Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest
I’m loving the winter this year.
I was at the Buddhist Monastery at Chithurst, West Sussex, over New Year. It’s the perfect palate-cleanser after the sugary stickiness of Christmas – a chance to strip back to bare wires using that austerity: one meal a day, 4am starts and all-night meditation sessions. In the simple silence of the place, I was able to do my annual End of Year Report.
I love New Year as a time to burrow into the darkness and cast my eyes back over the contours of the year. I dig out my diary and look back at what actually happened, month by month and I was astonished to discover how symmetrical 2006 was for me.
It began and ended in monasteries (Samye Ling last year, Chithurst this) and everything pivoted on the axial Dorje Phurbe Drupchen up on Holy Island. That sun-bleached madness was about clearing obstacles – even if the clearance caused pain – and that’s certainly what happened in this painfully raw year. Symmetrical around the Drupchen, there were 2 courses on Holy Island (one in June, one in August); on either side of that there were 2 trips to Brazil and on either side of them were 2 trips to New York. One brief love affair was enclosed in the brief flaring of another in January and December.
The two halves of the year mirror each other like the wings of a Rorschach test: the first half difficult, the second, delightful.
So in the wide oaken expanse of the Chithurst meditation hall, I let all these patterns sift out into something like meaning and stepped back to look at it.
I think winter is so valuable for that. One of the nuns in the Chithurst sangha, Ajahn Taniya pointed out how the tyranny of electric light has made us live the whole year as if it were summer. Despite the short, cold days we still expect to party and play as if the sun were still shining at 10 at night. Capitalism expects us to produce exactly the same amount in the winter as in the summer. No concession is made to the fact that winter days are short precisely so we can get into bed early, curl up under blankets, read books, sleep more: hibernate.
Living out in the Sussex countryside, the monks and nuns are much more attuned to the natural order and spend the first 3 months of the year in closed-down retreat, curling up inwards like hedgehogs in the dark.
There were 2 symmetrical books this year. In May I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which completely topsy-turvyfied my thinking about pleasure and creativity and God. And in December this year, I read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Free which prepared me totally for the joys of winter, of ‘leaning on the gatepost’ as he describes it: standing in the cold, wet air and just listening to birdsong or your neighbour’s radio. Doing nothing.
Eliot crystallizes it beautifully:
The brief sun flames the ice, on ponds and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
Th soul’s sap quivers.
And I thought of Eliot when I motored (rather grumpily) out into the Oxfordshire countryside to check out the Abbey in Sutton Courtenay. It’s the sort of English village he loved and iconized in the Four Quartets, echoes of Elizabethan England in the crow-loud cedar trees and red-brick chimney stacks. A beautiful village green with ancient church and manor house and the modest charm of the Abbey itself.
It’s not actually an Abbey, but infact a 13th Century ecclesiastical hall built on the site of a Saxon priest’s house – but the Great Hall with its lattice of beams and big fireplace at the end is wonderfully evocative and the courtyard around which the building circles is like a 500-year old English Zen garden. It immediately soothed me.
Organising courses is often a bit of a headache but this place is peaceful down to the very bricks. The community who run it are gentle and immediately de-frost all the icy cynicism a Londoner brings with him. A lunch of home-baked bread and spicy vegetable soup also helped.
I can’t wait to be teaching in that hall with the log fire blazing and the cold and wet banished to the outside. It’s the perfect place to meditate, safe and warm while the winter storms on in the dark.
(PS. I’m sure you’d guessed but all the pictures in this posting are from the Abbey.)