Blog: Reflections on the Winter Solstice
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
As the nights have been growing longer as we approach the winter solstice, I have been reflecting on the relationship between light and darkness from a new perspective. We often think of light and dark as being opposite of one another. In some cases that is true. From one point of view, the light of day is the opposite of the dark of night. But from another vantage point, dark and light are moments of the same cycle of change. That cycle of change determines our experience of reality in utterly fundamental ways. The sun rising and setting is basic to our experience on earth. Yet, we don’t often think about the fact that the sun rising and setting dictates when and how we do almost everything we do. We may not often think about how our lives might be structured without this baseline rhythm the play of light and dark creates.
I often begin my daily meditation practice outside just before dawn. I begin sitting in total darkness. The owl, who is so comfortable in the dark, is usually my only companion. As I continue to meditate, I can feel, more than see, the light rising within me as the sky brightens, even before the sun makes its appearance. That light arising without also arises within. The light seems to arise from the heart of the darkness.
This is the moment in the turn of the year where we find ourselves waiting in the darkness as the nights grow ever longer. We may find ourselves reaching for the light, longing for the light, as the winter cold and silence settles ever more fully upon us. We might try to reach outside the darkness to the future promise of light, or reflect back in time to the summer noon. But if we let ourselves simply rest in the dark, quelling any impulse to move beyond it, the dark opens and the light emerges. In this way, the impulse to the light arises from the dark, not in opposition to it.
This is the wisdom of the seed. It rests in the darkness of its soil womb until the light is felt with in it – and only then emerges from the cocoon of the earth. In Buddhist thought, Prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom or understanding, is said to emerge in such a way from the dark void of emptiness. The texts which explore and explain Prajnaparamita form the basis for much of Mahayana Buddhist thought, which offers the light of understanding about the nature of reality to its practitioners.
Here at the Sacred Stream Center, a similar phenomenon is occurring at each winter dawn this season. The light of the rising sun slips in at the edge of the arched stained-glass window above the main altar at dawn. The arch was constructed so as to catch the rising sun at every moment of its journey across the eastern horizon during the year. Now, when it is at its lowest reach, just the edge of the arch catches the morning sun’s light. That ray of light is first seen on the century-old wood in the corner of the sanctuary opposite the arched window where the ray lands. The effect is that the light seems to be arising from the darkest corner of the room at dawn.
At this moment of the year, when we spend so much time in the dark of the winter night, we can practice waiting for the light to rise from within it. We can follow the furthest reaches of the dark and discover the experience of the light arising. If we hold awareness of this possibility, we can touch that place within us, those places around us, where the light and dark are one moment within the cycle of time.