At the time of the Solstice, the sun changes course. There is a moment in that change, when the sun stops and seems to pause before reversing directions. Cultures as far back as Neolithic cultures have taken time out of their daily routine to pay tribute to this event. At the Winter Solstice, when the sun was at its lowest point and the land lay fallow, the tribute was aimed at ensuring the rebirth of the light. The land would not come back to life, it was believed, unless there was a ritualized pause that honored the pause of the sun. The word “Solstice” — derived from the Latin word “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still) — reflects that pause.
As the Winter Solstice on December 22 draws near, it is a good time to align yourself with this natural cycle and take time out of your busy life to become still. There are several ways you can do this. You can find a time between now and the end of the year to take a meaningful pause — spending a whole day, a half day, even a few hours alone in stillness. Alternately, you can pause each day for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. This could be a time of formal meditation or prayer, or a time sitting quietly outdoors or in a room removed from the bustle of daily activity — the main elements being stillness (not moving) and silence (not talking). Lastly, at any point in the day, you can take a moment to pause and notice your breath — breathing in, holding for a second, then breathing out, holding another second before breathing in. This momentary pause is something that you can do anytime of the day or night — when you need a break from what you’re doing, when you are overtaken by negative thoughts, or when you just want to feel more invigorated and alive.
Let’s take a moment to practice this third way to pause. Stop what you’re doing. Make yourself comfortable. If sitting — get into a relaxed position, feeling the chair, couch, bed firmly beneath you. If walking, feel the earth beneath your feet, allowing the rhythm of your body to be easeful and flowing. Let whatever thoughts you have drift through your mind like clouds drifting across the sky — notice them as they pass. Occasionally they may obscure who you really are, just as a passing cloud obscures the sun. But just as the sun is always there whether you see it or not, your true self is always shining despite a cloudbank of thoughts.
Now turn your focus to your breath, noticing for a few breaths its natural ebb and flow, its ongoing rhythm. Like the sun, your breath is always there. Take a moment to appreciate it’s constancy and presence in your life — this miracle you take for granted. Now, on the next breath, breathe in easily and naturally. At the moment before the out—breath, pause — like the sun pausing at its highest point before beginning to sink — then breathe out, smoothly, effortlessly. Once again pause for a second — like the sun at its lowest point pausing before beginning to rise — then breathe in. Continue in this way making the pause two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, until you are holding the pause at the end of each in and out breath for five seconds. This whole practice takes less than a minute.
Before returning to whatever you were doing, take a moment to look at your surroundings — really look — the patterns of light and shadow, the textures and movements. Take another moment to listen to the sounds. Sound upon sound, sound beneath sound, hearing sounds you never realized were there. Then return to your day. Remember that at any moment you can stop and begin again.
There is solace in these times of stillness. It is fitting that the word solace — meaning comfort, support, relief — and the word “solstice” are so similar in sound. Taking a pause does bring comfort. During this time of celebration, give comfort to yourself by taking a day, an hour, a minute to experience the on—going cycle of life.
All creatures regularly take time to pause. The hawk flying across the sky stops flapping its wings for minutes at a time to glide on currents of air. The deer in the meadow stops every few seconds to gaze out across the field and at various points throughout the day sinks down in the grass for a nap. Even domestic animals — the cow, the sheep, the dog — spend a good part of the day napping. Closer to their instinctive nature, they recognize, at some level, that their very survival requires regular breaks to give their bodies time to recharge. With young children, who are also closer to their natural rhythms, there is a biological reason for their daily nap — research has shown that napping is crucial to the development of the brain. And though as the brain develops, children gradually wean themselves from their daily nap, in order to function optimally the brain needs regular intervals of quiet.
I remember, as a child, going out in a field behind my home and laying down in the grass to stare up at the sky. Sometimes I’d watch the clouds changing shape in an ever-changing procession of knights, dragons, and strange winged creatures. Other times, I gazed at the vast expanse of blue and watch small worm—like shapes glide across the screen of my eyes — “floaters” I later learned they were called. Looking back, I see that this was my unconscious way of stepping out of the bustle of the everyday world and connecting with a quieter place in myself.
In adults, a period of quiet is necessary to recharge the brain. It doesn’t matter whether this period takes the form of a meditative pause or an actual nap, for I recently read that if you lie down for twenty minutes with your eyes closed — whether awake or asleep — your brain is equally refreshed. I remember my father, on weekends, laying down on a chaise on our deck to bask in the sun — his fingers curled like an infant’s, resting softly on his chest — his lips curved slightly up in a tiny cat smile. These weekend naps were his way coping with a relentless Washington D.C. schedule. During the week when he was in full work mode, the peaceful smile and the infant fingers disappeared. They were replaced by a tight-lipped determination — his body tilted slightly forward as he moved through the day, his hands in little clenched fists at his side. Though his weekend naps were a buffer, they weren’t enough to counter the effects of the week—long pressure and his body eventually wore down.
My grandfather — a product of an earlier time — intuitively understood the importance of taking time each day to unwind. Each day he walked home from the streetcar after work, ate his dinner, then sat with his cup of coffee on the screen porch of his house, puffing on one of his two daily cigars and staring into space. I remember the orange glow at its tip brightening and dimming with each puff — the silence unbroken, except for a faint sucking sound and occasionally the rustle of wind through the trees.
Nowadays such devoted adherence to routine is dismissed as obsessive, but as I grow older I’ve begun to understand its logic. In the past year or two I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of an afternoon nap. And though on particularly busy days that isn’t always possible, almost daily I remember to take a minute or two when I begin to feel stressed to pause between breaths.
The following are books that relate in some way to this theme.
IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE; Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise — by George Prochnik. Prochnik travels across the US and overseas in search of silence. He explores the effects of noise pollution and examines what gets lost when we can no longer find quiet. “When we are in silence, we are speaking the language of the soul … Our ability to appreciate and experience, whether our own inner world or the world of nature, may be dramatically affected with the rise of ambient noise.”
SILENCE; The Mystery of Wholeness — By Robert Sardello. Sardello invites us to experience silence as a companion presence, a creative, heartfelt experience that renews, restores, and deepend response to the internal and external world. “Silence is not something that we do, nor is it a personal capacity. We can become quiet and by doing so the door to Silence opens … The whole of this book is a practice (of opening that door) — a practice that intends to develop new capacities by developing attention beyond usual forms of consciousness.”
VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY; Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich — by Duane Elgin. Voluntary Simplicity is about living with balance. “The objective of the simple life is not to dogmatically live with less but to live with balance in order to realize a life of greater purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction … In living more simply we encounter life more directly — in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we remove ourselves from direct and wholehearted participation in life that emptiness and boredom creep in … The hallmark of a balanced simplicity is that our lives become clearer, more direct, less pretentious, and less complicated. The vastness of who we are is honored.”
READING ZEN IN THE ROCKS; The Japenese Dry Landscape Garden — by Francois Berthier. Japanese rock gardens are designed to provide a place where one can step out of one’s daily routine and connect with a deeper and more abiding reality. In this classic essay, Berthier gives a visual and verbal guided tour of one such garden — the famous Ryoanji Temple garden of Kyoto. At the beginning of his essay, he quotes from Roger Caillois, suggesting the deeper benefit of taking time to contemplate in such a setting — “I speak of naked stones … in which there is both concealed and revealed a mystery that is slower, more vast, and heavier than the destiny of a transitory space.”
THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA — photography by Roland and Sabrina Michaud; text by Michel Jan. Taking time to pause not only refreshes — it connects one to a more timeless reality. The images in this book are images that reflect this reality, or in the words of Caillois (above) they reveal “a mystery that is slower, more vast, and heavier than … transitory space.” The Great Wall of China — a wondrous engineering feat rarely matched in the history of the world — stretches 1,500 miles along the whole length of China’s northern borders from the shores of the Pacific to the Gobi Desert in central Asia. It’s so prominent that astronauts say it is the only manmade structure they can see with the naked eye from space. In addition to text and 165 images portraying the wall as never seen before, there are paintings, sculptures, scrolls and calligraphy depicting life along the wall through the centuries. Taken together, they are a testament to the timelessness of the human spirit.
REMARKABLE TREES OF THE WORLD, by Thomas Pakenham. I included this book in a previous newsletter but I feel that one can never see too many trees — “remarkable“ or not. Trees are not only magnificent things to contemplate — connecting us to what is abiding in each of us — they also demonstrate by their very being, how to be in this world, how to endure. They do not rush around “doing” and “thinking”. They stand silently in one place, growing daily toward the light, and sinking their roots ever—more deeply into the soil they find themselves in. They are models of how both to pause and to grow.
These day-long retreats take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. Any one of them would be a meaningful way to step out of your busy life and mark the beginning of a new year. Consider giving one as a gift to someone you love, or consider giving one to yourself.