Recently Jenny sent me an editorial from the New York Times about reflection. The author seemed to think that end-of-year pondering was less than helpful. Apparently studies have shown that people who thought incessantly about their depression or analysed the relationships they were in were either no more likely to fix things, or in fact less so. However, one thing I noticed was that it never mentioned whether any action was taken towards improvement, or whether they were simply.....wallowing. I'd have to read the article again to confirm my train of thought, as its been several days since reading, and I got distracted in the midst of my own original response, but I wondered. Because there is a time when self-reflection is necessary, not for one's survival, but in order to thrive--not to act upon, not to judge, simply to acknowledge. To see things for the way they are. Whoever said the unexamined life is not worth living was on to something. Not only is it not worth living, it may in fact be unlivable. A spiritual inventory is one of the most important processes we have, a sacred ritual that empowers us and grounds us.
For me, the end of December is such a time. While for some the cycle of newness begins in the fall, when the harvest is at its peak, the traditional end of the year, when everything seems frozen and here in the north often actually is, gives me the necessary pause for reflection. Or, more aptly, for scrying on this thing that is my life. The lake in my front yard is frozen nearly solid, with only a narrow black channel of warmer current. But from our cove to nearly halfway across to Canopus Hill , the ice is a product of slow freezing: of daily fluctuations, thawing and re-freezing, that white ice crazed with crystals yet entirely motionless. As I wrote this by hand in my journal, it was also covered with a morning's fine dusting of snow. Instead of being simultaneously a reflection of the sky and a glimpse of the abundant, though wet, life beneath, the lake was blank: a perfect white sheet of paper: a movie screen.
(It was then that Robin came in from out of the snow of his short walk, and I drove him to the station in Garrison, that perfect little town carved into the cliff bank of the Hudson River, stopping at the general store for coffee and doughnuts, looking out over the falling snow above the river, the birds darting among the red thorns, talking about the normal life, the simple life, before I put him on the train with a quick kiss on the cheek and drove back over the mountain in the blinding wet snow and the magical snowy New Year's Eve twilight was gone)
This kind of reflection is more than self-analysis, while also being less than it--or perhaps by being less than it. There is second-guessing one's action, and there is meditation upon one's soul. One's actions, in a sense, are finite. One's soul is not. It is true, in both physics and human relationships, that to an extent a single action is infinite, in the sense that it reverberates and affects each thing in turn, causing re-action and new action. Soul manages to escape that, encompasses the whole at the outset, outside of time. There comes a point, one hopes, where one stops observing what one has done and begins to observe, quite simply, who one is. It's a subtle shift, one that often takes years or even a lifetime, but one that must be made to go beyond mere omphaloskeptic self-absorption into something spiritual. I hate to use the word "useful" because reflection is not a tool, which seems to be the general opinion. It is not a machine into which you put two quarters to come out with a hypothesis that can then be applied to the situation at hand. Meditation is not a transaction. In our consumer society, we often fail utterly to understand that. It's not something of which we can ask, "What's in it for me?" without being disappointed. The answer is too enigmatic to satisfy our craving for solid proof. We want results. And the answer, of course, is simply to be in it, ourselves, both feet planted firmly in this impossible existence where we set the ones we love free downriver on the current, where the road home is slippery and often treacherous, where the silent solitary beauty of snow falling on the evergreens undoes us even as we search for the meaning of small towns nestled in valleys.
Even while we search, the answer is inside us, and if we do not stop to ask for it, we will pass it unnoticed, thinking it merely another snowfield rather than the silent wonder it is.