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December 10, 2012

The Winter (December) Solstice occurs once a year when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the Sun. Depending on the Gregorian (modern Western) calendar this can happen anytime between December 20th and December 23rd. On this date, everywhere on Earth above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north (Arctic Polar Circle) enters total darkness, while everywhere below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (Antarctic Polar Circle) receives 24 hours of daylight.

This year the Winter Solstice falls on friday December 21st. It is the shortest day and therefore the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This is a time for reflection and rebirth, the turning point of the year as the Sun begins to grow stronger in the sky and the days become longer again. The burning oil of Chanukah and the evergreen tree of Christmas are both echoes of the traditional understanding that although the Earth and her inhabitants ‘go to sleep’ during the winter months, the seeds of growth, light and renewal are already present and waiting to emerge in Spring.

Everything experiences change, death and re-birth. The wisdom traditions instruct us to observe the pulses, rhythms and cycles of the body in order to connect with this reality in ourselves. It is taught that just as the planets of the solar system spin and revolve around the Sun, so it is that all movements of the mind and body revolve around the heart. Within the heart we can find the centre of our consciousness and our essential nature.

We need to employ skillful method and understanding in order to unfold the wisdom that everything is inherently a single, unified field. The heart is at the centre of this method – the development of compassion, the understanding that everyone wishes to be free of suffering and that everyone’s journey is therefore essentially the same underneath the complexity of the surface theatre of life.

The development of compassion requires presence – the ability to observe our experience. This means to notice the thoughts and emotions that rise and fall within us, to listen to the sounds around and within us, to become aware of the pulses, rhythms and cycles of the body.

This is a skill that can be practised and developed. Presence is a quality of inner stillness that receives life experience without prejudice or reaction. If you process the world through your intellect alone you will quickly enter the world of analysis, differentiation and separation. This is useful for navigating daily life but it will not bring you to yourself, to a state of connection that allows a deep knowing that I am always ok regardless of the difficulties and challenges of life.

This knowing comes about through the heart. All of the wisdom teachings state that the heart is the centre of consciousness and not the brain. The heart receives without judgement and, if allowed, will communicate with the brain and help it to respond with discernment rather than react with habit. A state of heart coherence radiates out through all systems of the body and mind to create a transformed person.

To have presence is to experience life through the heart, to understand that everything has a time to be born, a time to grow and a time to die, to observe that thought and deed create consequences which create further thought and deed, and that we therefore need to show care with both. To live through the heart is neither poetry nor metaphor, it is a living centre of compassion and intelligence that can allow access to a deeper reality.

In his book “Happiness” {pub. Atlantic, 2007} the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard observes that:

“Happiness is not an endless succession of pleasurable experiences. That’s a recipe for exhaustion, not for happiness. Happiness is a way of being that comes with altruistic love, inner strength, inner freedom, and serenity – and it can be cultivated as a skill, day after day, month after month. In recent years, the collaboration of contemplatives with neuroscientists has shown that, thanks to the brain’s plasticity, we can train our mind to become more compassionate, more mindful and to achieve greater inner peace, just as someone who trains to play the piano or learn how to read and write. Any training changes the brain and this is true for training the basic qualities of our minds that altogether constitute genuine happiness.”

As Ricard mentions, we are all challenged to balance many different issues: the short term concerns of our daily survival and activity within a society that is speeding up; the mid term concerns surrounding our development and quality of life; and the long term concerns surrounding our individual, communal and global well-being. All the wisdom teachings state that this balance can only be achieved when we align ourselves with a compassionate approach to life and develop wise action in the world.

As we move firmly into the 21st Century we now have the opportunity to take a wise approach – to establish structures and technologies that will enhance our survival skills, encourage compassionate creativity and support the development of a healthy society that will allow the emergence of profound well-being. The wisdom traditions require us to build a strong platform for a deep enquiry into ourselves and this includes an understanding of nutrition, posture, breathing, sleep, exercise, work, rest, play, culture, ethics, relationships, community and meditative practice. Each of these are complex areas which must be explored and balanced according to individual needs so that we can begin to release anger, delusion and ignorance.

Dr. Dean Ornish is president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF – The University of California, San Francisco. In his book “The Spectrum” {pub. Ballantine 2008}, he reveals clinical research proving that heart disease and early-stage prostate cancer may be stopped or even reversed by a set of comprehensive lifestyle changes, without any need for drugs or surgery. He shows that a change of lifestyle over a three month period actually alters gene activity in patients suffering from prostate cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. The suggestion is that as many as 500 different genes can be affected positively by a balanced mind and lifestyle – they can literally be ‘turned on or off’. This is one example of the transformation that occurs with an integrative life practice.

More than 2,000 years ago the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel stated the universal, integrative wisdom: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” Along with the ‘Golden Rule’ of treating others as oneself, this remains as one of the most succinct formulations of the ethic of reciprocity and the path of presence.

Ultimately it is your own presence that will stabilise your experience, develop wise action and bring you to yourself.

“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.” – Eckhart Tolle

I send you all Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year.

Spencer Joseph

  1. Rachel Smith permalink

    Wonderful post Spencer.

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