You can look at the winter solstice in two ways. One, that it is the darkest day of the year (which might seem a little depressing); or, two (and this is the way my mom liked to think of it), that it is the return of the light. She actually threw winter solstice parties, as have pagans since god knows when. This ritual of celebrating light in the darkest time of year was appropriated by Christianity, which is why Christmas happens when it does, to line up with all the other festivities already in progress—never mind that Jesus is said to have been born in the summer.
I’ve always been interested in these two perspectives as a single unit: The winter solstice is both the darkest day and the return of the light. Or, to put it another way, it is when things are at their darkest that the light is about to return. Beyond the solstice, there are numerous examples of this cyclical nature of existence. Consider, for instance, midnight—how it is in the deepest part of night that the new day begins.
Thinking about the solstice in this way reminds me of what my mom used to tell me about her yoga practice. She’d been taught to focus on the space between the end of one breath and the beginning of the next, to rest in this moment and let it expand. She explained that this still point was the true present, the great, sweet darkness out of which everything is born and to which everything returns.
Interestingly, this idea of stillness exists in the word solstice itself, which comes from the Latin solstitium, or “sun standing still.” At the moment of the solstice—the solstice is actually a moment, not a day—the sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn before it reverses direction and goes back the other way.
What’s going on here astronomically might not be what you’d expect. For instance, the solstice isn’t the darkest day because our planet is now farthest from the sun—compared to the rest of the year, we’re pretty close. Rather, it has to do with the position of the earth’s axis relative to our journey around the sun. Right now the northern hemisphere is simply tilting away, so it gets less light. (The southern hemisphere, on the other hand, is tilting towards the sun, which is why for them this day is the longest).
Anyway, start getting too scientific about the whole thing and, for me at least, it loses its romance—the simple notion that out of this wonderfully still, midnight moment, the days begin to get longer and brighter, and life begins anew.
This element of the solstice also reminds me of my own initial meditation practice, counting the breath: one on the in-breath, two on the out-breath, and so on, up to ten, and then back again to one. Of course, generally, you don’t get to ten (and that’s OK), because when you lose count or you realize that you’ve been thinking about pancakes for a few minutes, the instruction is to just start the count over again. Luckily, the point isn’t about getting to ten (if you somehow manage to make it there, you’re just going back to one anyway). And while part of it is about strengthening concentration and awareness, what the practice is really about—for me, at least—is simply going back to one: noticing yourself drifting off into one dream or the next, smiling compassionately at your ridiculously busy mind and all its madness, and returning yourself gently to your breath, to your body, to your posture, to the number one.
And that’s what this time of year is. It is the world going back to one, and reminding us that we too can do the same. It’s a chance for us to let everything go, and begin again—and not just on December 21st or January 1st, but on any given day, in any given moment.
Or perhaps, in every given moment. Because ideally, starting over would be a near-constant practice that is applied not only to your time on the cushion, but also to your whole life—coming back again and again to that original still point and resting there, bathing in its dark waters and washing ourselves clean and new. And not just reaching this place, but somehow remaining there and never straying too far—so that when you do start to drift off, you immediately return to yourself, to the moment, to ground zero, to one, waking yourself up and starting over, over and over, again and again and again . . . which, quite frankly, sounds exhausting.
This state of perpetual presence and renewal may be something I aspire to, but it’s far from how I exist—in fact, it’s not even close. I am lucky if I spend even two minutes truly awake during a 30-minute meditation session, much less in this 24-hour period we refer to as a day. I try not to beat myself up about it too much though, as it’s perfectly natural for the mind to get lost. The only question is: lost for how long? Because these wanderings can be short lived—oh, I’m thinking about pancakes again—or they can lead you away for days, months, years, lifetimes on end, down dark alleyways of delusion where you become so lost you don’t even know it anymore. And then all of a sudden there you are, utterly convinced you are missing something crucial—that you are broken—when the truth, now long forgotten, is that all this time you’ve been complete. How do you return from this kind of wandering? How do you get back to one from 41,278,924?
This is why something like the solstice can theoretically be so helpful. From the macro to the micro, life seems to suggest that renewal is not only possible but also the great way of all things. In the spring, there is spring—the whole world reborn. (Shouldn’t we be able to be reborn, too?) Yes, life moves in circles, goes through cycles, regenerates, starts over. Every 24 hours the sky goes dark and night comes and we sleep and the next morning sunshine pours in and we are given another chance to begin anew.
Actually, according to Dogen Zenji, the 12th-century founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, reality is created and destroyed 6,400,099,980 times a day, or around 70,000 times a second. Modern science agrees with this ancient wisdom. The Higgs boson, or “God particle,” which is considered the building block of the universe, lasts only a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second—taking tiny ferociously fast loops into and out of existence—so that the universe is continuously being reborn. This is a forgotten aspect of the nature of impermanence. Everything changes, everything passes, yes, but this also means that life is in a near constant state of refreshing itself, and in so doing, suggesting that we can do the same. Yes, we are offered beginning after beginning, the moment at hand forever a truly clean slate to do with as we please.
Or so it seems. Because even if it’s a new year, a new day, it’s the same old life—every fresh moment laden with all the old tired ones, heavy with all that history and hurt. Sure, each new moment has never happened before and will never happen again, but it doesn’t feel that way, not really, not at all. Instead, the residue of the past lingers on. We awaken in the morning and it seems more yesterday than today, like the same shit’s gonna happen, yet again—and chances are, it probably will. (And it’s sort of discouraging—life providing all these examples everywhere of its easy, endless renewal, and yet here you are, 41 years young and already feeling like an old, old man.)
When you begin to have hopeless thoughts like every day’s the same and nothing’s ever going to change, that’s when it’s probably a good idea to start over again.
How do you do this?
Beyond counting the breath, there are all sorts of other simple things that can help wake us up and give us a fresh start: a cold swim in the sea, a hot bath, getting a haircut, putting on a new pair of socks, giving an old pair of shoes a fresh shine, having a good laugh, having a good cry, a first snow, a fine spring day, getting caught in a summer thunderstorm, brushing your teeth, making your bed, seeing something beautiful, falling in love . . .
And then of course there’s the solstice and New Year’s—natural beginnings that we have traditionally marked as occasions to inspire our own renewal. But maybe the real truth is that we shouldn’t be stressing so much about this idea of starting over. After all, the great origin—ground zero, one—is never far. It accompanies us always, a present moment of stillness that is the very path we are walking, whether we realize it or not.
We can never really be lost, no matter how far we wander.
This is why there’s something kind of dangerous in thinking that we need to start over—as implicit in that thought is the notion that we have gone astray, that something is wrong with us and needs to be fixed: that old, sad, self-help delusion. Or, to put it another way, to be too focused on getting back to one is to miss the point that one is right here.
And I guess it’s good to have these instances of renewal like the solstice to remind us that we too can begin again, or perhaps to remind us that we are perpetually already beginning again. Still, it can feel like an awful lot of pressure sometimes, the whole New Year’s thing—the idea that all of a sudden you’re somehow supposed to be able to start fresh, become a brand new, happy, healthy person, and so on—which is why it’s probably best not to take any of this stuff too seriously. In fact, if anything, the return of the light should remind us to take things—life, politics, our perfectly imperfect selves—lightly. After all, wherever we are, however we feel, that’s exactly where we need to be. Or, as the great haiku master Issa puts it:
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.