This week we begin a new year, just days after we began the lunar year at the winter solstice. It is a time of darkness, and also a time where there is a promise of light slowly returning.
We may find that we are pulled to spiritual life in the quiet of winter, as it is naturally a season of rest and reflection. It’s a time for making friends with the darkness, and for making space for what is to come. These are two of our important spiritual practices for the new year: accepting the invitation of the dark, and making space for the gathering of the light.
Practices of the Dark
Yinyuan Longqi, and old Chinese teacher, expressed the invitation to step into the darkness this way:
“You can’t light a lamp—there’s no oil in the house.
It’s a shame to want a light.
I have a way to bless this poverty:
Just feel your way along the wall.”
To take up this invitation, we step from the well-worn certainties of everyday life, into the dark forest of what we don’t yet know, and even what scares us. We find that if we are willing to step into the dark, into the unknown, our practice is there to greet us, and to support us. This doesn’t happen because it illuminates our lives for us right away, but rather it gives us a way to discover what is possible when we sit awhile in the dark, and feel our way along the wall. We find we can get comfortable with relinquishing all the activity of our daylit minds, and take deep rest in the fertile darkness.
Nourishing the Spiritual Embryo
This is a season for resolutions, which so often seem to lose steam by mid-January. Rather than engaging in our usual self-improvement project, a more fruitful spiritual task at this time of year is to practice making space for what is to come, which is already conceived in us, yet which is largely unknown. When we practice meditation, we are offering breath, attention, and a field of awareness for what is gestating in us, which we very well may not consciously be aware of. Here’s how a Zen nun described this to her teacher:
Master Shiche asked his student, the nun Qiyuan Xinggang, “Buddha nature is not illusory. What was it like when you were nourishing the spiritual embryo?”
Qiyuan replied, “It felt congealed, deep, and solitary.”
Shiche said, “When you gave birth to the embryo, what was it like?”
Qiyuan replied, “It was like being completely stripped bare.”
Shiche said, “When you met with the Buddha, what was it like?”
Qiyuan said, “I took advantage of the opportunity to meet him face to face.”
Shiche said, “Good! Good! You will be a model for those in the future.”
The new year is a good time to allow for congealing, deep and solitary, without a rush to engineer change. Luckily, we can do these practices together, and support each other’s rest in the dark, and developing spiritual embryos. In our tradition we are fortunate to have a wall to feel our way along, in the teachings and koans, as well as midwives for our spiritual embryos, in our sangha and teachers. Happy New Year!