As these last days in France come to a close, it’s cold and blustery outside with a heavy gray sky. Bare branches dance in a winter landscape counterpoised with green grass in psychedelic hues. In the garden, masses of white snowbells and purple crocus bloom under the thorny branches of sleeping rose bushes. Here and there a few brave yellow daffodils peak out. It rains off and on, the streams are running high, and I continue to marvel at how everything in this part of France drips with water, even when it’s not raining. From my upstairs bedroom I can see the swift, glittering flow of the river across fields and trees.
Yesterday I walked in nearby woods with a friend. The ground was spongy with thick layers of fallen leaves, mold, dark green ivy, and mounds of mud—the underground activities of moles, I learned. Wandering through groves and thickets crisscrossed with deer trails, we came upon several trees that fell long ago but still live and grow from their reclining position on the ground spanning the curve of a small creek. The boles of these trees were covered with iridescent green moss that glowed against the brown, grey, and silver background of dead leaves, tangled branches and vegetal rot.
The winter face of nature speaks of death, darkness, quietude, desolation. Everything is breaking down and dreaming—a slumbering deconstruction in comparison with summer’s celebration of leaf, blossom, fruition and activity. And yet something, moss and ivy and all the hidden roots of things, still lives, grows, and thrives while most of the natural world is in a deathlike sleep, regenerating for spring’s rebirth. Taking in these impressions, I reflected once again on what winter has to teach me about the life of the soul.
When I was in my twenties I lived for six years in an intentional community located in a very remote area of the Ozark Mountains. Young and free (so we thought), full of vision and passion and verve, we ran wild on five hundred and twenty acres of some of the most beautiful land in the Buffalo River watershed. It was during this time that I first came to experience the way the seasons of nature reflect the seasons of the soul. During those years, through direct observation of nature, reading, dreams, gardening, and studying the patterns of life, I came to view things in terms of archetypal realities—just as there is man, there is woman, just as there is death, there is birth, just as there is spirit, so also there is soul. Just as there is God the Father, so is there God the Mother—the masculine nondual Oneness and the feminine Goddess as Great Nature. Years later I would come to know these polarities as Purusha and Prakriti, in the terms of Samkhya, one of the six great schools of philosophy found in the Indian tradition.
So what does that mean in practical terms, as we struggle or saunter or wander or charge down the road of life? There may be something of utility in considering that perhaps a bit too much of our spirituality focuses on the spirit—nondual realization of self, of the timeless, immortal, unchanging consciousness, nondual Purusha. Maybe we need to pay more attention to Prakriti, the soul moving in patterns and cycles through time and space.
The soul is known by many names, but it is that individual being, created and beloved by the Creator, evolving in time and space, which Krishna tells us in the Bhagavad Gita will live forever because he/she/it has been created by Krishna (the Oneness and Allness of Everything). In the great process of divine evolution, soul becomes conscious to its true nature and takes on conscious responsibility for Creation—the Obligation to Praise.
This true nature—sahaja—awakens and unfolds in the interplay between Purusha and Prakriti, or Shiva and Shakti. Without Shakti, the eternal Shiva principle can do nothing. He lies supine beneath Mother Kali, his Shakti, which is the active principle of Creation. He lies passively, eyes closed in a swoon, while it is She who looks out upon us with tongue wagging in ecstasy, or to ward off evil (some say). Her eyes are curious, confrontive, playful, active, energetic, creative, dangerous, wild and irresistible. She is our Mother. She gives birth with one hand and death with the other.
Sahaja is the love child of Shiva and Shakti. The child is our true nature, which paradoxically is innate, already present and existent, and yet it must be awakened in order for the child to grow and evolve. This process of growth is what poet John Keats called “soul-making.” Why would we want to realize something beyond the unchanging nondual? Why would we want to stay in time and space to evolve? It’s a question to ponder with heart, not to answer with logic, and pondering it, I inevitably come to a contemplation of purpose and praise. Perhaps we want to evolve so that we may fulfill our purpose and enter into the necessary work of Praise.
Perhaps we are born to praise everything. When darkness falls, praise. When morning comes, praise. When evil appears, praise; when goodness reigns, praise. When there is faith, praise. When there is doubt, praise. My mahaguru, Yogi Ramsuratkumar, said many times, “Only praise. This Beggar wants only praise.” It was an essential instruction—the cure for everything, all ills and illnesses, is to praise. Other words for praise are: compassion, love, empathy, gratitude, and so on.
And yet praise is a wordless state of being. We benefit ourselves and others when we are in the mood of praise. Praise can be true of us even when we are depressed, despairing, desolate, devastated, in a process of deconstruction—like the magical beauty of delicate moss growing in ten shades of green amidst winter’s sleeping decay. Praise happens naturally when we see Nature as She is—alive with purpose, sentient, also praising, rejoicing in birth and death and all the processes in between. Anything and everything in Nature can be a reminding factor for the spiritual path; can transmit wisdom and initiate remembrance of what is true; can serve as a doorway into sahaja as a moment of direct perception. For me, this is especially true of trees—sentient beings that often inspire me to praise.
Once awakened, we are destined to grow in cyclical patterns of ever-expanding consciousness. And yet, we can go back to sleep for periods of time, like the trees every winter. How and when will we awaken? How do we carry an intention to awaken, when the time comes—when spring arrives in the season of the soul? There must be some part of us, like the moss on the trees, the sap that slumbers in the roots of things, that stays awake even when we appear to be sleeping, decaying, rotting, or even dead?
Spiritual practice, like meditation or mantra practice, grows something mysterious—an iridescent moss in the winter of our souls. Practice is the time-honored, universal way to cultivate intention and accumulate strength and force. Another way is to intentionally seek out beauty and sacred images in pilgrimages, called yatra in Sanskrit. Europe is one of the places where I love to go on small pilgrimages, seeking beauty and the sacred. I never know what surprise and delight, what teaching or transmission, I may discover.
Two weeks ago I went with a friend to L'eglise de Notre Dame in Montmorillon, and there we discovered a Black Madonna, sitting high on a pedestal in a shrine to the side of the Nave. The local people take her out of the church each year, carry her on a litter around the village and down to the river in celebration of her powers of heal—just like the goddesses in India. The last really big miracle attributed to this Lady was in the late nineteenth century. Maybe She is waiting to be awakened by a strong prayer.
A week later I went to Tours, where we walked first to the Royal Basilique to see the relics of Saint Martin in an ornate tomb in the crypt. The skull bone of this famous fourth century Roman soldier-turned-holy man (he was bishop of the Cathedral of Tours) is a popular stopping place for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Sixteen hundred years ago he was revered for his deeds of kindness and charity, most clearly depicted in the moment when took off his military winter cloak and cut it in half with his sword to give it to a freezing peasant.
From there we walked to the Cathedral de Tours. It is hundreds of years old, filled with sacred art and stained glass windows of brilliant colors. In the garden outside the museum next door, we discovered one of the largest trees I have ever seen—a Lebanon Cedar. I thought surely it must be a thousand years old, but the sign said it was planted less than three hundred years ago. This was a tree of purpose, of sentient awareness—a tree to make a believer of the unbeliever. This tree rivaled even the great redwoods of northern California, another favorite pilgrimage for this traveler. I find these and countless locations of natural beauty to be places of soul-making and sanctity, places of beauty and sacred atmosphere where I can remember purpose and praise.
Most striking of all—as I gazed upon the vast sprawling branches of the cedar—so heavy it has to be propped up with thick beams—I realized, she never loses her leaves, no matter what the season. Interesting indeed. The seasons continue to come and go all around her. Certainly she experiences cold in winter and heat in summer, and there is some difference in these different climates for her. But she has attained a certain endlessness, a continuity of self through cycles of change. The Lebanon Cedar is extraordinarily alive—a strong, immense, growing sentient creature that is evergreen. This, Mother Nature says to me, is a possibility for you, too.
©2016 Mary Angelon Young. All rights reserved.