by Alan McAllister, CCHt PhD-phys
published in Shakti Yogi Journal
On a warm, blue-sky afternoon, I squat down and pick up smooth river rocks, turning to place them gently in a wheelbarrow. My beloved and I are using this beautiful fall day to relocate a layer of xeriscaping stones from a space that will be our garden next year. Some will become pathways after we have enriched the exposed soil. For now, we pile them under the hedge along the property line. The sparrows use this hedge for cover as they come and go from their homes in the trunk of a maple, which is dropping its last yellow leaves on us. As the piles of stones rise into low walls, I reflect on the ancient practice of building stone walls between fields. In upstate Pennsylvania and in New England where my ancestors farmed, walls were built for the same reason we are building ours: the stones have to leave the fields and find a new home.
Water is the only substance known to expand when it freezes (Libbrecht). Most liquids contract as they cool and become solid. Frozen pipes burst in cold weather because ice takes up more space than water. Swimming pools are drained in winter for the same reason. Water molecules (at most terrestrial temperatures) arrange themselves into a hexagonal lattice when they solidify into ice. This is the same efficient packing system that bees use to design their hives (Krulwich) and the molecular geometry that causes snowflakes to be six-sided. This strong crystalline structuring that allows lake ice to bear the weight of a person, easily pushes things out of its way.
Combine the expansive nature of ice and its strength to understand how cycles of freezing can help carve the Grand Canyon, or push old glacial stones up through the soil of a farmer’s field. In the laboratory and also in nature (Riffenburgh, 501), impurities are pushed to the edges of forming crystals. The crystals become grains of ice and grains form larger blocks. Movement, as ice flexes and flows under outside pressures, pushes foreign substances towards the outside of ever larger regions of frozen water.
It is interesting to note that the phase transition in water where the freezing/thawing process takes place occurs at a specific temperature. While the transition is taking place, energy is coming out (freezing), or going in (thawing) for an extended period while the temperature of the water/ice remains the same. So while the transition is happening the system may appear static, until the transition is complete and the temperature begins to change again (Phase). The same can be said to be true for spiritual practices or the evolution of society. Much energy or practice goes in, while nothing much seems to be happening, until the system saturates and begins to noticeably change again. In simple words, changes can happen quickly, but only after sometimes lengthy periods of preparation.
While the stones in our yard were placed there by a previous landscaper in order to conserve water, the stones in those eastern fields come up out of the earth every spring. Each winter, water in the fields condenses, becomes ice in the earth, expands and then melts, sinks, freezes and expands again. The cycles of contraction and expansion work the stones upwards to the surface [see “More About Ice”]. Every spring the farmers carry new stones out of the fields as they are cleared for plowing and planting, adding them to the surrounding walls. The fields breathe with the seasons in this way, raising the stones so that farmers can clear them. The farmers can choose to feel the earth is working against them, or see that it is aiding them in deepening the stone-free topsoil in their fields.
The cycles of nature cleanse impurities on all scales from the molecular to the global. Water is filtered in wetlands (Role); ice clears itself while forming (Riffenburgh 501), and then clears the fields; rain clears aerosols from the atmosphere (Chu). Today we lend our hands. Stones now relocated, we sit on the porch watching the sun set. Pink and orange painted clouds float against the deepening blue of the sky. The cycles of life wind down towards night and towards winter—the darker, more internal part of the day and of the year. Winter is the time of earth, of inwardness, of resting and inner preparation. In a few days we will enrich our earth with planting soil so that, receiving the winter rains and snows, it will marinate and integrate until the spring thaws and planting time. In nature the seeds have fallen and are working down into the soil planting themselves; new buds are already forming on the maple, even as its last leaves stand sentry against the flow of the seasons. Everything has its rhythms if you watch and see.
Humans can also use the quiet inner time of winter in order to clear ourselves of our stones. The stones of held things, dense old emotions, traumas of all scales; in the lungs, the body, the emotional being, in the mind and soul. Old stories, old emotions, sometimes outlive their usefulness, needing to be transformed or released to make space for new ones. The stones in the field carry the stories of the earth and are recycled into walls. On the porch we breathe the evening air. Closing eyes while the outward beauty sinks into our beings, like the seeds into the earth, we bring attention to our breath, following the flow in and out. This is our fundamental human cycle.
Breathing in, we expand and receive life force. Breathing out, we relax and release the carbon dioxide of the finished breath. While our bodies contract, the old breath goes out to the maple that breathes it in through its leaves; oxygenates it as the tree releases what it doesn’t need. We breathe it in again completing one of the cycles within cycles weaving Life on earth (El Nino). The sunset fades and evening chill urges us to move inside for now. In this season of condensation, we contract inwards, pull our attention from the outer world into ourselves, into home and hearth. In the darkness there is spaciousness, time for ourselves and our loved ones, to rest, reflect, create. Time to tell stories, dream our dreams; we plant seeds that can rise and grow into the next year.
Breathing, we drop into the spaciousness of the inner world, a place where Earth light and Star light flow into our beings from Spirit. A space that is illuminated and expanded with each breath. The joy of shared achievement, the beauty of the sunset, time to rest and meditate together, brings spaciousness. Each breath is expansive. In this peace, a worry appears in the mind. The adrenals issue fear. Suddenly the breathing changes. It becomes short and contractive; high in the chest, shoulders tensed, nervous system activated. Perhaps only a little, but it awakens other fears, other thoughts. The mind circles, recycling old scares, anticipating future challenges (Fear). Coming back to the breath, reaching inside for the spaciousness and the light, the body/being relaxes, calms, and the breath becomes expansive again.
Feel now the sometimes subtle, but always profound, differences in breathing when relaxed and joyful, or when tense and fearful. Which space serves better, is more creative, more alive? Physically stressed breathing, especially hyperventilation, actually reduces the amount of oxygen going to the brain (No Panic). It both constricts the blood vessels and reduces oxygen uptake. Following the breath inwards, we can find the tensions that live within us, the unfinished old energies that have become stuck, which then become the boogie men in our dark places. [see meditation]. Our stuck pieces rise up into the light of awareness, like the stones being worked upwards in the fields, little by little, (Riffenburgh, 501) raised by spiritual practices, in the spaciousness formed by yoga and meditation (McAllister). Like the farmers, we can choose to resist the stuck things that our breathing brings to the surface, or know that this is how Spirit helps us to clear our being, bringing spaciousness for our Soul to cultivate the life we dream to live. Then we can use our breath to help move them out (Levine). Releasing them on the exhalation clears the ground of Self for the next cycle of life and creativity.
Coming into the winter and this inward phase of the year, are you breathing in joy, finding the light and expansive spaciousness? Or are you tensed in fear, contracting into the dark? Sometimes I think of winter as a dark cold time to be gotten through; a time to hold my breath until the light and warmth comes again. In the dark or in inner space, we find all the different parts of ourselves: the dark as well as the bright. When we are trained by society to fear then we focus on the dark and become sacred, contracted, defensive. When our emotional stones rise in fear, they will be built into walls, becoming projections, defenses. Choose, rather, to expand with the breath and search for the light which co-exists in this inner space of emotion and feeling. Call it forward with your attention and let it illuminate the dark things so they brighten and any fears fade. In the inner dark the light of Life is already nourishing seeds that are forming for next year. Choose practices that fully release your fears into joy. Build stiles over the stone walls, reaching out from joy to connect and form community.
What sort of seeds form in expansive, restful, joy; what sort in contractive, restless, fear? Is your community in the winter one of joy, or a frantic attempt to feel less alone, to keep busy, to simply get through the dark until the light returns? The lungs contain tension until we gently breathe it out. The fields have stones until the ice slowly works them upwards and they are carried to the edges. The dark of the inner, the night, the winter, is populated with boogie things until we claim the spaciousness of these places; find the stars there, shine awareness with curiosity and compassion, and ease fears into the light. Release them on the exhalation to be recycled into new life on the next inhalation.
Until we have found our fears, come through our resistance to them and created an internal relationship of neutrality and compassion, we can’t create the joyful world we want to live in. Joy cannot be created from fear. Inner fears will drive outward doings; we are both evolved and trained to work this way (Why), but they do not create the world of your Soul’s visioning. When you have cleared the stones in the field of your being, you will find that it is a much more spacious and pleasant place to be. Life needs times of rest and repose, of turning inwards.But it also must expand in joy, not contract in fear. In the quiet times we can learn in our inner world to recondition ourselves from fear to love.
This winter I invite you to take time to feel into the dark places, gently, expansively, finding the light, the seeds and the spaciousness in them and in yourself. Be aware also of the emotions, the old stories, the stones. Simply sit with yourself in the dark, breath with attention and they will come forth. Spirit will help you as the ice helps the farmer; all you have to do is show up and be willing to be present while things transform. Focus first on the light and invite it to comfort the tensions and the fears, then breathe them out. From a place of inner joy, come together with your communities and begin to tell the new stories that will become the world next year. Resting by yourself, with a beloved, or in broader community, allow the purification, the shedding of completed things, the clearing of old stones. Find the light, the joy, the inspiration for the next round of life and creation. Weave this together in dance, in song, in story, in love. And when you are done, drink hot chocolate.
-Chu, Jennifer, “Can rain clean the atmosphere?” MIT News 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://news.mit.edu/2015/rain-drops-attract-aerosols-clean-air-0828.
-“El Nino” Wikipedia. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Ni%C3%B1o.
-“Fear processing in the brain” Wikipedia. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_processing_in_the_brain.
-Krulwich, Robert, “What Is It About Bees And Hexagons?” Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2013/05/13/183704091/what-is-it-about-bees-and-hexagons.
-Levine, Stephen. Healing into Life and Death. Anchor Books, NY NY, 1987.
-Libbrecht, Kenneth G., “Physical Properties of Ice”, Caltech. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/ice/ice.htm.
-McAllister, Alan. “Listening to Stillness”. Shakti Yogi Journal, Winter 2015. https://www.shaktiyogijournal.com/listen-to-stillness.html. Web & Print. 10 Dec 2015.
-“Phase Changes in Water”. [see especially the first section] HyperPhysics. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/thermo/phase.html.
-Riffenburgh, Beau. Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, Taylor & Francis, 2007.
-“Role of wetlands in water purification”. Mediterranean Wetlands. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://www.medwetlands-obs.org/en/content/role-wetlands-water-purification.
-Smith, B., “Cycles in Nature”. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://www.smithlifescience.com/CyclesNature.htm.
-“Why is it important to breathe properly to help Anxiety?” No Panic. Web. 10 Dec 2015. https://www.nopanic.org.uk/important-breathe-properly-help-anxiety/.
Active things are fine, but try to include some quiet activities, too. Use your sacred imagination, follow your heart. Do something you haven’t done in a long time and try something you’ve never done.
1) Finding Joy: Use the meditation here or any other practice to connect to and cultivate your inner light, the joy of Life that lives within you.
2) Touching Stones: Feel into where your tension lives. Practice witnessing fear and letting it expand into the out breath.
3) Sweat Lodge: This is a great practice for clearing, healing, and finding joy. It is also a great community practice.
4) Creative Dreaming: Spend time letting your dreams come out into words, sounds, movement, or images. Try to let the mind drift so that your soul is given space to express itself.
5) Cooking Earth Foods: The body has seasonal rhythms and likes different foods in the winter, generally heavier and things that are warm. Listen to your body. Do some cooking with others; focus on having fun and being with friends.
Keep the Love in Focus: Love and community are the core intentions for all Holy Day activities and celebrations. Go with what serves these and leave the rest.
Respect yourself when you feel stretched to “go out”: Check into how energetic or outgoing your body/being is. Let go of “should” and “ought to”. Know that giving yourself permission to relax is an example of self-care.