This article was first published in The Magical Times magazine in December 2013
The concept of balance is one that is central to the way in which Nature works. Day and Night, Male and Female, Summer and Winter, Life and Death: all reflect the fact that the best way to define an idea is often in relation to its opposite and that holding these opposites in equilibrium leads to balance and harmony.
It is often said that one of the major differences between our modern Western way of life and that of those indigenous societies that have not become detached from the rhythms of the Earth in quite the same way is our concept of time. The conventional way of visualising time in our culture (just try it!) is as a straight line, always progressing from past to future. Conversely, many tribal societies view time as moving in a circular fashion, living as they do in close contact with the changing of the seasons as the wheel of the year turns and with little concept of material advancement. The first concept of time reflects an obsession with the idea of progress that is absent from the second. Other thinkers have combined these two ways of viewing time into a third approach and express its passage as a spiral, which takes into account both the cyclical and progressive aspects of time passing.
No matter how we may conceptualise time on an intellectual level, there is no escaping the fact that living as we do on a group of islands that lie between 50 and 60 degrees north of the equator of a planet that is tilted some 23.5 degrees away from the vertical and is prone to wobble as it orbits the sun means that the length of the days varies very considerably between summer and winter.
This has been an undeniable fact of life in what we now call Britain since our ancestors first settled here many thousands of years ago. Having evolved in a part of the world where the length of the days hardly changes with the passing of the seasons, early humans had to make lifestyle changes to accompany the more obvious physiological adaptations to their slow migration northwards, such as the paler skins that enabled a more efficient synthesising of Vitamin D from sunlight.
Each year, once we pass the Autumn Equinox the nights begin to draw in as the days grow shorter. The first time that many people nowadays will really become aware of this is the last weekend in October when the clocks go back, accompanied every year by ritual grumbling and confusion over whether they go back or forwards and whether or not we get an extra hour in bed.
Our society has a problem with this onset of the dark part of the year. We do not like the fact that there is less light around for us to travel, work or play in and the long-running debate about the movement of the clocks reflects this. We do not like the fact that the shortening of the days is beyond our control and we want to have the long, light days of summer all through the year. As society has become more urbanised and we have become remote from the changing of the seasons then we have succeeded in almost turning night into day with streetlights, headlights and our incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes.
However, our current civilisation is such a brief few words (syllables even) in the long story of human history and evolution that our physical bodies have not yet caught up with what our progress-hungry brains want. We are hard wired to increase and decrease our levels of activity in response to the changes in the length of the days. When our ancestors could not be hunting or foraging as there was little food to be had, Nature let them conserve their energy by resting and sleeping more than in the summer months. When we attempt to live our busy lives at breakneck speed for 12 months in every year we are going against the natural rhythms of life that we have been programmed to respond to for millennia. It is no wonder that so many people succumb to SAD syndrome, the “winter blues” or suffer from one minor ailment after another all through the winter months. We need to slow down and reconnect.
As the trees and other perennial plants withdraw into themselves in order to wait out the cold time, we too feel the urge to do likewise. Many animals take this path as well and sleep through the winter in a state of hibernation that places the absolute minimum demands on their bodily systems consistent with actually staying alive. Of course, a large number of bird species opt out altogether and fly south to overwinter in gentler climes. Although we may be tempted by the prospect of either hibernation or flying south to avoid the winter chill, these are not viable options for the vast majority of us. There are pleasures to be found in wintertime – a brisk morning walk well wrapped-up on a crisp, clear morning or lighting the fire and snuggling up on the sofa on a dark evening – and we are more likely to be able to find and embrace these if we learn to accept the changing of the seasons as a natural, vital and inevitable part of Nature’s way rather than an inconvenience to be battled and overcome. Winter follows summer as surely as day is followed by night and life is followed by death.
This is very much a time of dying. But, as the wisdom of native traditions tells us, that is all part of the nature of existence. If there is no death in the autumn, there can be no rebirth in the spring and no hope for the future. The nature of existence is circular and birth and death, summer and winter, night and day are all points on the same circular path.
Death is the final frontier of human exploration and one that we approach with fear and trepidation. To know and to transcend death has been the objective of mystics and seekers throughout the ages. Whilst we may not be able to do this, to contemplate and to meditate upon death during the dark time of the year is a worthwhile spiritual exercise. To descend in our mind’s eye into the darkness, to be plunged into the cauldron of beginnings and emerge reborn with the experience of the sheer potential of the darkness enables us to fully appreciate the light of inspiration. To experience this divine light, the Awen of the Celtic tradition that is often obscured by the brightness of the summer sun, is certainly to transcend the living death to which the modern world can so easily condemn us. In the darkness, all things are real and everything is possible. It is only in the daylight that our vision is narrowed to that which our eyes can perceive.
To fully understand and appreciate the light, we need to experience the darkness and how different the world looks when viewed through a dark lens. This can be compared to walking through the forest at night: when the sun goes down our eyes, which had relied on the sunlight to see the path, struggle to provide our brains with the information we need and we stumble and trip in the twilight. We slow our pace as we struggle to discern what lies ahead. After a while, our vision adjusts to the darkness and we begin to see the world around us in a different way. The faintest glimmer of moonlight casts shadows from the trees and rocks and reflects brightly off streams and puddles. Our other senses become heightened and we hear and smell things that we would probably never notice in the full light of day. However, it is not the forest that has changed, but the way in which we perceive it, and that is an important lesson to learn if we are to endeavour to live in a way that keep these opposites in balance.
So this winter season, embrace the darkness, immerse yourself in it and learn the lessons it has to teach you. If, like most people today, you do not work on the land or in an occupation that is naturally curtailed by the shorter days, make an effort to slow your level of activity and withdraw a little into yourself. Consider the plants who have taken the energy from the summer sunshine and stored it and now lie dormant ready to burst into life again in the spring. No plant can blossom all year round: they do not have the energy reserves to do so and neither do we. For the sake of our physical and spiritual wellbeing we need to heed the pulse of the Earth as it slows for a while before quickening again as the light returns after the Winter Solstice and life begins anew.