Winter Solstice

Finding Our Way Through the Dark

Today, we celebrate the Winter Solstice – marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Solstice comes from the Latin word solstitum, which translates to ‘sun standing still.’ Because that’s what it feels like during our darkest hours – like time stands still.

From here on out, every day will actually get a little lighter. But it will happen so gradually, we won’t notice. Until one day, we will wake up and see small signs of new life. And we will realize, time has passed. The worst is over.

Montana is a tough place to live in December through March. This morning, I watched the wind blow in a white wall of snow. It’s now dinner time, and it’s still snowing. Next week, the temperatures will drop into the single digits. I have a closet full of east coast clothes that will remain untouched as I now live in puffy coats and muck boots.

Embrace the winter,” everyone tells me. I’m not quite there yet. But I’m happy to survive.

Still, I must say – as fierce as the winter is here, the summer months are glorious. And worth every foot of snow out there. Those who brave the one will surely be rewarded with the other. It’s what I’m reminding myself of right now.

The Dark Teacher

But the dark and the cold isn’t just part of nature, it’s part of life as well. And the same rewards ring true. In fact, our greatest teachers are not the ones, sunny and bright. It is life’s Dark Teachers who truly point us towards the light. Though it never feels that way at the time. You see, suffering always feels endless when we are in the thick of it.

Time stands still. We don’t feel better until we are better. Our gradual transformation like a secret, until it’s over – and the butterfly breaks out of her cocoon.

Pema Chödrön, the first American woman to be ordained a Buddhist nun, credits her (second) ex-husband for the joy she found later. He came home to her one day, announced he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. Pema was devastated and sank into a deep depression. Nothing helped until Pema stumbled on an article from a Tibetan Buddhist teacher describing pain as actually bringing us closer to truth. Suffering had been the enemy but that tiny seed grew into a great big epiphany: Pain wasn’t the enemy. Pain was the teacher.

Sometimes life falls apart so something better can be built.

It took my own long winter to birth a voice all my own. I suffered a deep hurt, painful betrayal, and many, many months, fumbling my way through the dark. It was lonely and scary and through a good part of it, I will admit – I wanted nothing more than to go back to the way things were – the way I was.

But who exactly was that? Mostly I stood behind others and wrote down the things they said. I wanted nothing more than to belong and to feel worthy. And I kept looking outside of me for all this. Losing everything pointed me towards the only One that mattered.

Luckily, I have this yoga method – the Ashtanga yoga method – a practice that has long stopped being tied to either a person or a series. For me, it’s the space I give myself to be myself, through all seasons of my life. But it becomes especially sacred and vital during the dark of winter, when the desire to escape is strongest. My practice keeps me present and coming back to love.

Compassionate Abiding

Pema calls this loving presence through difficult times, compassionate abiding. She says to breathe it all in, knowing whatever you are feeling, others have felt and are feeling also. Though we may feel alone, we are not alone.

“When you breathe in, you can recognize that all over the world — right now and in the past and in the future — people are going to feel exactly what you’re feeling now. A feeling of being rejected. The feeling of being unloved … the feeling of insecurity … the feeling of fear. Rage. Human beings have always felt this and always will. And so you breathe in for everyone that they could welcome it, that they could say, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ Embrace it.”  // Pema Chödrön

Just like year-round Montanans, Pema tells us to embrace our winter. Here lies our humanity. We only know light through dark. My darkest times have always led to a most amazing and unimaginable brilliance. The change is already happening. Even if we can’t see it yet.

Besides, the best discoveries are often made, with us, fumbling in the dark.

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