It is the time of the year that has long been called ‘the Gloom,’ and I’ve been out for an afternoon walk in wooded places. “The Gloom” describes that time between the falling of the colorful leaves and the coming of the snows that whiten the world and remind us that Winter Solstice is growing nearer. The Celts called this season An Dudlach, and in Tolkien’s world, the Elves refer to this same time as ‘The Gloaming.” This time of year has always inspired me. It is a transitional time, when my symbolic engagement with the natural world shifts.
Back at the Vernal Equinox, I wrote about the theme of “emergence” in an earthen spirituality. At the Vernal Equinox we are emerging from Winter’s confinement and the constraint on our movements that comes with ice and snow and cold. To meditate on that time of the year in spiritual terms is to think about ‘emerging’ from the seclusion of Winter and being free, once again, to move about and do things again in the wider world. There are poetic, spiritual themes associated with every season, and when I think about “The Gloom” in earthen terms, the word that so often comes to mind is “enclosure.” This is the time of year when one needs to prepare for the ‘confinement’ so often associated with Winter; to whatever degree it comes, and for however long it lasts.
The Gloom comes after harvest and before the Yule; at this time we vigil toward Winter’s Solstice; we look forward to putting up colorful lights and decorating our place of dwelling with symbols of light and life against the darkening of the days and the lengthening of the nights. While we await that season, we should notice the landscapes of late Autumn, and embrace their uniqueness. On my walk this afternoon, I was refreshed by the openness of the woods in the aftermath of leaf-fall. Suddenly, sunlight reaches the forest floor in places that had been in shadow for months; there is at this time an illumination of the wooded world that you don’t experience all summer long. While it is certainly a relief in the Spring to see the leaves coming out and while it is exciting to go out and experience the Green Cathedral of Nature at High Summer in all its glory, there is likewise a thrill in once again seeing the forest floor illuminated by the sun’s light—even if the sun’s ‘power’ is waning at this turnstile of the year.
While immersed in a simple enjoyment of this experience of openness, I had an imaginative impression. It is one that I often have at some point during the November passage. I imagined that, at the edge of a nearby field; all browning and glowing somehow reddish in the afternoon sunlight, I ‘saw’ a kind of monastic cell. It was made out of stones and was built in the conical shape once used by Irish monks used to construct their hermit cells. I was drawn to it, even though I knew I was only imagining it. So I walked out into the field, as if I were going to visit the cell of stone. I ‘knew’ immediately what its interior would be like. There would be a single door and a single window in the exterior stone wall of the cell. There would be a little stone stairway inside the door, leading up to the main living area, which would be a circular space in which would be found a bed, a desk and a table, a small bookshelf and a kneeler.
I saw this because this is how I once imagined my own monastic cell; one I thought I would one day build but that I eventually realized was a metaphor for a state of being-in-becoming that it was possible to achieve in myself—in my daily dwelling in the world. This dream of an external monastic cell eventually gave way to a more poetic version of itself. It has become an icon of positive, restorative solitude; a place to ‘go’ to find respite from the antics and petulancies of The World. It has become my refuge and my place of restreat; into which I go, and out from which I come, refreshed, and ready to engage with the World once more. I call it my “Hut of Dwelling.”
We all need ‘a place to go,’ sometimes. Traditional spiritualities have oft urged that the need for solitude is at least as important as the need for action in the world, and that to go into solitude, at least once a day (i.e., during meditation) is the norm rather than the exception if you hope to do as much good in the world as you can, and also maintain your energy, vigor and endurance. A deep spiritual abiding in the self is a necessary complement to a deep engagement with the world. Over the years I have come to imagine this “inner sanctuary” in a number of ways. The “Hut of Dwelling” is an image that often occurs to me at the turning of the tides of Autumn toward Winter. I return to this iconic image of solitude each year in anticipation of the coming enclosure that Winter usually brings with it. “The Hut of Dwelling” is an image that affirms the sense in which I am – and have come to be – at home in myself as Winter approaches. It is an imagined ‘place’ to which I go in meditation especially during the Winter months. It functions as a symbol through which I affirm the more positive aspects of Winter.
Enclosure takes the whole notion of solitude one step further; it involves an experience that we have of being limited – more or less at any given point – in our ability to go about freely in the external world. Along with the aesthetic exhilaration that accompanies the experience of sunlight now illuminating places in the natural world that have been shaded since April or May comes the anticipation that soon we may not be getting out to the woods on every whim of chance or choice. This year there has not yet been much more than a hint of snow, and there are still leaves hanging on the trees in the second week of November, yet the angle of the sun’s light as it falls and illumines the wooded places with which I am familiar tells me that Winter Solstice is just around the corner, and then that Winter is on its way.
So I turn to the Hut of Dwelling, preparing it for my Winter’s passage. At this time of year it is good to begin to reflect on the comfort that may be found by retreating into one’s room and finding ways of being able to stay there for longer periods of time than one might remain within-doors in the more summery times of the year. Though the weather hasn’t turned yet (usually by this time we have had a winter storm and there would be snow on the ground) I know that I must prepare myself for enclosure; semi- and perhaps intermittent at best, yet perhaps more ‘permanent’ if the winter gets harsh, as it sometimes does.
Why is this preparation important?
It is important if we are make the transition from one natural season into another with as positive a spiritual attitude as it is possible to accrue. It is no use complaining about the seasons and their changing; they are a fact of our existence in this Earth our Home. Wherever we live on this home planet of ours, there are seasons. This has to do with the way our planet is tilted with relation to the Sun and how it is situated in the plane of the planetary orbits. It is not something we can change by wishing it away, or praying for it to be other than it is! We can move about on the planet, going from one place to another to find a different climate; perhaps one that suits our temperament better—but we will always experience seasons of one pattern or another, wherever we go.
To live spiritually, one has to embrace what is Given; and do with it what one can. This means that, when you live somewhere, you must take stock of its seasonality and learn to adapt to it. It is no use complaining about one season or another; because it will just come around again next year. To spend your time waiting for a season to be over; because you don’t like it – or have refused to accept it – is simply a sign of spiritual immaturity and selfishness. A mature spiritual attitude toward the seasons urges that we find something in every season to celebrate and embrace; so much the better to put up with the less interesting and less palatable aspects of each season.
Winter as a season is ‘kicked off’ by the Winter Solstice; a time when we use lights and decorations to assuage the darkness in ourselves and light the way to a New Year. After the Winter Solstice, Winter sets in more fully, and one of the aspects of Winter that most bothers people is the restriction and frustration of our movement due to ice and snow and cold. While this is a fact that cannot be avoided, I find that seeking positive experiences that result from the confinement of Winter fosters a deeper experience of the season, and leads to being more at home in oneself. This “being at home in oneself’ is symbolized by The Hut of Dwelling.”
When the sidewalks are covered with ice and walking to work becomes as much of a chore as it can be; when driving is difficult or dangerous, and when the place of dwelling is just not as warm as we would like—every room seeming suffused with a palpable chill; when we have to bundle up in layers of clothing, even indoors, and when the landscape seems bleak, many people despair and complain. I, too, used to feel the urge to just curse the weather and wish it were Spring. However, this always seemed counterproductive, spiritually; a waste of time and thus a waste of being-in-becoming. To spend a whole season – or even a good part of it – just wishing and waiting for it to be over – is a waste of that most precious gift; time itself. To waste time is to waste our very being; since time is all we have. So what can we do to assuage this sense of discomfort? We must embrace the season; and practice enclosure positively.
Beyond the practical things we can do to stay warm and safe, there are meditations and imaginative exercises that can help us dwell in the depths of Winter more fruitfully. You must find the things that you can enjoy in each season, and embrace them—using these things as spiritual exercises through which to more genuinely experience each season. Winter has its comforts, and its rewards. As the days grow shorter, I enjoy watching the sunsets as I walk home from work. I notice them more, now, because the shorter days means I am walking home at sunset. So I affirm this coincidence, and enjoy the play of light and shadows, getting aesthetic refreshment from it. After Winter Solstice, the evening grows lighter, day by day, as we enter into Winter proper, and the world grows colder, whiter and icier. Though the days after often colder after the Winter Solstice than before it, the lengthening of the days tells me that Spring is coming. In the meantime, there is comfort and joy to be found in wrapping up in heavier clothes and doing one’s spiritual reading with a blanket covering one’s legs. There is an aesthetic pleasure to be found in looking out on a snowy vista from the warmth of your room; in noticing the play of light and shadow in the world and noting how different it is from similar phenomena in other seasons.
In meditation, go into your version of the Hut of Dwelling and sit there, affirming as you do the experience of enclosure. Find positive activities to occupy yourself through the Winter. Some people propose a reading project for themselves which gets them through the Winter months. I listen to lecture courses, and write poetry. I set up a series of courses that will take two to three months to complete, and thus spend the winter in study. Get exercise when you can; including daily ‘limbering up’ exercises in your meditation praxis is often of great benefit in the Winter. And then, when there is a respite in the weather, get out when you can to natural vistas; take walks in local parks once the roads are clear and the walkways have been shoveled.
The embrace enclosure really just involves assembling a ‘discipline’ for yourself; a set of practices that you can turn to when the weather or the cold gets you down or when your inability to get out and go somewhere irritates or frustrates you. You can avoid and even dispel the negative response to Winter by engaging in your “winter disciplines” and by affirming those experiences which make you feel ‘at home,’ so that you can be at home as the Winter passes. For more active people, outdoor sports such as skiing may be part of their winter spiritual discipline. There must be a balance of activity and rest; and you must find the proper proportions for you age and physical health. Whatever you do to make the Winter more enjoyable and more endurable, however, contributes to your spiritual wellbeing. By practicing enclosure, you can make a more positive journey through the Winter months into Spring, when you can turn once again to the theme of emergence.