Right now, I’m sitting in “Costa Coffee” in the old market town of Devizes in Wiltshire, UK. People are coming in with their families or friends and there’s the sort of talk that sounds like people are catching up with one another. I like writing here because I find the buzz stimulating – and I like the coffee! Devizes at this time actually feels like a market town, even though this function of rural towns has been in decline. People are coming in to town to stock up for Christmas, because here in the UK we really go for Christmas. It’s a real feast and can go on for days – I remember as a child eating four Christmas dinners with different members of my family. So Devizes at the moment is really busy.
There’s an excited air of expectation. For me, Christmas has had a mix of the material and the spiritual. There was, as a child, the expectation of presents! What goodies would I get? Of course as I got older and wiser, I’d probably had a peep in a cupboard while my parents were out to see what was coming, and so probably spoiled the expectation a bit. Then there was the feasting and the meeting up with family members, with lots of warmth and laughter. It seemed very dark and mysterious, partly because the house was lit differently with Christmas lights and decorations and the main lights turned down to emphasise them.
I was brought up an atheist, or at least that was my father’s position, having himself had Catholicism beaten into him by a convert father, probably literally, and monks at his Catholic boarding school. My mother was more ambivalent. However there were other influences, partly the media – the 1950’s BBC had a solemn educative role – and partly school, so that I also had, and still have, a mystical expectation. I never took to religion; after various flirtations I eventually decided that I didn’t “do” religion but certainly “do” spirituality. But the cultural tradition of Christianity that I grew up in has a pervasive influence across the population, overlapping historical influences of an official religion – we still have a state church, the Church of England. It is perhaps hard to escape both the current experience, eg, Christmas carols, images plastered all over the place, Christmas cards with religious imagery, and the experience of times past, of memory.
The Christian teaching is that the mother of Christ travelled to Bethlehem and there in a manger gave birth to a child whom his followers later hailed as the son of God. Whatever you may think of both the story and the underlying doctrine, the emotional power of the story on our consciousness is immensely powerful. Do you feel it? It certainly affects me as I write these words. As we approach the Christian feast day of Christmas, there is more than just the material expectation of festivity, gathering, friendliness and warmth of contact. There is also the expectation of the anniversary of a birth, which historically and culturally has had immense significance for huge numbers of people. For as long as I can remember, that sense of expectation of a coming event of mystical significance has lain at the back of my awareness, enough to give the days leading up to Christmas the background sense of being hallowed.
Of course, you don’t have to buy into any doctrine or belief system in order to have a few days be hallowed. All days can be hallowed, and treated reverentially. But while the collective energy of people builds in expectation, for those of us who like to tune into the deeper significance of things and ourselves, this is a great time to be aware, to sense the atmosphere of celebration, to celebrate, to connect with joyousness and to allow ourselves to feel joyous. I believe that joyousness is part of our natural state. So, it is a great time, as I said in an earlier posting, to go within and meditate.
Also, today is Winter Solstice day and, for some reason, it’s very calm here, right at the sun’s lowest point on the horizon. Appropriately it’s been very frosty, with deep mists and a faint sun later in the day. And so there is another reason that I strongly recommend to those of you who meditate to take some time today to do just that, to connect with people’s energy and also to tune in to the earth’s energy. We’re following the energy down to its still resting point, very much as one does in meditation, pausing between breaths, pausing in the flow of thoughts, stilling ourselves for some moments. If “tuning in” doesn’t mean anything to you, just say to yourself that you are connecting to the earth’s energy and have the intention that that is what is happening. Then be present to the moment. Let thought go, and just have the sense that you are looking at the present, “witnessing” it, or being with the present, or being attentive to the present. It’s like everything goes into suspense and all there is is awareness.
And, if you’ve got a lot of shopping to do, and journeys to make, and people to see, you can of course do that too. Just take your awareness with you – that’s one great benefit of meditation – with the added ingredient of joyousness.