Solstice Sermon: Don’t show up early to be dead

The summer solstice should be a time to cast away stones – and why that’s a good thing.

The seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay,
The night comes so quiet, it’s close on the heels of the day.
-Robert Hunter, “Eyes of the World”

The Tao Te Ching reminds us of something at once simple and reality-defining: the only things that are rigid and unbending are the dead things. Living things, on the other hand, are always flexible.

If we relinquish the ability to adapt and to yield, we turn ourselves into a dead thing. No matter how brightly the sun blazes this week or any other solstice week, if we are unable to sway in the breeze beneath its rays, we might as well be fossils or firewood.

Sometimes (read: all the time), I really wish I could learn from myself. It’s no secret that I’ve never been a faithful lover to any tradition or doctrine. No fealty to “serious” Taoism draws me back to the writings of Lao Tsu. What pulls me, instead, is the simple fact that the book says true things. It’s filled with observations like the one above – too obvious to be refuted, too simple to be twisted or taken out of context.

These are words that call to me, whether I like it or not, whether I’m in the mood or not. That’s how you know something’s really true – when it’s still true even when you don’t feel like it. Encountering truth in the bright noon of our midsummers, it’s more exhausting to mask it or turn away than it is to accept and confront. There will be times we’re ready for truth and already comported in alignment with it, but there will be many other times we’re confronted with a truth and must bend accordingly. The more easily we’re able – or willing – to bend, the better experience we’re going to have. It’s nothing more than the simplest principles of the nature of life itself.

*   *   *

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But I never really do a very good job learning from my smarter self or  even objectively seeing what I’m doing at any given time. It’s only just now, at this late hour, penning my last-minute required solstice sermon, that I fully realize just how rigidly I’ve come to arrive here. I’m like a steel train blasting along steel tracks, a hard metal box unwilling to deviate from unbending tracks nobody else can see, tracks I believe to be fixed in concrete even when I myself can’t really see them. It’s only now, as I careen wildly (without any of the smooth charm I’d like to present publicly to all) into Solstice Depot, that I begin to realize how unstable and unsustainable this present condition has become.

It’s not that I’ve been completely unaware of my own dead-ish inflexibility – without consciously being aware or able to fully articulate something I was obviously sensing, this is a sentiment that began to come out in my posts last week. It’s a problem that, in open honesty, transparency, and full Wikileaks disclosure, has permeated most areas of my being. One very small example can be found in this sermon itself. For weeks now, I’ve been preparing my thoughts, searching for the right way to express a summer solstice message using an entrepreneur/investment metaphor.

Think about that for a moment: the rabid anti-capitalist has become so unaware of the rigidity of his own thought processes that he is only capable of expressing spiritual truth through the language of capitalism!

What the hell?

In fairness, I do have the excuse of precedent. Last year, in the early stages of my epic solstice adventure on Monadnock, my lifelong friend stood beside me gazing at the eternally spread vista presented us from my favorite secret rock on the mountain. “What wisdom hath the wizard on the solstice?” he asked. For a long-winded bastard like me, I gave a pretty concise response – a couple sentences, maybe a paragraph’s worth – but my buddy’s a sharp cookie himself and distilled it further. “So what you’re saying,” he clarified, “is ‘bank light.'”

That is what I was saying, and I’d never try walking that back. As soon as we live through that Midsummer’s Day, light’s on the decline. In the winter, the solstice herald’s the triumph and return of light, but we don’t tangibly see the added hours of light for many months to come. In the same way, the fall harvest signified by Midsummer’s bell-toll still seems far off. But the farmer tends the summer fields in preparation for the harvest to come, and the most important aim of that harvest is to stock up food supplies so that people can eat during the time of year when food can’t grow. That’s how we ought to approach light, which, after all, we need just as much as we need food. Just when light is most full and abundant, we need to start storing it up within so we have enough to survive through the dark times.

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That’s just as important to remember this year as it was last year, although hopefully the prescience won’t be quite so stark. Last year, when I said those words, I had no idea the sudden life-jarring earthquake of employment termination was only three weeks away. That was a terrible experience that lasted almost the entire time between then and now. There were many times when it seemed like the storehouses of light were running pretty low – but we never ran empty.

I’ll admit that probably has as much to do with luck as it does with skill, but the fact remains: mild winters are possible and do happen in real life, but only an insane farmer bets on it. Bank this light that’s all around us. It’s just as true now as it was a year ago – and as it will be next year. Sense the light with every cell in your body, bathe in it, let it shine through as though you were transparent – but save everything you can in case you need it down the road.

My mistake this time around wasn’t a productive backwards reflection on mountainside country-folk wisdom from 2013, nor was I quite foolish enough to think I could top it, but I did have a vague notion of “taking it to the next level.” Last year, my ambitious, imperial mind said to me, we talked about banking the light. This year, let’s talk about how we make investments as the light builds in the early part of the year and then get big returns when we sell high at the end of the year. Or something. Maybe we could talk about alchemy, about taking the Midsummer light not merely to save it but to magically turn it into whatever we want during the second half. 

In these half-baked ideological stirrings, however, can quite plainly be seen the flaws in my present mindset. My mistake and that of the capitalists (apart from mere metaphor) are near identical – we fall into the trap of believing that the laws that apply to everything in the universe somehow don’t apply to us, that we are the master of cosmic law rather than the other way around.

Hubris, in other words.

*    *    *

It is easy to dismiss the horrifyingly simplistic truistic token heralded by the yin yang, that our subjective existence is comprised of a full dualism shared by light and dark, and that all components of light contain darkness and all components of darkness contain light. But let my errors serve as example of its validity. What’s got me in trouble here is the exhibition of a few desirable character traits I’ve needed at other moments in life and utterly lacked, namely focus, determination, and (useful) ambition. These last months, despite large Life Stresses, I’ve been attacking my work and the world with driving intensity. This was and is a good thing.

The problem now is that I’m trying to carry those newly-developed traits further than they are meant to go. Onward, onward, further, faster! my brain screams at all times, as my ability to rest in quiet contemplation and commit myself to regular meditation and all the – equally – necessary results found there have slowly melted with the rise in temperature to almost nothing. We arrive at the year’s apex with all action and no rest, all advance and no strategic retreat and regrouping. I think like an empire that must keep growing endlessly lest it collapse inward on itself, a military offensive that must keep pushing forward because it has forgotten how to do anything else. But history teaches us that when empires reach the stage (and most empires do) at which they depend perpetually on expansion for survival – not unlike a pyramid scheme, really – the end is not far off. And when it comes to even the best of the world’s armies, if you keep pushing onward straight into Russia, the winter and the Russians are going to get you, and you’ll be effed.

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Lao Tse didn’t say it, but I bet he wishes he did: the only cells in this world that grow unchecked are cancer cells. When we arrive upon a holiday such as Midsummer, a time when we are forcibly reminded of the sanctity of life (don’t be repulsed at the phrase – frankly, I’d like to coopt it for the good guys, since it’s a pretty good phrase), be honest about whether your behavior – rigid or flexible, balanced maturity or frantic methed-out growth activity – is the behavior of sacred life or the suicidal mechanisms of early death.

That, more than anything, is the message this year. This jarring realization came crashing down on me while reading the I Ching (the other ancient Chinese classic), and the text described the character of an insignificant little mountain spring. It doesn’t plan out where to go and force the mass of its waters to go there. It doesn’t know where it’s going and doesn’t care where it’s going. For the insignificant little mountain spring, this is not a disposition of ignorance and apathy. Not-knowing and not-caring are not ends unto themselves but the product of a different (perhaps wholly opposite) mode of existence, one in which intent, planning, judgment, and force are of little importance in comparison with much more intangible or (if you’ll allow) transcendental concepts such as doing, being, going, and flowing.

To be clear, the little insignificant mountain stream just flows down. It comes to one dip, fills it up, and flows on to the next one. It’s not following GPS instructions, it’s just adapting to the terrain, filling what must be filled, and moving on. Instead of worrying about empire-building, return on investment, and manipulation of natural cosmic law – or even primarily about banking the light for the winter – we could just flow around down, filling the spaces as the present themselves, and then continuing down onward until we meet our destination and merge with the more rushing and powerful riverway, at which time we transform to be the river and the river lends its power and motion to our path in turn.

This is just as easy to dismiss as anything else. While I encourage a spirit of open receptivity in seasons of holiday, even I recognize that stoned 3 am dorm room philosophy jam sessions offer very little to the lives of ordinary struggling and oppressed people – and that’s not what I’m talking about here. It’s not all like, Be like the riiiiver, maaaaaan. Just go with the flow, you know? That’s true or accurate, sure, but it’s shallow (get it?). I’m not just talking about blissed-out Zen-livin’ Ram Dass eastern fetishization (though certainly a little bit), but concrete lessons with application to life that are just as simple as the metaphor itself. Picture yourself as that pretty little unimportant stream, and you really have no idea where you’re going to end up. That’s not any different from your actual state of being as a human, since you don’t know where you’re going or where you’ll end up any more than I do. The trick is, like the river, you relinquish the right to mind the uncertainty. Releasing oneself to simply being a flowing body of water, you voluntarily give up the option of cold calculation, of formulating strategy, of tactical attacks and positions. Instead, you recognize that right now, at this very moment, you’re at a dip and it needs to be filled. So fill it. And when you’re just about done with it, you’ll realize that there’s another spot down below that needs filling, and you know you’ll go there next. Not having all the answers, not breaking the ribs of every little thing to make them fit within a preordained plan, but simple adherence to the call of the forested terrain: one at a time. Something’s empty, flow in, fill it, move down to what’s empty. A little mountain stream can’t see a dip 300 yards down the hill and think about ways to skip to that one, so don’t worry about filling up the spaces that are still a ways down the slope. Do what is required by the terrain where you are, and move on the track of least resistance to whatever reveals itself to come next.

*    *    *

It’s also typical of me to say I’m not a Taoist and then talk solely about the #TTC (as the kids say) and I Ching, but I am consistently drawn to the same forms of recognizable truth found in all religions and spirito-mythic systems. Take the Bible, for instance – I’m constantly drawn back to the book of Ecclesiastes, because it’s filled with clarity, accuracy, and wisdom. If you’re not familiar with the book as a whole, go read it, it’ll only take twenty minutes. You know the third chapter, though – it’s the one the Byrds made a song from (though I think they were covering someone else like always), the passage about “To everything [turn, turn, turn] there is a season [turn, turn, turn] and a time to ever purpose under heaven.” It’s wonderful prose, even as translated into English in the worst versions of the Bible (I can only imagine how good it is in the original) as it goes through a loose list – time to kill and time to heal, time to laugh and time to weep, time to live and TIME TO DIE (BWAHAHA).

The one I always thought was strangest, though, is “A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” I mean, kinda random, right? Might as well say “Time to collect Hot Wheels toy cars, and a time to go to the memorabilia show and sell them.” Arbitrary. Yet now in the strange morning glow of having recognized (but a few of) my own faults, it comes to mind with greater weight than I’ve ever ascribed it previously.

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In the winter, when light is low but starting to build, that’s the time to gather stones together. I suppose you could boil it down simply to the time to gather it together. All is increasing, all is building, the spring bursts forth into violent, fantastic life and light, and it’s on us to go along with the time of accumulation and acceleration.

Predictably, then, the summer that follows the June solstice is the time to cast away stones – or, boiled down, the time to let it go. It’s not a letting-go in contradiction to the other notions of tending to the seeds we have planted or storing up light that we’ll need in the days to come. It’s not saying “Eff it, what’s meant to be is meant to be” – I would never, ever suggest any such thing – but the flexibility of life, the component of being able to sway in the breeze beneath that most holy of suns, it requires us to not cling white-knuckled to modes of thinking and action that belong to a different time of the year. This is now summer. This is time to float – or flow – lightly, without strain, a time in which we are required to arrive at even our most sincerely and righteously desired goals by a zig-zag or a spiral and not a straight line.

Don’t worry about figuring out the answer just now. Ponder instead the nature – and perhaps absurdity – of whatever the question may be. Don’t fret over the things and people that aren’t the way they “should” be, but flow from thing to thing and, if anything, contemplate with the light-heartedness of a pipe-smoking hobbit the way that things are right now. Should you discover personal work you previously considered crucial to have become a burden, stop doing it. As long as it’s not what gets you paid. You don’t need to stop forever. Just now. It’s time to cast away stones, not to throw them in the lava at Mount Doom to be destroyed. If and when you need them later, they’ll still be where you cast them, still be the same as when you last saw them, but you’ll be different – fuller, stronger, balanced, and more filled with life.

My guess is that by allowing your flow to meander, by seeking and accumulating as little as possible, you’ll discover that to have been the only way to gain the abilities you truly needed in order to accomplish whatever you were setting out to accomplish in the first place. The fall harvest seems to be of more obvious inherent importance, but it it’s on us to remember that without a loose and flowing summer, the harvest won’t amount to much anyway.

Don’t forget – the soil in the fields gets its nutrients from all the shit and the rotting things. The seeds that were silent, indeed. And don’t worry – just when you get used to the carefree life of a little mountain river, it’ll be time to switch it up again. That’s both blessing and curse.

Now go eat and drink with people you like. Happy solstice! Salaam.

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