The Winter Darkness: An Opportune Time for Opening Oneself

“Pardon me,” the stranger responded gently, “But in order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period, well, say, a thousand years, but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow? And in fact,” here the stranger turned to Berlioz, “imagine that you, for instance, start governing, giving orders to others and yourself, generally, so to speak, acquire a taste for it, and suddenly you get …hem … hem … lung cancer …” Here the foreigner smiled sweetly, as if the thought of lung cancer gave him pleasure, “yes, cancer,” narrowing his eyes like a cat, he repeated the sonorous word, “and so your governing is over! You are no longer interested in anyone’s fate but your own.”

This delightful quotation comes direct from the Devil, himself (the stranger), as imagined by Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita. It is a powerful reminder to the environmental community not only of the need for a modest (i.e. “ridiculously short”) sustainability transition plan (of say 1,000 years) but the difficulty of this. People’s priorities change in a moment, in a prognosis, in a quick electric shock of pain that reorients their whole reality.

Sparks in the Darkness

Last week was solstice. And, being in the northern hemisphere, more specifically winter solstice. Coinciding with solstice this year, I had a two-week anniversary of a difficult and ongoing back spasm—specifically of the Psoas, that big ol’ muscle that connects from your low back to your hip bone, making up the back wall of your gut cavity. I suffer from spasms sometimes. But this one has felt more threatening. Partly because it refuses to resolve even with a couple of osteopathic manipulations. Partly because it spasms even when I roll over while sleeping, shocking me awake. Partly because it’s been long enough since my last one that I forgot how encompassing they are. And partly, I realize, because I’ve grown to love karate so much that even two, now going on three, weeks not practicing has been miserable (as is the worry of when, if ever, I will be able to get back).

Sometimes, it only takes the smallest spark. (Image from freestocks-photos via Pixabay)

But I guess if a spasm was going to happen, this was a good time for it, for at least I can apply the lessons of winter solstice to my pain.

And what are those lessons? The first comes from Beth Norcross, founder of the Center for Spirituality in Nature, who in a video sermon on solstice day noted that during the winter darkness there is “a void that happens with the growing darkness, an emptying, what spiritual leaders call kenosis.” And “in that emptiness…it opens up complete freedom for us to invite the spirit in.”

I wasn’t familiar with the term kenosis, but it comes from Christianity, and refers to Jesus’ emptying of himself to become open to God’s will.1 What does that mean? The suppression of one’s ego and expectations. And acceptance. Acceptance of anything that is coming. For Jesus, that was acceptance that he would be used up, destroyed. Acceptance that there would be pain.2 At a far smaller scale, for me this has meant acceptance of my pain and this new normal. It is the moments of perceived loss—my son sitting on my lap, the freedom to move, to practice kata and play fight with my son—that makes this hard, even more than the stiffness and bodily hesitancy.

But as Norcross notes, “While we rest here [in the dark], we might open ourselves to what might be being offered to us in the void, in the emptiness.” I am being offered a reminder of my, and all of our, fragility. Of how difficult it has been for those with far more pain than I endure: from COVID to cancer to dislocation from climate disaster.3 Of how easily governing—of oneself or the collective—can be derailed by misfortune, whether pain, illness, or worse, the illness or loss of loved ones.

Without darkness, can there be light? (Image from klickblick via Pixabay)

Stepping into Eternal Time

The second lesson comes from Krista Tippett, of On Being, who hosted an online gathering on solstice. She started by talking about Chronos and Kairos time. The first is chronological or sequential time—that is to say, our normal linear way of moving through life: acting in the present, too often dwelling on the past, and worrying about the future. But Kairos time is “opportune time” and has an eternal quality.4

At one point Tippett brought in a guest, Christine Runyan, a psychologist who she interviewed a year into COVID to discuss the psychological and somatic effects of a year’s worth of uncertainty and worry, of social distancing and fear of others (and even ourselves, as a vector that could sicken loved ones).

As Tippett noted, it’s our living in Chronos time—e.g. our worrying about things in the future—that take root in our bodies (via stress hormones, body-tightening, etc.), and she shared how as she was driving to this event, listening to the spread of the Omicron variant on the news, she could feel all that stress going straight into her body.

I realized too this was happening with me (I’m always worrying about the future), but especially now in my restricted state. What if this pain doesn’t go away? What if I can never do karate again? What if? What if? What if…? I found myself tightening up my body to defend it from additional spasms, probably heightening the spasms in the process. In her original interview, Runyan described this as part of the fight/flight/freeze mechanism, adaptive generally, but not when it is sustained. And she relayed a Buddhist story about the Second Arrow:

Why light a second candle (or a third or fourth), when one is enough? (Image from Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay)

The Buddha asks: ‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?’

He then went on to explain, ‘In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.’5

As Runyan detailed, it’s the worrying about the pain, the future limitations, and so on that makes illness and injury far worse—and much of that is self-inflicted. Instead, by recognizing all that our bodies do, give to us, and with our minimal (if any) oversight, instead we should give thanks and offer compassion and gratitude to our bodies.

Runyan ended her solstice participation with a body-awareness exercise where participants drew attention to tight areas of their bodies and mentally hugged them, bathing them in compassion. In that moment, I could feel my back and gave it a hug, and it helped. It helped pull the second arrow from my body and place it back in the quiver.

So the theme of this solstice was to let go, to calm my autonomic nervous system, to be empty, to open myself to external will, and recognize at a bodily level, not just at an intellectual one, that there is far less control than we think, if any (as Runyan discusses here). Not easy lessons, but as the world spirals out of control—from long COVID (i.e. a non-ending COVID pandemic), the climate unraveling (which will play out over even longer and more painful time frames), and all the other spasms of an imbalanced social and planetary body—essential ones.

An Opportune Moment for Gaian Kenosis

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best is now.6

A deeper point I’m trying to get to, through imperfect Chronos writing, is to wonder whether we can empty ourselves and open ourselves to Gaia’s will.7 Yes, ideally we would have done that 20 years ago, or 20 years before that, but we didn’t. So the next best time is now. (Though in Kairos time, the best time is always now.) Can we yield our egos and our expectations of the future to what ecological realities and justice demand (justice between peoples, between generations, between species)? And even if we do not know how to do this, can we simply open ourselves to this? And live in the present with this?

Tippett ended her solstice discussion with a quotation from the poet Ranier Maria Rilke, about living with questions:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

When there are no answers, it is okay to just live with the questions. There may truly be no answer any longer of how we go about transitioning to a sustainable future, but we can sit with this question. We can open ourselves to being tools of aspects of the answer, however they manifest in our lives.8 And every once in a while, when the opportunity presents itself, we can take a step back, slow down, reassess or let go of our expectations and see what instead may come and fill that void.  

Endnotes

1) This could refer to Jesus’ entire ministry, (see Phillipians, Chapter 2) but in particular are most profound in the last moments of Jesus’ life, when he yields to his fate of execution.

2) Bulgakov paints the final hours of Jesus beautifully in his masterpiece. 

3) I remember specifically seeing pictures of flooding in the Philippines and thinking, so your back hurts, shut the hell up. But thinking about Runyan’s words, is there not space for compassion for all suffering, including lesser in scope but still painful? And in a Stoic understanding, recognizing others are suffering more greatly than you helps you to recognize that your suffering is less terrible than it may feel.

4) There is so much more to say on this rich concept, including comparisons with the Taoist understanding of Wu Wei. Perhaps another time.

5) This short version is from Mindfulness in Daily Life.

6) This is often attributed to a Chinese Proverb.

7) And more broadly recognizing that emptying ourselves of ego means we create space for Gaia, which we are part of and can manifest in each of us—perhaps what Hindus perhaps see as Atman, or Christians see as the Holy Spirit.

8) And if you are open, they can manifest in many ways: from lifestyle changes to activism, from an ecospiritual practice to running for office. And everything in between.

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  1. Stefanie

    As my spouse has chronic back problems and MS, I am familiar with your frustrations. I hope the spasm stops soon! As a person who is an obsessive planner, I have realized it is all about control for me. A dear friend of mine always chooses a word of intent for the year and last year I started doing it too and very much liked it. My new word came to light on the Solstice: not-knowing. It is perfect and terrifying, but also freeing, to begin working on being ok with not knowing and see what unfolds.A small step towards living the questions as Rilke so beautifully puts it.

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