“Wonder is our human reaction to the exuberant and astonishing power of things to be – that is, their sheer is-ness.” (76)
- Paul Brockelman
Cosmology and Creation (1999)
The natural world around us is greening to its fullness_ coaxing me into verdant meditations on the nature of Summerwood; drawing me to reflect on the spiritual themes appropriate to this time of the year. Summer Solstice stands at the pinnacle of Nature’s resurrection each year; it is the height of the ‘Olden Wheel’; the ever-repeating earthen cycle. It is the longest day of the year, embraced by the shortest nights. Traditionally, Summer Solstice was associated with ‘luck’ and ‘fate,’ as at this point fields, gardens and forests were fecund with the promise of bounty, yet people could not predict the outcome of the summer growing season—whether it would come to fruition or not, or how fully. There is also an inner ‘contradiction’ in Summer’s Solstice; that while this is the longest day and life seems to be flourishing, and although the plant world will continue toward fructification and fruition for the next couple months or so, from here on out the days will get shorter and shorter. This irony portends an intimation of mortality amidst all of the delicious ripening and fullness; a first hint that Autumn and then Winter will yet come again. But for now_
For years I’ve engaged in a vigil at Summer’s Solstice, staying outside in the evenings as Solstice approaches, only retreating indoors once I allow that day is gone and it is finally ‘dark.’ Weather permitting, I like to go to the woods and wander about until dark on Solstice Night. If there’s a Full Moon on or around 21 June_ I may even stay out after dark and enjoy a night hike in the moonlight! In the week or two after Summer’s Solstice, there always comes a point at which I say, “well, the days are getting shorter, once again.” Only at this point will my annual vigil come to an end. The rest of the summer is left to be enjoyed, though always with this perhaps nagging awareness that day by day the light is diminishing, and soon enough darkness will overwhelm it. There is always this ‘mortal tension’ in any deep spiritual engagement with Summerwood. _There cannot be life without an awareness of death; and in this particular setting we must enjoy the vivacity of life as summer passes with a touch of regret for its eventual demise.
As Summer Solstice approaches, I am drawn in meditation to a potent poetic place that I call The Dolmen on the Heath. Dolmens are old stone structures found across northwestern Europe, included England, Scotland and especially Ireland. They are typically comprised of three or four standing stones atop which a large flat stone is ‘resting.’ While these structures have excited much imaginative speculation over the centuries, archeological investigation has suggested in recent decades that these lithic monuments are what remains of prehistoric burial mounds. The theory is that a body was once placed in the hollow between the standing stones and then dirt was piled up all around them. At the last, the cover-stone was moved into place. Over the passing millennia, the dirt eroded away along with the remains of the person buried within the dolmen, leaving only the standing stones and the cover-stone accidentally in place. As such, they make a great place for earthen meditation, as – sitting within the dolmen – one can look out across the local landscape in three or so directions, and affirm life, while sitting in a place associated with mortality.
For many years I’ve used images of dolmens in verdant settings as icons in my summerwood meditations. As May turns to June, I begin to ‘visit’ the dolmen in meditation, imagining myself sitting in the ‘hollow,’ turning from one ‘portal’ to another to look out at verdant landscapes. I feel the coolness of the stones, even on the hottest days, and am refreshed while also being reminded of the ‘chill of death.’ Mortality is always awaiting us on our most ultimate horizon, whether it is close by or afar off. I ‘listen’ for the sounds of the insects and birds that I know are out and about at the onset of High Summer. I’m occasionally visited by symbolic animals, such as snakes, bears or deer. I experience the Dolmen on the Heath in different weathers; one day hot and sultry, and then at other times being beset by a rain storm—the weather at the dolmen often reflects the actual weather outside, but this is not a requirement. My moods, and what I need at any particular moment, may do as much to determine the ‘weather’ at the dolmen as what is going on in my external environment. I will sojourn at this dolmen in my meditations until Autumn comes.
I envision this Dolmen as established upon a Heath from which I can see farther than I would from down in a nearby vale. I use this artifice to remind myself to always be seeking to peer beyond the horizons that I now inhabit and that now define me. I resist imagining the dolmen as set upon a high mountain, as that seems to portend a lack of humility. One’s horizons are usually not pushed out very far from their previous station in a single earthen season, and so sitting in a dolmen on a heath; a more or less small hill – seems appropriate to actual natural and personal revelation and transformation. Over the course of a summer – or any other season – a mortal may hope to see somewhat further – through study, reflection and one’s active, waking experience in the world – but not necessarily to be ‘enlightened’ all at once. If startling insights come or self-transforming epiphanies occur, we should accept them_ but I don’t think it good to ‘expect’ them. This is, for me at least, consistent with an earthen humility.
What do I see from within this dolmen? Flourishment.
Living things all around us at this time of the year are ‘flourishing.’ That is, they are on their way to fruition. This is the season of their glory_ their fulfillment. Though the degree of flourishment differs from year to year, it always comes. Sometimes it comes through peaceful stages of growth, while in other years storms and weather and sometimes even natural disasters mar the fruition we expect from the resurrected world. Yet it comes_ and will until the end of Nature as we know it, whenever that will be. At Summer Solstice I look for the first-fruits of the summer growing season. While these are dependent upon the latitude in which I live, I think of blueberries and the varieties of flowers in bloom at this time of the year – both domesticated and out in the woods & fields – as symbolic of the fructification yet to come. First there is resurrection and rootedness, then there comes the green flourishing of leaves and finally the bearing of fruit.
This annual pageant in the natural world has spiritual ‘analogs’ that we can make use of and benefit from for, like Nature, we all go through cycles in our lives, and come to bear fruit and reach fulfillment, season by human season, through the different stages of our lives. While Flourishment is a general goal in human life; something to be sought throughout the year and through all of our life’s phases—the flourishing of Nature all around us in the summer months provides a vivid tapestry against which to reflect on our own flourishment, or lack thereof. When I see Nature flourishing all around me, I’m led to reflect on my own spiritual progress; whether or not I’ve reached any better degree of flourishment—material, aesthetic or psychological – since the last time I passed through the shadows of Summerwood.
For me, the idea of ‘flourishing’ is connected back to the old Greek idea of eudaimonia; a term usually translated as ‘happiness,’ but which means so much more than what that word has been reduced to in our culture’s lexicon. In literal translation, eudaimonia means to have a good (“eu”) “daimon”— a word referring to the general energy that drives us to live life well—our ‘spirit’ in a naturalistic sense. When we have a “good daimon” we have a desire to live our lives to the fullest; we are more prone to find ways to become the best person we are capable of being; we long to to ‘full-fill’ ourselves. In this sense, eudaimonia is ‘happiness’ in a deeper, philosophical sense of ‘reaching our full potential.’ It is the state of ‘happiness’ represented in psychological terms as ‘being self-realized.’ Being ‘happy’ in this profounder sense requires that we are free to self-realize. Such freedom results in the unleashing of our passions; in the positive sense of the word—resulting in our having the necessary verve to live life as fully as possible. We cannot flourish if we are prisoners of opinion or fashion; mere mask-wearers trying to get ahead in ‘the world.’ Mere conformity to the forms we are presented with as ‘options’ for our lives breeds boredom, frustration and ultimately the loss of potential that characterizes so many lives no longer lived.
Like trees and bushes and flowers and vines, having the right ‘growing conditions’ is essential to our ultimate flourishment. According to ancient Celtic saints, one of the grounding directives in the spiritual life was that you must find the place of your own ‘resurrection.’ I discussed this in an earlier blog this Spring. Here, I suggest that this implies that, in order to live in a spiritual way, we cannot just go through the motions. We have to make the place in which we dwell into a ‘nemeton’ – a ‘sacred place’ – that is, a place where we are nurtured in our daily lives. For some, to find the place of their resurrection may necessitate having to ‘uproot’ and ‘replant’ themselves in a new place in order to flourish.
Looking around at the natural world, you see plants everywhere coming to fruition, growing greener and bearing fruit. Do some struggle? Do others wither? Some are planted well; others may need transplanted to better soil or to a place with a more agreeable balance of light & dark. At Summer Solstice, it is fitting to reflect on your own state and ask, “Am I flourishing?” In meditation, you might discover that the answer is a more or less simple “yes.” Less simply, you may find you are in a better state than you were a year or two or three ago—and thus you can say with confidence, “I’m flourishing more now than I was then.” If the answer is a more or less complicated “no,” however, ask yourself what you might reasonably do to better flourish in your circumstances? What might you need to do to reach a deeper, fuller state of being in becoming. Do you need refreshed by having new soil spaded into the soils in which you grow? Might better – or different – spiritual food benefit you? A more regular diet of spiritual practice? _Or perhaps something more drastic_ like removal to a new setting? These are incisive and life-directing questions, and should not be asked lightly_ nor should decisions about them be made rashly. Yet flourishing may require us to ask them, from time to time.
While I love using the whole of Nature as a metaphorical template against which to understanding our own flourishment or lack thereof, I’ve long found ‘gardening’ a more focused metaphor; one that some people prefer. We garden ourselves; together and in solitude. Thinking of your own ‘being’ as a ‘garden,’ perhaps set within the larger tapestry of gardens that represent your family, friends and your wider spiritual community, might help you discern what needs done in order to bring your Self to fruition. We can ‘till’ the ‘soil’ of ourselves; we can ‘feed’ ourselves or seek a place where we can be fed, hopefully choosing the ‘nutrients’ (what we study, what we do, how we experience the wider world in which we live) wisely. We can ‘spade’ and ‘weed’ the garden of ourselves, and eventually harvest what has come to fruition in our own little plot. While this harvest need not coincide with annual harvests on farms and in gardens in the wide world, meditating on tending our own earthen ‘plot’ is one way of coming to be_ and remaining_ awake in our lived circumstances; i.e., the place where we act out our spiritual desire to be and become what we are at our best. To flourish in this sense is to achieve ‘happiness’ as eudaimonia.
The Dolmen on the Heath is the spiritual counterpart of the Hut of Dwelling, to which I’m always drawn from November through March. Over the course of the Summer, the Dolmen on the Heath is like a second home to me; an interior nemeton that enlivens me and brings me restoration, symbolic sustenance spiritual succor. Visiting it daily in meditation, I discover myself centered within it. Likewise, Flourishment is to Summerwood what Enclosure is to Winterwood; these are twin focal themes for spiritual praxis and progress that orient me to the particular season in and through which I’m currently adventuring. I believe we need guiding metaphors such as these if we are going to live our lives well and dwell deeply in Earth & Spirit. By identifying themes and iconic places in each season, we anchor ourselves and our spiritual quests in the external experience of Nature and thereby provide a more or less stable context for interpretation and reflection for our internal, subjective journeys. Grounded in the experience and understanding of Nature, we will find our inner lives enriched. If these metaphors that have guided me help you in your own pursuit of flourishment; happiness—so be it.