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A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Restoration at the Winter Solstice

The time of the greatest darkness is upon us at the winter solstice. Each morning, the sun seems to struggle to rise and hangs low in the sky. The world is covered in frost, cold, and snow, and the darkness of winter sets in. This is a hard time for many, perhaps more so now than before, given the cultural darkness and challenges that so many of us are facing globally and locally. So facing the darkness, in this very challenging time, takes something extra.

Winter Solstice Snow

Winter Solstice Snow

In my first post on this series (Receptivity at the Fall Equinox), I made the case that the traditional Wheel of the Year was developed and enacted under very different conditions than our present age. We now live in the Anthropocene, a period of human-driven climate change and cultural unrest which is very different than the Holocene, the period of relatively stable climate where the Wheel of the Year was developed. I argue that it will take a different kind of approach to celebrating the wheel of the year if we are to thrive in this age. Thus, I am offering a series of eight posts this coming year that focus on each of the traditional wheel of the year holidays and how they might be adapted to these darker and less stable times. I believe we need new approaches to celebrating our traditional wheel that emphasize the skills and vision that will help us not only navigate the continuing crisis but also help us bring forth a better future for our descendants and all life.

Previous posts in this series include the Fall Equinox (Receptivity) and Samhain (Release).  So if we think about how the wheel turns, after release–letting go, getting rid of all that holds you to former structures that are, frankly, crumbling around us.  So what comes next in our wheel of the year?  I argue at the time of deepest darkness, we should pay attention to our own needs and healing with the theme of restoration – for, without this, no work can proceed as we move forward back into the light and tackle some really hard stuff to come, stuff that is more externally focused!  In other words, we have to get our own house and mental health in order (the sequence of Fall Equinox- Samhain -Winter Solstice) so we can look externally in the year to come.

The Need for Restoration: Languishing and Solastalgia

A new term is popping up on news feeds as of late: “languishing.”  Languishing is somewhere in between well-functioning and deep depression. It is a state of feeling apathy, restlessness, feeling like the things that once brought you joy no longer do, feeling unsettled, and not interested in life. According to this article, research demonstrated that a good number of people are languishing, particularly in younger generations.  This term describes well what many people are facing.  What do we do about languishing rather than thriving?

Ice in the Winter Months

Ice in the Winter Months

The other piece that is coming into play with climate change is the concept of solastalgia.  Coined in 2007 by Albreiht et. al., they define it as follows “solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.”  If we think about all of the increasing changes we face–from wildfires to droughts to continued extraction activities, this concept grows more pressing and real.  How many of us have watched a forest that we loved get cut or burned, a pipeline come through our favorite swamp, or even a mountaintop get removed? How does that affect our mental well-being?

The real crux of the issue that I see is that things aren’t going to get any better globally.  Climate change is going to grow increasingly worse, and with it, a lot of other things are also on the decline.  Sure, things may stabilize for a bit, but we are in the ‘slow crash’ and things are going to keep tumbling down. Thus, we have to figure out ways to support ourselves and our communities–and to be strong enough to face our present age. I’m not mincing my words here.  I don’t think at this point anyone can ignore the crisis of our age or its severe impact on our mental or physical health. And if we are going to thrive in the coming age, we need to be in the strongest place possible: mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Understanding Restorative Activities

Restoration can be defined in a few different ways. It includes returning to health, bringing back to a former position or condition, or improving the condition of someone or something.  Part of restorative work is understanding our needs: what needs are being met, what needs remain unfulfilled, what we have the power to change and control, and what we have to learn to accept.

Restoration Meditation: Uncovering what Works

Understanding your own needs for restoration and rejuvenation is really central to this work.  I think that sometimes we buy into the hype of various products and “self-care” gimmicks, as though they can provide us the healing and restoration that we need. Or we listen to what other people think is a good idea rather than our own intuition.  So take a moment to set all of that aside and start thinking about your own needs and how you can be restored.  Thus, starting with this meditation can help you work through what is possible and create a game plan.

  • Think about the times that brought you the most rest.  What were they? When were they? What conditions did they come under?
  • Think about the time that you feel you were in the best mental health.  When was that? What conditions were present?
  • What is your perfect restful day look like?  Is it away from home or at home? What are the conditions that allow you to have this perfect restful day?
  • Do you ever prevent yourself from practicing self-care? Think about the deep emotions or issues that might be present in this issue.
  • Does anyone else ever prevent you from rest and healing? Is there a way to mitigate this problem?
  • How can you create or replicate the conditions that allow you to rest? What limitations or issues might you need to address?
  • What basic needs do you have that are unfulfilled? Is there anything you can dot work to fulfill them?
  • How do you support your physical body?  What can you do differently (food, exercise, rest, etc.)?
  • How do you support your emotions and mental health? What can you do differently?

First, understanding your own needs is central.  Nobody can define for you what rejuvenates you and how you can find your own healing–you must do that for yourself.  And your needs for restoration are not necessarily the needs of other people. For example, for me, the most restful thing I can do is stay home and be in my gardens and art studio, have a lot of unstructured time where I have no obligations to anyone, stay off of social media, and not answer texts or my phone.  Those things can create a deep sense of peace, the flow of awen, and the ability for me to dig into some really cool projects uninterrupted. This is really different than, say, someone who wants to travel far from home and spend a week on the beach. The point here is to know yourself and how you work.

The second part of this, getting at bullet point four, is self-sabotage or sabotage by other family members or close friends.  Sometimes we actively or subconsciously prevent ourselves from getting the rest and restoration we need.  Deeply examine any of these issues and where they may come from as part of this work. And sometimes, we have people in our lives who actively try to thwart self-care activities–and its important to recognize both of these so that we can heal.

Restoration Activities

White Pine Forest Bathing and White Pine Healing Steams, Baths, and Teas

White pine in winter

White pine in winter

Turning to evergreens, particularly the pine family and white pine, is an excellent idea as a restorative activity. Since the white pine is an evergreen tree, it reminds us of the green of summer and holds back the darkness.  White pine, both physically and energetically, draws things out.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine steam treatments and tinctures for people who have problems with breathing.  The connection to the breath is important–as we go about our lives in this very difficult age, it feels like many of us are holding our breath.

As a restorative activity, visit a white pine forest or spend time with a white pine tree.  Make sure you ask the tree’s permission to spend time and leave an appropriate offering. Simply be with the tree or in the forest, breathing in and out, sitting near the trunk, wandering and looking for messages, and allowing the energy of the white pine to soothe you.  Release the tension in your body, mind, and spirit.

Additional activities surrounding the white pine include doing a white pine bath (gather up needles with permission and an offering, add them to a bath and soak), a healing white pine tea (brew needles for 3 minutes, add honey), or a white pine herbal steam (instructions here).  All of these can be combined with other winter solstice activities or

If you don’t have white pine in your ecosystem, you can find an equivalent conifer–a dominant evergreen conifer tree, tall, majestic, with medicinal qualities ideally connected with the lungs.

Slowing Down

The holidays around the Winter Solstice, at least here in the US, feel like an insanely busy time.  Making a commitment to yourself to take some quiet moments and/or embrace slowness really matters.  Our culture glorifies busyness and the constant ticking off of to-do lists and this can contribute substantially to feeling over-worked, over-committed, and exhausted.  The following suggestions are ways to “slow down” and embrace a slower approach–which itself can be very rejuvenating.

  • Candlelight evenings and embracing the darkness. Living by candlelight is another restorative activity that can have substantial restorative benefits.  Electronic devices emit a blue light which can inhibit the production of melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep.  Shift your lighting to any kind of natural light, even for an evening or two.  Pick up a real book (not an e-reader or phone) and enjoy the quiet, slowness, and stillness of the winter. Embrace the extra sleep that this kind of practice allows.
  • Technology detox. Allow yourself to have a serious break from your electronic devices and the many obligations they bring.  Disconnect–for a few days, a week, whatever you want to do–and go technology-free.  To do this successfully, let friends or family know what you are doing and make a commitment in advance.  Often when people do this, at first there is a bit of panic or even withdrawal–we are so used to constantly picking up our phones, etc.  But after a day or two when the initial shock wears off, you realize how much better you feel without the constant technological tether.  This can create more meaningful opportunities to engage in a spiritual practice, explore one’s own understanding of the world, or embrace bardic arts.  Consider how you might fill the time normally spent interacting with technology with restorative activities.
  • Embracing a “slow” philosophy. The slow movement has been gaining traction for many years.  The philosophy has many components, slow food, slow spirituality, slow work, and slow time to name a few.  The principle is simple and yet very difficult to enact: we slow down.  We take our time to cook healthy food that came from local sources or that we grew, we reframe our relationship and time commitments to work, we create unstructured leisure time, and we reject the many cultural demands that say we must work harder, faster, and always be on the go.  This is an incredibly restorative activity!

The Druid’s Retreat

Another restorative that can be done is for you to have a retreat. A retreat is a fantastic way to set aside time for spiritual growth and rejuvenation. A retreat can restore you in ways that few other things can. I have two posts that go into detail about how to set up your retreat and how to go about your retreat.  Winter is a lovely time to do a retreat–rent a cabin, find a way to do a home retreat, etc.  I always do a winter retreat–usually in late Dec and early January, when I’m off from my job, when the rush of the holidays has ended, and it simply allows me time to rest and dig deeply into my own spiritual practices.

Conclusion

My suggestions above hopefully will get your own creative ideas flowing for how to embrace rejuvenation and restoration at this darkest time of the year.  This is such important work to do–for if the healer is herself not healed, how can she heal others?  As we begin to move forward from the Winter Solstice and back into the time of light, our bodies, spirits, and minds are restored and we can consider the powerful and meaningful work that is to come. Blessings of the winter solstice to you, dear readers!

Announcements:

Article on Druidry 101: Finally, I wanted to share my article on Druidry 101 that was published this week in Spirituality and Health magazine.  Please check it out!

 

Herbs for Visionary Work at the Winter Solstice

Plants are our medicine, our teachers, our friends, and help us connect deeply to spirit in a wide variety of ways including through spiritual work. Long before recorded history, our ancient ancestors used plants of all kinds. Ötzi, the ancient ancestor who was preserved in ice and who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with multiple kinds of plants and mushrooms, including birch polypore (a medicinal mushroom) and the tinder fungus, a mushroom often used for transporting coals starting fires.  I love plants, and I love the ancestral connections and assistance that they can provide. In more recent history, we can look to a variety of cultures that use plants in ways that help alter or expand consciousness.

What better time to do some deep visionary work than at the winter solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness? It is in these dark times that we can look deeply within, work with the spirits that guide us, and have insights that help us more deeply understand the world and our place in it.  It is in this darkness that we can go for visionary walks (including in the long and dark nights), do spirit journeying, and engage in other forms of divination or communion with the living earth.

What are visionary herbs?

Visionary herbs are those that can help us with deep spirit journeying, deep meditations, and the kinds of self-expression that lead to deeper awareness. There are at least two categories of visionary herbs.  One category is what are traditionally called the teacher plants, the ones that cause radical shifts in consciousness and awareness.  These are the plants with the strongest effects and include a variety of psychedelic substances including strong herbs and mushrooms. While these plants were once quite illegal (at least here in the states), laws in the last few years have really become laxer and allowed these plants to be more accessible. I’m not writing about this group of plants today, but there are certainly books and resources out there about them if you want to learn more.

The visionary herbs I’m talking about today are milder, legal herbs that can help us shift our consciousness and vision, but that are less potent. To me, the difference between the two is that the teacher plants will take you on a journey whether or not you want it and requires pretty much nothing on your part–once you take teacher plants, you are on the journey of whatever kind it is for the duration. The visionary herbs I’m discussing today are milder and are more like aids or companions. Many of these visionary herbs have spiritual and mental effects that may make you more open, aware, or attuned at the moment, and are tied to helping bring the subconscious and intuitive sides forward.

The herbs I will share about today come from both teachings given to me as well as from my own experiences and connections with nature. Some of these herbs require you to build a relationship with them, while others will simply open the doors for you regardless of how long you have been acquainted. All herbs for any spiritual purpose work better when you have a relationship with that herb. Think about it like this–you meet someone, and you have a great conversation over a cup of tea. You think to yourself, wow, this person could be a great friend to me! That initial experience is wonderful. Ten years later,  you are sitting with your long-term friend and have that same cup of tea. The nuance and interaction is much richer–you can give each other just a look, or say a single word, and there is much more meaning. You’ve created a shared history together, and that history connects you on a much deeper level. This is why we build relationships with these visionary plants over time–the longer you have a relationship with a plant species (or even more ideally, the same lineage of plant or same plant), the depth of what you can do together grows.  When I say the same lineage of plant, what I mean by that is either the same plant from season to season (perennial plants) or the daughter and grandaughter plants born from the seed of your first plant.  These don’t have to just be plants you grow, but can be plants that you visit regularly.  Building plant relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.

Visionary Herbs for Awareness, True Sight, Memory, and Relaxation

So many different plants can go on this list, but for our purposes today, I’m going to share two plants from four different categories that I find are useful for visionary work.  You can agree or disagree, and in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions for plants that you have used.  I will also say that there are a lot of plants that *could* go on this list, but I’m only offering those that I have direct experience with over a period of years.

Herbs that Open up Awareness: Mugwort and Ghost Pipe

Our first set of herbs are those that open up our awareness and give us new perspectives and vision. Perhaps we need to see things from a new angle, rethink patterns of behavior and belief that have caused us difficulty, or do shadow work within ourselves. My favorite two herbs in this category are mugwort and Indian ghost pipe.

Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris

Mugwort from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Long used as a dreaming herb and smoke cleansing herb, mugwort helps with any kind of meditative or subconscious work.  Within both psychology and the occult traditions, there is an acknowledgment of the multiple selves within us.  One interpretation is that we have a rational self, that self that is “in our heads” and that typically we are projecting when we are out and about in the world.  This is the thinker, the doubter, the one that can hold a career or do math. The second self we have is our intuitive self, the self beneath the layers of rationality (and there are many of those layers), perhaps the one that comes out during meditation, spiritual work, and other deep practices.  This is the self that is where our intuition resides and is a bridge to the many subconscious and unconscious realms within us. The third self is the spirit self, the piece of us that transcends death and that reincarnates, the self that is connected to everything else. Connecting with this self and other spiritual powers is one of the goals of most spiritual traditions and practices. I believe that channeling the awen through bardic arts or doing journey work are ways to help the intuitive self bridge to the spirit.  This long explanation is to say that mugwort is very, very good at helping us with this kind of work. Mugwort not only helps us have more vivid, intense, and lucid dreaming but also connects with those deeper selves, which leads to a more fruitful understanding of ourselves, our world, and our connections to all living things.

Indian Ghost Pipe: Monotropa uniflora

Ghost Pipe from the Plant Spirit Oracle

While mugwort helps bridge to the deeper selves, Ghost Pipe is particularly good for working with the rational self. The rational self is the product of a lot of outside influences: people’s external pressures about how we should behave, what we should do, what we should say, etc.  Sometimes, we end up living to the expectations of others rather than following our true path. Ghost pipe is very good at helping us slog through those layers and get to the heart of the issues at hand. Thus, ghost pipe offers us distance, perspective, and new understandings.  The best way I can describe this is with a metaphor of the forest and the trees. We live our lives on the ground, in the middle of the forest. Some of us might be walking a clear path in that forest, and others might be wandering (by choice or not). Ghost pipe helps temporarily lift us out of the forest and let’s us see the broader picture–it helps us expand our perspective.  I will note that due to overharvesting, Indian Ghost Pipe should be used *ONLY* as a floral essence.

Herbs that Aid with Seeing Clearly: Eyebright and Blue Vervain

Another thing that we need to do is see clearly.  Perhaps our own past experiences cloud our judgment.  Perhaps our past traumas and experiences prevent us from being able to clearly see what is before us.  Perhaps ongoing things in the world have put us in an emotional place and we need to break free.

Eyebright. Euphraise Officinale, Euphrasia spp.

Sometimes, the magic is in the name of the plant itself, and that is certainly the case with Eyebright.  On the physical level, eyebright helps strengthen the sight and the eyes, and many people take it as a healing herb for this reason.  But this same medicinal action happens on the level of our spirit, where work with eyebright helps us to see true.  We can see to the heart of things, to the heart of issues, and that true sight offers us new ways of being, healing, and inhabiting the world.

Blue Vervain. Verbena Hastada

Blue Vervain from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Blue vervain is a visionary herb that does essentially two things.  The first thing it does is allow us to let go of those things we cling to too tightly (e.g. things have to be a certain way, maybe a bit of OCD we are harboring) and instead, it allows us to go with the flow.  It thus connects us with that deeper, intuitive self by giving the rational self a bit of ease and relaxation.  Blue vervain works over time, so it’s particularly good to start taking it in some form and keep taking it for a while to get it to work for you in this way.  Once we are able to let go of the things we cling to, we are offered new visions and ways forward.  The second way Blue Vervain works is by putting us more in touch with our emotional side.  Blue vervain always lives by water–it understands how to help us navigate our difficult emotions and offers vision beyond them.

Herbs that Sharpen the Mind and bring Focus: Lavender and Rosemary

Sharpening our mind and our focus is something that we can all benefit from.  These herbs seem even more critical after nearly a year of long-term trauma from the global pandemic when many are now suffering the effects of overload, burnout, and more.

Lavender. Lavendula Spp.

Lavender is a herb that helps bring focus and clarity. It has a very gentle action that promotes the body to relax while the mind focuses.  This is an excellent combination for meditation and spirit journeying–bringing the mind into a place where it’s not going to wander while you are attempting your visioning work, while also bringing the body into a place of calm and tranquility.  Other herbs do this well too  (Lemon balm is another solid choice), but I think lavender is particularly good at bridging that mind-body connection that is necessary for powerful spirit work to take place.

Rosemary. Rosmarinus Officinalis.

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance.  If you are doing memory work of any kind, Rosemary is an excellent ally (including ancestor work, as linked above). Rosemary strengthens our memory and encourages us to use our memories in new ways, shaping them, and storing them.  Rosemary is particularly good for memory mansion work, using method of loci techniques that have been handed down by masters from the ages.  If there is a memory you want strongly to retain or a memory you want to bring back, rosemary is your guide.

Herbs that relax the Body and Release Tension: Kava Kava and Passionflower

Our final set of herbs can help foster a deeper sense of relaxation and allow us to go more deeply into sacred dreaming, meditation, or simply relax more fully.

Kava Kava: Piper methysticum.

Kava Kava is the only herb on my list that doesn’t grow in the US East coast, but I wanted to include it because there is nothing else like it–and because you can ethically source it from small farms effectively in Hawaii, thus supporting sustainable farming practices.  Kava Kava is a deeply relaxing herb, working on both the mind and the body. When you take kava in either tincture or tea form, it somewhat numbs the lips briefly. That same effect is later passed onto the body–not so much numbing, but taking away pains, deeply relaxing the muscles, and putting you into a relaxed state.  I like to use Kava Kava as part of my spiritual practice when I’ve had a long day and that day has really gotten into my body–I am carrying the worries of my day or my life in my physical body.  This means that I get literal aches and heaviness, and that makes it difficult to do spiritual work.  Kava helps me relax into myself and allows the spiritual work to flow.  (If you take a lot of kava, you will be impaired at driving, so please keep this in mind).

Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower is an outstanding nervine plant that helps our nervous system relax and thus, our bodies relax.  Passionflower is one of many nervines, but I find it particularly good for relaxation when the goal is spiritual work.  Part of it, perhaps, is that it is such an otherwordly flower–looking like the full moon on an enchanted evening.  But also, each different nervine has their own unique qualities–and passionflower helps one get into that place of calm so that the world of spirit can flow.  In a temperate climate, you can grow it yourself by keeping it as a vine in your home during the winter and then letting it grow wildly during the summer, offering it trellising.  Cut it back when the frost comes and bring it in for the winter months.  After a few years, your vine will produce many flowers and later fruits each year–which are an absolute delight!

Obtaining visionary herbs

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these herbs, you have to figure out the best way to obtain them. If you can grow them or harvest them yourself, this is probably the best thing you can do because it helps establish a deep relationship. I would pick one or two herbs that you really want to work with and cultivate them–even a pot on a windowsill can produce a beautiful rosemary or lavender plant! The alternative is to try to get them from an ethical, organic grower.  You don’t want conventional (read – chemically sprayed) herbs for any of your visionary work. The chemicals themselves can harm the spirit of the plant.  These plants are used to working with humans as friends and guides, and the spraying of poison on them really damages that relationship. So please, please be careful about ethical sourcing and chemical-free plants when you are sourcing herbs.  I would also be very careful of the “wild harvest” label, particularly for at-risk plants like kava or ghost pipe.  Wildharvested is often not sustainably harvested, so you want to be careful.  Places that are good for sourcing herbs are small farms like Black Locust Gardens or larger, ethical companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.

Taking visionary Herbs

You have a number of options for working with and taking visionary herbs. I’ll list the options, and which herbs might be best for each option.  All of the herbs I’ve listed are safe and non-toxic, so you can do a lot with them.

Rosemary smudge

Smudges and smoking blends: Mugwort is commonly used in smoking blends and smoke clearing sticks (smudge sticks).  Lavender and rosemary also work great in smudge sticks or incense blends.  Here, the idea is that you burn the plants and inhale the smoke–either in the air around you (with incense/smudges) or by smoking it in a sacred way.  For smoking, a little bit goes a long way!

Teas. Many of the plants on this list make excellent teas: mugwort (brewed briefly, too long and it gets bitter), rosemary, lavender, kava kava, and passionflower are all good choices.  Blue vervain is a very bitter herb, so I suggest using it as a tincture instead.

Infused oils. Any of these herbs are great as an infused oil, which you can then rub on your body or temples for spiritual work.  See my instructions for how to create an infused oil here.

Tinctures. Any of the herbs can be made into a tincture with a long shelf life. Alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine make good menstrua for making a spiritual tincture.  Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life while glycerin lasts about a year. The tincture is easy to make and I have instructions here.

Flower Essence. This is the only way I recommend using Indian Ghost pipe because of serious challenges with overharvesting this plant in recent years.  To make a flower essence, you’ll have to seek out the plant when it is in bloom (in my region, that’s usually late June to late August) and do a simple flower essence.  Here are instructions.

Conclusion

I hope this post has offered you some new tools for working–and embracing–the darkness during the period of weeks before and after the Winter Solstice.  There is something extremely magical about this time that allows us to dig in deeply with ourselves and do important work.  Blessings of the Winter Solstice!