Winter Weight

It’s Winter Solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted the furthest away from the Sun as it is all year. Today is the shortest day of the year and tonight the longest night.

Many of our Western traditions at this time of year come from the twelve-day winter solstice celebration observed in Scandinavia and Germany, called Yule. Some of these customs include the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, and the Yule log.

The Yule Log is interesting. The tradition of burning the Yule Log is a Nordic custom that dates back to medieval times. Originally, the Yule Log was an entire tree that folks cut down and brought into the home. Why anyone would want to burn a big tree in their house, I dunno. But it certainly seems more exciting than our modern Yule Log tradition, which consists of several hours worth of video footage of a fireplace with a burning log accompanied by holiday music.

The only Buddhist celebration for this time of year that I know about is “Sangamitta”, which commemorates the entry into the Buddhist sangha of the daughter of famous King Ashoka, Sangamitta, and her brother, Mahinda. This Theravadin tradition is held on the full moon day of December.

The bad news is that tomorrow is the first day of winter. On the positive side, before very long the sun will begin to rise earlier and the days will be longer, and best of all, it is only 83 days until Daylight Savings time.

I’m sure you already know all this stuff. But, I’ll bet you don’t know the net weight of winter. That’s a fun fact I learned years ago from the late poet Richard Brautigan:

The Net Wt. of Winter is 6.75 Ozs

crestThe net wt. of winter is 6.75 ozs.
and winter has a regular flavor
with Fluoristan to stop tooth decay.

A month ago I bought a huge tube
of Crest tooth paste and when I put it
in the bathroom, I looked at it
and said, “Winter.”

The poem is from Brautigan’s collection of poetry Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt. 


A Mind of Winter

Winter is once more upon us. Here in Southern California, winter is a relative concept. And a capricious season, to the extreme. For instance the past week we had weather that was winterlike and very cozy.  But this week the temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s, hitting maybe 80 on Christmas Eve. Since I lived the early part of my life in the Midwest, I have a vague recollection of what winter is supposed to be, and today I like to celebrate that memory with poetry.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man is about winter, and it is also about nothing, not in a literal sense, though it can be read that way, particularly as the primary subject of winter very easily conjures up images of bleakness, nihilistic and natural emptiness. But according to William W. Bevis in his book, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, Stevens was writing about “meditative descriptions of nothing (Buddhist voidness), with the thing itself meditatively perceived . . .” The poem is indeed Buddhistic and Stevens was familiar with some Buddhist teaching, but it was more likely inspired and modeled after his mentor’s teachings. That mentor being a certain George Santayana.

For me, what Wallace means with “One must have a mind of winter” is something similar to the kind of mind described in the Diamond Sutra, a mind that is “unsupported.” This is an English equivalent to a Sanskrit word, apratishtita, that according to Mu Soeng in The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, “mirrors the core message of the Diamond Sutra.”

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”

A mind that is unsupported is “a mind not focusing on anything,” or “caught up in anything,” a mind that does not dwell anywhere. This is not our normal mind, or is it? Buddhism teaches that the quiet, unsupported mind, freed from all attachments and functioning harmoniously, is our natural mind, and that it is a state of mind cultivated, or rather, rediscovered only through meditation.

A meditative practice provides us with that “bare place” where for a short space in time, which is the timelessness of the present, we can be unsupported, not caught up in anything nor dwelling anywhere in particular, but entering into a disposition akin to Stevens’ mind of winter, as does the listener, standing in the silent, divestiture of winter, the white space of snow . . .

I’m afraid that further explanation may spoil the poem’s effect for first time readers. So now that I have given you a rough idea of how I interpret The Snow Man, here is the poem written in 1921 by one of the great modern American poets, a man who spent his most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Snow Man

snowman3One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens


Approach of Winter

Commemorating the first day of Winter (Winter Solstice) 2012:

Approach of Winter

by William Carlos Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

Happy Winter Solstice!

To see a Poem Flow of this poem, go here.