is in an academy of natural magic, where he will learn how to unlearn the ideology of opposition with which he has so far been conditioned. This is the beginning of a transformative path toward self-understanding. The way of this unlearning process will be marked by Harry's discovery of certain means of self-insight, as well as the formation of several interpersonal relationships that will teach him that, no matter what appearances may seem to dictate, evil does not always sit at the same table, conveniently marked with a large green banner decorated with a great silver snake. In the coming years, Harry will further learn that evil is not an inborn or natural trait, of either humans or the Cosmos, but that it is the apparitional mark of error—not the inherent stain left behind by some congenital inner defect. To help him through this process of inner growth, Harry will be given a number of metaphorical gifts—transformative objects, experiences, and messages—that will gradually lead him to the recovery of his original autonomy. In the first book of the Potter series, a number of these gifts will be introduced in the images of the letters from the magical world (and the owls that bring them); the marvelous train ride which becomes a part of every one of the subsequent stories; the grounds, buildings, and atmosphere of Hogwarts; the Sorcerer's (or "Philosopher's") Stone itself; and the two central metaphors of this "solstice phase" of Harry's inner development —the invisibility cloak and the Mirror of Erised.

So, to Bill O'Reilly and the other shrill, decadent ideologues of Christmas present, I would suggest that it may be time for us to think about Christmases past—long past, from before there was ever a Christmas to speak of; before Jesus was ever a gleam in his Big Daddy's eye. I would suggest that we look up to the skies and down to the earth; and finally deep within ourselves and toward one another, for the true meaning of this moment in the great cycle of Nature to dawn, to spread its cool and cleansing light. I wish this recognition for Bill O'Reilly, for George W. Bush, for Dick Cheney, and most emphatically for all who read and think with me here at Daily Revolution. Happy Solstice to you all: may the increasing light to come bring a proportionate dawning of understanding, tolerance, and peace within every single person on this beautiful and delicate planet.

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