This morning was deliciously bright, clear, and cool in western Massachusetts, reminding me that Alban Elued, the Druid celebration of the Autumnal Equinox, is coming before long. Another big hint is that we just spent a tidy bundle on back-to-school clothes.
“Alban Elued” means “light on the water”, and refers to the light on the western seas as the sun is setting. Here in Massachusetts, where the sun sets into the mountains, it might better be called “Alban Mynydd”. As with all Druid holidays, it is traditionally celebrated by a gathering of the Grove with chanting, singing, and music. At this time of year, the celebration includes symbols of the fruit of the harvest. Thanks is given to the sacred Earth; and thanks, also, to the sun, who has sustained us another year, and now retires.
I’ve been moving slowly down the Druid path this summer — slowly because I’ve been busy with many other things. But summers are made for hurry and bustle, so perhaps that’s appropriate. (Many of us associate the summertime with laziness and vacation, but that’s just a holdover from the fact that children have vacations from school in the summer; and of course, schools have vacations in the summer because that used to be the time when all the children were needed to be home to work on the farm! So we have that exactly backwards.) Perhaps, as Apollo departs for Hyperborea and Taliesin is swallowed by Ceridwen, I can turn my attention back toward the center.
I did a meditation on Alban Elued this morning as I was driving to work. I did it my usual way, envisioning myself walking down forest path, the trail markers passing with each breath as I counted from 20 down to zero. This morning the forest was damp and cool, gray and dripping with dew. The scent of fallen leaves was strong. As I walked the broad path, the sun rose and drove away the mist. A wind came up and shook the high branches, so that the trees looked like they were filled with red, gold, and purple fluttering birds. At trail marker zero I didn’t arrive anywhere; I was still simply on the path. So I sat down on a rock.
As I sat and watched, a rabbit emerged from its hole and shot across the path, followed closely by half a dozen baby rabbits. A moment later I looked up and saw a deer and its fawn. Other animals came by, leading their children; I even saw bison with its calf. (I don’t think the bison had any particular special meaning — it probably only appeared because of my recent trip to South Dakota.) It was strange to see so many animals with their young in the autumn. The point, I think, was to remind me of the circle of the year — that the new birth at springtime is made possible by the many deaths as the year fails.
I felt I wanted to go a little deeper into the meditation at this point, so I stood up and looked for a guide. I felt myself drawn to a tree nearby, an oak. I put my hands on its trunk and it seemed as though I could feel the tree cooling off, losing energy, as it drew its resources into the ground for the winter.
“Do you have a message for me?” I asked the tree.
Yes, said the tree. Sleep!
Sleep! Yes, we should all go to sleep. There are two layers to this message: we should sleep more on a daily basis, and we should sleep more in the winter.
Everyone knows that sleep on a daily basis is vital for health and sanity. Lack of sleep makes you irritable, unable to concentrate, and more prone to disease. It also can make you gain weight and die in a car crash. Lack of sleep can also lead to a loss of perspective; you spend too much time obsessing about small, unimportant things and less time thinking about Life and What It All Means.
Fewer people know that the same can be said, on a much larger and more powerful scale, about yearly sleep patterns. Winter is the time when nature goes to sleep, and humans are designed to do the same. I’m not saying that we need to hibernate. But as the light fails and the snow falls, our sleeping periods should be longer and more restful. Doing this can make winter into a meditative time, a reflective time — a time to consider where we’ve been and where we’re going, to gain some perspective.
Failing to do this in the winter leads to the same bad effects as the chronic lack of daily sleep, but on a much larger scale. Look at the list of problems above and ask yourself whether Western culture suffers from those problems as a society. We’re irritable, we’re unable to concentrate, we’re more prone to disease, we’re fat…
A lot of us literally die in car crashes, but there are more abstract car crashes as well — when we are “driving” some aspect of our lives, like our career or our family, trying to drive it forward without enough sleep, and “drowsiness” forces itself upon us in the form of disease, distraction, and death.
And “spending too much time obsessing about small, unimportant things and less time thinking about Life and What It All Means” is almost a definition of Western culture.
How can we take a step back and sleep more in the winter? It’s not easy; it requires sacrifices, just like getting enough sleep at night. Like a lot of important things in life, the path is a simple one, but steep.
Here’s what our family is doing: we rise and sleep with the sun. When the sun rises, we get up. When it sets, we go to sleep.
This will naturally have the consequence that we will sleep less in the summer and more in the winter, which is what we want. This has been pretty easy in the summer. (It’s been easier for me than for my wife, since she’s a night owl, and I’m a lark.) It will be more challenging in the winter (for example, I have to get up at 5 am to work most days, and in the winter that’s a long time before dawn); but we’re giving it a shot. We have plenty of time to adjust as the autumn descends. I’ll keep you posted.
Quick note: I have added a Contact Form to this site; please feel free to use it — I’m delighted to hear from anyone who feels moved to write. Also, be sure to check out the blogroll on the side of the page. There’s lots of great reading there.