A Meditation On The Dark
I recently found this meditation in a file on my desktop. I’m not even sure when I wrote it, but with a little editing, it seems like a fitting message to send out in the terrifying dark and bitter cold of the passing of the year and a lot more. May it bring you a little ease, a little comfort, and a little gleam of light.
Like most gardeners, I’m a firm believer in celebration. Almost any event or occasion can be taken as an excuse both to make merry and to be consciously grateful together. The first snowdrops, the first flower on the hardy cyclamen, the first bright bells on the nodding hellebores, the first spangle of stars on the winter jasmine, all are cause for shared pleasure and appreciation. But sometimes the world seems too dark to be brightened by a bud or blossom. When I forget to celebrate, I forget to be grateful. When I stop experiencing gratitude, I also lose heart, strength, and courage.
Dreaming In The Dark
The mystic philosopher-musician, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, told her flock back in 1142 that people were cast out of the original
garden for ingratitude and that being properly grateful was the way
back. Written in dark and dangerous times, Hildegard’s medieval hymns and prayers still offer genuine delight in what IS, rather than a plea for the provision of what is not. For gardeners, this kind of gratitude usually comes with ease. It takes a willing suspension of observation to walk unmoved through the garden in any season, surrounded by such astonishing beauty and such generously flowing abundance. Even in dim, cold winter, a seeker can find innumerable signs of life and change. Here, a new shoot, there, a fallen seed pod producing a thick fur of green sprouts.
Perhaps, for those with eyes to see, there is even more to be found than that. All my life, I have searched the winter garden for signs of spring, seeking the promise of warmth and beauty to come. It is only now, in (late) middle age, that I begin to understand that winter is to be appreciated for itself. This is not an easy gratitude, yet it feels even deeper than the spontaneous sort that cascades from happy hearts.
Winter As Nature’s Agent Of Change
This new understanding shows me that winter is not simply a passage between autumn glory and spring bounty. It is not only fallow. Indeed, winter is not empty at all. As sensible gardeners are fully aware, it is a time of rest and renewal, of slow and slumbering growth. It is a time for regrouping, consolidating, gathering strength. Winter has another face, one we usually think of as less benevolent if no less natural. Winter is a time for weeding out weak plants, or those not adapted to our climate. Where a hundred infant lilies passed peacefully into autumn sleep, maybe only thirty will awaken. Frost and root rots thin not only seedlings but mature plants that have passed their prime as well.
When a precious plant fails to reappear in spring, nature’s relentless purging can feel sorrowful. Indeed, I have sometimes replanted a particular favorite five or six times, unwilling to accept that I can’t grow absolutely everything I want to. Unwilling, too, to find an acceptable substitute in some of the few thousand plants I can grow with relative ease. When winter robbed me of a beloved dream, I often felt bitter against it, longing for warmer climes where winters are brief and gentle and summers are long.
Comfort Through Discomfort
However, winter is actually a time of enormous activity. If little is visible on the surface, a great deal is going on underground. Roots are lengthening. Pale shoots are inching upward through frozen soil, forcing their way up toward light and air. Embryo flowers are forming inside bulbs, their cramped folds tucked inside tightly compressed buds. This implicit burgeoning has a powerful symbolic resonance because it echoes our own patterns of change. We, too, go through such periods. Life may seem drab and slack, empty and blank, even dark and bitterly cold, yet under the skin, we may be full almost to bursting with hidden riches. That very fullness creates a pressure that can be experienced as pain. Indeed, in medical terms, pain IS pressure.
Emotional pressure can hurt as much as any physical sensation. The building urgency of impending change, as experience is slowly pushing wisdom toward birth, can cause acute discomfort. I have no idea how a plant perceives winter, but for people, there may be comfort in recognizing these times of slow, sometimes painful growth for what they are. Until that newborn wisdom breaks the surface of our awareness, relentlessly pushing like a stubborn daffodil puncturing pavement, it can feel as though nothing at all is happening. Because our impatient culture prizes the quick and the obvious, we may experience our inner winter as empty waiting, frustrating and without fulfillment.
Waiting For The Light
When only the pain is recognized, we blindly struggle against the process. How can we face down the dark if we can’t believe the light will really return? It helps to understand that even in that darkness, hidden changes are occurring. In the garden or in any part of life, raging against the night isn’t effective, but working for the light definitely is. When we can calm down and cooperate, breathing into the stillness, letting the inner light build along with those slumbering bulbs, we can listen and learn a lot faster. Blooming spring can’t come until solemn winter has prepared the way.
These days, I am celebrating winter for itself. As the old saw would have it, the sleeping garden looks half full and half empty, but in reality, it’s all full, full of roots and worms and potential and promise. When I want to hurry things along, I remember that a daffodil forced to bloom indoors in January may never recover. One that spends the winter building roots and rises to bloom in March or April will divide itself in a few years, splitting into several young bulbs. I’m remembering the power of patience and how seasonal delights are sweetest in their proper if fleeting season. This burgeoning awareness feels like a glimmer of maturity, and even in these darkest days and longest, bleakest nights, that feels like something genuinely worth celebrating.