During my years of study with John Milton, Sacred Passage and The Way of Nature, there was a particular emphasis placed on the power – dare I say, consciousness – of stones. At his sanctuary near Crestone, Colorado, John had discovered that the jumble of rocks scattering the land were not all random. Many of these arrangements of stones had been realigned and altered by ancient shamans to help create deepened states of awareness. During two separate one-month solo wilderness retreats there, I meditated atop these unique configuration of boulders as part of my daily routine.
Early in my move to California, I delightfully discovered that not far from me, was a site of stones sacred to the Ohlone. It is a place aligned to the winter solstice and is part of their creation story. After being initiated into the “wisdom of the Stone People” one begins to stumble upon these sacred rock assemblages all over the world, many hidden and forgotten by modern people.
“The Ohlone, who consisted of more than fifty groups native to the Bay Area, have one account of creation that coincides with the winter solstice. The record goes that, before humans and other animals existed, the turtle’s shell contained the souls of all the living beings. At sunset on the winter solstice, the sun’s rays shone directly into a round boulder atop a sacred spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As the boulder cracked from the sunlight, the turtle’s shell split open, releasing the captive souls. Every year on the winter solstice, the Ohlone celebrated special rituals at the holy rock, which is now part of Long Ridge Open Space Preserve.”
For several years now, Bloom of the Present Insight Meditation has organized a winter solstice sunset hike to witness this annual alignment. It is a ten minute walk from the trailhead up a hill to the holy stones. The rocks are along side a well-worn trail on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains which run from Monterey to San Francisco. Some solstices are foggy, windy or rainy and the sunset is completely obscured. Those years, we may be the only people who make it to the rocks. We have learned to keep the trip short since, even though the weather may be pleasant at sea level, it becomes raw and bone-chilling above.
This 2016 solstice day was bright and clear. The temperature was mild in Santa Cruz but at the trailhead the wind blew cold off the ocean. Some of our group had already headed up the trail while I waited for the bulk to show. About ten of us then climbed the muddy trail the quarter mile to the sacred site. The stones face west where the view is vast and splendid, displaying layers of green hills, grassy meadows and dark oak copses. The peaceful expanse of the Pacific Ocean shimmered beyond.
The winter solstice is nature’s new year. And the origin of the many holidays associated with this time of year. Even though our culture encourages a frenzy of activity during the holiday season – shopping, parties, entertainment – traditionally, in earlier times, this is a season of simplicity and for counting our blessings. We prepare for the lean months ahead. It is a time of generosity so we can help our family and community survive. Although the worst weather is still to come, the soon-to-be lengthening days offer the kind promise that warmth and abundance will return. A promise to be celebrated.
In the meantime, nature invites us to withdraw, conserve energy and focus inwardly, the perfect conditions for spiritual renewal. Through honoring the longest night of the year, we can embrace, rather than fear, the qualities of the dark. To face the inner and outer night requires courage. The dark unnerves us because it turns our attention to the shadowy spaces, toward what cannot be seen and what is still unknown. But it from that darkness that all possibility arises.
. . . Time to go into the dark
Where the night has eyes
To recognize its own.
There you can be sure
You are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
Further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all other worlds
Except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
Confinement of your aloneness
Anything or anyone
That does not bring you alive
Is too small for you.
– David Whyte
In its journey north to south, south to north, along the horizon, the sun takes a rest as it lingers at each end – at the solstices, the “solar standing still.” We can follow its example and also take a sacred pause, a deep breath, interrupting our senseless preoccupations for a moment and . . . just listen.
“The world we’ve made scares the hell out of me. There’s
Still a little bit of heaven in there and I wanna show it
Due respect. This looks like a good spot up here. You can
Try me on the cell, but most places I wanna be it doesn’t
Work. Sometimes you got to listen hard to the sounds old
Mother Earth still makes – all on her own.”
– Greg Brown, from the song Eugene
My hope when bringing people to these old stones each year is that an atavistic memory will be ignited, if only for a blazing moment. A memory of something ancient and true, something essential, forgotten long ago. Something so deep and real that it jars us out of our cultural haze of distraction, disconnection, and dulled senses. We have forgotten who we are and what we are part of.
Maybe hearts will be broken open and freed by the simple beauty of this place. Or by gazing into the endless expanse of sky and sea. Or by coming together in a sacred way to pay our respects to the cosmos. Maybe a big shot of silent wonder will provide the antidote to indifference and depression. Or maybe by witnessing the golden orb that sustains our life disappear, the breath-taking mystery of existence will be felt. Or maybe the spirits of this place and the ghosts of solstice past, will intercede, tweaking our perception to reveal that everything is alive and holy.
We can know that we belong once again, as much a part of this earth as these mighty stones. The air in our lungs, the water in our veins, and the minerals in our bones are the earth’s, nature’s, not ours. Once this is experienced directly, the true magic, the joy, of being alive is set on fire.
I also hope when we gather at the sacred stones, that grief and appreciation arises for the original people who lived with reverence on this land, the people we displaced through violence, neglect and disease. May we honor the Ohlone by loving the land and all the beings here.
The sun gently sank in the sky, dropping between the “V” of the 3-foot high solstice stones, shining its golden light onto the large rounded “turtle shell” behind. Perhaps the souls of the original people were released once again, pouring out before us, yet unseen by our eyes sullied by modernity.
Eventually the sun was swallowed into the sea. The others who were gathered there, picked up their belongings and began to descend the hill to their cars. We – about 12 of us – made a circle in the growing dusk, standing on the same ground as have many have before us.
I placed a pinch of tobacco in each hand to be offered as a blessing to this place and the spirits there. Some brought poetry to share. One by one we gave our gift of gratitude.
Carolyn Dille, poet and fellow dharma teacher, shared her poem with us, written not far from the spot where we stood together.
Through the Santa Cruz Mountains
on the Way to Compassion Light Temple, Late Winter
Ten wild turkeys, black and red feathered,
rainbow iridescent, cross
the road in the rain, unhurried,
another thing we share
among the acacias pouring gold
pollen over the ground. I have
nowhere to go but further
into these mountains.
Afterward, about half the group met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Boulder Creek, telling stories and laughing heartily, keeping each other company for the long, uncertain season ahead.