Winter Solstice: Reflections on Conscious Goal-setting

Friday is the winter solstice, when the light begins to grow out of the darkness, and the Sun passes out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn (around 10PM UK time) as the New Year nears its dawn.

For those whose custom it is to set intentions and goals for the coming year, I wanted to share some thoughts about how we can use the Sun in Capricorn to forge a clear, substantial path through our Sagittarian dreamscape.

Capricorn exhorts us to carry on when the shadows are long and the path is narrow….

Sagittarius, the archer with visionary capaciousness, is great metaphor for the initial, motivational stages of goal-setting. What is the aim, the grand purpose, the area of wisdom and experience I am eager to explore?

After the Sagittarian vision comes Capricorn’s need to test the pragmatics: how water-tight is this goal? Is the impetus worth the work it will take to get there?

Sagittarius as goal-setting / Capricorn as follow-through

Sagittarius reminds us of the virtues of expanding vision to shoot the arrow of intention to THAT PLACE where you want to end up. This is the exciting part.

Then, one needs to cultivate the endurance (reflected in the following sign of Capricorn) to recover the thing you shot with the arrow, and hope no one else has come upon it in the meantime. There is a bit of a scarcity complex in Capricorn that reacts against Sagittarius’ insistence that there is ‘something for everyone’. Capricorn asks, ‘Oh yeah? What’s your evidence for that?’. That journey as the arrow flies might seem straightforward, but the topography of the landscape may contain numerous mountains and valleys, and trolls under bridges. The Sagittarian optimism and wanderlust calls us to adventure, motivates us to travel, discover new vistas of opportunities, new cultures, new parts of ourselves, but the arduous trek of Capricorn, of manifesting the stages of that journey, still lies ahead.

This year more than any other I have noticed a shift from wanting to know about the world at large toward wanting to take the journey inwards, to know myself. And thanks to a regular yoga practice and life’s various permutations I find myself revisiting questions about the value of self-inquiry, questions I first encountered in 2009-2010, when I started reading Byron Katie, Joel Goldsmith, Eckhart Tolle, and other writers alongside the ancient Stoics, whose ideas about mental equanimity and other positive results of self-examination I found alarmingly applicable to my own life.

This instinctive desire to look within continues to be the backdrop for many of the choices I make on a daily basis, and the goals I am setting for the coming months. This is not escapism, not is it a desire to be wilfully ignorant. Rather, it is the interest in discovering within myself the best things I can offer the world.

From my own experience, I have come to understand that the former (rather Sagittarian) desire to turn my attention outside myself, to learn about different worlds, to learn from people with different life experiences, to learn by traveling, to expand my capacity for movement intellectually and socially, ultimately led me back to this place of treasured introspection.

A personal example from the Ivory Tower

When I left my hometown in California and went to Oxford for graduate school in 2011, I embraced wholeheartedly the new and peculiar world I had entered and all of the lessons it had to bear. I enthusiastically took on all the roles I hadn’t had a chance to assume before. I could be a gregarious, nimble navigator of social settings crowded with members of the intellectual and social ‘elite’; I could be blessed by the head of the Anglican Church at my College’s chapel; I could compete in College rowing; I could go to formal hall any night of the week except Saturday and pay £3.80 for a three-course meal with white-gloved service, looking splendiferous in my academic gown; I could go to High Table with the Fellows of the College on guest night and meet a Mankiewicz; I could throw some good parties.

As would be expected, the Master’s program was tough, not only because the material we were learning was difficult, but also because we often had to be our own teachers (as compared to American pedagogical norms). We had to compile our own reading lists and make a weekly schedule for essay submissions to our supervisors, some of whom were more hands-on than others. We had to have the discipline to adhere to said essay schedules even though these essays did not count toward our final grades. I could have worked harder, but I struggled to balance the academic material with the other types of experiential learning I was doing just by virtue of living in a new place, learning that yielded great, though not necessarily quantifiable, value (a Sagittarius-Capricorn tension of sorts).

For instance, I made dear and lasting friendships with people from all over the world, and came to appreciate the diversity of life experiences, hardships, passions, and happy accidents that had brought us all together to this special place that none of us took for granted.

Time Ceremony photo
Mortar board (part of Oxford’s academic dress) and a bottle of port: this photo, taken during my Master’s course, makes for a good visual digest of the discussion above. 

But all this learning had its downsides, for in some fundamental ways I had strayed from true self-love and self-acceptance. Rather, I had constructed a new, ostensibly self-assured, intellectually vigorous, socially adept image of ‘success’, an idea of myself to which I would grow increasingly attached over the months. I learned just how attached I had become when I channelled my fear of losing this into a rather fitful decision to apply for a PhD at Oxford without having all my Capricorn ducks in a row.

When ultimately I could not proceed with the Oxford PhD, I felt absolutely devastated. I could have been more accepting of the circumstances. I could have used the (very applicable) principles I had picked up from the Stoic texts I had read for my Master’s dissertation to relax and embrace reality, to assure myself that this was for my best good, that this closed door would lead me to find a more appropriate open one. But at that time and for some time afterwards, all I could perceive was tremendous LOSS of the potential to manifest the ideal vision of myself flourishing within Oxford’s academic and social community.

Undoubtedly this was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, for it resulted in my finding in London a rigorous PhD program, expert supervisors in my chosen subfield, and an immensely supportive departmental community. I found a topic that allowed my love of interdisciplinary methods to flourish, and that let fly (like a Sagittarian arrow) my curiosity about how modern cultures interpret ancient ones. I got to do some really fascinating archival research. I found my voice as a researcher and a writer and cared deeply about the work I was doing, often more than I cared that I was the one doing it. I had a goal that was worth the painstaking effort. And it brings me much joy to remember this.

Some questions for goal-setting

So how does this all relate to the understanding of the Sagittarian-Capricorn impulses and tensions within us?

I like to read the above anecdote as the difference between conscious and semi-conscious decision-making. I had signed up for a PhD project at Oxford that was intellectually stimulating in terms of the overall idea, but realistically would not have been very much fun to do. I did not really know the supervisor I would be working with. The idea, founded in Sagittarian optimism and expansiveness, was not fully baked, and the universe luckily conspired to steer me away from what would have been a very unpleasant collision with the rocky outcroppings of the Capricornian challenges I was not actually prepared to undergo.

And in finding a PhD project for which I was willing to go the distance, remain accountable, work hard for the sake of the project and not only for the peripheral benefits it offered, I was able to find a greater level of self-respect.

And amidst the academic rigors of this PhD project, my research and conference presentations brought me the Sagittarian opportunity to share my work around the world, from Los Angeles to Ghent to Tel Aviv. And I met a whole new cohort of beautiful souls and dear friends with whom I could share the journey.

This was an excellent series of lessons to have learned at 24, and now, some years later, I can truly appreciate their lasting relevance.

With all that said, my intention for this month (and beyond!) is to sustain a healthy level of introspection, particularly in evaluating the decisions and goals I am making for the New Year:

  • Am I deciding consciously? What set of factors/rules/’truths’ am I using to make my decision?
  • Am I acting on the basis of fear and attachment, or on the intrinsic motivations of curiosity, passionate inquiry, and self-love?
  • Are these directions taking me closer to or further away from my instinctive needs/values?
  • If my plans do not work out, how will I feel (i.e. how attached am I to this)?
  • Will I regret NOT pursuing this goal?
  • Am I making this decision in order to avoid something or to gain something?
  • What kinds of terrain will I have to cross in order to pursue this vision? What are the stakes? Do I have what I need, and if not, where can I find it?
Be realistic: what lies between you and the towers (or other soul-delights) in the distance? What resources and time will you need to make the journey?

There is a wonderful moment from the film version of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), when the dwarf Gimli complains to the de facto leader Aragorn about the perils of the remaining path to Mordor: ‘Oh, yes?! It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor sharp rocks! And after that, it gets even better! Festering, stinking marshlands, far as the eye can see!’

Aragorn replies, ‘That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, Master Dwarf.’

I’ve always found this a helpful inner dialogue, to give myself some Aragorn-style, straightforward, get-on-with-it motivation when I linger too long in self-doubt, or the mental paralysis that can set in upon prolonged meditation of ‘WOW, that’s a long way I have to travel…I don’t know if I can/should do this anymore’.

I suppose contingency planning (part of the Capricorn toolkit) ought to be mentioned here as well, given that the Fellowship breaks down shortly after this scene and the journey changes drastically…

A mythological allegory

Way back when, at my sixth-grade graduation, our myth teacher told us the story of the Judgement of Paris. Paris, the Trojan shepherd-turned-prince had in his hands a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘for the most beautiful’, and was tasked with the decision of offering it to one of these goddesses: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. Hera promised wealth and kingship in return; Athena promised military victory and wisdom; Aphrodite promised Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world (‘she’s married to the brother of the most powerful man in Greece, but we’ll work out the kinks later’). Paris chose Aphrodite, and the Trojan War ensued after Paris abducted Helen from her husband Menelaus (with or without her consent? The jury is still out).

Our teacher used this story to demonstrate the importance of conscious decision-making (closely related to goal-setting in my book). He urged us to make choices knowing to the best of our ability all of the options available, and the rewards and consequences of each. He encouraged us to understand what we were giving up in one direction by choosing the other, and what impact our decisions would make on those around us and the environment.

Euripides (Helen, 36-41) among others tells us that the Trojan War was engineered by Zeus for population control. So, regardless of whomever Paris awarded with the apple, there would have been a war. Gods and goddesses are vengeful – the other two would have been keen to rile up enemies against Paris because he had refused them. If Zeus wanted fewer humans on the planet, war was inevitable. That is at least how I’m tempted to anticipate the outcome, should Paris have chosen Hera or Athena.

So, Paris may have acted more consciously than many give him credit for. Perhaps he was thinking, ‘Hey, if the world has to burn, I may as well get what I want’.

Not to suggest that Paris is the model decision-maker. For there may have been other options available to him (see below).

In conclusion?

If you have been feeling that Sagittarian goad – the optimism, the expansive vision, the impassioned enthusiasm, perhaps a bit of foolhardiness – about something, send forth your arrow to the place you feel called AND the place you are willing to make the journey with its peaks and valleys. But BE CONSCIOUS in knowing what you are signing up for, what you might be losing, and what the stakes are. And there will be stakes; these are unavoidable. Stakes are what makes a good story.

Ask yourself the above questions, if they help.

And try as best you can to come from a place of self-love, and love for your fellow humans, for your planet: several leaps further in altruism than Paris was willing to go.

By the way, Paris could have swallowed the apple. Gold is malleable and probably chewable. Just saying.

My old College has the above representation of a Sag with attitude (and quite the maniacal grin!)

New Moon Reflection: A Women’s Ceremony

‘To be the keepers of the creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.’

-Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves

Leaves at Headington

The fall deepens and the sky darkens earlier and earlier. The temperature drops. But the leaves blanket the ground in warm colors, bright oranges and yellows, that direct our eyes to the earth and our minds inward. I am writing this at the New Moon in Scorpio, which instructs us to take stock of our ‘harvest’ of physical and emotional resources; to let die and fall away the old conditions, habits, patterns of thinking that are no longer serving our most fundamental, instinctual needs; and to remember those who have passed beyond the mortal realm, and find ways of communing with them, in the knowledge that someday our mortal selves too will re-join the earth.

This year, I felt a strong desire to meet others in ceremony and in contemplation of the theme of transformation, cyclical change, and in particular the balance and the tension between remembrance and letting go that nature models for us so well at this time.

In the past week I attended a Samhain Women’s Ceremony, hosted by the lovely Elise of Scarlett-Moon and Amanda of Goddess Liberation, and I went to the All Souls’ Requiem service at the chapel of my beloved Merton College in Oxford. Yes, this is spiritual eclecticism at its finest, but what made an enormous impact on me were the commonalities between these two experiences:

  • the central importance of devotional songs/chants,
  • the use of movement through communal procession/dance
  • invocation of ancestors by name
  • the collective intention to find spiritual comfort during times of darkness, to surrender fears, resentments, and grievances to a force greater than ourselves that can guide us in living soulfully – in short, God(dess).

Below are some notes on my experiences of the Women’s Ceremony, as it relates more closely to my current work on women in Greek myth. But fundamentally, I found that these events both carried a powerful alignment with and a moving interpretation of the lessons Nature makes available to us now.

Pumpkins at All Souls College
Pumpkins at the gate of All Souls College, Oxford

The Samhain Women’s Ceremony

This took place on the night of Samhain, October 31st, which, as Elise and Amanda explained, in the Celtic tradition signifies the end of the harvest, the beginning of the New Year, and an opportunity to commune with the ancestors.

Around 12 of us gathered outside a cabin in a community garden. We had tea and seriously delicious chocolate cookies, and talked among ourselves for awhile before we were invited inside for the ceremony.

The cabin was cozy, with a wood stove, and lit by candlelight. We removed our shoes and sat on cushions in a circle around an altar, where we placed photographs of departed loved ones.

My photograph was not of a person, but my mother’s loom. At the end of next week, at the Being Human Festival in London I will be performing a prose piece I wrote on my mother’s memories of this loom, beginning when she was 28 and ending almost 10 years ago, when my family lost our house in a wildfire. This loom, its loss, and the implications of this for my relationship with my mother (as she taught me weaving on the loom when I was young) have been on my mind lately.

Mom loom
Mom’s loom sometime in the 80s…

So, when we lit candles and said the names of those whose photographs stood at the altar, I invoked all the women weavers who ever learned and taught the craft, who have ever woven life lessons, pains, loves, and secrets into the weft.

We then turned away from the circle and Amanda led us in ‘calling out’ the ancestors, by making any sound. We sounded the call several times, and in each instance our voices found harmony, as if we had rehearsed it. My entire body was shivering with goosebumps. It was perceptible, the shared intention we brought to the space, which expressed itself not in unison, but in a harmonious diversity of tones, voices, experiences, feelings.

Next, we sang two chants, the second of which we performed while processing in a circle around the altar. Both emphasize the life cycle, and the inevitable return to the earth, the source of our origin as individual manifestations of the feminine:

‘Girlseed, Bloodflower, Fruitmother, Spinmother, Midwoman, Earthcrone, Stonecrone, Bone’ (text by Carolyn Hillyer)

‘We all come from the goddess / And to her we shall return / Like a drop of rain / Flowing to the ocean’ (text by Moving Breath)

I found that the melodies of these chants had a somber strength in them – there was neither sentimentality, nor coldness. Rather, a matter-of-fact statement: these are the stages of womanhood; death is waiting for us all. I experienced neither comfort nor fear, but an entrancing realism, and an awe of the impartiality of Mother Nature. Her lack of discrimination. Her lack of attachment. Her consistency. The comfort came from joining with the other women in the circle in this recognition.

And then we danced.

We danced intuitively, with Elise and Amanda guiding us to contemplate a connection with the earth, to dance for those who cannot dance anymore. We danced and celebrated our embodied existence and dedicated this to the departed.

And lastly, we sat back onto our cushions. Elise led us in meditation on our breath, on the physical contact between our bodies and the ground, on the smell of wood, dirt from the garden, the smell of the ‘composting leaves’, a fate which our bodies will someday share.

At the end of the meditation we were asked to contemplate our limited mortality: what would we do if we had 6 months? 1 month? 2 weeks left?

These questions confronted me with an uncomfortable exposure of the things I value fundamentally, some of which I tend to fear and judge and deny myself for reasons of ego and security. But as Nature reminds us at this time of year, these trappings of self and stability are not reliably consistent. They can fall away, and yield new, exciting changes. They can restore life. Once we get over that old fear of the unknown, of loss. Once we get out of our own way.

We shared the results of our meditation in a final talking circle. I felt an incredible sense of safety and acceptance, of affirmation – for there is power in things spoken. It was inspiring to hear the wisdom others had received in that moment. I felt very honored.

My research has recently taken me to readings of myth and ritual. Lillian E. Doherty in Chapter Four of her book, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth (2001) mentions contemporary ‘Goddess’ rituals (like the Samhain Women’s Ceremony) drawing from pre-Christian, matrilineal cultic origins as belonging to the ‘feminist spirituality movement’. This movement is defined in part by celebration of the ‘Goddess’ as the primordial manifestation of female ‘essentialism’ – or the qualities that make up womanhood in all its guises, qualities that all who identify as women have access to.

This idea of female ‘essentialism’ is problematic for some feminist thinkers who see it as diminishing, or complicit in repressive patriarchal discourse. But for me, this ceremony helped relieve some of my own concerns about ‘essentialism’. The experience helped me feel deeply connected to women I had never met before on the level of an enduring, instinctive ‘it is known’ among those who identify as women.

The ceremony made me appreciate the wisdom, the stories, the codes of speech that women have passed down, learned from each other, initiated each other into through an immeasurable range of experiences that encompass the ‘feminine’, a range that is joyfully expanding as time passes. It made me think of the importance of inter-generational connection, of connection to nature.

So, what did I learn?

  • Dance for those who cannot dance anymore.
  • Sing out and listen for the harmonies that resonate joy in strength and comfort in woundedness.
  • Touch the earth, which one day will enfold us and call us to create new life. Thank it for sustaining us in this life.

And the difficult knowledge I took from that meditation? I brought it with me to the All Souls’ Requiem service at Merton and poured it out, as the truly fabulous choir and orchestra gave voice to my feelings and helped me find comfort and compassion, especially when it came to transcending my own anxieties and sending love to those in the congregation who had lost close family and friends, whose names the Chaplain read out.

Both experiences left me astounded by the way we mortals can create such beauty, as unadorned as a chant to the Goddess or as elaborate and emotionally incisive as Mozart’s Requiem, in order to know God and Nature through cycles of Life-Death-Rebirth.

Feet with leaves

Full Moon Reflection

Today many are sharing their takes on the Full Moon in Taurus as a time to set intentions for becoming more grounded, steeping ourselves in self-care, enriching our physical environment, taking time for gratitude (stopping to smell the roses, as it were) in our work, relationships, spiritual practice, physical vitality, etc.

I echo all of the above, and add the caveat: the Full Moon (in whatever sign) is additionally, and quite importantly, a time of revelation.

No one can hide under a Full Moon – her light reveals the hunter, and the hunted.

Psychologically (if you would accompany me into this marshy landscape) she reveals the things we have been working hard to keep in the shadows – the fears, the grievances, the resentments, the perceived inadequacies. We are forced to stare down these hard truths, to ask ourselves why we are afraid to look at them. In many cases, they are not as ugly or scary as we thought they were, and if we look at them with compassion, we can learn more about ourselves and unravel the stories we have woven to limit our travels, honest and empathic communications, creative self-expression, and ultimate potential.

As some of you know, I am studying women in Greek tragedy and the range of lessons they have to teach us today (speaking of hard truths). Recently at the Catweazle Club, my beloved weekly haunt for poetry and music in Oxford, I mentioned my project to a woman who had come to see that night’s show. She volunteered that her favorite tragic woman is the one I find the scariest, the one I have been avoiding for weeks now, the one revealed to me under this Full Moon: Medea.

The daughter who betrayed her father by helping the hero Jason capture the Golden Fleece through her witchcraft. The sister who dismembered her brother and scattered the pieces of him over the waves to block her father’s pursuit of her and Jason as they fled. The mother who killed Jason’s royal fiancée and her father, and then her own children, after Jason abandoned her. The immigrant spouse who became a ‘barbarian’ in the Greek city-state of Corinth, where her marriage to a Greek hero had no legal or social recognition, but, from her own perspective, had become the basis of her identity.

I asked this woman why Medea is her favorite, and she responded, ‘I appreciate her aggression…she uses the last ounce of power she has left, she kills her children, to punish Jason and free herself. Of course, the children don’t need to be read literally as children’. I asked her what she meant by the last statement, and she affirmed, ‘Well, she teaches us that you have to kill your darlings sometimes’.

This was puzzling for me, to say the least, as generally I wouldn’t imagine Medea to be an archetype of (female) empowerment – except for her speech to the chorus early on in Euripides’ play (which all should read!), a speech which comes across as quite contemporary in its clear and unapologetic definition of women’s experiences from the intersectional vantage point of woman/immigrant/single mother.

I will keep this woman’s emphasis on Medea’s ‘killing of the darlings’ (a necessary stage in her liberation?) close to my re-reading of Euripides’ and Seneca’s tragedies, especially Seneca’s, where her supernatural powers are weighed much more heavily as a factor in her wickedness, than in the Euripides version, where her general ‘cleverness’ (with just a hint of witchiness) is her formidable aspect.

Medea was the one revealed to me under the Full Moon. She is characterized by the opposite of Taurean grounding, and in fact manifests the shadow side of its opposing sign, Scorpio: hidden motives, ruthlessness, the sublimation of the soul as a result of holding grudges, and acting on these in unspeakable ways. And what scared me the most is what prompted this development in her character: a loss of self, as a result of her new identity of ‘barbarian spouse’ that the Corinthians used to marginalize her and that she herself used to go to such great lengths to punish the man who had taken away her previous, ancestral identity: Colchian princess; powerful, magical woman.

She could have used her powers for good, for healing. She could have sought to make a life in Greece on her own terms in addition to the terms of her marriage. Though I may be lending too much sympathy to her, a character who may be beyond moral rehabilitation. Does she need to be rehabilitated?

So, why am I staring into her preternaturally glowing eyes while she laughs at me under the Full Moon? Perhaps because I have an irrational fear of losing myself, since my ‘official’ purpose for being here in the UK on my immigration documents is no longer as a student but as a spouse. Did I mention this, like many fears, is irrational?

People who don’t know me often ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ when they find out I am from California. My default answer was recently, ‘Well, my husband is here working, so I’m doing some writing’ – somehow this felt diminishing, for me, even though this would be perfectly acceptable for others in my place. It felt like stuffing something away into the shadows. That thing I am afraid of.

I don’t want to give the Full Moon complete credit for this realization, but it is an apt time to understand the power of stories, the power of the paradigms of identity we carry around with us and project, even in casual conversation. It’s worth checking in with oneself, when making affirmations of ‘I do ___’/ ‘I am ___’. And if it feels diminishing for whatever reason (however irrational), go ahead and change the story – change the archetype you are identifying within yourself. Instead of being a ‘helper’ you can be a ‘dragon-slayer’ or a ‘scout’ or a ‘sage’. And a helper too, why not?

My story now for those who ask? ‘I am writing, working on a project that needs doing, that will make a sound contribution, that will resonate in the right places, with the people who need/want it. I am practicing self-inquiry. I am doing lots of yoga – who knows, maybe a teacher training someday. And my husband and I happen to live here right now.’

We all have an alchemy in us, forces ready to be set loose in the world in accordance with the story we tell. Stories, and the archetypes therein, can be powerful, revelatory medicine. They can be balms. They can offer us containers like Medea, the moral floor we can’t fall below, to receive and process our worst anxieties and fears. Stories can remind us that we are journeying, and that we will meet magical people, gods in disguise, teachers, sometimes dangerous foes wherever we go. And, whether we fall in love with, learn from, ignore, or run like hell away from them, in these forces we always meet ourselves again. Ideally, with compassion and gratitude for the never-ending lessons.

Thank you, Taurus Moon.

Taurus Moon outside my window…

Taurus Moon
A blurry, but radiant Full Taurus Moon, October 24, 2018