Selection from


Winter's Gifts

Here is a poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez called “Oceans:”

I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
                                    And nothing
happens! Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves . . .

 —- Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?

Among the ancient Chinese, winter is associated with the deep waters. Let the image sink in. Winter and the deep waters. Think of moonlight over the ocean in winter. Moonlight across the waters in the depth of night. Silence. Solitude. Stillness. Darkness and deep listening. Dwelling at the depth and truly not-knowing. All mysterious. “Darkness was over the deep waters and the Spirit was hovering over the waters.”2

Such vastness, such realms of the unknown, produce fear. Our ancestors felt this fear. Could we get through the winter? Would there be a new year? Would renewed life return? The clue is in the image itself. In deep waters, the surface may be stirred up, yet at the depth there is peace and calm. All proceeds according to its own nature and norms. So we may find, beneath fear, a more basic trust. “Fear not” is the biblical message.

What sort of trust lies at the depth? Not the trust that comes with sight — neither foresight nor hindsight. Rather it is a trust that lives in the darkness, that learns to navigate without sight. Relinquishing sight, we rely on hearing. We sense the subtle rhythms by listening deeply. Winter encourages the practice of deep listening — listening to what is said and unsaid, to the sounds and the silence between the sounds.

“Johnny,” said the first grade teacher, “You’re not paying attention.”
“Yes I am,” replied Johnny. “I’m paying attention to everything.”

What would it be like to listen attentively to everything? As if everything was laden with meaning. As if everything was a teacher for those with ears to hear.

Suppose that we think of the atmosphere as an invisible ocean. We might think of ourselves as already living within the ocean. Rumi writes:

Late by myself, in the boat of myself
no light and no land anywhere, cloud cover thick
I try to stay just above the surface, yet
I’m already under and living within the ocean.3

Anne Joy, the 5 year old daughter of a colleague, was sitting out on the porch with her father on a July evening. They were watching a storm come in. She suddenly said, “Sometimes I think about things.” Like: why am I in this world? I could be in a different world...”4

I would gloss my young friend’s remarks in this way: The different world can be this world seen in a different way. If we are awake and alert, we always have the choice: Will we live in a world that is conditioned and constricted by personal and collective patterns? Or will we begin to notice those structures and realize that they are just part of the story, just part of the movie? We could be living in a different world — a larger, deeper world — a world beneath the surface certainties, a paradoxical world — in time and beyond time.

“There is another world and it lies within this one.”5 So speaks Paul Eluard. I think of a deeper dimension, the inside of the inside of things. To discover this dimension may be like awakening from a black and white world into Technicolor. Or like hearing more subtle music in the midst of the ordinary. Our relentless and often ruthless certainties are suddenly understood to be illusory — lines drawn on water, pretending to be fixed.6 They fall away. Something new stands before us.

The mystics tell us that, if we shift our interpretive frame, the deeper world (or deeper dimension of this world) will manifest all about us. Here is a slight rephrasing of William Blake’s quote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is, infinite. For we have closed ourselves up, till we see all things through narrow chinks of our cavern.”7

Winter invites us to open the doors of hearing, to open a third ear, to listen in a new way. Suppose that we are always living in a story (which we take to be real). Seeing our life as a story invites us to take that story less literally and to live more lightly. “It is only a movie,” we say. So likewise, we can say, “It is only a story.” Here the “only” allows certitudes to fall away, or at least be loosened. Once we confront our lives as a story then we may ask: What kind of a story are we co-creating? A faith story? An emerging universe story? A tragedy or a comedy? How can we listen to life-as-story in such a way as to reveal the mysterious and liberating layers of what is said and what is unsaid, of the tones and overtones?

When I engage in the ancient art of storytelling, I ask my listeners to follow three guidelines:

  1. Approach each aspect of “the story” as having multiple layers of meanings.

    Avoid seeking one moral of the story. Let the story remain richer than any one interpretation. Indeed, what we know is incomplete, and what we can tell is even more unfinished, more provisional.

  2. Consider that you are all the characters in the story — the one you think of as yourself plus all the other characters, the main ones, the supporting players, even the villains.

    Understood in this way, the characters in the story reveal parts of you. They come to you (mostly unknown to themselves) as teachers, perhaps even as severe teachers who have wronged you in myriad ways. We might say, shifting an old aphorism: When you listen with the ears of a student, all things teach you.

  3. Think of the story as a commentary on your current life, as happening here and now in support of your own transformation and that of others.

    In this way, story becomes parable and directs us to a deeper and more meaningful life in the present moment and in the presence of mystery.

Deep listening opens a world that is soul-size. Here we might think of soul not as an individual possession but as an individual participation in the World Soul — something our ancestors glimpsed. Imagine this “soul of the world” the way our ancestors did — as Sophia, a wisdom that connects through love. In this fashion, the “ocean” in which we dwell is an ocean of meaning and value, an ocean of insight and love. We might speak of living in and from the Soul of the World. We might speak of living in the nurturing Spirit. Whether called soul dimension or spirit dimension, we come to it through letting go of old identities, old opinions (personal and collective), and listening to what lies deeply within and around us.

Sometimes, in whatever way it comes to us, we may have a sense of the glory all round us.8 Blessed are such times. At other times, we may feel, as the opening poem said, that nothing is happening. Then we practice a trust even in the dark times. A trust that each event has many meanings. That each being is a teacher in disguise. That our living is in service of our transformation and that of others.

Winter encourages the discipline of waiting — in trust, in faithfulness, in hopefulness, in love. Silence. Solitude. Stillness. Soul. Spirit. Signs of the deep waters.

T. S. Eliot teaches that again and again we return “to where we started and know the place for the first time.” We return to the beginning, to “the source of the longest river, the voice of the hidden waterfall and the children in the apple tree.” They are “not known, because not looked for but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea.” “Quick now, here, now, always — a condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything). And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well . . .”9

The true gift of winter, I am coming to understand, is unknowing. This unknowing is very different from ignorance. It is more like the ability to hear the story anew — with loving attention to the concrete details, with awareness that all the details and all the characters have something to reveal to me. And further, this listening is a holy listening. For I am not in the story passively; I am with the storyteller uncovering insight and renewing life in the ever-surprising present. For example, part of my story may be the view that my colleague Paul is rude to me. Yet as I live more deeply and symbolically, I may play with what the wonderful Byron Katie calls “the turn around.” How am I rude to Paul? How am I rude to myself? How is Paul not rude to me?10

Then a part of my story re-forms, deepens. Perhaps laughter and lightness return. Perhaps the sage-in-us appears as the Fool, happily deconstructing old certainties and allowing new possibilities to shine forth.11

The gifts of winter are always available — to listen deeply in unknowing to what is unfolding at the surface and in the depth. Yet they have a special place as we draw closer to death. Earlier in life, we live through the death of each season, as we live through the death of winter into spring. And we may neglect the downward and inward side of life in a rush to define ourselves by outward “doing.” We may fail to honor the winter energy of stillness and silence and solitude and simplicity as we rush about seeking to construct our life. Yet these very qualities beckon more insistently as we move closer to death.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of life in a biblical perspective of seven year intervals. And he maps those intervals onto the months of the year. In this fashion, October looks to ages 63-70, November to ages 70-77, and December to ages 77-84 and beyond.12 These are the Winter years or Autumn–Winter years in a lifetime. In his eighties, Reb Zalman is in his December years. And he speaks these days of being drawn to solitude and the contemplative life. In these later years, contemplative practices call us. It does not mean that we need to withdraw from the world. It does mean that we cultivate, more and more, a different world. Being silent, we listen and, even in speaking, we can speak in a listening mode. In action, we have the opportunity for what I will call “trim-tab living.”

Buckminster Fuller called our attention to the trim tab. He was thinking of a great ocean liner like the Queen Mary. He remembered that the ship is steered with a rudder and, at the edge of the rudder, is a kind of miniature rudder called a trim tab. A small movement of the trim tab causes the rudder to move and, as the rudder turns, the entire ship turns. Fuller thought of himself as a trim tab.13 I would say that any of us — by attunement to the currents — can engage in trim-tab living.

In “trim-tab living,” we live more simply and yet more powerfully because we do not rely upon our own powers alone. Listening to what is unfolding in the deep, in the “not yet manifest” realm, we say a word. Or omit a comment. And we do this with loving intent. As we align our thoughts and words and actions with the deeper life we sense, as we participate in the great story unfolding, we bestow winter’s gifts and are at peace.

If we dwell in the story told by the religions of the book,14 we image the ultimate in a personal manner. Then we can say in listening to the deep story anew: “Ah, you appear like that. Ah, you appear like this. Everywhere there is the face of faces, veiled as in a mystery.”15

Here also we might say with Dante, “And His will is our peace. (E sua voluntade è nostra pace.). It is that sea to which all moves that it creates or nature makes.”16

In the East, one can also image the ultimate in a non-personal manner and call it, for example, the Tao (pronounced “dow”). The Tao is the Way of the universe. We glimpse the Tao in meditative mind, in nature and in the appearance of the Masters, the large-souled ones. Here is how the storyteller (Lao Tzu) speaks of these masters in the Tao Te Ching (the Classic of the Power of the Way):

The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.

[How do they appear?]

Watchful, like those crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men and women aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests,
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

[And what is the teaching for us?]

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by change.

Have we not here other pointers to winter’s gifts? To a way of dwelling at the depth of life?

So, in light of these reflections, hear anew the poem with which we began —Juan Ramon Jimenez’s “Oceans:”

I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
                                    And nothing
happens! Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves . . .

 —- Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?


1 The translation is by Robert Bly, see Robert Bly, ed. The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1995), p. 246.

2 See Gen. 1:1-2<

3 See The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1995), p. 12.

4 The young philosopher was Anne Joy Cahill-Swenson, daughter of Ann Cahill and Neil Swenson. The incident took place in July of 2008 when Anne Joy was almost 5 years old.<

5 Paul Eluard quoted in John Tarrant, The Light Inside the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 4.

6 I owe the phrase “ruthless certainties” to my friend, Robert Knowles. It echoes a theme that the cultural critic Ivan Illich sounded throughout his writings.

7 See William Blake’s poem: “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

8 Some experience an opening of the sense of sight; others, a subtle hearing. Perhaps all the senses can be activated in new and different ways.

9 The lines are the closing lines of T.S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets."

10 For more on Byron Katie and the turn around, see Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, Loving What Is (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002).

11 For more on Winter and the Fool, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Institute, 2004), chapter 12.

12 See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing (New York: Warner Books, 1995), pp. 271-272.

13 Buckminster Fuller’s remarks can be found in the February 1972 issue of Playboy magazine.

14 I am thinking here of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which all accept and respect the Hebrew scriptures – what Christians call the Old Testament.

15 I am echoing here St. Nicholas of Cusa’s remark: “In all faces is shown the Face of Faces, veiled and as if in a riddle .  .  .”  Quoted in Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1973), p. 81.

16 See Dante, The Paradiso, Canto III, lines 85-87.

17 See The Tao Te Ching, trans.  by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1972), chapter 15. Passage modified for inclusive language.