This article may be well-timed or slightly out of synch, depending on the time of year you read it. Perhaps because you or another chose the article, one of the two solstices that occur each year, everywhere in the world, is approaching or has arrived.
In either case, if you are interested in the solstices, I would encourage you to not just think and talk about them, but to actively participate in the solstices as well. By this, I mean for you to explore the emotions the solstices bring when they come to us, and when we come to them. I would even encourage you to use the solstices as opportunities for expression and celebration of your life and health, each time they arrive.
If my call to expression and celebration at the solstices was unexpected and has caught you by surprise, I’ll explain my thinking. Solstice rituals have fallen out of favor, after all, or have changed dramatically from their original shape. Often, in fact, it is not new expression and celebration we need, but new forms and focuses for celebrations already around us.
Many people no longer think of the solstices as important milestones in the year and do not see the rhythm of the sun as an inextricable part of the rhythm of nature and human life. As we’ve become increasingly estranged from nature – in our climate-controlled, always on and online, 24/7 world – we find it increasingly easy to overlook or pay little attention to the sun, including its ancient rhythm and solstices. But the sun is more important than we may realize. The sun’s life is integral to our life, and its rhythms to our own.
From the new human world and confines of virtual life, we almost inevitably fail to recognize that the solstices are auspicious, poignant times of the year. That the solstices are obvious and natural points for human ritual and celebration, even for individual and community renewal and thanksgiving in our common life on earth. So we generally fail to attend to the solstices as we should, or mark them in odd, unhealthy, and superficial ways, none in keeping with nature and natural human life, the two very different moods of the solstices, and the dramatic stopping of sun that takes place at each solstice.
The original meaning of the word solstice is, in fact, the stopping of the sun, either in its slow decent toward the equator in the fall or in its ascent toward the pole in the spring. This stopping of the sun occurs twice each year, on or about December twenty-first and June twenty-first. Depending on the hemisphere you live in, these dates are the winter and summer solstices, or the reverse.
If there were no solstices, if the sun did not stop twice each year as it does, presumably our sun would continue on its path downward or upward in the sky and eventually leave the day in darkness or make a night of ever constant light. Certain ancient people seemed have had real concern that a flight of the sun from the sky might actually happen and devised rituals around each solstice to help the sun come to rest, to solstice, and to turn back in its natural path.
As strange and antiquated as this may sound to us today, most ancient people at least monitored the sun closely, presumably including for signs of deviation, and most celebrated at its twice-yearly stopping. It is a curious frame of mind that we really cannot fully appreciate today, especially as we pay less and less attention to the natural world and forget what ancient life must have been like, which was inevitably under the sun. In earlier times, people hunted and farmed and migrated with the sun. Life was framed by the sun and its movements, and the sun even gave human life a reverent quality. The sun was a seeming sign of our importance and favored status in the great and otherwise impenetrable mystery of the cosmos.
Modern people know the sun will stop, of course, and have evolved to live beyond these irrational fears. And yet these ancient rituals live on, however transfigured they may be from their original form, and from their original goal of stopping the sun or rejoicing in its stopping. I assume you have been to a New Year or Midsummer festival at some point, and understand that these are a remnant, however faded and threadbare, of these earlier rituals of sun-stopping and of human rejoicing in the this stopping of our sun .
In our newer, scientific knowledge that the sun will stop, regardless of what rituals we hold and when we hold them, modern people dismiss or pay little mind to each solstice. We think little or ambivalently of them, and thereby we miss two natural occasions for celebration and deeper connection to nature and our natural health each year. As moderns, or perhaps only as post-moderns, we have a new opportunity to use the solstices in ritual and celebration of human life in nature. We can stop with the sun and celebrate our health and the vitality of our lives, free of fear and uneasiness, and free of indifference, toward our ever moving sun in our ever mysterious universe.
Though we now correctly know we cannot control or influence the sun, we are apt to make the opposite mistake and incorrectly conclude that the sun no longer controls or influences us, that we are independent of it. We commit a new and equally important error in doing this. As a consequence of this modern error, we become indifferent to our sun and its true nature and to our nature generally, to the reality that there is a giant star dwelling in our midst, a star that is the source of our lives. We often instead settle for the less than sublime and incomplete conclusion that the sun is an inanimate object, a ball of fusing gas perhaps, comprehensible and categorized – even as it remains, in truth and as it is experienced, incomprehensible and beyond all human category and description.
In adopting a modern and superficial view of the sun, intentionally or not, we lose an essential human quality and part of our natural human connection to the world. We lose our ability to experience awe and reverence in and for the world, for our sun, and for ourselves, all ancient parts of our humanity and still requirements for wisdom and true emotional health today. If work to we re-awaken our capacity for emotion toward and spirituality in the natural world, we learn the truth of this earlier blindness. The world is remade for us and experienced in new and deeper ways. The sun and the cosmos return to us with unexpected mystery and complexity.
Once nature regained in this way, it is an easier step to again see the sun as a magical entity, as it once was viewed, rather than as an inanimate one, even if it is no longer tenable to us as a personified entity as it once was. In truth, our sun and nature are larger than both our ancient and modern views. However imperfect, our ancient perspective holds a compelling and important counterpoint to the hasty, artificial, and unbalanced outlook of the modern mind. The ancient view contains a truth and begs us to synthesize it with the modern outlook and the truth of science, in a new outlook on and opening to life in nature.
If the sun is tenable to moderns as a ball of gas, it is only so to the extent we forget that this ball of fusing gas is magically aglow under its own enormous size and weight, ten thousand times the volume of our earth and many billions that of our individual lives. And thus, it is godlike. And the sun it not just godlike in its enormity, it is mysterious and inexplicable too, like an ancient god, today and at the end of all science and inquiry. Our sun’s origin, and thus ours, is as uncertain as the universe’s origin and ultimate beginning. In this mystery, this uncertainty, the sun is again ancient, the creator and sustainer of life on earth, and of each of us. And its perennial rhythms become again the rhythms of our world, of earth and water and sky. The sun’s rhythms become our perennial rhythms too, even if many today fail to see them as such and even if they know that our sun, one day, will stop in an absolute and final solstice.
If you spend a good deal of time outdoors, you likely feel the influence of the sun very strongly, in a way that all people once did but that many people no longer do. You know that we all dwell inescapably in its rhythm of light, heat, wind, weather, and emotion throughout the year, all a consequence of the giant star at our center and the slightly tilted axis of our little planet moving around it.
You know this rhythm of our sun is a part of you as much as you are a part of it. You know that the changing light and seasons are a song of many voices, a dance of many movements, and not a single thing. The sun affects us and the environment around us in ways we see plainly and yet can never understand fully. You know too that the solstices are the apogees of this great song of light and dance of darkness, this long progression of life and death, and of rebirth.
Wherever you are, I call you out into nature in celebration at the next solstice. I call you out of virtual reality to rejoice in natural reality, today, even if the solstice is a time away. I call you out of doors and away from windows, out into nature and the changing light, out beneath the giant sun, changing and unchanging, stopping and never stopping, the source of the rhythm and flow of life all around you.
If the next solstice marks the coming winter where you are, seize the last remnants of summer in the air, before the autumn is gone and summer has become memory only. Extend yourself, your body and spirit, in an outstretching of renewal at the winter solstice, in an outstretching to the promise of spring, to the promise of new life that lies past autumn’s end and dwells in every living heart. Stretch out, I say, today and into the tomorrow.
If the coming solstice is the dawn of summer where you are, instead of outstretching, I call you into circles. Dance around in summer’s promise, arms about you and holding those around you. Celebrate and sing high of summer’s high return. Dance in the height of the year and with the height of the sun in your limbs. Celebrate with open hearts and feeling for new joy. Rejoice with the final uplifting of spring in your step and with the warmth of coming summer days and nights in your eyes.
Dance, with the hope and kindness that is our highest human nature, at the height of the year, with nature’s song of life filling our ears, its rhythms perpetually formed and reformed by the radiant, everlasting star, magically aglow at our center.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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