Winter Solstice

by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen

"The winter solstice is the longest night of the year and a turning point, after which each day thereafter will become imperceptibly a little longer. It celebrates the returning of the light and the deepest reaches of darkness. I remember the winter solstice that I stayed awake the whole night long with people who were mostly strangers and yet as we went around the circle and each person spoke, we recognized kindred souls. It was an inner time of winter solstice, especially for the man in whose honor we had been invited to come. He was ill, and some close friends feared that he had given up. They hoped that this night could be a turning point for his spirit. Outside, it was a dark, cold, moonless night. We were at a ranch in the foothills of Northern California in a round, tall-ceilinged building, lit only by candles. During the night, each of us went out alone to take a turn feeding and tending a large, intense fire whose coals would later be raked into a firewalk. Standing watch by the fire invited thoughts and prayers. I think that we each must have wondered if we had enough faith and courage and what it might mean if we did or did not walk across those glowing coals when the time came.

Each person in the circle seemed to be at a transition point in his or her life, and some felt that they were going through the dark night of the soul--which is hardly ever appreciated as the transition it usually is. Individually acknowledged were the symbolic deaths--of former selves, work and relationships. These are the transitions when we are in-the-dark, when old assumptions have died and are no more, and we don’t know what will happen next. This is when people seek therapy and since this is the work I do, I often see people for the first time when they are in a winter solstice phase.

While the night of the winter solstice is always over at dawn, we don’t know how long we will remain in a winter solstice phase, and many fear while in the midst of it that there will no light at the end of their tunnel and that dawn will never come. When help is sought, that very act is an expression of helplessness and hopefulness; an admission that we can’t get through this on our own and hope that with help, we shall. Often this is the turning point.

I think of the elements that came together that night at the ranch as metaphors and examples of what is needed. The round room was a physical container that separated us from ordinary life, and being in a circle of people where it was safe to "tell it as it is" was another container that held what was said within. We were in a temenos, which is a Greek word for "sanctuary". No container formed by two or more human beings is perfect, but those in which soul work is done are sacred sites. It is where something greater than persona or ego is welcomed. In Jungian work, the central archetype is the Self or archetype of meaning, and the task of individuation is to find and maintain a connection to the Self. Then life has meaning and authenticity, and there is a sacred dimension to how we live and what we do. The symbol for the Self is the mandala, a circle with a center. The circle of strangers who met on a winter solstice unintentionally enacted this symbol by placing a candle at the center. It is the underlying invisible shape of recovery groups that call upon higher power, and the spiritual form taken by women’s spirituality circles and support groups of all kinds that have a spiritual center. A circle with a spiritual center makes meeting together a sanctuary for its members, a time that nourishes the soul.

In the midst of a winter solstice phase, help does come through relationships, but there is also a deep need for solitude to know what matters to the soul, and wonder if we have the faith and courage to do whatever we must do. To go outside the safe circle of supportive others, into the cold night and face the possibility of going through the fire. Major life transitions, especially when others do not understand us or want us to behave differently, call upon us to do this.

Our friend who was dying did not chose to do the firewalk and he was at peace about it. When it had been my turn to tend the fire, I thought that I would not do the firewalk. Several months before, I had done a firewalk as a symbolic act and had learned that there was a physical reality to walking over hot coals. A few "sticky" coals had clung to my feet and I had had some painful blisters to show for my hubris. I was not feeling heroic anymore. The transition I was in was of my own doing, and now I could not see where I was going. Yet at a soul level, there was something that felt right about being where I was.

When the time came for the firewalk, I felt content to watch others and lend support by my presence and prayers. The heat that radiated from the hot bed of coals was so intense that it was impossible to stand too close. One at a time, many made the walk, and then to my own surprise, it was my turn. It must have been a body-soul decision; it certainly was not made by my head, and willing myself to do it played no part. This time, there was no sensation of heat at all, the glowing coals under my bare feet could have been crunchy Styrofoam peanuts.

When morning came, ordinary reality was back. Nothing had changed overnight in "real life." It was very much like awakening from a powerful dream that would stay with me and contribute to a perspective I have about life. I know that there will always be winter solstices to go through, times when we are in the dark and in transition, and if we look around at everyone else we know well, we realize this is so for them, too. Everyone has his or her share of descents into the darkness; suffering is part of what we encounter by being human, and sometimes what we seem to bring on ourselves as well. Yet if we are spiritual beings on a human path rather than human beings who may be on a spiritual path (which is how I word what my soul knows), there must be a reason for an immortal soul to become a vulnerable, limited human being. Might there be value to be found in the dark as there is in dreams? Both are sources of soul knowledge, and after many cycles we do learn that dawn always comes.

A short time after the winter solstice, our friend made the last transition from this world into the next. As for my unplanned firewalk in which my feet and soul made the decision: this was the beginning of a phase of my life in which I learned to trust my body-soul perceptions. I learned, for example, that to know something in my heart was not a poetic metaphor, it was a sensation I felt in the center of my chest. When it comes time for me to make my final transition. I will not be surprised if my feet and heart know when. Nor will I be surprised, if there is light on the other side and insight into what we came to do here."

This is a reprint of an article Dr. Bolen wrote in 2000 for Gary Zukav's site.