The Cycle of Life, and Death.

This time of year has had special significance for millennia.


Because it is the end of the annual spiral to darkness and nature’s rebirth.  Solstice is a time of rejoicing because it means winter darkness is lifting, warmth will return,  and food will become available again.

New GrangeImagine you live 10,000 years ago, somewhere above latitude 45 or so, you would notice the lengthening of the days a couple of weeks after December solstice.  That meant you might survive.

Even 5,000 years ago communities had invested so much in understanding the solar cycle that farmers in the Boyne Valley, Ireland built New Grange, an 85 metre diameter stone  tomb, which has a light box which  illuminates a 19 metre long passage and chamber as the sun rises on solstice morning!  The solar bounce was important to their livelihoods.

No, this is not a morbid view.  It’s reality.  Facing reality gives truth to our lives.

“Solstice” is an event in a cycle.  It is the moment when either north or south pole of planet earth, spinning on its tilted axis around the sun, passes a point most extreme from the sun.

If there is a beginning or end to the solar cycle, it would be a solstice.  For us in the northern hemisphere the December solstice seems like the end because nature is quiet in look, sound and feel.  Trees are bare as leaves have fallen and still lie brown and dead on the ground.   Birds are quiet, hiding from the cold.  They flock to any spill of farmer’s grain or bag of nuts on a window sill as they try to survive winter.  It is cold.

This dead season is the result of withdrawal of the light and heat of our star, the sun,  which gives us life.

But nature is ready for rebirth, for a new beginning.  The days are now lengthening again.  In a week or two we’ll notice that the darkness leaves a little earlier in the morning and a little later in the evening.  The daffodils are already sprouting through the grass.  Early buds are showing.  The flowers will not be the same as those from last year, they will be different, but similar.  They are built upon the life before.

Winter wreath by Pam. A symbol of the cycle of life, made with nature’s bounty.

If we reflect on the reality of nature’s cycle, we begin to respect that it is a continuous rhythm.  There is no start and stop, no discontinuity.  No beginning and no end.  That is life.  Life and death are connected.  Death promises life and rebirth, as compost of the summers growth feeds the blossoms of the coming year.

This realisation, so obscured by the mythologies of my upbringing, has helped me face death.  Not my own, but that of friends.  And we have seen too much death in our little community this year.  Tragedy has taken close friends and their value in the community is missed.  Pat, who helped me understand nature and farming, who could tame a wild horse by grabbing his tongue and with whom I was wrestling on his drawing room floor this time last year, was taken by a brain tumour.  Rosebud, who welcomed me when I returned to Ireland nearly two decades ago and has always worked for a better world, was also decimated by the big C.  Perhaps most sad was the loss of our neighbour, 26 year old Bill in a traffic accident a couple of weeks ago – he always had time to help anyone who needed it.

So how can you face the loss of friends and family, unexpected or not?  If you loved them, it will not be easy.  If you have empathy it will not be easy.  But if you can respect the reality of the cycle of life, perhaps you can accept it and make something good of it.  Perhaps you can be more like those lost friends.  Perhaps the passing of someone good can be the inspiration for their values and inspiration to grow again, and spread.  As a dying blossom lets its seeds fall to the wind for some to regrow anew, more widely dispersed, perhaps you can take the virtues of family and friends who have died to inspire a better life.  That gives tribute to their generosity, humour, virtue and makes the world a better place.  So I try a little harder to work and give, like Pat, Rose and Bill … and others, close to me who have died.

And what of soul?  For me, their spirit has rejoined the ocean of spirit that flows through the universe.  It is clear that there is a metaphysical existence in which we all participate.  While we live, we influence it.  When we die, it becomes compost as our physical bodies do.  Our spirit becomes indistinguishable from the entirety of the spiritual dimension, as flesh become soil indistinguishable from the physical world.

At this time of year, it is easy to be blinded by the mythologies of our past culture and, worse, the influence of modern, consumer culture.  The glitz and feasts stacked high in every shop promise a well fed, easy, bountiful celebration.  But that is not what we need.  It does not nurture our soul and the consumption of gifts and grub invariably results in indigestion and disappointments.  While a billion people starve.

It does not have to be so.  Our world can not continue as it has.  It is breaking.  Our society and nature are cracking up.  It’s not as it once was.  The limits to growth have been breached.  We must shrink our human impact.  We must change our system.  We must enlighten our behaviour.

To find ourselves, our talents, our spirit we must start with ourselves.  Contemplating our connection to nature and facing its realities helps us find equanimity, build friendships and fulfil the promise of life.    Recognise the natural connection between death and life which are part of the same cycle. To see death and life as part of the same thing, to be the same thing, is reality.  We must die.  But our impact continues in the cycle of life.  Facing reality gives truth to our lives. Let go of attachments to find the bounty of truth and enlightenment.  All is one.  Enjoy the cycle of life.

Link: Meditation for peace.


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