One morning last week, as the darkness unfurled into first light and the night’s dreams still lingered at the edges of psyche, my younger son asked, “Why are there Christmas decorations in the stores already?”
Without thinking I responded, “Because people are afraid of the sadness and darkness that arise this time of year so they focus on the next holiday and the season of lights.”
“Why does this time of year make people sad? I don’t feel sad!”
A lover of winter and snow, our younger son celebrates the change of seasons. But as the minutes of light decrease daily I can see the melancholy descend on the other members of our household, as well as in many of my clients. As the twilight hour approaches, I sometimes see the loss embodied on my older son’s face, as if a cloud has crossed over his normally sunny disposition. When I see this, I put my arms around him, put my hands on his heart, and say, “Let’s breathe into the loss, sweetheart. Let’s take a moment to breathe it in.”
I’m always aware of the loss of light and turning of the seasons, but this year I’ve been particularly aware of the layers and nuances of feelings that arise during the twilight hour. One evening a few weeks ago I found my way to the Jewish prayer for evening, called the “Maariv Aravim”, and decided to memorize it. In my courses I discuss turning to poetry and prayers as powerful ways to change the channel in our minds so that instead of perseverating on the lower vibration of a fear-based thought we focus on a poem or prayer, which, because it emanates from higher mind, helps us tap into a higher vibration. Sometimes our minds just need something to do, and memorizing a poem or prayer circumvents the default tendency for our minds to chew on a worry and instead trains it to savor and turn around a piece of art.
Poetry and prayers are closely linked as they both arrive from a source beyond conscious mind, a source that, when we listen, can both transport us into a higher realm and remind us of what is most deeply human. The imagery in this evening prayer is particularly beautiful. Here are a few lines:
Holy one of blessing your presence fills creation,
by whose word the evening falls.
In wisdom you open the heavenly gates,
thoughtfully altering time and changing the seasons,
and arranging the stars in their heavenly courses.
You are creator of day and night
rolling night away from darkness
and darkness away from light.
When I say the prayer with presence, my soul opens instead of contracts through twilight, and I remember that prayer, ritual, and breath are totems that carry us across the thresholds of transitions. These are ancient technologies, as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi refers to them, that were created in wisdom to help humans manage these vulnerable breaking points so that, instead of falling into a pit of sadness, we can rise into a higher consciousness and connect to our version of God (whatever that is for you). Prayers are an amulet that can transform the emptiness into fullness; worry into faith; sadness into joy.
Our mainstream culture offers other technologies, which are really just ways to distract from the feelings of grief, loss, longing, and vulnerability that can be more pronounced this time of year. Our culture pushes consumption, eating, and socializing to an extreme throughout the year, but never are these methods of distraction more in our faces than during the holiday season (which apparently has already begun). We live in a culture of distraction, and one of the primary ways that we distract is to consume. There’s no doubt in my mind that the arrival of Christmas decorations and paraphernalia in October is, at least on one level, an intentional attempt to divert the melancholy into consumption. “Don’t think about your pain!” the decorations shout from the aisle. “Buy me instead!” “Don’t feel your longing!” the temptation to attend and plan party after party shouts. “Look at these great invitations instead!”
What would happen if, instead of consuming, we turned inward and allowed ourselves to feel the grief and longing? What if we trusted that we can handle our pain, that it won’t overwhelm us, and that we have a free and ancient set of tools that can carry across these thresholds? We might spend a little less money. We might socialize a bit less. But we would also feel more filled up inside. As Douglas Abrams writes in The Book of Joy, “To linger in the longing, the loss, the yearning is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.” (p. 113)
I invite you to linger with me during this season of change and loss of light. And tell me what happens.