I grew up in a cigarette experiment, or so it seemed. My parents appeared to be exploring the question, How many cigarettes could be smoked in a five hour period, say between 6 and 11 p.m.? New records were set on a regular basis. Every night, the living room of our house looked like a card game in a back room of a bar. Layers of thick smoke hung in the light like slow-moving phantoms. We lived and breathed amongst the phantoms, as they stole the oxygen and the sanity in the house.
It’s a wonder I don’t have asthma. My genes and my 25 year-long addiction to basketball kept my lungs relatively open. But that doesn’t mean I can escape the fall entirely.
Autumn is the time of the year when the life force flows with greater intensity into the lungs, Chinese medicine tells us. Like the sap in the trees, the life force descends from the periphery of the body and to the core, or thorax. It moves into the lungs and large intestine where it confronts whatever stagnation and obstructions may reside there.
The Chinese healers tell us that the fall is also the time of greatest sadness and grief, both of which also reside in the lungs.
Whenever I pass through the various layers of my emotional life — when I bring awareness to my anger, or frustration, or anxiety, or fear; when I manage to travel through these treacherous terrains of being, I eventually tumble into sadness. It’s a good place to land.
Pure sadness puts everything into perspective. We can be caught up with our goals and our accomplishments; we can charge ahead like white knights and goddess warriors, but when the day is done and all has been laid to rest, we’ve still got to come home, exhale, and look at the pure vanity of it all.
Deep in the lungs lies the wisdom of Solomon. “I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
There is nothing like grief to put the hurry of the world into proper perspective. That’s probably why sadness and grief are so rejected by First World populations – they are so anti-productivity, so anti-bourgeois. Sadness is soulful and true; grief is self-reflective. These are the inspiration for poets, song writers, and mystics, not venture capitalists.
We in the West have been fooled into thinking that sadness is the same as depression, which is entirely wrong. Depression is the stunting of the life force by false beliefs that would convince you that you cannot be loved, or achieve what you long for, or become the person of your dreams. Depression is also fueled by powerless anger – a form of anger turned inward on oneself.
Sadness is pure connection with the limitations of real life. But in that connection lies the capacity to relax and experience joy. We’re all in this together, sadness tells us, and there is much struggle and suffering that we all share.
Another false belief is that you cannot be connected with your sadness and at the same time be happy. But it is possible that you can only be happy if you let the mask fall; if you let go of all that striving after the wind. Sadness is that state of consciousness that allows us to let go of all that is false – which of course, leads to happiness, as our dear old teacher, Solomon, saw so clearly.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feast,” wrote the great King (Ecclesiastes 7:2). “Because that is the end of every man, and the living take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.”
Solomon knew all about the paradoxical state of human existence, and in his wisdom he could play with opposites to achieve a happy heart.
That paradox of sadness and joy lie deep in the heart of autumn. The season is driven by it own special opposites: bright, cool, sunny days, the air charged with electricity and the invitation to celebrate life; and then their opposite — starkly gray, intensely nostalgic, at times lonely, at other times deeply mysterious.
The season tells us to be happy, but have soulful depth. Autumn offers us this learning. Indeed, by the time we reach September 21st, the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere, the year is already well in decline. The days are shorter, and becoming more so. The darkness is creeping in on us. The bounty of the earth is receding. We ask ourselves, What has been our harvest from the year gone by? We look back, enjoy the harvest, and rest. And in that rest, deeper mysteries begin to open up to us.
In the realm of sadness and grief you will find a doorway that opens to the spiritual world and sweet and timeless atmosphere that is nostalgia. There are only a few paths to nostalgia and one of them is through the pure beauty of sadness.
Nostalgia isn’t just the looking back at life, though we can enter nostalgia through that door. Nostalgia is the mood that arises when time slows down and seems to stand still. That’s when we can feel the Presence that is all around us.
If we look out at the season with nostalgic eyes, we see the Divine Mother, resplendent in all her colors. She is wearing bright red, luminous yellow, lime green, intense and mysterious browns. She is soft, beautiful, and joyful. She is unconditional love.
Mystics and devotees of the Divine Feminine tell us that she appears in three phases.
The first phase is the White Goddess, which is the image of wholeness, perfection, and divinity. She is the Holy Mother in all of her purity, wholeness, and virtue, a living beacon to the beauty that lies in each of us. Thus, she is our inspiration and guide to becoming who we really are.
The second phase is the Red Goddess, which signifies the time of work, planting, germination, creativity, expansion, manifestation, and abundance. The Red Goddess inspires us with her energy, devotion, commitment, creativity, and mighty effort. She is the Warrior, the Farmer, the Queen. She exhorts us to our work and strengthens us with her spirit.
Finally, there is the Black Goddess, or Black Madonna. You can still find little statues to her in very old churches and temples throughout Europe. She is the Mystical Mother who symbolizes a time of death and rebirth, of transformation and transmutation. The latter ideal harkens back to the alchemists of old who turned lead into gold. The Black Madonna turns your darkness into light.
Of the three phases of the Goddess, the Black Madonna is the one who governs the autumn. She leads us into the darkness and mystery, the falling of the leaves, the death of all that is outdated and no longer needed within us. The Black Madonna, through her special love and gifts of wisdom, makes it easier for us to let go now and to surrender all that we no longer need in our lives.
Letting go can feel like death, especially when we must surrender aspects of ourselves with which we have so strongly identified. Inevitably, this is a time of confusion. Who am I, if not that anger at this person; if not that attachment to so and so; if not that old habit that I have loved for so long?
Who am I, indeed?
Tradition has it that when the Black Madonna has done her work, she shows up holding the Christ Child in her arms. It is the symbol of what she has wrought in each of us. She has done her work and delivered the higher consciousness in you. She has turned your old lead into gold.
When the spring comes, the White Goddess will appear again. But for the moment, the Black Madonna has begun her work on those who would be led to all that is most beautiful inside of us.
This may be part of the secret process taking place in the fall, which, to put things more clearly, may well be taking place inside of each of us now.
Let’s embrace the mystery of the autumn and make it so.