Light in the darkness – a solstice meditation

Posted December 21st, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Light in the darkness – a solstice meditation

First of all, let’s just say that darkness gets a bad rap. We live in dark times – I get the metaphorical meaning of that, the equating of “dark” with “troubled.

Also, darkness, as in, we cannot see very well; a lot of what is, is hidden. And the darkness can include scary, even terrifying things. We can sometimes sense them, feel the energy of threat or danger.

We can also spook ourselves, feel fear when there is nothing there at all, at least nothing to fear. We can project our fears into darkness, then rage against it, against what actually is not there.


Credit: M Swedish

But none of this makes darkness “bad” because we cannot see the light without it.

There’s also darkness that we embrace, a cloak of comfort in the night, a place of rest and sleep, when our minds stop for a while so that dreaming can occur.

There is also darkness as a choice, a decision to not see what we don’t want to see.

Like the horrific damage we have done to the planet, and how radical the change required to avoid a true planetary catastrophe. It’s already unfolding, but we don’t have to look at it if we don’t want to. We can stay in the dark.

Light in the darkness – humans have been trying to light up this darkest time of the year in our hemisphere for as far back as we could make light – with fire, with candlelight, with oil lamps, or a light switch, with Christmas lights on our houses, or Menorahs, or bonfires, or a sweet fire in the fireplace of our living rooms.


Credit: M Swedish

Or we ritualize the moments of transition, as with the solstices, moments of greatest and shortest sunlight in our day. We mark the turning. We dance, we sing, we chant, we tell stories.

I, for one, love the long darkness of this season. I love lighting a candle in the early morning when the dark is that deepest before dawn. I love how the dawn arrives later now so that I feel more like getting out of bed to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan (or the earth turn so that this illusion of rising appears).

Humans have long marked the day of longest darkness because the return of light into the day, stretching minute-by-minute now over time, offered them hope – of warmth, of the return of the planting season and eventually the harvest, of survival. It is an announcement that all is still right with the cosmos.

Christians moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to these days just after the solstice for a reason. They connected incarnation with the return of light. They connected the return of light with hope, with the birth of a savior.

Did light come out of COP21? Was any hope born?

If you follow us on Facebook, you know I’ve been one of the climate conference’s critics. A lot of (too much?) energy has gone into arguing about whether or not a breakthrough happened there, some victory. I understand and appreciate that 196 countries finally agreeing that climate change is an unfolding catastrophe, and then setting some clear markers as “goals,” “ambitions,” “aspirations,” is a step forward in acknowledging that awful reality of our times. And I agree that they can now be shamed by failure to do what needs to be done to keep warming below those markers.

I also know that they did not agree to do what is needed to avoid surpassing them because economic industrial growth remains the only path world government leaders see to keep power structures in place, or their positions of power, or the process of capitalist wealth generation, or even, more altruistically, lifting their populations out of poverty by consuming more of what comes so easily – fossil fuels.

Coal fired power planet, Help UT

Coal fired power planet, Helper UT

This conference occurred as we approached the days of longest, darkest nights. It’s a disaster for hope – if we put hope there. On the other hand, if it did what many of us thought it would do – fall short under the weight of corporate lobbyists and the unwillingness of world leaders to let go their firm grounding in the western global economic paradigm, that that paradigm must be preserved above all other concerns, even if the costs include island nations, indigenous populations, and large swaths of a habitable planet – then it was not a blow for or against hope. It merely showed us once again why hope is not lodged there. It showed us once again that real change, transformation, The Great Turning, will not come from that source.

Is it really so disappointing to say that? Haven’t those of us on the side of liberation struggles and movements for social justice known this for a long time now? The power structures that have brought us to this moment of planetary catastrophe, and raging violent injustice, and which work overtime to keep us trapped in this awful paradigm, are not going to overturn themselves, give up power just to keep the seas from rising or drought and famine from killing millions of us. They are going to try to address the crisis in ways that preserve economic and geopolitical power relationships.

Industrial wasteland of the Alberta tar sands region, once boreal forest. Credit: M Swedish

Industrial wasteland of the Alberta tar sands region, once boreal forest. Credit: M Swedish

And so, in the wake of COP21, the US Congress ends the 40-year ban on oil exports, and Enbridge discloses plans to to spend $5-billion to build three oil storage facilities on the Gulf Coast to develop its export capacity (by way of the pipeline networks it is also expanding), and India reiterates its commitment to double its output of coal over the next five years.

What did we think would happen?

Because acknowledging the problem is not itself change. Acknowledging the problem is a triumph over refusing to acknowledge the problem. But real triumph would be a comprehensive binding agreement at a scale and urgency commensurate with the pace of the unfolding ecological crisis. That wasn’t going to happen in Paris.

Again, if you follow us here or on Facebook, you know that we have been critical of some of the pre-COP21 statements from various climate groups and activists, that this conference was our “last chance” to “save” the planet from catastrophic warming, to keep the temperature rise below 2C (now considered a disastrous amount of warming), that we have to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground or we are doomed, that the global economy has to move to zero carbon emissions by 2050 (in just 34 years), and the path to that needs to be in place by 2030 (in just 14 years). Or wait, even that timeline is now known to be a couple of decades too long.

And if moving decisively to reach these climate boundaries wasn’t going to happen in Paris – and it didn’t – what then?

It can be very dangerous to bind hope and salvation to impossible markers like these.

There is always light in the darkness. The glow of the moonlight, the brilliance of Venus in the early morning sky, the Milky Way, the faint glow off a snow-covered field, the streetlight out my window, or the single candle lit in the window of the house across the street.

Where do we find light? Where do we look for it?

indigenous people protest in Paris

Indigenous people protest in Paris

In the streets of Paris, grassroots movements from around the world gathered even in the face of bans on organized protests in the wake of the terrorist attacks that occurred in the days before the conference. They gathered in alternative conference rooms and halls. They put canoes in the Seine River and witnessed for and with Mother Earth (put another way, they were Mother Earth bearing witness). They demanded the inclusion of rights that include all of Nature – indigenous activists, faith communities, justice coalitions, and more. “Places” were part of these communities – rivers, forests, fellow creatures were part of these communities in the streets of Paris.

I come from a long solidarity background, working with homeless people in Montreal, and then in the Central America solidarity movement out of a national grassroots faith-based office in Washington DC. One of the things I learned is how important it is for white privileged North Americans to enter with great humility into partnership with those organizations and movements led by people struggling for their liberation from political, social, economic, and cultural oppression. We have to leave our egos at the door, become deep listeners, work to gain the trust of those left on the margins of the dominant western economic system. They are our teachers about their own realities and help us see what we look like from their perspective.

One of the groups I followed during COP21 is the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), their Facebook updates, videos, and interviews on various media. With less to lose in the dismantling of the global economy, they could be more honest about outcomes. And, boy, were they honest! With words like “betrayal” they denounced the agreement – one that purposefully left out indigenous and human rights, left out any mention of fossil fuels, and gave the process of saving us from climate change over to “market mechanisms,” continuing the process of handing over the future to global capital. Their cultures and communities remain as endangered as ever as global powers intend to financialize the living communities of Mother Earth, to divvy her up for offsets and carbon trading.

This is what happens when you look into the darkness and see only climate change as the crisis, or see it only as the problem, rather than evidence of the problem – the real problem – the global economic system that has brought it about. That system will not save us because it is the very crisis itself!

You look through the lenses of the most endangered communities, the most marginalized, the ones with the fewest resources, and you see a different view of COP21 than those shouting triumph, progress, or a big step forward.

Embedded video – Historic Kayak Action in the Seine River

[see also: Paris was a failure, but a climate justice movement is rising]

Light starts little by little now to stretch out longer into our days. The cycle of light and dark goes on and will continue to go on as long as there is a cosmos. The whole cycle is beautiful and predictable. That is not about hope at all. Hope is about what is not predictable, what we see in dreams but is not yet realized, what we believe can be true even against the weight of the evidence. Hope is how we choose to live in this dance of darkness and light, in which we are gifted to be conscious participants. It is who we choose to be in the world, how we decide to act.

We need to make some light so we can see our way in the dark. That’s how I see my mission after more than six decades of life, the work of the Center for New Creation and the old project, Spirituality and Ecological Hope, which has been morphed into the CNC’s mission – to shine some necessary light on our predicament.

If you are walking in the dark toward the edge of a cliff, you want to know it, yes? I’m trying to be a flashlight for us, to point it toward the cliff and say, we don’t want to keep walking in that direction, right? We need to turn around and go another way.

Earth and moon from Saturn, our little light in the darkness - Cassini image

Earth and moon from Saturn, our little light in the darkness – Cassini image

We need to be that for the world, all of us, each in our own way with our own gifts – to be a glow in the dark pointing in the direction away from all that has brought us to this moment of crisis, to point the light in another direction so that more people can see the path toward the Great Turning, to show them that there is another path, that another way really is possible.

That’s when the metaphor works. That’s when the light in darkness becomes a meaningful, concrete expression of hope.

The Christian world calls it a light that darkness could not overcome. Only our commitment now to that Turning will ensure that this prophecy is fulfilled.

The cycle of light and darkness will go on with or without us. The cosmos does not care about hope. Hope is a reality for this human species alone. Light in the darkness is a metaphor we made up out of something deep within us, an urging, a longing. It wants to takes us somewhere, but we have to trust it – we have to trust that urging. But to follow it, we have to stop clinging to a “civilization” that no longer works, that has us trapped in a destructive way of life, addicted to the very things that are ruining the magnificent, life-bearing ecosystems of our planet – our industrial growth model of extraction-production-consumption-waste.

How do we commit now to the radical nature of hope, to live for it and from it, to be of service to it, in these waning days of industrial civilization? That’s the birth that needs some serious incarnating now. And we need to open ourselves to its arrival into the world.

Margaret Swedish

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