"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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.