It’s December 23 and we in the Northern Hemisphere have now endured the longest night of the year and emerged on the other side, anticipating a little more light each day. And, oh, how we need the light. It’s true every year. There is no year when violence and poverty and fear disappear. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of light during a period of revolt against those who had defiled and profaned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Christmas emerged under the Roman occupation of Judea and the forced taxation of the poor to fund their oppressors. And this year, the longest night of the year follows an uprising against the deep-seated racism that has shaped this nation and continues to devalue black lives.
Wanting to honor the Solstice, I spent the afternoon doing Yoga Nidra, a practice of deep meditation. Gathering at a small yoga studio only blocks from my home, we created an altar to Ganesha, the Hindu deity revered as the remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings, and the patron of arts and sciences, especially writing. The first time I attended a Ganesha Yoga Nidra Invocation, I had never chanted to a Hindu deity before. I stumbled through the chant (Om Shrim Hrim Klim Glaum Gam Ganapatayei Swaha) staring at the elephant-headed god with little understanding. It occurred to me that this must be how visitors to the churches I had led must feel sometimes – where’s the hymnal? what’s an affirmation of faith? am I supposed to be sitting or standing? what the heck did that bible story mean? I appreciated being humbled by the unfamiliar spiritual practice.
And when I emerged from the yoga relaxation trance an hour later, I felt my body buzzing with the energy of the prayers.
I started doing Yoga Nidra years ago when I lived just outside of Washington, D.C. I was in my late 30s, working long hours leading an activist congregation, figuring out how to mother a young child with Sensory Integration Dysfunction, suffering from my own sleep disorder, and generally feeling like I was losing my mind.
I had started taking hatha yoga classes only a year earlier and, while I knew that it was really good for me, I could barely stand the glacial pace of the classes. The Anusara school I attended emphasized slow movement into each posture with careful attention to alignment. This was not a cardio workout. As with most yoga classes, we always ended in savasana, the corpse pose, intended to be leave the student in total relaxation. I found the pose so incredibly irritating (I’m paying to lie here and be still?!) that I would often wrap up my mat and leave the room before savasana began.
Eventually, it occurred to me that this might be a problem.
So when a friend from my women’s spiritual direction peer group suggested I attend her Yoga Nidra classes, I agreed to give it a try, even though it meant being in savasana for an entire hour! To tell you that Warrior II was the pose I loved most and could hold the longest, and that lying flat on a mat was the most difficult yoga pose for me tells you a bit about my state of mind at that time in my life.
It took a while, but I finally fell in love with relaxing.
During Yoga Nidra, you plant the seed of a sankalpa, or intention, into your mind and heart. As you move deeper into the meditation, you fall into almost a trance. In that thin place between consciousness and unconsciousness, like the moments before we fall asleep, our minds are more suggestible, more open to the ideas we place there.
On Sunday, before the longest night of the year – and a dark new moon night, at that – I was reminded that everything in all creation gestates in the dark. Everything. And so, on these still long nights, when our lives are more in darkness than in light, what seeds do we plant? What is longing to be born that can only be created in this dark time?
Whether lighting the candles of the Menorah or the Advent Wreath or for the Kwanzaa principles, we strike a match to bring light into the darkness. We long for and lean towards the light, and this is good. But as we sit in the dark days of winter, there is work to be done here. What can the dark teach us? What needs to stay deep and quiet within us until ready to be born?
Frederick Buechner, in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, says, “The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.” The light appears, but before the light, the darkness. The extraordinary darkness. “In the beginning … darkness.” Barbara Brown Taylor calls this comfort with the darkness, with uncertainty, a “lunar spirituality” as opposed to the “solar spirituality” that wants all light, all the time.
All light all the time would mean that nothing could ever gestate. So, while I rejoice in the few moments of extra sunlight sneaking into our northern world, day by day, I invite you to sit for a while here with me, in the dark. Who knows what rich discoveries lie waiting for us?