Seasonal greetings as we meet the winter solstice on December 21st, marking the beginning, astronomically speaking of winter.
In late November, I offered teachings blending mindfulness practices with the natural wisdom of fall. Now I’m reflecting on meanings and rituals of winter and how these can illuminate my own path and those of the people I work with.
With the winter solstice upon us, in which day and night are perfectly balanced, movement toward light and growth begins. Across many traditions, we gather, light fires, feast, sing, and dance as a means of celebrating light in the dark and themes of hope, renewal, and rebirth.
This summer, I visited Stonehenge in the English countryside, where agricultural and herding Neolithic people placed such importance on marking the passage of the seasons that they constructed massive stone monuments with this practical and ceremonial purpose in mind. On the winter solstice at Stonehenge, the sun once set within the narrow gap between two upright pillars that are no longer standing, as it still does at sunset on the summer solstice (above).
With the advent of winter, we can also look to nature for teachings on the importance of pause and incubation during these darker months. Last week, my partner and I went to Coyote Hills Regional Park on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay and while there, saw cormorants, pelicans, and gulls foraging in the wetlands, and wild turkeys, hawks, and vultures foraging and circling in the grassy hills. We also encountered several badgers (Taxidea taxus) circulating between their dens underground and low growing shrubs and grasses frequented by favored prey such as mice, ground squirrels, and snakes. Badgers are prodigious diggers, with powerful legs and massive foreclaws that allow them to pursue ground-dwelling food sources and to create the subterranean dens they shelter in. During winter, they dwell underground, passing through lengthy states of torpor, with females gestating young that are born in the spring.
Symbolically, badgers are valued for their courage and tenacity since they prefer retreat but are fierce and protective if cornered. In various myths around the world, due to their winter dormancy and life below the surface, they are associated with dreams, shapeshifting, the unconscious, and the unseen world. For First Nation people, the badger is associated with the earth element, “getting to the root of things,” and plant medicine. The badger has been an important personal totem in challenging times when I’ve needed to dig particularly deeply for resourcefulness, strength, and inner knowledge.
For millennia, Coyote Hills was a center of life for the indigenous Ohlone people, who built massive shell mounds there out of shells, soil, and rocks that, like Stonehenge, served as ceremonial gathering spaces for the living as well as sacred burial grounds for ancestors. Once, hundreds of shell mounds encircled the Bay but most, tragically, were levelled to make way for post-colonial commercial and residential purposes. However, these ancient shell mounds still extend way below the surface of the ground. “Even if you can’t see them on top, we know that their layers go way deep underneath the land,” says Ohlone tribal spokesperson Corinna Gould.
For those who offer charitable gifts before the close of the calendar year, there is the option to include the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a non-profit organization founded with the goals of returning areas of traditional Ohlone land to indigenous stewardship and cultivating more active, reciprocal relationships with the land: https://sogoreate-landtrust.org/
As we enter the sacred pause of winter, how can it prepare you for a fruitful year to come? What are you incubating? What is grounding for you? What is below the surface? How are you holding light and darkness in these difficult times?
I’ll be in touch in the New Year about a February event on mindfulness practices centered around the wisdom of the winter. Closing meanwhile with this traditional solstice wish:
May you find peace in the promise of the solstice night, that each day forward is blessed with more light. That the cycle of nature, unbroken and true, brings faith to your soul and well-being to you.