h Phoenix Qi: Daoism on Winter

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Daoism on Winter

An important aspect of living a relaxed and harmonious life is being observant of Natural Laws, our guides to living in the moment and in tune with the natural cycles. This is what is meant by living in balance, not unchanging equilibrium.

As Deng Ming-Dao tells us in his writing “Balance” from the book 365 Tao, “Nature does not achieve balance by keeping to one level. Rather, elements and seasons alternate with one another in succession. Balance, as defined by the Tao, is not stasis but a dynamic process of many overlapping alternations; even if some phases seem wildly excessive, they are balanced by others.

Everything has its place. Everything has a season. As events turn, balance is to know what is here, what is coming, and how to be in perfect harmony with it. Then one attains a state of sublimity that cannot be challenged.”

Last month we experienced one of the major natural cycles of the Earth, the Winter Solstice on Friday, December 22, at 00:22 Universal Time. Coincidentally, the moon was New on December 20, and we may recall seeing the first sliver of a crescent on the night of the Solstice, another tiny bit of yang brightness peeking into the otherwise yin darkness.

Many people think of the Yijing (I Ching) only as a divination tool, but Daoists often regard its lines and symbols as a sublimely meaningful, philosophical map for a long and happy life.

Fu is the Chinese name for hexagram 24. It means: return; repeat, repeatedly; return to a normal or original state. Parts of this Chinese character represent footprints going and coming back – a symbol indicating cyclic travel or change.

Hexagram 24 is often called "Return." It represents the month of the Winter Solstice, the "re-turn" or cyclical change back to longer daylight hours. The lines are comprised of the symbol for Thunder (the lower three lines) within the Earth (the upper three lines). The budding influence is the bottom yang/light line; all the lines above it are yin/darkness. This arrangement of the lines heralds that first moment of increasing daylight although the length of day is still very much shortened by the quiet, still, darkness of the longer nights.


Here is what the Yijing has to say about hexagram 24 and winter: a quote from the Richard Wilhelm I Ching translated into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press/Bollingen Foundation Inc., New York, 1977, p. 506:

Hexagram 24, called Return or The Turning Point

The Image:

Thunder within the earth:
The image of The Turning Point.
Thus the kings of antiquity closed the [mountain] passes
At the time of the solstice.
Merchants and strangers did not go about,
And the ruler
Did not travel through the provinces.


If you've observed the evening sky this month, you've noticed that the handle of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is pointing toward the Northern horizon. North is symbolic of yin, night and darkness, cloudiness (the meaning of "yin" originated with the "cloudy" or "shady" side of a mountain; "yang" was the sunny side), underground, water, the downward direction (in Chinese feng shui and most maps, North is customarily at the bottom of the page), and valleys among other things; all things symbolic of serenity, non-action, responsiveness which means taking no initiatory action, but only responding to outside stimuli. Think of responsiveness this way: a seed in the ground takes no initiatory action, it doesn't decide when to grow; it sprouts in response to the stimuli of water from the rain and heat from the sun.

You might think that the Winter Solstice is the most yin day of the year but, technically speaking, that is not the case. The day before the Solstice is the most yin day; on the day of the Solstice, the Sun turns around and the days begin heading in the other (yang/light) direction.

In the Old Farmer's Almanac, I discovered that there is a city in Montana where, on the day of the Winter Solstice, the hours of daylight are exactly 1/3 the length of the hours of darkness, and 12:00 Noon almost exactly marks the middle of the daylight hours (it is off-center by only four minutes!). Sunrise occurs at 8:04 AM and sunset occurs at 4:04 PM giving eight hours of daylight and sixteen hours of darkness on the Winter Solstice day. (Yes, the Summer Solstice day there is exactly opposite, with sunrise occurring at 4:04 AM and Sunset at 8:04 PM!) That 1:2 ratio is important - it is Nature's message to us telling us how we should be utilizing (or, perhaps I should say restoring) our own energies at this time of year: one-third active, two-thirds passive.

(In case you are curious, I happened to discover this when I was searching for a location where Noon on the clock really was in the middle of the day (the sunrise-sunset cycle) on the day of the Winter (and Summer) Solstice. I don't have the almanac handy, but I believe the city is Glasgow, Montana.)

In the past, this time of year meant a time of rest for warriors and farmers alike, in fact for all segments of society. Even the ruler "did not travel through the provinces." After all, "the king closed the passes" restricting travel and therefore activity, possibly for the safety of the merchants and other people because traveling through the mountains in winter can be risky! (Some Daoists believe that even your qi flows more slowly in the winter.)

However, with technological advances, we've lost that connection with the cycles of Time and Nature. We can get up earlier, go longer, faster, and farther whatever the hours of daylight. Obviously this offers great advantages to our ability to produce, to get things done, to be active (yang), but it does rather go against the purpose of the yin season, to properly utilize this time given to us to rest, to reflect in silence, to attune with the universal energies. We listen to music on the
radio instead of the sound of falling snowflakes (yes, they do make a sound when they land on the ground!). We turn on more electric lights instead of basking in the softness of the moon's reflection. It's a bit of a paradox that this time of year which should be our most quiet time often turns out to be our busiest time because of holiday parties and shopping. We have become quite out of harmony with Nature, Time, and the Dao. We no longer allow ourselves time to reflect, to rest in the solitude of the season of the night.

In the Five Phases of Energy, often called the Five Elements, water is the energetic signature for winter. It should always be our intention to live by the words "go with the flow"…emulate water; ever gently moving, following its course with quiet, soft determination, finding its own level. Water can carve through mountains with its persistence but that is a spring and summer activity. In the winter, even water "stops" – it freezes, ceases flowing, it is at rest. It falls from the sky as snowflakes; it solidifies into the mirror-like surface on a lake or pond – yet another symbol of the "reflective" quality of this season. If indeed we strive to emulate water, we must stop and be at rest, too.

When the body is at rest, the mind gains the time to reflect, and the spirit receives the energy to rejuvenate the body. This is the secret for a long and happy life.

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